Book project

My first book project, tentatively entitled “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 Shakyamuni 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. By taking a performative approach to the analysis of hagiographies, discourse records, commentarial collections, codes of monastic conduct, commemorative inscriptions, and visual materials, this book seeks to measure the efficacy of Chan interventions in Buddhist tradition by showing how they participated in the epochal changes attending China's transition from the Tang (618–907) to Song dynasties.

Other research interests

My second book-length project concerns the ways Buddhists and Daoists conceived of liberation as involving the bio-spiritual generation of supernatural bodies. It explores how these ideas 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.

Selected recent and upcoming presentations

“Fictive Kinship and the Paradox of Mastery in Song-dynasty Chan Buddhism.” Association for Asian Studies annual meeting, Denver. March 21–24, 2019

“Exemplifying Heroism: Inspiration, Imitation, and the ‘Great Man’ in Song-dynasty Chan Buddhism.” American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Denver. November 17–20, 2018

“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