An Interview with Keshu Pan

Could you tell us about your project?

My proposed project for the SRC Junior Fellows Program will investigate how the Indian Yogācāra thought was revived in the early 20th-century China to integrate Buddhism into the discourse of science. Specifically, I plan to focus on the writings of the Buddhist reformer Taixu, whose discussions of Buddhism and science were not simply limited to the Buddhist world but can be regarded as a Buddhist approach to modernity in the larger context of the intellectual trend of modern China. I hope to show how Taixu used Yogācāra not only as a bridge between Buddhism and science but also as a critical engagement with the Western mode of modernity.

What led you to work on this project?

One area of focus in my undergraduate study was philosophy of science, and I developed a strong interest in the issues regarding tensions and reconciliations between religion and science. This interest, however, was limited to the philosophical approach and framed within the Judeo-Christian paradigm. In order to broaden my methodological approaches and deepen my understanding of East Asian traditions, I entered the M.A. program in East Asian studies at Duke University, and my thesis investigates the contemporary controversy over the religious nature of Confucianism in China by tracing the introductions of the Western categories of “religion” and “philosophy” in modern China. While this thesis does not directly address the topic of science, it showed me how science, functioning as an ideological entity that embodied Western modernity, deeply shaped the concepts of religion and superstition. This led me to further explore the discourses of religion and science in modern China, and the revival of Yogācāra Buddhism in this historical context especially attracted my attention.

What drew you to SRC fellowship? And how do you see it contributing to your work?

Given my long-held fascination with the relationship between science and religion, I felt the SRC fellowship would be a great fit for my academic interest. The fellowship program can provide me important guidance for developing an original research, and most importantly, I will be able to learn from a community of excellent scholars who are similarly fascinated by issues regarding religion and science across diverse cultural and historical contexts.

How do you see your work benefitting from or addressing questions of science and religion?

This project falls under the trend of the increasing recognition that the studies of the interaction of religion and science have been largely confined to the relationships between science and Judeo-Christian traditions in Western societies. Investigations of the interactions between Western science and non-Judeo-Christian traditions would not only provide novel approaches and new possibilities in the discourses of science and religion but would also invite critical reflections of the embedded issues of Eurocentrism, colonialism, and modernity. As scholars like Talal Asad and Jonathan Z. Smith have argued, “religion” is not a universal and independent category but a historically situated and culturally specific notion based on the Judeo-Christian paradigm of the Western culture. Similarly, by addressing the historical issues of Western science in non-Western societies, this project is based on the premise that science functions not only as an epistemological approach towards the physical world but also as an ideological entity embedded within the history of colonialism and the Western model of modernity.

What lessons does your project provide for scientists, historians, religious scholars, or the general public today?

At this point, I am not expecting my project to provide any original lessons for scholars. However, I hope it can contribute to the increasing investigations of the interactions between religion and science in non-Western societies. Moreover, while my project focuses on the early 20th-century China, I hope it can shed light on the religious policies and discourses on science and religion in contemporary China. In recent years, there have been more and more arguments about how Buddhism is compatible with science in the atheist regime of the Chinese Communist Party. Despite the changes of the socio-political conditions and the advancement of science, Taixu’s project of the Buddhist reform in the early 20th century may provide important insights to the discourses of science, religion, and modernity in the rapid developing society of contemporary China.

Published in the SRC Newsletter, September 18, 2017

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