Research and Teaching
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. An interview about my first book can be found in the Authorial Intentions podcast by Chris Benda.