My research revolves around the interaction of religion and other aspects of culture. In particular, I am interested in the processes of change that occur as religion and other aspects of culture mutually affect one another. Given my training in the religious history of North America on the one hand, and Asian religious traditions—especially Buddhism—on the other hand, much of my research clusters around the question of how Asian religions brought to the West in the past two centuries are impacted by the new cultural milieu of the Unites States and Canada—and how they in turn impact the economies, pop cultures, social arrangements, religious practices, and other aspects of their new host countries. It is at the intersection of inter-religious and inter-cultural contact, conflict, and exchange that I situate my projects.
This rich stew of colliding cultural elements has produced four book projects thus far. My first academic book, Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (Oxford University Press, 2009), used fieldwork in Japan and the United States (especially southern California), print sources, and online media to examine the transmission and transformation of mizuko kuyo rituals in America. In Japan, these rites are performed by Buddhist priests to exorcize or placate the angry fetuses produced by that country’s high abortion rate. But as I showed, Americans of many different stripes adopt mizuko kuyo rhetorically or in actual practice for a host of culturally-specific reasons, whether to support pro-choice or pro-life political positions, to seek a new discourse beyond entrenched polarization, or to heal the wounds of those touched by abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, or infertility.
My second academic book, Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the America South (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), was the culmination of ethnographic work on Buddhism carried out in various regions of the United States, especially ten years of fieldwork with the multi-denominational Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond (Virginia). I argue that regionalism is an important but overlooked key to understanding much of Buddhist practice in North America, and offers many new possible research avenues for future investigation. I also explore how American Buddhists use place, objects, and bodily practices to enact distinctiveness in the contested space between universal Buddhist identity and sectarian particularity. Looking specifically at the South, I examine the experiences of newer minority religious groups and their interactions—often fraught—with their majority Christian neighbors. In the process I demonstrate that new players such as Buddhists must be taken into account in our narratives about the contemporary South, even if our focus is on such dominant traditions as evangelical Protestantism. In the process I build a model for how the study of Buddhism must simultaneously account for transnational, national, regional, and local phenomena.
My third book, Mindful America: The Mutual Influence of Meditation and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 2014), provides the first full look at the breathtakingly vast culture of mindfulness practice that—primarily originating in Southeast Asia—has spread across the United States in the past two decades. Thirty years ago, “mindfulness” was a Buddhist principle mostly obscure to the West. Today, it is a popular cure-all for non-Buddhists’ daily problems. A massive and lucrative industry promotes mindfulness in every aspect of life, however mundane or unlikely: Americans of various faiths (or none at all) practice mindful eating, mindful sex, mindful parenting, mindfulness in the office, mindful sports, mindfulness-based stress relief and addiction recovery, and hire mindful divorce lawyers. Mindfulness is touted by members of Congress, CEOs, and Silicon Valley tech gurus, and is being taught in public schools, hospitals, and the military. Focusing on such processes as the marketing, medicalization, and professionalization of meditation, I reveal how Buddhism shed its countercultural image and was assimilated into mainstream American culture. The rise of mindfulness in America, I argue, is a perfect example of how Buddhism enters new cultures and is domesticated: in each case, the new cultures take from Buddhism what they believe will relieve their specific distresses and concerns, and in the process create new forms of Buddhism adapted to their needs. In my opinion we can see these same processes at work in the selected assimilation of other religions than Buddhism in North America, as well.
My most recent book, The Selected Works of D.T. Suzuki, Volume III: Comparative Religion, is a collaborative effort with Dr. Tomoe Moriya of Hannan University, under the general editorship of Dr. Richard Jaffe at Duke University. D.T. Suzuki was one of the most important figures in the post-Tokugawa encounter of Japanese and Western religious cultures. His work as a bridge figure providing early knowledge of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism to the West is well-known; less studied, however, is his work in bringing and interpreting knowledge of Western religions to Japan, as well as how his perspectives on religion evolved in light of his constant inter-cultural experiences. This volume gathers twenty-nine letters, essays, lectures, and other documents from Suzuki’s nearly 100 years of exploration of religious cultures, providing his Buddhist perspective on various forms of Christianity, Confucianism, Shinto, Daoism, Islam, and more. The volume includes a substantive analytical introduction, as well as contexualizing introductions for Suzuki’s works, some of which are translated into English here for the first time.
Beyond my academic books, I have published many articles on various topics, two of which I will highlight here. One area of concern has been theoretical approaches to the study of Buddhism in the West. In two review articles for Religion Compass, I examined these theoretical frames in the United States and Canada, respectively. My article on Canadian Buddhism, in particular, is one of the only works to provide a comprehensive consideration of factors of possible Canadian specificity vis-à-vis Buddhism in other nations. A second series of articles focused on the history of same-sex wedding ceremonies in North America. In two articles for the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History I uncovered the earliest documented same-sex weddings performed by North American ministers, beginning in the 1950s. I described how these ceremonies progressed from secret to out of the closet to central to the contemporary identity of Unitarian Universalists as a liberal religious movement. In a separate article for the Journal of Global Buddhism, I documented the earliest known same-sex ceremonies in Buddhist history, and examined the historical, organizational, and theological factors that led Pure Land Buddhists in America to make such pioneering steps.
Future research projects in the works include studies of North American and Hawaiian converts to Pure Land Buddhism, historical studies of Buddhism in Canada and the United States, an analysis of Buddhist “therapeutic blasphemy” practices in the U.K., and work on American-produced Buddhist liturgies.