Summary of research interests
The so-called “mindfulness revolution” has inspired much interest in the health benefits of Buddhist practice in mainstream popular culture. While there is much that is uniquely modern about these contemporary developments, in fact, the history of Buddhist engagement with various aspects of medicine is as old as the history of Buddhism itself. In virtually all periods and locations, Buddhism has provided individuals with intellectual tools to frame and understand illness, has shaped health-seeking behaviors in conscious and unconscious ways, and has offered a range of popular therapies and institutional structures for delivering healthcare. These have been adapted and elaborated across virtually all of Asia, and have often specifically played a major role in the popularization of the religion in new recipient cultures. Placing our contemporary interests in the benefits of meditation in this wider global context helps us to better appreciate the rich diversity of practical tools for mental and physical healing made available by Buddhism, and contextualizes contemporary developments within a historical framework that does not privilege the modern or Western vantage point.
At various points in my career, I have studied the relationship between Buddhism and healing in a number of different contexts, including medieval China, modern Thailand, and the contemporary Americas. Building on my eclectic academic background, my work integrates methodologies from history of medicine, religious studies, translation studies, literary studies, and anthropology, among other disciplines. My investigation of the nexus of transnational transmission and local dynamics of reception is driven not by commitment to a specific disciplinary method, but rather by a series of interlocking questions that are inherently interdisciplinary: What are Buddhism’s doctrinal teachings about health and wellbeing, and how are these transformed by processes of crosscultural translation? How has Buddhism been presented as a healing modality in distinct locations and time periods, and who forwards such positions? How do key institutions, social networks, and transnational flows of information between them influence the implementation of these ideas and practices? How do local and international political and economic interests shape their reception over the long term? My research on these questions also engages with theoretical matters of interest to the humanities and social sciences more broadly, such as how to model the interactions between cultures, how to understand texts that are products of multiple layers of literary and cultural translation, and how to think about the categories of “religion” and “medicine” in crosscultural context.
Current projects in progress
- Global History of Buddhism & Medicine. This project consists of two edited collections of texts related to Buddhism and medicine over the past two and a half millennia, and a monograph synthesizing the global history of the relationship between Buddhism and healing “from Sarnath to Silicone Valley.” The first volume of translations is due out in 2017, with subsequent volumes to be published by 2020 (all with Columbia University Press).
- Buddhist Medicine in Medieval East Asia. In addition to my book Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China (Univ Pennsylvania Press, 2014) and multiple academic articles, I am producing an edited volume and a second monograph about various facets of the reception of Buddhist medicine in medieval East Asia.
- Beyond Mindfulness: Varieties of Buddhist Healing in Multiethnic Philadelphia. This project in progress is an ethnographic study of Buddhist healing and healers in the Greater Philadelphia area, using undergraduate research assistants to conduct questionnaires, interviews, and audio-visual recordings. See the project website. Parallel ethnographic work in other locations in the US is also underway.
- Encounters in Buddhist Healing. This is an ongoing ethnographic project on Buddhism and healing in contemporary practice, based on the observation of Buddhist healers in Thailand, Korea, and the USA over the past two decades.