In addition to my research on Buddhist literature, I have an abiding second area of research interest in recovering the history of the Yunmen lineage of Chan masters before their sudden disappearance circa 1130. Broadly speaking, I am interested in connections between religious practice and spatial history. Research in this area had resulted in six peer-reviewed essay-length works, and will lead to a second book manuscript.
This project analyses Buddhist institutions, networks, and practices in their spatial and environmental contexts. I compiled and publicly released a GIS database to track over 3,000 Buddhist monks in Chan lineages before, during, and after the Northern Song. I then created maps, color-coding each Chan lineage, to illustrate the inter-generational movement of these religious networks. More recently, I have begun to analyze how the water abundant environment of the Lower Yangzi River region shaped Buddhist institutions and practices.
I first lay groundwork for doing this history of ritual topography in my published essay “Toward a Spatial History of Chan: Lineages, Networks, and the Lamp Records” (2016), which reflected on methodological issues. I described the usefulness and limitations of digital research, and advocated a hermeneutic circle oscillating between close- and distant-readings. Presented as part of an AAS panel, I then co-edited a special issue of Review of Religion and Chinese Society, Vol. 3, no. 2 (2016), entitled “Mapping the Sacred: Geospatial Studies on Chinese Religions” together with Jonathan Pettit.
Subsequently, “A Geographic History of Song Dynasty Chan Buddhism: The Decline of the Yunmen Lineage” (2019) brought together previously overlooked texts, epigraphic sources, and full-color maps to illustrate a new spatial history of Chan social institutions. The resulting maps (such as the one above) are a guide for seeing geospatial distributions that must have mattered in the history of religions. Based on the information visualized on these maps, I developed an argument about the rise and sudden decline of the network of Chan masters known as the Yunmen lineage. I rebut several current scholarly theories regarding the decline of Buddhist groups––especially that of being losers in a religious marketplace with ideas competing freely for patronage––and instead offer a geopolitical explanation. Based on my knowledge of monks’ whereabouts in the Chinese empire and when they moved, I use historical texts and inscriptions to analyze what social forces led to growth or decline. I conclude that the long and disastrous Song-Jin wars between 1125 and 1137 decimated society in those northern and eastern regions where Yunmen monks had thrived for generations.
Another portion of this research concerning the social conditions of Buddhism in the lower Yangzi River region was presented at the “Buddhist Geoaesthetics” conference that I co-organized at Brown in May 2019. That essay, “Riverine Buddhism at Changlu Monastery,” will appear in a volume which I am co-editing with Jeffrey Moser, forthcoming from University of Hawai’i Press.