Buswell Expands Asian Languages Dept. to Include South & Southeast Asia

Buddhist Studies greatly expanded as well.

Much to the bewilderment of his Methodist parents, Robert Buswell dropped out of college in 1974 and announced plans to set out for a Buddhist monastery in Thailand.

“My mother's reaction was: ‘What about my grandchildren?' ” recalled the chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures with a chuckle.

She needn't have worried about her son's ability to bring good things to life.

One of only two fully ordained Buddhist monks currently active in academia, the Berkeley Ph.D. and 17-year UCLA College veteran has brought one distinction after another to UCLA.

Both of the centers he has established now rank as the largest of their kind in the country: the Center for Korean Studies, founded in 1993, and the Center for Buddhist Studies, founded in 2000.

“UCLA is seen as the most exciting place for studying Buddhism today,” said art historian Robert Brown, an affiliated scholar with the center. “It's the happening place, which is amazing because the program is so new.”

Meanwhile, a program in Korean Christianity, also founded in 2000 by Buswell, is the first — and only — academic program to look at the cultural impact of Christianity in contemporary Korea.

So vast, in fact, has been Buswell's impact that his department will be renamed next year to reflect the strength he helped add in South and Southeast Asian studies. While maintaining its traditional strengths in Korean, Japanese and Chinese studies, UCLA's newly christened Department of Asian Languages and Cultures will boast one of the nation's largest faculties in Southeast Asian and Indic studies and will be the nation's leader in Indian religion.

“Robert is capable of pulling rabbits out of the most unlikely hats,” marveled Gregory Schopen, a professor of Asian languages and cultures.

Another recent feat is the creation of the 1,000-page Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Macmillan), the first truly comprehensive resource of its kind to be published in a Western language. As editor-in-chief, Buswell spent three years mobilizing a team of 250 contributors, including UCLA Buddhist scholars William M. Bodiford, Schopen, Jonathan A. Silk and Brown.

Although an ex-monk, Boswell still clings to the habits of the monastery. At the Topanga Canyon home he shares with wife Christina, a translator of Korean Buddhist texts, he tends a Zen garden. Most afternoons he closes his office door for 10 to 15 minutes of meditation. At conferences, he folds himself into a cross-legged position.

“He is the only person I know over the age of 4 who can easily and quite comfortably assume the lotus while perched on an office chair,” noted Tim Tangherlini, an associate professor of Asian languages and cultures, and vice chair of the College's Scandinavian Section.

This article originally appeared in UCLA Today, Dec. 9, 2003, page 3.

Published: Thursday, December 11, 2003