In fall 2014, Mark Bookman, a recent graduate of Villanova Univerrsity and CIEE Tokyo ('13), will return to Tokyo on a Research Fulbright Fellowship to explore the knowledge of Esoteric Buddhism . We interviewed Mark to learn more about his experience as a study abroad student in Tokyo, how he overcame perceived boundaries during the experience, and his future plans.
Where are you from?
I am originally from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
What was your experience living in Japan?
My experiences in Japan inspired unparalleled personal and scholarly development by elucidating the deepest recesses of my being and soteriological goals, subsequently allowing for their cross-examination. These experiences, which extended far beyond the liminal bounds of a traditional classroom setting and allowed me to visualize and resonate with Japanese culture as a semiotic paradise saturated with meaning, may be categorized into two distinct categories: Boundaries to Overcome and Intercultural Synthesis, respectively.
Boundaries to Overcome
As the first student bound to a wheelchair in CIEE’s Tokyo program the challenges I faced were significant in number upon my arrival in Japan. Obtaining the necessary medical clearances from the government, securing adequate housing that would accommodate my wheelchair, and discovering how I would reach my host institution were amongst the many issues of immediate concern – let alone any social concerns such as culture shock! However, it was thanks to CIEE’s own Dr. Kirsten Jensen and Ms. Hiroko Watanabe that I was able to find a dorm room inside of an all-Japanese dormitory and quickly become friendly with several of the students there. Shortly thereafter, the academic semester began and I found myself immersed in a world unlike any I had previously known.
Having studied Japanese for several years prior to attending the CIEE program, I was under the (horribly mistaken, in hindsight) impression that I would be placed into one of the highest-level Japanese courses offered at Sophia University. All told, I found myself enrolled in Intensive Japanese 2, an 8-credit course that met for 4 hours each weekday. In addition to my Japanese course, I decided to pursue a course in Contemporary Japanese Anthropology and an additional course in Philosophic Approaches to Buddhism, which fulfilled an advanced theology requirement for my home institution and, unbeknownst to me at the time, would shape my future career path. Each of these classes invited me to play amidst a deep wellspring of Japanese cultural epistemology; however, that experience alone was not unlike the training I had received at my home institution. It was only through my experiences outside of class that I was able to manifest a visceral appreciation for that epistemology and forge an authentic appreciation for what it meant to be “Japanese.”
My everyday experiences and civic engagement during the duration of my study abroad program seared a lasting image of Japanese society as generous, vibrant, and valuable beyond measure into my mind. While innumerable experiences may instantiate these values, I will limit my discourse to a select few. Namely, interdisciplinary and syncretic dialogues with my professors during their office hours, enjoying the gradual deterioration of my voice through belting karaoke in some alien tongue that one may hardly construe as a ‘singing voice’, and walking down the streets of the ‘Otaku Mecca’ known as Akihabara. Through each of these experiences I was able to witness firsthand the influence and cultural manifestation of each intellectual entity discussed in class. Likewise, my Japanese language study, which facilitated each of the aforementioned experiences, furnished me with its own rewards. Words cannot do justice to the joy of seeing that one Kanji you have written several hundred times in a vain attempt to commit it to memory inconspicuously plastered on the welcome sign of small, tucked away shop in Harajuku.
How has your international experience with CIEE affected you or your future plans?
Prior to my experience in Tokyo it was my intention to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. At that time, my proposed graduate research was concerned with the articulation of an epistemological model that would explain the evolution of human judgment and cognition. My experiences abroad, most notably my initial encounter with Japanese Esoteric Buddhist philosophy and philology, have greatly reshaped my future intentions via subsuming my previous research interest into a more comprehensive study of comparative soteriological systems. It should be noted, however, that my decision to alter research objectives was not instantaneous but rather gradual, itself a result of reflecting upon the materials I was exposed to in Japan in conjunction with additional research conducted after my return to United States. In this sense I consider my experience in Japan to be ongoing still, for time-and-time again it has provided me with a static beacon of insight to guide the progression of my research.
After submitting a proposal to continue the research described above, I was awarded an AY 2014-2015 Research Fulbright Fellowship to return to Tokyo. (Incidentally, I am also the first wheelchair-bound Fulbright Fellow to Japan). Expanding upon three semesters of my undergraduate thesis research findings, I shall continue exploring the complex semiotic, pedagogical, and soteriological episteme of Esoteric Buddhism and its translocalization as manifested by the Shingon and Tendai lineages.
Following the completion of my Fulbright fellowship I intend to pursue doctoral studies in Buddhism. The focus of my proposed doctoral research entails the elucidation of comparable elements between Esoteric Buddhism and Western philosophy and the subsequent application of conclusions reached by the Esoteric Buddhist episteme as a hermeneutical tool for reimagining various typics within the Western philosophic and religious canons.