Exploring Buddhism and the imagination: A conversation with faculty member Alexander Hsu

Author: Josh Stowe

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In June, Ansari Institute faculty member Alexander Hsu attended “The Imagination and Imaginal Worlds in the Mirror of Buddhism,” a two-week summer institute offered through the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

The gathering, held at Mangalam Research Center in Berkeley, Calif., featured a mix of scholarly presentations, Q&A with faculty, and breakout sessions, all built around the concepts of Buddhism and imagination. 

Here, Hsu reflects on the experience, and the inspiration he drew from it as a scholar of Buddhism—and as a teacher.

Q: Talk a bit about the opportunities this gathering offered to explore Buddhism and the concept of imagination. 

A: I think everyone at the workshop understood the kind of position that the humanities can be in the public discourse, which is sometimes marginalized. Sometimes politicians directly go for us in stump speeches and say, “We need more welders. We need more plumbers. We need fewer philosophers.” So it was nice to be with colleagues in this space. I think we all share the same mission, inasmuch as we believe in imagination. And we think the public cares about imagination too, and the public wants to exercise it, and it wants more tools for strengthening it and for thinking about it and for getting a sense of what it is that we do when we imagine. And that the imagination is something that we'll need to make our world flourish, to solve both old problems that we’ve never seemed to quite solve as well as new problems that we realize we could get ourselves into. 

This brings me to one thing that we sometimes wrestle with here at the Ansari Institute, which is advancing past this notion that religion is somehow just a bunch of fake fairy tales from the past. 

No, actually, this is where serious thinking has happened, serious thinking involving the imagination and how to grow it, how to cultivate it, what it’s good for, why people might be attracted to it. It’s not just simply trying to get away from the real world, but trying to make it better in new ways.

I’d say right now religion is in many ways denigrated and not in the public conversation as much as it should be. It’s sometimes thought of as a lesser partner. But in the past, it was punching above its weight and it still is. Religious imagination—and those ways that religions practice and cultivate the imagination and keep hopes and practical programs alive through the imagination—are crucial. I think I'm even more convinced that that's what students need and that's what the public needs.

Q: Were there particular concepts or presentations that stood out to you? 

A: One of the keynotes featured Jeffrey Kripal, a scholar at Rice University. One of the projects he’s been working on for quite some time is what he calls “the archives of the impossible.” He collects stories, data from ordinary people who still experience something that we might call miraculous today. This includes people talking to loved ones who are dead and dreaming of things that take place in the future—stuff that modern, rational science says is impossible, right? But these things still happen. And one of the interesting points he discussed is that, ordinary people see us scholars lost in our translations of ancient texts or writing long ethical treatises, theological treatises. Sometimes they see themselves reflected there, but a lot of times they don't and these experiences that people communicated to him can reflect back to people the worlds that they live in, in an academically rigorous and honest way. And is it real, or is it imaginary? I think many in our group took a more nuanced position, that there can be a coexistence of many worlds. And there are trends in some academic fields where we do take seriously things that we think of as impossible or imaginary or fake from a modern scientific standpoint. But we leave the door open for other possibilities. 

I thought that was an exciting model for public scholarship, and for taking the training and institutions that we've built up in the academy, especially in the religious studies world, to engage and enchant, to bring to the conversation people who might not otherwise have a home, to include them in the kinds of thinking that we do. 

Q: As a faculty member who teaches classes, what are some things you took away from this experience? 

A: I went in with a mindset of “how can I use this to supercharge teaching and to be with other people who are also taking teaching seriously?” 

I think it rekindled a faith in me that developing knowledge about things that happened long ago and far away is still attractive to students, and is something that they still want to learn about and has contemporary relevance.