Systems of Representation in Asian Religious and Philosophical Traditions

Organizers (Ghent Univ.)

Prof. Dr. Christoph Anderl

Prof. Dr. Daniela De Simone

Dr. Henry Albery

Primary instructor

Prof. Dr. Robert Yelle (Interfaculty Programme for the Study of Religion, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich) 

Supporting instructors

Dr. Polina Lukicheva (Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich)

Dr. Henry Albery (Junior Postdoctoral Fellow, Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (FWO), Department of Language and Cultures, Ghent University)

Dr. Juen Chien (Assistant Professor, Department of Buddhist Studies, Fo Guang University, Taiwan)

Prof. Dr. Christoph Anderl (Prof. of Chinese Language and Culture, Department of Languages and Cultures, Ghent University)


Ghent PhD students:

Course description

Representation, a vital concept in accounting for how we perceive and engage with the world, has emerged as a significant subject across various fields, including anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, cultural studies, cognitive science, and visual culture. Focusing specifically on Asian religions, philosophy, and aesthetics, this course explores profound existential and ethical inquiries that have played a formative role in shaping and impacting those societies.

The objective of the course is to offer a systematic study of systems of representation and symbolism within Asian thought and practice and provide students with a cutting-edge conceptual apparatus in semiotics and anthropology, enhancing their theoretical grounding through an introduction to key concepts from these disciplines. It shall examine the evolution of systems of representation and their function in conveying complex concepts in different historical contexts and communities, providing the students with both a specialised knowledge in the history and cultural contexts of the regions considered, whilst fostering a comprehensive understanding of the terminologies and histories of specific forms of representation. Through an interrogation of fundamental theoretical frameworks, case studies, and analyses of textual and visual materials, the course is designed to equip students with the analytical, methodological and theoretical skills for usage in their research.

This course is specifically designed for doctoral students specialising in Buddhist studies and related fields which focus on the cultural traditions of Asia. It offers a deep exploration into the working of systems of representation and symbolism within specific cultural frameworks, illuminating their role in shaping existential and ethical attitudes and conveying religious and philosophical ideas. Through such an exploration, students will develop a new conceptual lens with which they shall nuance their understanding of the traditions they study.

The course covers a wide range of topics within the field, from establishing and exploring theoretical frameworks for studying the complexities of representation to examining concrete case studies. It includes the analysis of textual and visual materials, alongside an investigation into the terminology and history of concepts pertaining to the problematics of representation, e.g.:

  • Multifaceted perspectives on representation: ontological assumptions, cognitive processes, and communicative functions;
  • Symbolic systems and the construction of meaning: unravelling layers and referential dynamics in representation, such as pragmatic versus semantic functions;
  • Representation and Transcendence: investigating the interactions between the perceived and unperceived, the sign and signlessness, form and formlessness and meaning and meaningless in ritual, meditative and aesthetic practices;
  • Analysing terminology and concepts of representation: exploring philosophical theories and primary sources (including accounts on meditation, visualization, observation and contemplation. e.g., the conceptual history of guan 觀) and Buddhist theories of mind, perception and cognition;
  • Representation and Aesthetics: exploring the intersection of artistic expression and (religious) symbolic systems;
  • Exploring symbolism in Buddhist ritual practices and arts and the significance of (the representation of) the Buddha’s body.


Monday 9th October: Theories of representation

10.00                             Welcome (Christoph Anderl and Daniela De Simone)

10.00-12.00                 Lecture: “Conceptual Foundations of a Semiotics of Religion” * (Robert Yelle)

12.00-13.30                  Lunch

13.30-15.00                  Lecture: “From Semantics to Pragmatics in the Semiotics of Religion” (Robert Yelle)

15:00-15:15                  Coffee break

15.15-16.30                    Lecture: “Representation: Bridging the Gap Between Idealism and Realism” (Polina Lukicheva)


Tuesday 10th October: Methodological applications

10.00-12.00                 Lecture: “The Semiotics of Ritual Performance” * (Robert Yelle)

12.00-13.30                  Lunch

13.30-16.00                 Source analysis: Case Studies from Ritual Traditions (Robert Yelle)


Wednesday 11th October: Perspectives from South Asia

10.00-12.00                 Lecture: “The Structure and Function of Mantras” * (Robert Yelle)

12.00-13.30                  Lunch

13.30-14.30                   Source analysis: Case Studies from Selected Hindu and Buddhist Texts (Robert Yelle)

14:30-15:50                 Coffee break

14.50-16.30                 Student presentations (Moderator: Robert Yelle)


Thursday 12th October: Meditation traditions of Central and East Asia

10.00-12.00                  Source analysis: “Semiotic Ideology and Buddhist meditation in Central Asia” (Henry Albery)

12.00-13.30                  Lunch

13.30-16.00                  Source analysis: “Mental representation in Yogācāra and Chan: the case of the three natures and guan 觀” (Chien Juen and Polina Lukicheva)


Friday 13th October: Representation and Narrative in Dunhuang

10.00-12.00                   Source Analysis: Text-Image relations in the narration of Buddha’s life in Dunhuang Cave 61 (Christoph Anderl)                  Lunch

13.30-15.30                  Student presentations (Moderator: Christoph Anderl)

15.30-16.00                 Closing discussion

Note: Lectures marked with * are planned to be open to the general public and will be broadcast via Zoom. After registration for the public lectures (via email to, a Zoom link will be sent.

Reading materials:

A list of recommended reading materials will be sent to the participants ca. three weeks prior to the beginning of the Doctoral School. 

Short biographies of instructors

Robert Yelle is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies with a focus on Theory and Methodology in the Faculty of Philosophy, Philosophy of Science and Religious Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University (LMU), Munich. His research interests encompass a diverse range of topics, including secularism and secularization, the semiotics of religion, and the intricate dynamics between religion, law, politics, and economics. Throughout his academic journey, Yelle has held fellowships at the University of Illinois and the University of Memphis, following the completion of his Ph.D. Additionally, he has been recognized for his outstanding contributions with the prestigious Paul Harris Fellow award and a Guggenheim fellowship. Notably, he has dedicated extensive research to the field of semiotic and linguistic anthropology with his linguistic proficiency in the mantras and verbal formulas in Hindu Tantric ritual texts. In addition to being the editor of the volume Mediation and Immediacy: The Semiotic Turn in the Study of Religion, he has also published the monograph Semiotics of Religion: Signs of the Sacred in History. This very focus of his vast expertise has made him a significant figure in shaping the curriculum of our Doctoral School.

 Henry Albery completed his PhD in Indology and the Study of Religion at LMU where he received training in the study of religion, focusing on anthropological, comparative, semiotic, sociological, etc., approaches, and completed a thesis, Buddhism and Society in the Indic North and Northwest, 2nd century BCE-3rd century CE, which interrogated the social and political functions of the donative ritual complex, as gleaned from archaeology, art, epigraphs, and texts in Chinese, Gāndhārī, Pāli and Sanskrit. Since then, he has held two postdoctoral fellowships, the first at LMU and the second at Ghent University, publishing on theoretical issues, such as the concept of ritual, as well as on certain paradoxical themes in Indic Buddhist systems of embodiment and representation, including the role of the stupa in signifying the Buddha’s relics and Buddhist views on art and figural imagery. He was also awarded The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Grants for Critical Editions and Scholarly Translations to produce an edition, translation and study of a Sanskrit meditation manual from Central Asia, wherein questions of representation in thought and practice are prominent. He is currently working on a monograph, Avadāna as Analogy: A Study in Buddhist Law and Narrative, which focuses on the development of discursive modes of representation as epistemic strategies in affirming propositional statements in Buddhist law and philosophy.

 Polina Lukicheva studied Sinology, Art History, and Philosophy in Moscow, Berlin, and Shanghai; she holds a PhD with high honours from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Zurich, and is currently conducting the research project “Apprehending the World Through Relational Structures”, funded by UZH Forschungskredit and the NOMIS Foundation. The project explores models of perception and representation, with the aim of illuminating universal properties of human cognition. Lukicheva’s research interests encompass comparative epistemology, and theories of concept and image and representation. She has worked on these topics within the research clusters Asia and Europe (University of Zurich) and Eikones: History and Theory Image (University of Basel). Her publications on representation and visuality include “Envisioning the World Within and Without the Limit” and the co-authored introduction in the co-edited volume Vision and Visuality in Buddhism and Beyond (DeGruyter, 2021). In her forthcoming work “Die Kategorie des Räumlichen in Erkenntnistheorie und Ästhetik im China des 17. Jhs.” (DeGruyter), she contributes valuable research materials, ideas, and theories on representation and the theory of image. Recently, she co-organized “Seeing and Understanding the World Differently” lecture series (UZH), where she curated various sessions, and moderated the discussion on “Representation and Non-Representation in Visual Arts”.

Dr. Juen Chien specializes in Buddhist philosophy of mind and comparative philosophy. She conducted studies on classical Chinese language, literature, and Buddhist Chinese in Taiwan, and obtained her PhD in Sinology and Buddhist studies from LMU. Recently, Chien published her doctoral dissertation, “The Mind and Mental Factors According to the Cheng Weishi Lun: An Approach to Buddhist Therapeutic Soteriology”, in the electronic theses collection of LMU. With her specialization in Buddhist Chinese and expertise in the texts of Buddhist epistemology and cognition, Chien has actively contributed to the development of the digital Buddhist text database as part of her work at the Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts in Taiwan. Currently, she is a research assistant at the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich, where she is involved in the research project “Apprehending the World Through Relational Structures” which is funded by UZH Forschungskredit and the NOMIS Foundation. Through her research and working experiences, Chien has gained expertise in lecturing on Buddhist mind theory and teaching source analysis and material study related to Classical Chinese.

Christoph Anderl specializes on the study of medieval Chinese manuscript culture, Medieval Chinese syntax, and various topics related to the development of Chinese Buddhism during the Tang and Five Dynasties periods. In the last years, his focus has been on the study of modes of representation of Buddhist narratives in textual and visual media, including methodological and theoretical issues concerning the interrelation of text and image. In this context, he has also acted as leader of the Research Cluster “Typologies of Text-Image Relations” in the large UBC-based interdisciplinary project “From the Ground Up: Buddhism and East Asian Religions”. In order to study text-image relations and modes of representations in specific contexts, he has organized several conferences/seminars, as well as conducted fieldwork in China and Thailand, leading groups of ca. 30 participants from international universities. In the context of the Doctoral School, he will discuss representations of narratives related to Buddha’s life in text and image.