Carl and his wife Fumiko did real time translation of
interviews with Shunryu Suzuki's family, joining Peter and Jane Schneider
for those sessions in 1971 and 1972. See
on the right side, the Japan side that have *** after the title. I'm now
(8-13-11) checking to make sure all of those interviews are on cuke. They
were re-assessed with comments added by Fred Harriman in the late
The western notion
of karma meaning "you sow what you reap" is simplified and untrue
according to Professor Carl Bielefeldt, an expert on the history of
Japanese Buddhism. Bielefeldt sheds new light on the often misunderstood
Buddhist force and shows how it might fit into a higher ethical code. He
invites his audience to step outside their own cultural domain and behold
this intriguing way of thinking.
Shinyo-en Foundation interview with Carl Bielefeldt
Posted at their site on Jun 19, 2008
graduate of UC Berkeley, Professor Carl Bielefeldt specializes in East
Asian Buddhism, with particular emphasis on the intellectual history of
the Zen tradition. He is the author of D�gen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation
and other works on early Japanese Zen, and serves as editor of the Soto
Zen Text Project. He is also the Director of Stanford’s Asian Religions
& Cultures (ARC) Initiative and Stanford Center of Buddhist Studies.
Recently, the Shinnyo-en Foundation provided Stanford University with
the Shinnyo-en Visiting Professorship Fund. Mariko Terazaki,
Communications Manager, recently visited the center and sat down with
Dr. Bielefeldt to talk about his work and the growing relationship
between the Foundation and the Stanford Center for Buddhist Studies.
So Carl, thank you for agreeing to talk with us today. To begin
with, would you tell us some background information about yourself and
how you came to be working at the Center for Buddhist Studies at
I became interested in Buddhism as an undergraduate at San Francisco
State, where I began practicing Zen meditation and studying Japanese
language. I then studied at Waseda University for a year and went
into a Soto Zen Monastery for a year. And after that I really knew
I wanted to study Buddhism in graduate school. So I came back, got
married, enrolled at UC Berkeley, and, after going to and from Japan a
lot and writing my dissertation with a professor at Kyoto University, I
graduated in 1980. Afterwards I was offered a job here at Stanford
and, since my wife and I enjoy the Bay Area so much, I said yes and have
been here ever since.
Could you give us some information about the Stanford Center for
Buddhist Studies and your work here?
When I first came to Stanford there was almost no graduate education in
Buddhism. One of my dreams was to recreate the kind of program
here at Stanford that I had been in at Berkeley, because it was so much
fun and so interesting that I thought it would be great to do the same
thing here. In the 1990’s, a private foundation approached us and
said they would be interested in helping us start a center. At
that time there were no centers of Buddhist Studies in American
universities, but Stanford accepted the idea. We began in 1997; so
we celebrated our tenth anniversary just last year.
What are the goals and objectives of the Center for Buddhist Studies?
The center has basically three different types of activities. The
first is research support. We hope to foster research in Buddhism
and the communication of that research. We do this by supporting
visiting fellows, and by sponsoring conferences and workshops of
scholars so they can come together and collaborate on common themes.
One example of such a workshop will take place this summer around the
The second type of activity is education. We support the
curriculum by providing funds for extra courses, education in Buddhist
languages that might not otherwise be taught (like Pali or Tibetan), and
support for the graduate students in Buddhist Studies here at Stanford
in the form of research or travel money, money for books, and other
The third type of activity is outreach to the public. We run a
very rich set of programs that are open to the public and led by both
scholars and Buddhist practitioners. For example, we recently had
a workshop on styles of Buddhist practice. There’s a notion,
particularly in America, that Buddhism is just about meditation and
that, if you don’t like sitting on a cushion with your legs crossed, you
can’t play in the Buddhist game. So we tried to broaden the
public’s sense of the possibilities of Buddhist practice by talking
about family practice, talking about social service and working in the
community and other forms of practice that can be done by Buddhists.
What parallels and connections do you see between Shinnyo-en Foundation
and your organization?
Well, certainly the social service aspects of our interests mesh
perfectly with the Foundation. One of the things we’re quite
interested in is how we can get beyond the elite sense of Buddhism.
In America, almost all conversion to Buddhism occurs among white, urban,
educated, affluent people. And it appears to be very difficult to
reach beyond this group. Are there ways that an elite institution
like Stanford, can find a voice that will carry beyond its natural
constituency? Those kinds of questions really interest us.
And I think the foundation is a fabulous example of this concern; in the
ways you reach out into very different communities, different areas of
American society, you are a great model for the rest of us.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Shinnyo-en Visiting Professorship
The visiting professorship will have a dramatic impact on the study of
Buddhism at Stanford in several ways. First, it will expand our
faculty in the field from three to four, permitting us to extend and
deepen our coverage of the Buddhist tradition. Second, it will
enliven our Stanford community, by bringing us each year a new
colleague, with different expertise and fresh perspectives. Third,
it will strengthen our ties with the broader community of Buddhist
scholars, through the new friendships we make with our visitors.
And finally, looking beyond our own campus, the visiting professorship
will make a significant contribution to the international field of
Buddhist studies, by providing the opportunity for scholars from around
the world to spend a year studying and teaching at Stanford. The
Shinnyo-en Visiting Professorship is indeed an exciting new page, for
Buddhist studies and for Stanford, in our long friendship with the
What were your impressions of the Six Billion Paths to Peace event in
It was very impressive. Not only in terms of the number of people
who showed up in the middle of Times Square, despite the cold weather;
their enthusiasm was also quite remarkable. And the evening event
was fabulous. In the organization of the event, there was what my
mother would call a real sense of “class”; and, in the spirit of the
event, there was real feeling. It was moving to hear about the
various things people are trying to get done as their path to peace, and
to see these things celebrated by so many people. Truly a moving event.
Now Carl, we’d like to learn a little about your interests outside of
your professional work? What is the best book you have read
There’s a new book out by Gary Snyder, called Back on the Fire, that
I’ve enjoyed a lot. I’ve always liked Gary’s writing and got
particularly interested in his work several years ago, when a student of
mine organized a series of events celebrating Gary’s long poem,
Mountains and Rivers Without End. Snyder’s world is a marvelous
combination of Buddhist and American themes—a perfect read for a
California Buddhist like me. Back on the Fire collects a number of
his essays. It ends with a touching farewell to his wife, Carole
Koda, a wonderful woman who died shortly before the book came out.
When not teaching, how do you spend your free time?
Two things I tend to do. One is to mess around with plants.
Unfortunately, every year I get busy and neglect them; so my wife every
spring asks me, “So what plants do you plan to kill this year?” I like
taking care of plants because the health of the plants is sort of a
measurement of where I am in my daily life. So, as the plants
wilt, as they tend to do, it reminds me that there are certain things I
need to take care of. The second thing I like to do is cook.
My wife’s schedule tends to keep her very busy—particularly in the
evenings, as she works in the theater—so I’m very often the one to do
the shopping and cooking for us. And it’s great for me because I
can leave my work in the 13th century and go to the store, buy
something, and think up something to make that night.
Any special dish?
Well, what I like to cook the most are various kinds of pastries, like
cheesecakes and flan.
And in closing please share with our readers, what is your personal path
Besides taking care of the plants and cooking for my wife, I try to
build and maintain community in my work. The academic setting can
be very cold: it looks like a paradise from the outside, but, like any
institution when you’re on the inside, there are a lot of people living
in this paradise that are unhappy, and there are a lot of institutional
structures that tend to make people unhappy—pressures, competition, and
the like. So one of my goals when setting up the center and the
graduate program in Buddhist Studies was to try to make a place that
students would look back on as one of the best times of their lives. A
time when they made friends, had a sense of community and mutual
support; not the kind of lonely, competitive struggle that graduate
school can be for many students.
Carl Bielefeldt in SFZC Wind Bells
1974 Wind Bell (inside front cover)
Summer 1983 Wind Bell
Zen Center News - Spring 1990 Wind Bell, p. 27