I am a historian and translator of Buddhism. My expertise is in the study of Buddhism in China and Tibet in a trans-regional and trans-cultural frame, with a special emphasis on Buddhism in its classical and contemporary forms. My primary research areas include classical systems of scriptural interpretation and the history of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions in India, China, and Tibet. I have a strong foundation in the study of Asia in the fields of language and philology, but my research also draws on anthropology, history, cultural and postcolonial studies, and religious studies. My current projects fall into two main areas. The first is the study of the history and historiography of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist relations. I focus in particular on Buddhist scriptures and Tibetan scholastic works as they were translated and interpreted by Chinese exegetes during the late imperial and Republican periods. The second area is the history of Buddhism in its encounter with European and American religious and philosophical formations. I am interested in the question of how the study of Buddhism influenced Enlightenment legacies and global thought during the modern age, specifically how the imagination of the Indian roots of Buddhism was shaped through global networks of knowledge and the modern forces of colonialism and nationalism in Asia. In addition, I translate works on the modern reception of Tibetan Buddhism in China. My current projects include the travelogue of a Chinese monk in Tibet during the age of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Fazun’s (1902-1980) Xiandai Xizang 現代西藏 (“Modern Tibet”), and the work of a “Chinese lama” drawing from the views of both Zen and rDzogs Chen, Fahai’s (1920-1991) Sheng conghe lai, si conghe qu 生從何來，死從何去 (“Life Begins After Death”). My teaching broadly reflects my research interests, including theory courses that examine the concepts of religion and magic, travel and place, scripture and practice across disciplinary boundaries, and thematic courses that engage classical works from both Chinese and Tibetan philosophical and religious traditions.
I teach about religion in China and East Asia, with a focus on Buddhism. In my research I specialize in the intellectual and institutional history of Chinese Buddhism during the modern period. I have studied Buddhist responses to elements of modernity, such as the discourses surrounding both religion and modern science; and I am currently writing a “biography” of Huáyán 華嚴 school of Chinese Buddhism in the early twentieth century. As an extension of my work on Chinese Buddhism, I helped establish the Database of Modern Chinese Buddhism.
Modernism, Buddhism, Modern Chinese History, Comparative Literature
I specialize in Yogacara Buddhism and Buddhist logic in Japan and East Asia. I also study Digital Humanities in the field of East Asian studies and Japanese history.
Currently, I am a post-doc research fellow at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Japan, where I assist with editing for the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. I also serve as a network editor for H-Buddhism and an associate editor for the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism. I completed a PhD in Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley in 2016 and have spent time at Columbia University, Waseda University, University of Virginia, Taisho University, and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. My research primarily focuses on Japanese esoteric Buddhism, but my interests extend to Buddhist thought and practice in general.
I specialize in East Asian religions with a focus on Buddhism in ancient Japan (seventh through ninth centuries). In the most general terms, my research challenges elite-centered narratives that have dominated scholarship on Japanese Buddhism and religious studies more broadly. In contrast, I study Buddhism as it was lived and practiced by individuals and communities from diverse backgrounds. My research and teaching are interdisciplinary; I engage scholarship in history, art history, literature, political science, and book history to explore issues related to ritual studies, material culture, and religion and the state. My first book, Ritualized Writing: Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan , examines the ritual practice of transcribing Buddhist scriptures (sutras). It questions the standard historical narratives of Japanese Buddhism, which have focused exclusively on the ways the state regulated and utilized religion for ideological purposes in the eighth century. Instead, I highlight the activities of individuals from a range of social classes and geographic regions in Japan to show that Buddhist practice was not limited to the throne and fulfilled a variety of social, political, and spiritual roles beyond ideological justification of imperial rule. The book introduces and translates a large number of previously unstudied archival sources in manuscript form, including scriptorium documents and colophons. It argues for a practice-based approach to ritual and reassesses scripture as a category constructed in part through ritual practices. My second book project focuses on provincial preaching in the ninth century. It considers the social and institutional networks that enabled Buddhism to flourish in ancient Japan, as well as the homiletic strategies and particular doctrines taught on the ground in local communities. It aims to overcome the “great man” approach that has dominated the study of early Heian-period (794-1185) Buddhism with most scholarship to date focusing on two esteemed monks, Kūkai (774-835) and Saichō (767-822). In contrast, my project explores the religious life of the nameless masses living and preaching in provincial villages using both manuscript and archaeological data. In addition to these book projects, I have published in English and Japanese on a variety of other topics including the nature and structure of East Asian Buddhist canons, nineteenth- and twentieth- century debates over the state’s position relative to religion, sutras produced in China, and the religious practices of scribes and patrons. I teach undergraduate and graduate students in courses on Japanese religions, mythology, Zen, Buddhism and literature, and theory and method. I completed my undergraduate studies at Middlebury College in Vermont with a double major in Japanese and Religion. After graduating, I spent two years in Japan as a Coordinator for International Relations on the JET program in Nagano prefecture. I did my graduate work at Princeton University and was a research fellow at Otani University in Kyoto from 2010-2011. I have also had extended stays in other parts of Japan including Yokohama, Nagoya, and Himeji. I have received generous support for my research from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright IIE, Japan Foundation, Vanderbilt University Research Scholars Grant, the International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies (Tokyo), and others. My 2012 dissertation won the Stanley Weinstein Prize awarded to the best Ph.D. dissertation on East Asian Buddhism written in North America during the two previous years. I also edit an online Guide to Shōsōin Research, where I blog about the Shōsōin. Interviews about my first book can be found in the Authorial Intentions podcast by Chris Benda and on the New Books Network with Luke Thompson.
I am an interdisciplinary humanities scholar fascinated by the intersections between Buddhism, medicine, and crosscultural exchange. I have a Ph.D. in History of Medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and teach Asian history, religion, and culture at Penn State University’s Abington College, located near Philadelphia. The major theme in my scholarship is the interplay between the global transmission and local reception of Buddhist knowledge about health, disease, and the body. I approach this topic using methodologies from history, religious studies, translation studies, and anthropology, among other fields. I am the author of the three-volume series Buddhism and Medicine (Columbia Univ Press, 2017–2020) as well as a number of other books and articles on various aspects of Buddhism and medicine. I am continually seeking opportunities to cross disciplinary lines in publishing and presenting my work. I am active in AAR, IASTAM, and other professional organizations, and currently serve as the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Asian Medicine. I also regularly publish writing for non-scholarly audiences.
My field of research is religion in medieval China (roughly fourth to tenth century, CE). To date I have concentrated on three major areas of interest: bodily practice in Chinese Religions; the creation and transmission of new religious practices and doctrines; and the religious dimensions of commodity culture. In particular, I have focused on self-immolation, Chinese Buddhist apocrypha, the history of tea, and religion and the military. I work with primary sources written in literary Chinese and my research engages with that of scholars who publish in English and French as well as in modern Chinese and Japanese. Although my work is grounded in traditional Sinology—a discipline based on knowledge of the literature, history, and culture of pre-modern China—my publicationsare also aimed towards scholars of Religious Studies. I Self-immolation Self-immolation is an under-researched topic that is important for our understanding both of Buddhism in China and also the bodily forms of religious practice that appear in other cultures. In my research I seek to explain how seemingly anomalous practices can provide new ways of understanding religion. This project has resulted in a book, and a number of articles and book chapters. My first article on the topic, “Where Text Meets Flesh: Burning the Body as an ‘Apocryphal Practice’ in Chinese Buddhism” (1998), explores how texts (both apocryphal and canonical) and practices in Chinese Buddhism operated in a mutually reinforcing cycle so that doctrinal innovations spurred new modes of bodily piety while, conversely, practices that lacked textual sanction drove the creation of scripture. The book, Burning for the Buddha, is a comprehensive study of the subject. It seeks first to place self-immolation in historical, social, ethical, cultural and doctrinal context via a thorough investigation of the practice throughout Chinese history. Second, it investigates how self-immolation was constructed as a Chinese Buddhist practice by three types of historical actors: self-immolators, their biographers, and the compilers of hagiographical collections. The book offers a detailed history of self-immolation in China from medieval times until the early twentieth century, and includes many annotated translations from primary sources. Four related articles and book chapters—“Spontaneous Human Combustion: Some Remarks on a Phenomenon in Chinese Buddhism”; “Fire and the Sword: Some Connections between Self-immolation and Religious Persecution in the History of Chinese Buddhism”; “Self-immolation in the Context of War and Other Natural Disasters”; and “Written in Flames: Self-immolation in Sixth Century Sichuan”—explore in more detail aspects of self-immolation that are only touched upon briefly in the book, such as the spontaneous nature of holy death, self-immolators as martyrs, self-immolation as a response to war and natural disasters, and self-immolation as a practice suitable for end-times. I have also published an article on Chinese Buddhist self-immolation in historical context and some annotated biographies of medieval self-immolators. II Apocrypha My studies on Chinese Buddhist apocrypha address how new concepts of religious practice entered the Buddhist canon in the form of scriptures composed in medieval China, rather than works translated from Indic languages. My article on a major apocryphal Buddhist text that decisively shaped Chinese Buddhism (“Another look at the pseudo-Śūramgama sūtra”) is the first study of the text in any European language. This study lays the foundation for my SSHRC-funded project, a scholarly translation (from Chinese to English) and book-length study of the Śūramgama sūtra. “The Silent Samgha: Some Observations on Mute Sheep Monks” presents a new perspective on how monastic practice in medieval China was re-imagined on the basis of certain obscure passages of Buddhist scripture. III Tea The project on the role of tea in Chinese religions takes the form of a book-length monograph currently forthcoming from University of Hawai’i Press and a number of articles. The chapter “Buddhism, Alcohol, and Tea in Medieval China,” in a volume on food and religion in traditional China, describes how Buddhists were active not only in changing people’s attitudes towards intoxicating substances, but also in spreading tea drinking throughout the empire. The book, Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History, explores the contours of religious and cultural change in traditional China from the point of view of a commodity. I trace the development of tea drinking from its mythic origins to the late-imperial period (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries), and examine the changes in aesthetics, ritual, science, health, and knowledge which tea brought with it. The book contains many translations from the Chinese primary sources, including poetry. IV Religion and the Military in Medieval China The objectives of this SSHRC-sponsored project are to understand connections between the world of religion and the world of the military in medieval China (roughly fourth to tenth centuries CE). In particular, the research examines the interfaces between Buddhist and Daoist doctrine and practice and the concepts, institutions, and individuals that can be understood to constitute the “military” in medieval China. The issues are examined both from the side of the military, using historical documents from official and unofficial sources, and from the perspective of Buddhism and Daoism as seen in textual and art historical materials. Some questions that drive this research include: how did religious concepts and practices fit into the worldview of professional and conscript soldiers? What specific ritual practices were deployed in military life? Why and how did military leaders become patrons of religious institutions? Conversely, how and why did Buddhist and Daoist practitioners and scriptures make use of military concepts and images? The answers to such questions are clearly not restricted to the military arena, but will help us to understand better the seen and unseen worlds that medieval Chinese people inhabited. The project offers insight into the conceptual underpinnings of much of the later (post year 1000 AD) religious traditions of China, and allows us to see the significance of foundational Chinese ideas about martial practice and imagery for the religion and culture of neighbouring countries such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
I am a historian whose work focuses on religion in modern China, especially Buddhism.