Research

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.