Student Success

Essay on Zen Buddhist art nets student Michael Chan prize

Kaelah Collins’ (BA ’15) keen interest in Asian culture has paid a dividend she never expected.

Collins learned she won the Michael Chan Prize in Asian Studies for an essay she wrote for Dr. John Harding’s Zen Buddhism 3000-level class last April.

“I was shocked. I know that I’m an English major and I’m used to writing, but I’m not a Religious Studies major,” she says. “I was floored, pleasantly, and definitely surprised.”

The Michael Chan prize is named after Michael Wing-Cheung Chan, a Chinese Canadian scientist and humanitarian known for his mathematical brilliance and passion for promoting Canada-Asia understanding. The $1,000 annual prize is given to a University of Lethbridge student in any degree program who demonstrates an interest in Asia-related scholarship and shows outstanding achievement in a course project or paper on an Asian topic.

Collin’s essay — A World of Opposites: Manifestations of Nonduality in Zen Buddhist Art — explored contrasts in sumi-e paintings, architecture and garden design. And to write about nonduality, one must have a pretty good grasp of the subject.

“The idea of nondualism is that there’s no separation, that everything is an expression of one essential reality,” she says.

Duality permeates every aspect of life and mankind is constantly caught up discriminating between subject and object. For a Zen practitioner, dualism must be abolished to attain enlightenment.

“In a rock garden, you have a landscape in front of you. It might have a big boulder, which represents a mountain. When we look at it, at first we would see a boulder. But then, because you’re taking in everything around it, you see it represents a mountain. The rivers in the landscape are also made of pebbles. You realize the little pebbles are made up of the same materials as the boulder so therefore the rivers are the same as the mountain,” she says.

Collins became interested in Asian Studies after a two-week trip to Japan several years ago. Her interest remained throughout university and she completed a minor in Asian Studies at the U of L. In the months ahead, she hopes to live in Asia for a time before she pursues further post-secondary studies.

“There was a lot that I didn’t know about Zen Buddhism. We tend to think of Buddhism as a whole, but it’s quite vast and varied, the same way Christianity is,” she says.