The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellowships in Buddhist Studies

The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies offers an articulated set of fellowship and grant competitions that will expand the understanding and interpretation of Buddhist thought in scholarship and society, strengthen international networks of Buddhist studies, and increase the visibility of innovative currents in those studies.

The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellowships provide one-year stipends for PhD candidates to devote full time to preparing dissertations. The fellowship period may be used for fieldwork, archival research, analysis of findings, or for writing after research is complete.

This program is made possible by a generous grant from The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation.

Read more about this fellowship program.

Please note: affiliations shown are as of time of award. Please click on fellows' names for current information.

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Watch "Emerging Themes and Methods of Research: A Discussion with ACLS Fellows," an annual meeting session featuring recent ACLS fellows. 

Alexis Brown
Alexis Brown  |  Abstract
This dissertation is a study of a thirteenth century Theravada Buddhist text entitled Rasavahini, asking what is revealed when it is read as a civilizational literary achievement. The project takes up three major lines of inquiry, including the virtues of reading the text as Literature, the relationship between the text's aesthetics and Theravada's civilizational aspirations, and how thinking about the text as both religious and literary challenges us to develop more robust ways of understanding the spread of Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka to mainland Southeast Asia. Employing the tools of Sanskrit, Pali, and Sinhala literary theory as well as modern Euro-American literary theory, I perform a close reading of the text and consider it in light of its literary precedents and inter-texts.

Doctoral Candidate, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University  -  Reading the Rasavahini: A Religious and Literary Study of a Theravada Buddhist Text

Jeremy S Manheim
Jeremy S Manheim  |  Abstract
My dissertation offers a Buddhist philosophical critique of attempts to naturalize Buddhism. These attempts are motivated by the belief that our understanding of the world accurately represents the way things are—a view that many Buddhists saw as the main obstacle to Awakening. Drawing on Dharmakirti’s argument against natural kinds and Candrakirti’s critique of svabhava, I argue that Buddhist naturalists fail to see how the most radical insights of Buddhist philosophy undermine their naturalistic premises. Since these two streams of argumentation only come together in Tibet, I focus on their synthesis in the work of the Tibetan philosopher Gorampa (1429-1489). I aim to show that naturalism is only an option if one accepts precisely the premises that these thinkers sought to undermine.

Doctoral Candidate, Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Wisconsin-Madison  -  De-Naturalizing Buddhism

Sonam Choden
Sonam Choden  |  Abstract
This thesis research studies how the Tibetan tradition of the composition of rgyud sde spyi rnam works begun and how was it received; the systematization and the interpretation of Buddhist Tantric doctrines within the framework of pre/non-Mahayana and pre/non-Tantric Mahayana forms of Buddhism. The study also aims to explore the impact that Rin-chen-bzang-po’s first rGyud sde spyi rnam had on the succeeding Tibetan scholars. The main objective is in three-fold: 1) prepare a critical edition of Rin-chen-bzang-po’s rGyud sde spyi rnam, by consulting all available textual witnesses; 2) identifies the actual sources of the texts cited by Rin-chen-bzang-po and also critically edits them separately and; 3) offers annotated English translation of the rGyud sde spyi rnam.

Doctoral Candidate, Buddhist Studies, Universität Hamburg, Germany  -  An Exposition of Tantric Buddhism: A Study of the Earliest Tibetan 'Presentation of the Tantric Systems in General' (rGyud sde spyi'i rnam gzhag) by Lo-chen Rin-chen-bzang-po (958-1055).

Olivia Porter
Olivia Porter  |  Abstract
The elusive Zawti tradition is found across the Myanmar-China-Thai borders. With a reputation for strict and austere practices, it has been treated as peripheral to mainstream Shan Theravada in both scholarship and locally among the wider Shan monastic community. Until now, little has been known about the nature of these practices or their history outside of the group itself, despite being enigmatically mentioned in scholarship since the 19th century. Who are the Zawti and how did they manage to remain under the radar for so long? This thesis begins to piece together the Zawti network and history from the perspective of those within the community through ethnographic fieldwork and the first translations of key Zawti texts.

Doctoral Candidate, Theology and Religious Studies, King's College London  -  Hidden in Plain Sight: Uncovering The Tai Zawti Buddhists of the Myanmar-China Border

Nir Feinberg
Nir Feinberg  |  Abstract
This dissertation project focuses on the Buddhist treatment of a primal affective state called samvega - a Sanskrit and Pali term that covers a wide variety of feelings and moods, such as distress, fear, melancholy, agitation, disgust, and urgency. I intend to explore samvega and the matrix of terms surrounding it in the early sutra literature available in Indic languages and in early Chinese translations. I will also consult the relevant exegetical materials found in the Pali commentaries on the nikayas. My goal is to map what I call the "affective ground of the Buddhist path," that is, the terrain of emotions, moods, and feelings that Buddhists have considered to be preconditions for a transformative engagement with Buddhist philosophical ideals.

Doctoral Candidate, Group in Buddhist Studies, University of California, Berkeley  -  Samvega (distress) in Early Buddhist Sutra Literature: Mapping the Affective Ground of the Buddhist Path

Rachelle Saruya
Rachelle Saruya  |  Abstract
My dissertation project analyzes Myanmar Buddhist nuns' education, both formal and informal, and how and why some of these nuns are able to become successful teachers and leaders. This research fills in the gaps on Buddhist nuns in literature on monastic education, which is usually centered on monks. I build on Hiroko Kawanami's pioneering research on Myanmar nuns. However, as Kawanami’s work produced the first comprehensive overview, my work will be more specifically dedicated to the nuns' education and training. It focuses on one specific institution in Sagaing, Myanmar, a main monastic hub, while paying attention to the networks and relationships that these nuns have with other nunneries and monasteries in the area. Research methods include an analysis of the textbooks used, participant observation in classes and during ritual performances, resulting in rich ethnographic descriptions with the nuns' voices at the center, helping us to understand the formative forces that shape the personal and institutional development of Buddhist nuns in today's Myanmar.

Doctoral Candidate, Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto  -  Towards Autonomous Beings and "Docile Bodies": Myanmar Buddhist Nuns' Educational Practices and Rituals in Training

Westin Harris
Westin Harris  |  Abstract
My interdisciplinary doctoral project, Visualizing Virupa: Buddhist and Nath Vignettes of the First Hathayogi, analyzes the life stories of the influential medieval siddha, Virupa(ksa). In it, I examine a wide array of hagiographies, site histories, and liturgies, dating from the 12-19th centuries, in Tibetan and Sanskrit, to argue that Virupa’s life stories reveal persistent Indo-Tibetan connections between tantric Buddhism and Nathism that unsettle abiding misconceptions about the directionality of trans-Himalayan Buddhist exchange and that challenge the “death of Buddhism in India” theory. My project also clarifies the role of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism in the development of hathayoga, and, as such, is a timely contribution to Buddhist, South Asian, religious, and yoga studies.

Doctoral Candidate, Group in Buddhist Studies, University of California, Davis  -  Visualizing Virupa: Buddhist and Nath Vignettes of the First Hathayogi

Katherine Scahill
Katherine Scahill  |  Abstract
This project investigates how Thai Buddhist female monks (bhikkhuni) make claims to local, national, and international belonging through voicing Buddhist teachings (dhamma desana) and chant (suat mon) in live settings and on social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube. Drawing upon sound and voice studies, I ask how bhikkhuni alter liberal feminist discourses of “having a voice” in the context of Buddhist philosophies of sound that emphasize the efficacious rather than representational power of the monastic voice. Over ten months of fieldwork at two bhikkhuni monasteries—Songdhammakalyani in Nakhon Pathom and Nirodharam in Chiang Mai—I follow the different meanings that voice and voicings take as they circulate widely from local lay communities to international online audiences.

Doctoral Candidate, Music, University of Pennsylvania  -  The gendered politics of spiritual authority in Thai Buddhism: Voice, subjectivity, and recognition in the movement for female monastic ordination

Sinae Kim
Sinae Kim  |  Abstract
My dissertation examines "popular lectures" on Buddhist scriptures performed by preaching monks to propagate Buddhist teachings to the general public during the seventh to tenth centuries in China. The emergence and popularization of Buddhism in China are often understood via studies of translation and commentaries, but I argue that preaching played a key role in introducing Buddhist ideas to the laity. I situate popular sutra lectures within their textual, ritual, and social contexts by closely reading “sutra lecture texts” from Dunhuang manuscripts, along with canonical texts, anecdotes, and archaeological materials. By considering both intertextual and performative dimensions of popular lectures, I demonstrate how preaching served a range of functions from entertainment to education.

Doctoral Candidate, Religion, Princeton University  -  Buddhist Preaching Culture in Medieval China: Sutra Lecture Texts and Performance

Bruno Marshall Shirley
Bruno Marshall Shirley  |  Abstract
This project is an intellectual and social history of Buddhist sovereignties constructed and contested in the landscape of Polonnaruva (1157-1215), providing a rich case study with implications for comparative sovereignty across the Buddhist world and in the “global medieval.” Despite the significance given to Parakramabahu I's monastic reforms in later Buddhist histories of Southern Asia, we have an inadequate understanding of his vision of Buddhist sovereignty, and less still of how that vision was subverted or even contested by monks, later monarchs, and noblewomen in his Polonnaruva kingdom. Reading the landscape as a site of discourse offers more nuanced insights into the contingency of “Buddhist sovereignty” belied by textual sources which emphasise cohesion and continuity.

Doctoral Candidate, Asian Studies, Cornell University  -  Constructing Buddhist Sovereignties: Text and Landscape in a Medieval Lankan Kingdom

Mary Kate Long
Mary Kate Long  |  Abstract
This dissertation examines twentieth century life-writing by and about Buddhist monastic women in Myanmar (thilashin) and its role in the consolidation and succession of their institutions and communities. In Myanmar, women are excluded from ordination and male monastic lineage as techniques of succession that ensure the cohesion, authority, and transmission of complex corporate identities, economic resources, and symbolic capital across space and time. In concert with monks and lay supporters, thilashin have laid claim to and maximized the genre of monastic biography to mobilize and authorize their devotional acuity, sources of patronage, property claims, institutional affiliations, and broader idioms of belonging. By tracing the relational maps and material infrastructures recounted in biographies of thilashin, the project amplifies intimate historiographies of alternative connective forces of religious belonging and asserts the vital labor performed by thilashin and lay devotees to innovate and reproduce Buddhist communities, institutions, and teachings.

Doctoral Candidate, Asian Studies, Cornell University  -  Female Forerunners and Modern Monastic Life-Writing in Myanmar

Eben Matthew Yonnetti
Eben Matthew Yonnetti  |  Abstract
This research examines the transmission and growth of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan from 1980 to the present. Addressing a critical gap in the scholarship on contemporary Buddhism, this project combines archival research with in-depth ethnography among Tibetan Buddhist communities in Taipei and Tainan to study how teachers and practitioners have adapted and localized practices, rituals, and narratives in the Taiwanese religious landscape. Further, it examines how Taiwanese practitioners take part and influence transnational Tibetan Buddhist networks. Ultimately, I argue for a cosmopolitan approach to the study of transnational religions and an understanding of religion transmission as a process that is co-enacted as individuals carry religions across contexts and ground them in new realities.

Doctoral Candidate, Religious Studies, University of Virginia  -  The Transmission, Adaptation, and Localization of Tibetan Buddhism in Modern Taiwan

Nathaniel R Lovdahl
Nathaniel R Lovdahl  |  Abstract
I argue that Song Buddhists, in response to changes in the state’s laws, reinterpreted ordination and its metaphysical entailments in order to create new ways of thinking about monastic legitimacy. I demonstrate that the Song state defined the parameters of official monastic status through administrative law and, until the 1060s, used ordination certificates to mark ritually-ordained nuns and monks as legitimate on legal grounds. In 1067, however, the state began selling these certificates outright. State certification thus no longer ensured that a legal “nun” or “monk” was similarly legitimate on Buddhist grounds. Song Buddhists, I propose, subsequently developed new theories of ordination to identify “real” monastic status, focusing especially on “precept essence,” which was only attainable by undergoing ordination in accordance with the Vinaya. I further demonstrate the significant role these Buddhist polemicists played in the nascent formation of the Vinaya school.

Doctoral Candidate, Religious Studies, Yale University  -  A Nun or Monk in Whose Eyes?: Redefining Buddhist Monasticism in 9th–12th cent. China