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Since 1925 UCLA has honored its most distinguished scholars by selecting them to deliver this special annual lecture. By honoring them in this way, members of the academic community have an opportunity to appreciate these scholars' achievements in a way they may not have otherwise had.

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Photo by Reed Hutchinson
106th Faculty Research Lecture

The Buddha as a Businessman: Economics and Law in an Old Indian Religion

Gregory Schopen,
Professor of Asian languages and Cultures

March 10, 2009

Gregory Schopen, Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures and one of the world's leading authorities on Buddhism, has shattered many myths, notably the notion that Buddhist monks in ancient India renounced money and property. Well-versed in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali and Tibetan, Schopen probably knows more about classical Buddhism than the entire line of reincarnated Dalai Lamas, and it's no wonder that his work has significantly altered the way other religions are studied.

Partly because of popular culture, it's hard to imagine the Buddha as anything other than a great sage, "seated in what appears to be serene and deep meditation," or surrounded by students craving enlightenment, said Schopen. Neither image suggests that the Buddha, who taught that "all things are impermanent," might, in fact, be "pondering how to avoid paying custom duties and taxes" — or that he might well be teaching his followers "how to write a loan contract and not make unsecured loans."

In his talk, Schopen illuminates a little-known aspect of Buddhism: the fact that it was one of the earliest social organizations in India to develop what might be called a corporation. "In terms of Indian history, the Buddhists were the first to do this," said Schopen. "And they had to work out all sorts of problems that have a lot in common with modern corporate law." Ancient Indian Buddhists, for example, dealt with such issues as how they could own property and whether an order of monks was a legal entity, added Schopen, pointing out that Wall Street has much to learn from the Buddha.

By any measure, Schopen is an iconoclast. A Taiwanese newspaper once described him as an "exceptionally rare species – an academic who writes not only lucidly but also eloquently, charmingly, and very often wittily." The fact that Schopen won the esteemed MacArthur Award in 1985 has surely cemented his reputation as an outstanding scholar any university would be proud of.

From Ajay Singh, UCLA Today

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