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. 

Stephanie Lynn Balkwill
Stephanie Lynn Balkwill  |  Abstract
My dissertation is a study of the contributions that women made to the early development of Chinese Buddhism during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386—534 CE). Working with the premise that Buddhism was patronized as a secondary arm of government during the Northern Wei, I argue that women were uniquely situated to play central roles in the development, expansion, and policing of this particular form of state-sponsored Buddhism, significantly contributing to its spread throughout East Asia, and that in so doing they gained increased social mobility and enhanced social status. To make this argument, I use approximately 100 largely unstudied inscriptions as my source data, as inscriptional material well documents the activities of female politicians, donors, and lay patrons.

Doctoral Candidate, McMaster University  -  Empresses, Nuns, and Women of Pure Faith: Buddhism and the Politics of Patronage During the Northern Wei

Matthew Steven Mitchell
Matthew Steven Mitchell  |  Abstract
My dissertation focuses on a group of Buddhist nuns of the Daihongan sub-temple of Zenkoji in Japan’s early modern period. While previous scholarship on nuns has focused on their emplacement within convents, I demonstrate that many groups of nuns were both grounded locally and involved in broader networks. Applying this hybrid methodology to unpublished temple documents, I highlight Daihongan’s local and national connections, conflicts and compromises with the monks of a rival sub-temple, travels throughout the country, network of branch temples, economic bases, and place within Buddhist hierarchies. This shows how nuns utilized Buddhist doctrine and practice to interact with both common and elite laypeople.

Doctoral Candidate, Duke University  -  Beyond the Convent Walls: the Local and Japan-wide Activities of Daihongan’s Nuns in the Early Modern Period (c. 1550 to 1868)

Ethan Bushelle
Ethan Bushelle  |  Abstract
My dissertation is a study of the role of ritual practice in the development of Buddhist poetics in medieval Japan. Through close readings of a variety of ritual texts--from manuals for the performance of esoteric rites to records of homiletic discourses for public liturgies--it elucidates the multiple ways that different Buddhist practices contributed to the transformation of theories of language, narrative, and poetry from the late ninth through twelfth centuries in Japan. By situating Buddhist poetics in the context of ritual practice, my dissertation offers a historically nuanced view of the sociocultural processes by which Buddhism defined, shaped, and recast what it meant to create literature in medieval Japan.

Doctoral Candidate, Harvard University  -  The Joy of the Dharma: Esoteric Buddhism and the Early Medieval Transformation of Japanese Literature

Shiying Pang
Shiying Pang  |  Abstract
My dissertation is a preliminary study on the notion of “dharmakāya bodhisattva” in prajñāpāramitā literature and its commentary, with specific emphasis on the Dazhidu Lun (T.1509), one of the most important treatises in Chinese Buddhist history. In the DZDL, the dharmakāya-bodhisattvas are distinguished from the buddhas, the pratyekabuddhas and the arhats, bearing an distinct identity. I will analyze the doctrine on the rebirth of the dharmakāya-bodhisattva and methods for the attainment of the dharmakāya by this group of bodhisattvas. Furthermore, I will study the correspondence between Huiyuan and Kumarajiva. My study will reveal how Chinese Buddhist society in the fifth century understood and interpreted the doctrine of dharmakāya in relation to the cultivation of bodhisattvas.

Doctoral Candidate, University of California, Berkeley  -  Seeking for the Dharma Body: A Preliminary Study on the Notion of Dharmakāya Bodhisattva in Prajñāpāramitā Literature and Its Commentary

Jin kyoung Choi
Jin kyoung Choi  |  Abstract
The main theme of this research belongs to a category of Buddhist philology, especially early Indian Buddhist textual tradition recorded in Sanskrit. More precisely, this dissertation project is to transliterate three sutras of the Sanskrit manuscript of the Dīrghāgama, the “Collection of Long Discourses (of the Buddha)”, transmitted by the (Mūla-)Sarvativādins which was one of the most powerful Buddhist sects in ancient India, and to create a critical edition, i.e. a reconstruction of the text, a translation and additional philological research on related sources in Pali, Classical Chinese and Tibetan.

Doctoral Candidate, Ludwig Maximilians Universität München, Germany  -  Three Sutras in the Sanskrit Dīrghāgama Manuscript

Cameron Penwell
Cameron Penwell  |  Abstract
This dissertation analyzes how early-twentieth century Buddhist clergy theorized and implemented a Buddhist form of social work, both as a field of religious practice and as a means to demonstrate their religion’s continued significance for Japanese society. This research offers a critical historical context to the study of “engaged Buddhism” more generally by turning to the earliest sustained encounter between capitalist modernity and Buddhist institutions to examine how Japanese Buddhists delineated the ethical and practical terms of their social engagement in relation to urban poverty and labor unrest. It also argues that practitioners of Buddhist social work contributed to the creation of a legitimate space for religious participation in civil society in prewar Japan.

Doctoral Candidate, University of Chicago  -  The Emergence of Modern Buddhist Social Work in Twentieth-Century Japan

Frank W. Clements
Frank W. Clements  |  Abstract
This project explores the religious cult associated with the Dewa Sanzan mountains in Northern Japan. Based in the mountain ascetic tradition known as Shugendo which combined esoteric Buddhism, Daoism, and Shinto, it was the region’s most important religious organization. Focusing on the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries and emphasizing the cult's Buddhist character, my research analyzes the parish system that linked centrally-located ascetic lineages with their parishioners and branch temples throughout Japan and examines how these lineages defended their parish rights in conflicts with other religious organizations. I argue that maintaining and defending strong networks between the cult's headquarters and parishes was crucial to its growth and success.

Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania  -  Northern Networks: The Range and Roles of the Dewa Sanzan Cult in Northern Japan

Jason Protass
Jason Protass  |  Abstract
My dissertation focuses on eighty-six matched rhyme and other poems set against the life of their author, Buddhist poet-monk Daoqian (1043-1112). I examine tensions and synergies between Buddhism and poetry in five stages of Daoqian's monastic career. Daoqian’s well-preserved body of work offers rich examples of how poetry functioned in the life of a Chinese monk. My analysis of social poetry, especially matched rhyme poetry, recontextualizes Buddhism in intellectual and social history of the Song Dynasty. My previous research searched digital resources to reunite long-separated matched rhyme poems and restore Daoqian’s actual dialogues with other poets. These dialogues reveal the religious concerns and daily lives of monks and laymen in China’s Middle Period.

Doctoral Candidate, Stanford University  -  Poet-monk Daoqian (1043 to 1112): Buddhist Monasticism and Social Poetry

Dylan Esler
Dylan Esler  |  Abstract
The thesis consists in an in-depth hermeneutical study of a 10th century Tibetan Buddhist text on the subject of contemplation, the bSam-gtan mig-sgron by gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas ye-shes. This is a seminal text for our understanding of the meditative currents that existed in Tibet in the 9th and 10th centuries. It is the first indigenous Tibetan doxography and the first work to treat rDzogs-chen as a distinct vehicle. The thesis will include an unabridged annotated English translation and a critical edition of the Tibetan text (250 folios), as well as a historical introduction analysing the biographical information available for its author. The hermeneutical study will seek to explicate and to situate in a wider metaphysical context the principal points explored in the Tibetan text.

Doctoral Candidate, Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium  -  The Lamp for the Eye of Contemplation, the bSam-gtan mig-sgron by gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas ye-shes: Hermeneutical Study, English Translation and Critical Edition of a Tibetan Buddhist Text

Catherine Prueitt
Catherine Prueitt  |  Abstract
I examine the evolution of apoha in 10th-11th century Kashmir through a textual study of two key Buddhist and Saiva thinkers, Sankaranandana and Abhinavagupta. My inter-traditional approach allows a richer understanding of apoha than is possible by reading Buddhist works alone. I focus on a hotly contested aspect of apoha: whether or not the perceptual differentiation of subject from object is conceptual. Abhinava uses a definition of a concept subtly shifted from Dharmakirti’s original account and argues that subject/object duality is conceptual—even though Dharmakirti explicitly rejects this claim. Seeing if Sankaranandana's work, on which Abhinava based his reading, suggests Abhinava’s reformulation elucidates whether or not this shift tracks a change within Dharmakirti’s own tradition.

Doctoral Candidate, Emory University  -  The Evolution of the Buddhist Apoha (Exclusion) Theory of Concept Formation through Inter-Traditional Debate in Tenth and Eleventh Century Kashmir

Philip Carroll Friedrich
Philip Carroll Friedrich  |  Abstract
My dissertation will rethink the relationship between Buddhism and politics. I argue that scholarly reliance on theories of ‘legitimation’ has obscured a more complex social history in which dispositional repertoires and affective vocabularies connected religious and political realms. I do so within the context of late-medieval Sri Lanka where new modes of Buddhist religiosity marked the discursive practices of royal courts—specifically, worshipping both the Buddha and Hindu gods within a single ritual circuit. By analyzing literary and epigraphic representations of the practices by which royal courts were constituted as social actors, I will track how regional groups operating in Sri Lanka fundamentally altered the conditions under which one could claim to be a Buddhist regent.

Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania  -  Regional Circulations and the Political Remaking of the Buddhasasana in Late-Medieval Sri Lanka

Aleix Ruiz Falqués
Aleix Ruiz Falqués  |  Abstract
This dissertation explores the relationship between Pali grammatical scholarship and the establishment of Theravada Buddhism in Burma. Pali "linguistic science" (saddasattha) was more than a simple instrument: it was the core of Theravada scholarship, in which the very substance of the Tipitaka, namely the word of the Buddha (jinavacanam, buddhavacanam), was studied in great detail. The research is based on the Kaccayanasuttaniddesa, a work by Chapata Saddhammajotipala (15th CE). This grammatical work is explored in the context of other works by Saddhammajotipala. Focusing on the Chapata or Sinhala sangha in Burma, the work re-examines the relationship between grammarians and monastic lineages during the Pagan and Ava periods, and shows how Pali grammar was integrated in the doctrine.

Doctoral Candidate, University of Cambridge, UK  -  A Firefly in the Bamboo Reed: Chapata Saddhammajotipala and the Intellectual Foundations of Burmese Theravada Buddhism

Douglas M. Gildow
Douglas M. Gildow  |  Abstract
This dissertation investigates the development and influence of modern seminary education on Buddhist monasticism within the People's Republic of China. Seminaries first emerged in the early twentieth century as defense measures against government appropriation of Buddhist property, but other state policies later led to their extinction from 1949-1956 and 1966-1979. Since the post-Mao era Buddhist revival, however, from 1980 onwards more than forty seminaries have been established. This system of seminaries has transformed the modes and content of the knowledge and authority Buddhist institutions transmit. I argue that to understand the impact on seminaries of Buddhism, we must also understand how seminaries are influenced by state and academic institutions.

Doctoral Candidate, Princeton University  -  Educating Chinese Buddhist Monastics in the People's Republic of China: Seminaries, Academia, and the State

Luke Noel Thompson
Luke Noel Thompson  |  Abstract
My dissertation examines a devotional turn to Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) in twelfth-century Japan and the transformation of Shakyamuni from an eternal buddha (which is how he was previously viewed) into a buddha who belonged to the past and to a distant land (India). Focusing on monks, texts, and rituals at the center of this trend, I argue that this turn was an attempt by Japanese Buddhists to (re)connect to what they envisioned as the source of their religious tradition. I further demonstrate that this new focus was a response to the increasing emphasis on the distant nature of that source, which was in turn a result of a new Japanese conception of history as a linear affair in which Japan existed at the geographical and temporal tail end of Buddhist transmission.

Doctoral Candidate, Columbia University  -  Returning to the Founder: Shakyamuni Devotion in Early Medieval Japan and Japanese Buddhist Conceptions of History

Christina Anne Kilby
Christina Anne Kilby  |  Abstract
The objective of this dissertation is to investigate the early modern rise of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism through the lens of epistolary culture. The Geluk school’s influence reached from Lhasa to Mongolia to the Qing Court in Peking; managing these long-distance Buddhist networks proved to be not only an administrative challenge, but also a scholastic one. Through their development of a Buddhist approach to letter-writing, Géluk scholar-monks literally set the terms by which Buddhist relationships among institutions, priests, and patrons would be articulated across vast geopolitical distances. This dissertation analyzes letters and letter-writing manuals produced by several of the most prominent Géluk scholars from the High Qing period (the long eighteenth century).

Doctoral Candidate, University of Virginia  -  Epistolary Buddhism: Tibetan Letter-Writing Manuals and the Growth of Geluk Buddhism During the Qing