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Published: Saturday, 2/14/2009

University of Toledo adds Eastern religions to lectures


The University of Toledo is expanding its annual interfaith lecture series to include a talk on Eastern religion, scheduled for Wednesday night.

The first lecture of 2009 will be given by Ashley Pryor, associate professor of women's and gender studies at UT, titled "Sakyadhita: Women and Engaged Buddha."

Ms. Pryor said in an interview this week that she plans to cover a range of issues on Buddhism, including the re-establishment of the religion in Mongolia and the role of women in Buddhist tradition.

Ms. Pryor visited Mongolia last year to attend a conference sponsored by Sakyadhita, an international organization of female Buddhists. She said Mongolia is at "a very interesting moment" in its history as it makes the transition from Communism to capitalism.

While Buddhism was an integral part of Mongolian culture for centuries, sharing the Vajrayana lineage with Tibetan Buddhism, it was nearly wiped out through purges conducted by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders, Ms. Pryor said.

An estimated 10,000 Buddhist monks were killed or died in work camps under Soviet tyranny, and only since the restoration of democracy in 1990 have Mongolians been able to re-embrace Buddhism, Ms. Pryor said.

But the Asian nation's 3 million residents are struggling financially with the loss of the government's social network under Communism and the transition to a free-market economy.

Many Christian missionaries have moved into Mongolia in the last decade, and along with preaching the Gospel are providing material help to the impoverished people, Ms. Pryor said. A small percentage of those missionaries, however, have been using "fairly coercive tactics" to get people into their churches, and have criticized Buddhism as a superstition, she said.

In a broader look at Buddhism, Ms. Pryor said she will discuss the religion in regard to women's issues .

Women have had an important role since Buddhism's founding and Buddha himself clearly taught that gender was not an issue in terms of one's ability to attain nirvana, or enlightenment, she said.

Yet many Buddhist monasteries fail to offer women the same status or opportunity as men, and women monastics are sometimes regarded as little more than maids serving the male monks, according to Ms. Pryor.

Also on her list of topics to address is the Buddhist concept of paticcasamupadda, or interconnectedness, particularly with regard to the environment.

Richard Gaillardetz, professor of Catholic studies at UT, said the addition of a lecture on Eastern religion is part of a long-range plan to create a center for religious studies at the University of Toledo.

The lecture series will continue with the Annual Imam Khattab Lecture in Islamic Studies on March 19. The speaker for that talk has not been selected yet, Mr. Gaillardetz said.

R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame University, will give the Annual Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue lecture on April 2, speaking on "Sustaining Religious Identity in a Pluralistic World."

Mr. Gaillardetz said that although the lectures are given by scholars, the purpose of the series is to explain religious complexities to the general public.

Ashley Pryor will speak on Buddhism at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Recital Hall of the UT Performing Arts Center. All lectures in UT's Initiative for Enhanced Inter-Religious Understanding are free and open to the public.

- David Yonke

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