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Buddha in Modern Turkey: Discovering and (Re)Inventing Buddhist History, Aesthetics, and Religion in the Turkish Republic (1/2)

Panel Chair: Laurent Mignon | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

Although Buddhism has been of interest to Turkish intellectuals and scholars and to a certain degree the Turkish public throughout the history of the Republic, the encounter of Turkey with Buddhism has not yet been subject to research. These two panels will focus on exemplary authors, periods, academic disciplines, and topics that shall represent the breadth of engagement with Buddhism in modern Turkey, ranging from literary and philosophical encounters to academic research, to the adoption of religious ideas and practices. The panels shall help draw a historical narrative of the changes this encounter underwent and draw attention to the mediation of interest in and knowledge of Buddhism by Western literature and local actors and institutions. They shall highlight conflicts about the nature of the nation, religion, secularization, and multiculturalism inherent in Turkish society and show how the engagement with a religious Other could be employed to critique or reconstruct identities.

Alexandre Toumarkine

The Many Faces of Buddha in the Context of the Turkish Secularization Process (1920s-1940s)

A succinct academic knowledge of Buddhism was developed in the late decades of the Ottoman Empire. It was transmitted mainly by the history of religions. This newly founded discipline, based exclusively on Western academic Orientalism, presented the “world religions”, except for the Abrahamic religions. During the early republican era (1920s-1940s), it continued to inform the Turkish audience about Buddhism, as did the newly founded Indology from the 1930’s on. Besides, in a local context of increasing interest for Buddha, henceforth considered as a Turk by Turkish nationalism, new kinds of writings emerged that discussed the religious nature of Buddhism and influenced its perception. This presentation will delineate, analyze and link them with the ongoing national debate on religion during the continuing process of secularization.

Dilek Sarmış

Buddha in the Writings of the Turkish Thinker Cemil Sena Ongun (1894-1981): Philosophical Thoughts on the Divine

The growing interest in Hinduism and Buddhism in Republican Turkey was rooted in the context of mysticist writings from the end of the Ottoman Empire onward. Cemil Sena Ongun was a Turkish intellectual and philosopher active between the 1930s and 1970s. One of his main lines of thought consists in reflections on contemporary pragmatic ethics and on divine figures, focusing particularly on philosophical incarnations of the divine. Beside his study of the “philosophy” of the Prophet Muhammad, throughout his career Cemil Sena considered the figure of the Buddha. This presentation will be based on some of his writings from the years 1940-1941, which centered on Buddha. The analysis of these works shall elucidate the constructions of a favorable intellectual context for a philosophical and distanced use of religious history and a non-spiritualist approach to Buddhism.

Till Luge

Buddhist Religion in Turkey? From the Publications of Yol Yayınları to Contemporary Buddhist Practice

Buddhism played a central role in the encounter of intellectuals with East and South Asian religions during the early decades of the Turkish Republic and was of primary importance for the establishment of Yol Yayınları, the first successful New Age publishing house in Turkey, a few decades later. Nonetheless, Buddhism has been remarkably unsuccessful as an alternative religion and Buddhist-derived practices have a relatively small share within the New Age market in contemporary Turkey. Based on an analysis of the literary field of alternative religiosities as well as interviews with practitioners of Buddhist meditation, this presentation shall delineate the history of the interest in and practice of Buddhism in Turkey during the past four decades and explore the reasons for its limited uptake and the low degree of its institutionalization.


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Open Sessions

Thematic Outline

University Map (pdf, 192 KB)