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UCLA's Buswell Elected 1st Koreanist to Lead Asian Studies

In 2008, Robert Buswell will become president of the Association for Asian Studies, the largest group of its kind. It's a breakthrough for UCLA and Korean studies alike and may owe to the unusually wide expertise of this one-time Buddhist monk.

Korean studies did not yet exist at UCLA when in 1986 Buswell accepted a position on campus in Chinese Buddhist studies.


Robert Buswell, the director of UCLA’s Center for Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Korean Studies, in November was elected the 71st president of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), and is set to become the first Koreanist as well as the first UCLA faculty member to hold the job. In accordance with AAS custom, he will take office in February 2008 after nearly a year as vice president of the Ann Arbor, Mich.–based association, which the largest of its kind in the world.

He will represent the AAS at regional conferences and meetings of international affiliates and serve for a total of four years on the association's board of directors.

Buswell takes his election to be "a sign of the maturation of Korean studies" and one outgrowth of two decades of rapid expansion in Asian studies at UCLA. Korean studies, for example, did not yet exist at UCLA when in 1986 Buswell accepted a position on campus in Chinese Buddhist studies.

Buswell also credits his election in part to his scholarship on areas beyond Korea.

"I'm a Koreanist, but I also do a lot of work on China. I do work on India as well and some on Southeast Asia," he says, "so I'm a Koreanist with a very broad Asia perspective. I think that gave me a bit wider profile among the membership of the association."

Previously ordained as a Buddhist monk, Buswell studied and practiced in monasteries in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea. He has a BA in Chinese, an MA in Sanskrit, and a PhD in Buddhist Studies, which he earned working with Korean sources. All of the degrees are from UC Berkeley. He taught for one year at Stanford before coming to UCLA in the "the first year of the first cohort" of faculty hired in response to a commitment UCLA made in 1985 to expand Asian studies on the campus.

UCLA Buddhist Studies vs the Indianapolis Colts

Los Angeles area residents have one remaining opportunity to see interviews with Buswell and UCLA students on "The Buddhist Way of Life," a television program sponsored by the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (BDK), or the Society for the Promotion of Buddhism. The last of three 15-minute segments concerning UCLA will appear Sunday, Feb. 11 at 6:30, on KXLA television (channel 44).

Buswell jokes that he anticipates an increase in ratings this time over the second weekly segment, which aired during Super Bowl XLI. Buswell and the Center for Buddhist Studies are pursuing BDK funding for teaching, research, public lectures, and an international conference on Buddhism at UCLA.

In his candidacy statement to AAS members, Buswell pointed out that "Buddhist Studies as a field focuses on the movement of civilizations across cultural boundaries." He committed himself to fostering the connections between the different disciplines and geographical regions represented by the association.

UCLA's Department of Asian Languages and Cultures is now recognized as one of the country's best; its Korean studies program is now the largest in the continental United States; and the Buddhist studies program led by Buswell is the largest in the country, boasting six core faculty members in Buddhism and art history and three faculty in other disciplines with significant interests in the religion.

The Center for Buddhist Studies is one of a consortium of six Asia-focused centers and programs that are members of the Asia Institute, which is a part of the UCLA International Institute. The Asia Institute promotes Asian studies at UCLA and fosters greater understanding of Asia through a wide variety of outreach activities including teacher training, curriculum development, public symposia, film series, and exhibitions.

The Association for Asian Studies (AAS) is a scholarly, non-political, non-profit professional association open to all persons interested in Asia. Through publications, meetings, and seminars, it seeks to facilitate contact and an exchange of information among scholars to increase their understanding of East, South, and Southeast Asia.

Nick Menzies, assistant director of the UCLA Asia Institute, contributed to this article.