My dissertation, "Discerning Buddhas in China: Identity, Authority, and Liberation in Song-dynasty Chan Buddhism," explores how Chan Buddhists made the unprecedented claim to a level of religious authority on par with the historical Buddha Śākyamuni and, in the process, invented what it means to be a buddha in China. This claim helped propel the Chan tradition to dominance of elite monastic Buddhism during the Song dynasty (960–1279), licensed an outpouring of Chan literature treated as equivalent to scripture, and changed the way Chinese Buddhists understood their own capacity for religious authority in relation to the historical Buddha and the Indian homeland of Buddhism. But the claim itself was fraught with complication. After all, according to canonical Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha was easily recognizable by the "marks of the great man" that adorned his body, while the same could not be said for Chan masters in the Song. What, then, distinguished Chan masters from everyone else? What authorized their elite status and granted them the authority of buddhas? According to what normative ideals did Chan aspirants pursue liberation, and by what standards did Chan masters evaluate their students to determine who was worthy of admission into an elite Chan lineage? How, in short, could one recognize a buddha in Song-dynasty China? The Chan tradition never answered this question once and for all; instead, the question broadly animated Chan rituals, institutional norms, literary practices, and visual cultures. My dissertation takes a performative approach to the analysis of Chan hagiographies, discourse records, commentarial collections, codes of monastic conduct, and visual materials, measuring the efficacy of Chan interventions in Buddhist tradition by showing how they participated in the epochal changes attending China's Tang-Song transition.
Other research interests
My second project concerns the ways Buddhists and Daoists conceived of liberation as involving the bio-spiritual generation of supernatural bodies. It explores the way these conceptions intersect with discourses on gender and sexuality, and shed light on the contested boundaries between the categories of metaphor, metaphysics, and materiality. Other research interests include the problem of agency in Chinese Buddhist notions of personhood; Chinese Buddhist understandings of contingency, effort, and the "natural"; and Chinese Buddhist characterizations of liberation as a kind of sovereignty.
Select recent and upcoming research presentations
“Buddhist Rhetorics of Productivity and Debt at the End of Medieval China: ‘Inner-Worldly Asceticism’ and the Chan Tradition.” American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Boston. November 18–21, 2017
“Buddhist Pastoral: ‘Farming Chan’ as Aesthetic, Work Ethic, and Identity in Middle-Period China.” Second Conference on Middle Period Chinese Humanities, Leiden University, The Netherlands. September 14–17, 2017
“How Chan Masters Became ‘Great Men’: Masculinity and the Aesthetics of Heroism in Middle-Period Chinese Buddhism.” XVIIIth Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, University of Toronto. August 20–25, 2017
“Refiguring Buddhahood at the End of Medieval China: Aesthetics, Authority, and the Shape of Liberation in the Chan Tradition.” Association for Asian Studies annual meeting, Toronto. March 16–19, 2017
“Signifying Greatness in Chinese Buddhism: How the Chan Tradition Reinterpreted the Canonical Marks of Buddhahood.” Buddhism & East Asian Cultures Program Young Scholars’ Forum, Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts, Taiwan. December 15–16, 2016
“Possessing Enlightenment: Demons, Difference, and Intentionality in Medieval Chinese Buddhism.” Kyoto Asian Studies Group. December 14, 2015