During the first two weeks of March, Ven. Yifa hosted a public lecture series on Buddhism at the Five College Consortium located in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. She engaged in inspiring discussions with students and scholars at—specifically—Smith College and Hampshire College, two important member colleges in the Consortium dedicated to innovative liberal arts education. The topics ranged from feminism, experiential learning, and environmental conservation to world peace and the rapid development in China.
On February 28, Ven. Yifa was invited by Professor Jay Garfield—director of Smith College’s Logic and Buddhist Studies programs and the Five College Tibetan Studies in India program—to give a guest lecture to his students. Since the majority of the audience have not visited China, Ven. Yifa introduced some recent development the country is undergoing and expressed her confidence in further improvement; she encouraged everyone to reject his or her initial inclinations to pass judgments in order to appreciate different cultures with an open mind. In the meantime, students showed a tremendous interest in the topic and asked challenging questions: How can one judge a malicious act with a compassionate attitude? Why would Chinese citizens want to immigrate abroad if China is performing so well? In her convincing responses, Ven. Yifa explained that from a Buddhist perspective, globalization is bound to accelerate because the earth is a tiny planet within the immense universe.
During her second public lecture at Smith College, Ven. Yifa specifically discussed the empowerment of women in Buddhism. Most western scholars are concerned with the stringent rules of the Eight Garudhammas, which have been deemed as unfair treatment of bhikkhunis according to Western feminist beliefs. On the other hand, Ven. Yifa argued that it was intrinsically unfair to interpret or judge the scripture without taking a holistic perspective of the entire message. For example, Buddha also warns bhikkhus not to mistreat bhikkhunis with inappropriate language. Therefore, Buddhism has encouraged and empowered women in many ways.
On March 1, Ven. Yifa continued her lectures series at Hampshire College, a top liberal arts institution established in 1965 with a current enrollment of 1,400 undergraduate students. The college is well-known for its unique education system, offering every student an individualized liberal arts education. During her first lecture, Ven. Yifa shared a lesson on the “Development of Buddhism in China” with the attending students and professors. After watching a video about the exemplary and elaborate Usnisa Palace located in the west peak of Niushou mountain in Nanjing, the audience was surprised because they had for the most part thought that the government often repressed religious activity in China. Ven. Yifa attentively answered all the questions and concerns, reminding scholars not to be afraid of encountering difficult, controversial questions. Later, Ven. Yifa hosted a guest lecture in Professor Susan Darrington’s course—“Buddhism and Environment”—and she introduced the conservationist lifestyle in monastic life, including the Five Perspectives on Dining/“食存五观” (be grateful, be humble, be mindful, be healthy, and be spiritual). In class, Ven. Yifa was extremely pleased to meet a Woodenfish alumna from HBMLP ’16, who has continued her studies on Buddhism in college. In the afternoon, students practiced meditation with Ven. Yifa in the Spiritual Center, a critical religious hub for all students to share their diverse beliefs.
In addition to her discussion with the students, Ven. Yifa also attended two faculty seminars with renowned scholars with different fields of expertise, including Philosophy Professor Jay Garfield, Religion Professor Jamie Hubbard, Religion Professor Bill Hagen, Religion Professor Andy Rotman, Theater Professor Kiki Gounaridou, Education and Children’s Studies Professor Robbie Murphy, English Professor Ruth Ozeki at Smith College, Religion Professor Sue Darington from Hampshire College, Linguistic Professor Margaret Speas at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Religion Professor Maria Heim at Amherst College, Philosophy Professor Thomas Wartenberg at Mount Holyoke College, and Philosophy Professor William Edelglass at Marlboro College.
Ven. Yifa drew attention to the heated controversy between monastics and scholars: monastics criticize scholars’ lack of experience and understanding in monastic life, while scholars tend to attack monastics’ lack of comprehensive research in history. In her words, it is important to facilitate ongoing conversation and communication between different groups. She also noticed the common confusion of antagonizing Tibetan Buddhism against Chinese Buddhism; therefore, Ven. Yifa reminded the scholars that “Chinese Buddhism includes Han tradition Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism.” In the end, Ven Yifa said—to promote the development of Chinese Buddhism around the globe—“China must start to learn more about the world, and the world must learn to understand the current China.”