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Research chair earns fellowship at Einstein's academic home

Wendi Adamek, Numata Chair in Buddhist Studies, awarded academic chance of a lifetime


Photo by Kelsey Verboom, University of Calgary

By Kelsey Verboom
March 26, 2015

The University of Calgary’s Wendi Adamek will soon embark on a coveted fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, a research centre where academic royalty such as Albert Einstein, Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel once studied and theorized.

Adamek, who is one of only two permanent Numata Chairs in Buddhist Studies in the world, has earned one of approximately 100 year-long academic memberships to the internationally renowned centre for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. At the Institute, scholars are encouraged to pursue research projects, attend talks by other members, and cross-pollinate ideas between the historical sciences, mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences.

“This is a huge deal, as many people in academia try their whole careers to win a fellowship here and never get considered, let alone win one,” said Tinu Ruparell, Head of the Department of Classics and Religion in the Faculty of Arts.

Adamek, who specializes in East Asian religion, will live at the Princeton facility for one year beginning in September, and will focus on translating and theorizing the work of Huiyuan, a sixth-century Chinese Buddhist. Of particular interest to Adamek is the Buddhist teacher’s understanding of nirvana and how it relates to the concept of self.

“I’m interested in this idea of nirvana because it’s controversial,” Adamek said, explaining that classic Buddhist teachings emphasize the concept of “no self,” while Huiyuan discusses the term ‘self’ as an attribute of nirvana. “So what does he mean by ‘self’ in this case? It certainly can’t mean ‘self’ as we think of it. I’m motivated to understand in context how Huiyuan understood it,” she added.

Adamek, who joined the University of Calgary in January 2014, has written three books based on her translations of medieval Chinese Buddhist texts. Her work The Mystique of Transmission was recognized for its excellence with an award from the American Academy of Religion. Most recently she published a young adult novel titled Kunlun, which uses Asian themes to explore issues that are inspired by her students and the modern-day matters they grapple with.

Identifying parallels between pre-modern and post-modern issues, and between Buddhism and other disciplines like the philosophy of science, are themes that Adamek pursues, and she hopes to explore such ideas through interaction with scholars from other fields who will also be residents at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Smiling at the concept of walking the same hallways once tread by Einstein and Turing, Adamek said, “I hope I can bring back interesting new research ideas, and let the publication of those ideas feed my teaching at the university.”

“Professor Adamek is a world class scholar, and the university is fortunate to have her with us,” Ruparell added. “Her accomplishments are sure to cement our place as one of North America’s preeminent centres for the study of Buddhism.”