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.

Related Links

Search for Fellows and Grantees

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

Ernest Billings Brewster
Ernest Billings Brewster  |  Abstract
My project explores the relationship between the practice of Yogacara, an Indic tradition of Buddhism that means "the practice of yoga," and its systematic philosophical inquiry into the nature of death. I examine the works of Xuanzang (602-667), a Silk Road traveler who, during the early years of the Tang Dynasty, transmitted the Yogacara texts from Maghada in northeastern India into China. Although he has obtained wide renown as a traveler and a translator, Xuanzang has not received due recognition as a philosopher. My dissertation addresses this lacuna by focusing on Xuanzang's analyses on what death is. In his corpus, the doctrine of karma is wedded to a program of yogic training and ritual intervention designed to attenuate physical and psychological stress at the end-of-life.

Doctoral Candidate, Harvard University  -  The Yoga of Dying: Consciousness and Mortality in Tang Yogacara Buddhism

Channa Li
Channa Li  |  Abstract
I argue that narrative traditions around Sariputra and Devadatta build different models of interaction between the Buddha and those disciples, implicitly disclosing the challenge disciples mounted to the Buddha's authority. The thesis highlights the diversity of early Buddhist views on the central authority of Buddhism from the time of our earliest textual and epigraphic material to the 5th A.D, the date of the Sutra of the Wise and Foolish, a story collection from which I draw much of my central evidence. It reads those stories as different attempts to negotiate between the Buddha's authority and the disciples' legitimation. Behind these dynamic stories is a history of how key notions such as "buddha" and "arhat" evolve.

Doctoral Candidate, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands  -  Challenging the Buddha’s Authority: How Buddhist Narrative Traditions Negotiate Religious Authority in Stories

Christopher Emms
Christopher Emms  |  Abstract
I propose a study and translation of a text composed for Buddhist novices, Sakyaprabha’s Aryamulasarvastivadisramanerakarika (hereafter Karika). In his treatise, Sakyaprabha (7th–8th c. CE), an Indian specialist in monastic law, outlines his views on proper behaviour for new male recruits to the monastic order. Sakyaprabha also produced a prose commentary upon his treatise, the Aryamulasarvastivadisramanerakarika-vrttiprabhavati, in which he provides over 250 quotations from a Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya. The primary component of my work is an analysis and translation of the Karika, as well as select chapters from the auto-commentary. My work will be the first translation of the Karika into any modern language, and the first systematic study of both the root-text and its commentary.

Doctoral Candidate, McMaster University  -  A Study and Translation of Sakyaprabha’s Aryamulasarvastivadisramanerakarika: Verses for Novices of the Noble Mularsarvastivadins

Ian J. MacCormack
Ian J. MacCormack  |  Abstract
I critically assess the relationship of religion and politics by studying the Buddhist state founded in Lhasa in the seventeenth century. I focus on the intellectual and political contributions of the two foremost political agents: the fifth Dalai Lama and his successor Sangye Gyatso. My research weds research in Buddhist Studies and Tibetan intellectual history with the theoretical approaches of the Study of Religion. I shed light on a number of heretofore unstudied texts, with particular attention to the theological and cosmological frameworks against which ideas of ruler and state took shape. I argue for an approach to religion and politics that ties symbolic frameworks to their material contexts, such as architecture, ritual, and performance.

Doctoral Candidate, Harvard University  -  Buddhism and Government in Seventeenth-Century Tibet

Andrew Sydney Ross Harris
Andrew Sydney Ross Harris  |  Abstract
My Dissertation seeks to analyze the urban development and evolution of the Khmer capital of Angkor Thom during the gradual religious transition between Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism (c.1296-1431 CE) through the survey and analysis of "Buddhist Terraces", multi-tiered monastic constructions which are thought to have served as focal points for the facilitation of Theravada practice within the capital. As scholarship has traditionally framed this period of Khmer history as one of decentralization and decline due to the absence of new temples found at Angkor Thom after 1295 CE, I seek to disprove this theory through the analysis of how Buddhist Terraces aided in the incorporation of older religious infrastructure into the Theravada landscape through the social memory of ritual space.

Doctoral Candidate, University of Toronto  -  Buddhist Terraces at Angkor Thom: Exploring the Urban Evolution of the Khmer Capital from Mahayana to Theravada Buddhism through the Mapping and Analysis of Theravada Architectural Infrastructure

Nils Martin
Nils Martin  |  Abstract
The main aim of the dissertation is to determine the dates and the circumstances surrounding the establishment, development, and decline of the Drigung Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism in the northwest Indian region of Ladakh during the 13th-15th centuries. The research for the dissertation is based on the multidisciplinary study of murals and inscriptions located in 30 religious monuments in this region, which represents the western-most extent of Tibetan Buddhist civilization. It aims to highlight the specific features of Drigung painting in Ladakh with respect to both iconography and style, and to address key patterns of Buddhist patronage, such as the motivations of the donors and the actual process of wall painting by workshops and master-painters.

Doctoral Candidate, École Pratique des Hautes Études, France  -  Drigung Kagyu Murals in Ladakh (Thirteenth to Mid-Fifteenth century): Patrons and Painters

Christopher Hiebert
Christopher Hiebert  |  Abstract
My dissertation examines the rise to prominence of Tibetan Buddhist "commentarial colleges" (bshad grwa) within the Nyingma sect from their beginnings in late-19th century Tibet to their current status as a distinctive and influential mode of transnational religious education. Utilizing a range of archival and historical sources, I will trace the development and standardization of the curricula of these institutions—and, indeed, the very category of curriculum—in light of their engagement with the shifting cultural, political, and economic landscapes of a range of Asian societies and state bureaucracies. Such an approach will illuminate how Asian Buddhists have drawn on “traditional” discourses, practices, and categories in order to contest, reshape, and create alternatives to modernist pressures and imperatives.

Doctoral Candidate, University of Virginia  -  Curricular Landscapes: Tibetan Scholastic ‘Commentarial’ Colleges (bshad grwa) and the Rise of Transnational ‘Modern’ Buddhist education in Asia

Or Porath
Or Porath  |  Abstract
The project explores the Buddhist discourse on the body and sexuality by examining initiation rituals conducted in medieval Tendai monasteries in Japan (12th-16th centuries). It focuses on an esoteric ritual called chigo kanjō (“the consecration of acolytes”) which initiated youthful novices into the Dharma through their participation in non-reproductive sexual acts. This project assesses the significance of a doctrinally sanctioned sexual regime within Buddhist monastic society, and illuminates the strategies used for the deification of youths through their identification with the Japanese Emperor and Buddhist divinities. The dissertation demonstrates how Tendai doctrinal concepts, such as the Three Truths Theory (santai) and the Threefold Contemplation were mobilized to sanctify and politicize heterodox practices. As such, the sectarian nature of chigo kanjō as a Tendai ritual must be taken into consideration in order to understand the role of youths and their relation to the broader category of sexual rituals in Buddhism.

Doctoral Candidate, University of California, Santa Barbara  -  Intimate Dharma: Buddhism, the Body, and Imperial Authority in Medieval Japan

Anna Wolcott Johnson
Anna Wolcott Johnson  |  Abstract
The three-vow genre of Tibetan Buddhism analyzes the interrelation, compatibility, and dissonance across the three sets of vows taken by Tibetan Buddhists: monastic, bodhisattva, and tantra vows. The only three-vow text included in the vast scholastic literature of Tibet’s Geluk sect was written in the fifteenth century by Khedrup Je Gelek Pal Sangpo, one of the primary students of the sect’s founder, Tsong kha pa, just as the Geluk were becoming doctrinally differentiated from the Sakya sect. This dissertation places this text in conversation with the writings of Sakya scholars of the time, revealing key terms and concepts that motivate the three-vow debates particularly as they concern Indian abhidharma ontologies of the fourth century CE and divergent understandings of the nature of reality.

Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor  -  The Nature of a Vow: Three-Vow Theory and Debates from India to Fifteenth Century Tibet

Sara Ann Swenson
Sara Ann Swenson  |  Abstract
Buddhism in Vietnam is adapting in response to the nation’s current trends toward privatization and urbanization. Buddhist nuns and lay practitioners are actively working to address emerging social service needs by organizing new charity programs across Ho Chi Minh City. These contemporary volunteer groups are especially attractive to Vietnam’s younger generation. My ethnographic research compares lay and monastic interpretations of “suffering” in reviving Vietnamese Buddhist volunteerism. This revival of Buddhist volunteerism builds on the history of Humanitarian and Engaged Buddhist movements in Vietnam, but is uniquely apolitical and individualistic in its focus on generating interpersonal connections between donors and recipients as the most effective way to alleviate “suffering.”

Doctoral Candidate, Syracuse University  -  “Sharing Hearts”: Buddhism, Social Services, and Privatization in Vietnam

Susanne Ryuyin Kerekes
Susanne Ryuyin Kerekes  |  Abstract
This dissertation explores the material culture of a prominent Thai Buddhist temple, Wat Arun. The material objects, and related networks, that are investigated include: (1) the mosaic work of Chinese ceramics, arranged possibly in a Persian design, on the iconic Khmer-style tower, (2) an amulet endowed with importance through association with a German Kaiser and popularized by a Hong Kong actress, and (3) a wooden sword connected to an eighteenth-century king used in a contemporary exorcism ritual. A material cultural analysis of such objects not only highlights the plurality of Wat Arun’s social and religious history but also invites critical reflection on received notions of what constitutes Thai and Theravāda Buddhism.

Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania  -  Wat Arun and the Material Culture of Thai Buddhism

Jessica Xiaomin Zu
Jessica Xiaomin Zu  |  Abstract
Using Lu Cheng's edition of a new Chinese Buddhist canon against multilingual translations as a probe, this dissertation examines the social turn in theorizing translation and hermeneutics as embodied in the modern Yogacara revival. I seek to demonstrate that rigorous textual analysis was only a means to implement Lu's social reform where critical thinking holds a society together. More than a habit of thinking, for Lu, being critical entails collective practices of organized skepticism guided by Buddhist logic and grounded in compassion. As such, the making of this new canon provides a unique angle to explore ways of denaturalizing familiar concepts such as science, knowledge, society, and critical thinking through the reverse lens of a Buddhist theorization of social issues.

Doctoral Candidate, Princeton University  -  Translation, Comparative Hermeneutics, and Yogacara Social Theory in Lu Cheng's (1896 to 1989) New Buddhist Canon