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An Encounter with Dunhuang- BIC, 2015


The 2015 session of the Woodenfish Foundation's "Buddhism in China—Connecting with the Source" (BIC) seminar took place from June 7th to June 17th in Gansu Province. Professor and scholar Mark Blum (; UC Berkeley) conducted this year's seminar on the Nirvana Sutra with over 40 students from countries including the United States, China, Canada, France, Israel, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Attendees were mostly graduate students specializing in East Asian Studies, Buddhist Studies and Religious Studies from 17 schools such as Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, UC Berkeley, Smith College, Tel Aviv University and Kansai University.

Starting in 2009, "Buddhism in China—Connecting with the Source" is an English-language program designed for scholars with a focus or interest in Buddhist Studies held at different historically and culturally important Chinese Buddhist sites each year. BIC provides academics with on-the-ground knowledge of Buddhist history and culture while also forming new avenues for research and international cooperation. Previous programs have included a Platform Sutra Seminar in Nanhua Temple led by Peter Gregory (Smith College), a Guanyin Seminar on Mt. Putuo by Chün-fang Yü (Columbia University) and a Bhikkhuni Vinaya Seminar by Ann Heirman (Ghent University) at Sichuan Nuns College. In the summer 2014 we invited renowned scholar Professor Daniel B. Stevenson on Tiantai Study to lead a seminar at Mt. Tiantai.

This year's program consisted of two sections. The first was a five-day course on the Nirvana Sutra held near Kumarajiva Temple in Wuwei, Gansu, the city where the Nirvana Sutra was first translated into Chinese during the 5th century (formerly Liangzhou). The second section was an extended tour of important sites in and around the oasis town of Dunhuang, Gansu, home of the archeologically and artistically significant Mogao Caves.

Our partner

Woodenfish's Buddhism in China 2015 was organized in cooperation with Liangyou Institute (良友书院), a non-profit organization based in Beijing. Established in 2013, Liangyou Institute aims to continue the traditional academy-style education in a modern urban setting, providing lectures and workshops with prominent academics and artist. They maintain the study of the six classical arts: Rites (礼), Music (乐), Archery (射), Charioteering (御), Calligraphy (书) and Mathematics (数). The director of Liangyou Institute, Mr. Meng Fanjia (孟繁佳), is the 74th generation descendent of Mencius and head of the Mencius Clan Association of China.


Below is a detailed day-to-day account of the activities of the 2015 BIC group.

Special thanks to Sherry Jia (嘉木) for compiling original report in Chinese


On the day before the program officially kicked off, Prof. Blum led a tour of Bingling Temple (炳灵寺), situated southwest of Lanzhou, Gansu. It is known as being home to one of the three great grottoes of Gansu Province (the other two being the Mogao Caves and the Maijishan Grottoes).

6/7-6/12 Nirvana Sutra Seminar

After all attendees arrived on the 7th, BIC began its five-day seminar. This section focused primarily on the material contained in volume 1 of Mark Blum’s translation of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra. (大般涅槃經, The Nirvana Sutra Vol. 1. Berkeley: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai America, Inc. 2013) This material covers the first ten of forty fasciles of the Dharmakṣema translation (T.374). The lectures covered a variety of topics related to the Sutra, including its name and setting, its relationship to Buddhism in general and the Mahāyāna movement in particular, and the doctrine of Buddha-nature, tathāgatagarbha, icchantika and vegetarianism. In addition, a translation workshop was held focusing on yet to be translated sections on the Nirvana Sutra. Aside from classes, trips were made in the afternoons to local Confucian and Buddhist temples as well as the Han Dynasty Leitai Tombs.

On the afternoon of 6/8, attendees toured Kumarajiva Temple (鸠摩罗什寺). It is the largest temple in Wuwei and the only one in China named after the prolific fourth century monk and translator from the Kingdom of Kucha. Abbot Li Fang personally welcomed BIC students and invited them to attend the temple's evening recitation services, which was followed by a lively discussion between the abbot and the students.

On 6/12, the Woodenfish Foundation issued scholarships to 15 students:

  1. Lina Verchery (Harvard University, Buddhist Studies, PhD)

  2. Derangala Kusalagana Thero (Harvard University, Buddhist Studies, Master's)

  3. Chang Gan (Harvard University, Buddhist Studies, Master's)

  4. Nancy Yuen-Fang Chu (Harvard University, Buddhist Studies, Master's)

  5. Tom James Mazanec (Princeton University, Buddhist Studies, PhD)

  6. Henrique Nakasse de Freitas (Princeton University, Finance)

  7. Zhou Zhenru (Princeton University, Architecture, Master's)

  8. Zhu Xiaoming (Princeton University, Buddhist Studies, Master's)

  9. Weng Chuanxin (Columbia University, Master's)

  10. Ren Songyao (Columbia University, Master's)

  11. He Yingtian (Columbia University, Master's)

  12. Zhu Jiayi (Columbia University, Master's)

  13. Qin Mingliang (Columbia University, Master's)

  14. Bibek Prasad Sharma (Foguang University, Buddhist Studies, Master's)

  15. Fernanda Polo (University of Monterrey, Letters, BA)

6/13-6/17 Touring Dunhuang

6/13 After an overnight train ride, the scholars arrived at Dunhuang to be eagerly received by Director Wang Yin of the Foundation for the Promotion of Dunhuang Culture (敦煌文化弘扬基金会), Director Wang Xudong of the Dunhuang Institute (煌研究院) and Director Meng Fanjian of the Liangyou Institute (良友书院). The president of the Dunhuang Buddhist Association and esteemed monk of Leiyin Temple, Dao Zheng, led everyone in an incense offering ceremony. This was followed by some warm words of welcome from Wang Yin, Wang Xudong and Principal Cao Xin of Dunhuang Middle School.

With the opening ceremony concluded, everyone went on a tour of the Mogao Grottoes and visited an exhibition on the culture of Dunhuang. Attendees were permitted to tour places not regularly open to the public. In the afternoon, they visited an exhibition on the history of the Dunhuang Institute and the former residence of Chang Shuhong (20th century Chinese artist and Dunhuang conservationist). Later, they engaged in a dialogue entitled "An Introduction to Dunhuang" followed by a tea ceremony entitled "Offering to the Guardian of Dunhuang" led by Dunhuang Institute Arts Department Director Hou Liming and Wisteria Teahouse founder Zhou Yu. That evening at the Institute's Digital Exhibition Center, Hou Liming had a lecture entitled "Glorious Dunhuang- The Evolution and Development of the Art of the Dunhuang Grottoes."

6/14 In the morning, attendees continued their tour of Dunhuang and its surroundings. They visited Sanwei Mountain to view the Mogao site from afar and experience what it must be like to have surveyed the area. In the afternoon, Ven. Yifa gave a lecture entitled "Dunhuang Culture and Humanistic Buddhism." Finally, attendees took a trip to Yang Pass to watch the sunset. Yang Pass was an important waystation established during the Han Dynasty to defend the Northwest from nomadic invaders. It was also an important gateway from the Central Plains of China to Central Asia along the Silk Road. In the desert nearby, Mr. Zhou Yu led a tea ceremony accompanied by outstanding performances from flautist Zhang Fan and erhu performer Zhao Guanjie. The tea was warmed in a desert bonfire, which was also the only light source for miles in this remote area.

6/15 Seminar attendees visited Mingsha Mountain, rode camels and experienced the spectacular scenery of Dunhuang. After this activity, Ven. Yifa, Principal Cao and Meng Fanjia gave lectures in an event entitled "Investigating Dunhuang Culture—An Exchange Between Cultural Education, East and West." The next stop was Yumen Pass (lit. Jade Gate Pass), established during the reign of Emperor Wudi of Han. The pass received its name by virtue of the fact that jade shipments coming in from the West came through it along the trade route. After the opening of the Silk Road, cultural and commercial exchange between the East and West grew ever more lucrative. In order to ensure safety along the Road, Emperor Wudi ordered the construction of Yang and Yumen Passes. At the end of the day, a visit was paid to Yadan Geopark, which is known for its wind-swept rock formations.

6/16 In the morning, attendees visited the Yulin Caves for a tour. Located near Suoyang City in Guazhou County, the Yulin Caves are also known as the Valley of 10,000 Buddhas. These grottoes were formed on the walls along the two sides of the Yulin river valley. The content and style of the murals there share a deep connection with those of the Mogao Grottoes and are nicknamed the sister grottoes of Mogao, constituting an important member of the Dunhuang stone carving style. The Yulin Grottoes contain over 250 painted carvings and over 5,000 square meters of murals. It is second only to the Mogao Grottoes as a repository of mural artwork. The majority of the murals at Yulin originate from a period of 800 years between the Tang and Yuan Dynasties and display a rich variety of subject matters, lifelike depictions of the Buddha and illustrations of daily life from their respective periods. In the evening, attendees took part in a gala and enjoyed their fill of traditional Chinese music and calligraphy. The gala was conducted by Director Wang Zhe. Hosts included Mr. Hou Liming, Mr. Zhou Yu, Meng Fanjia, Guqin Cultural Educator Wu Han, Wang Yin and Suzhou University Professor Yao Chen. Artists who performed included Central Music Convervatory Professor Lan Weiwei, Xinghai Conservatory Professor Zhang Fan and Erhu performer Zhao Guanjie. Everyone's warm welcomes contributed to the all-around lively atmosphere!


This day marked the conclusion of BIC 2015. For additional information on this year's program, more photographs and updates about future study opportunities, visit the Woodenfish Foundation's Buddhism in China page.

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