Light afternoon with Professor Charles Willemen

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‘Best Professors and best Library’, is the description of IBC in a nutshell, according to Professor Charles Willemen, Rector of IBC. What more could a Buddhist student ask for? Truly established for the good of the many, IBC has the best of people teaching and keeping the home fires up. After an exquisite conversation with Professor Willemen on 16th February 2016, I told myself that I made the right choice to be in IBC!

Professor Willemen, who is a visiting Buddhist Professor to many renowned Universities around the world, is also a linguist and expert on literatures in Latin, Greek, Japanese, and Chinese, to name a few. He has written extensively about the spread of Buddhism from India to East Asia, both in books and in periodical journals. Yet he is too humble to talk about any of his achievements. His simple rule of life is that he writes to share, he teaches because he enjoys, and he believes in what he teaches. A few interesting excerpts from the conversation are presented below:

Question: Why did you become a Buddhist Professor?

Prof. Willemen:
It is the influence of good Buddhist teachers! I had many good teachers, but I especially attribute this to two teachers who influenced me: W. Couvreur and W. Acker. One was a specialist on Central Asian Buddhism and knew Sanskrit very well, and he is the one really responsible for my Buddhist side. The other teacher is the one who taught Chinese painting and also Buddhism – Sino-Japanese to be correct. So these two combined led me in the direction of what I am doing right now. It’s their influence basically, so I am doing Sino-Japanese Buddhism, and also its Indian Origin in Central Asia. So it is the result of the good two excellent teachers.

Question: What influenced you to teach in IBC, which is a very small place compared to your International accomplishment?

Prof. Willemen:
(laughs) I never pay attention to that! I just study and do my own things and see nice people and positive spirits. It’s a very positive spirit here in IBC, most people are positive and that’s what attracts me to this place. Sometimes a very big internationally famous and very ancient so called good university with good programs and infrastructure, sometimes it doesn’t feel nice to be there. It is really the people who make a very good place to go to. I was introduced to IBC by the Ven. Dhammajoti, when it was still located in the South. My first encounter with him was in Canada; we discovered that we do the same things – Sarvāstivāda Buddhism. So he did Dhammapada, I did Udānavarga. He started Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, I did Sarvāstivāda. So actually without even knowing each other, we had already been doing the same things for many years. Finally we met and we continued our connection. He asked me if I would like to join IBC, which was only a year old back then. That’s why I am here already for a very long time!

Question: Indeed a long time, and you continued to be with IBC?

Prof. Willemen:
Oh Yes! Like I said, it’s a nice place to be, it is the positive spirit. In Thailand, we have the best library here and I am proud to say that. I know the importance of a library is decreasing with the advent of Information Technology, but still a library is as important as it used to be ten years ago. I can assure you, if you want to write a good article or work, you still need the library, and you can do it here.

Question: As a rector, what is your future direction or aspiration for IBC?

Prof. Willemen:
We just do what we always do (laughs). Actually we should just go our own way, you know we should not look at what others do and try to fit in. No! Let others adapt to us. We do what we do. We have all the traditions here. We have the Mahāyāna, the Sanskrit, of course we have the Pali, we have Tibetan, and we have it all. In order to open the horizons of the students who are taught in a certain tradition, I am very happy that we offer all. Indeed we have Sanskrit in Thailand! Not many Thervāda countries have Sanskrit and here we do. Sanskrit Buddhism is the basis for all kinds of Buddhism ever since 400 AD, excluding Srilanka of course. So the point is we have everything and keep going our own way. We study and when we come up with an idea, we use it in the courses and the teaching. We teach the languages and we should keep doing it. We have monastic people and lay people. We should have the people in the tradition and we should have people teaching about the tradition. Monastics and scholars need to support each other. IBC is a good place where this is all possible. So we should keep doing what we do and try to do it as well as possible.

Question: This is the uniqueness of IBC. Is this why you want to keep it small and flexible?

Prof. Willemen:
Yes it is unique, in Thailand at least. We have all the traditions. I don’t think size is a problem. We should just have good people to teach; that is the main thing. If we teach, we mean what we teach – because how can the students be happy if the teachers are not happy? So we should have happy teachers who really like what they are doing. I can tell you I like what I am doing, so that’s what we should do. This will catch on! Big or small is not important. I know we live in 21st century and the first question we ask is always the numbers. But how can we count quality? It is very difficult to quantify the quality. I am not saying we are the best in the world but what I am saying is we feel like we are.

Question: What advise would you give to the students?

Prof. Willemen:
We are in a school, so my advice is to work hard. But let us do it in a relaxed and happy way. It should not be taken as a burden or a duty. Of course we have rules to meet the deadlines but individually you have to do it because you want to learn and always learn in a positive way. Be positive, no matter what!

Chimi Wangmo