May 12, 2021
I moved to the US in second grade. It probably was a pre-sort of geographic kind of awareness. What I do remember, quite distinctly, is many, many years later, when I first went to Southeast Asia, I landed in the Philippines. It was the kind of airport where they open the plane, and you walk down the little staircase, and you're outdoors. I remember stepping out of the plane, and there was something about that tropical air. It was the first time I had been back in that kind of climate—muggy, really hot. There was a hot breeze and palm trees. It was in the early evening, and I remember stepping out of that plane and getting hit by a childhood memory that was, at that point, 20 years old. The memory was somehow deep in my body. As soon as I smelled the air, I was like, "Oh, this felt very like home." I know that has to do with the similarity in the climate between the Philippines and Paraguay, which is in the tropical belt of South America.
Some of the images I have in my mind are brightly colored buses piled up with all sorts of crops and chickens running around inside the bus. You know, things that are familiar to anywhere in the tropics. I have images of military guards with guns everywhere, which is another thing that I've seen in Asia, which has nostalgia to it. In Paraguay, when we were there in the 70s, it was pretty much a military dictatorship. There are many things like that, which I've reencountered in Southeast Asia or elsewhere in the world. It triggers a feeling of early memories.
By that point, I had become interested in Asian religions and traditional medicine. I had minored in East Asian Studies in college and was very interested in exploring more about these topics, but I had never been to Asia. So my big plan at the end of college was to spend six months living in my mom's house, working and collecting travel money. Then, I met up with a friend of mine from college who was living in Taiwan teaching English at the time. Our big plan was to go scuba diving, hang out in Southeast Asia, and feel the vibe, you know, be beach bums for six months.
So we traveled. We met up in the Philippines; we traveled down to Indonesia, Malaysia up to Thailand. That was our six-month trip. The plan was to spend six months there. He left and went to graduate school at that point; I stayed in Thailand.
My idea was: I was due back in the states in a couple of months to join a rock band that was waiting for me in California. My friends were waiting for me to come back. That never happened because I was in Thailand. I had a little more time before going back, and I decided to go to a 10-day meditation retreat. And also, take a 10-day course on traditional Thai medicine. These are in different parts of Thailand. I did these two 10-day classes back-to-back with a couple of days in between. I would say they completely changed my trajectory, my plan. They turned a beach scuba diving vacation in Southeast Asia into a serious trip for learning and discovery.
I was a college graduate, and I wasn't primarily thinking about these practices intellectually, historically, or through a scholarly lens. I was an artist. I was a musician—a deep feeler and somebody who was very interested in having transformative kinds of experiences. I can look back from this point now and critique the Orientalism naivete kind of attitude. But at that moment, at that time, this was for me. I should say, I had spent a fair amount of time in both high school and college being interested in the indigenous shamanism of Latin America. That was an interest of mine that ran parallel to my interest in East Asia. For whatever reason, by the time I was graduating, that East Asian model of spirituality, religion, and healing was more appealing.
By that time, I had become disenchanted, let's say, with hallucinogenics and other things I encountered and associated with Latin American shamanism. I was attracted to the mind-only approach of Buddhism—very much a natural, non-pharmacologically induced practice for inducing mystical states. I was interested in that, but I was very interested in physical practice, like yoga. I spent a couple of years after being in Thailand undertaking the Buddhism retreat. I practiced yoga in India for about a year. But even the traditional medicine that I got interested in Thailand was usually translated as Thai massage. It's more like applied yoga practice where you're doing yoga together with your patient—a lot of breathing, a lot of embodied practice. The combination of those two things, both the Buddhist meditation retreat's mental discipline and the more connected, embodied, physical healing practice of Thai medicine. I was introduced to them back-to-back as part of the same cultural background. They're a bit different parts of Thailand, but have the same kind of linguistic and cultural context, both very heavily inflected with Buddhism. It sucked me into the possibility of having the transformational experience that I was looking for at that time. So, I wouldn't say that I attended the first meditation retreat and became completely blown open and transformed.
I wouldn't say it was enlightenment or anything like that. But it was a powerful experience and showed me where I wanted to put my attention and where I wanted to put my energy. I never went back and joined the rock band. Instead, I started to go back and forth between the meditation retreat center and the traditional medicine center. I spent the next six months going back and forth between those two places, doing lots of retreats and training.
Thai medicine was undergoing a process of standardization and codification when I was there in the late 90s. I got to Thailand in 1997 and did my first class right at that time. It was the first emergence of a massage education industry for tourists was people who didn't speak Thai, like me, who were passing through and taking courses. Schools were starting to emerge at that time, mainly in Chiang Mai and one or two in Bangkok. It was a modern revival of traditional Thai medicine that began somewhat earlier but was hitting its stride.
I became interested in that whole range of everything. There’s one thing I never was able to study. I studied with a woman who specialized in massage for pre and post-natal care, but it's very gendered in terms of who's able to learn what kinds of practices in Thailand at that time anyway. So I was never able to get any information at all about traditional midwifery. I spent the next four years diving in with different schools with more formal classes in English for tourists, but also one-on-one apprenticeship-type situations with different healers. Just exploring that world, learning practices, learning how to do a lot of things, but also observing things I had majored in anthropology as an undergraduate. I was there as a practitioner and as an anthropologist. I would take photos, record, and interview people just to record practices as well as learn how to do them.
Before I became an academic, I published four different books for practitioners, explaining how to do Thai massage and herbal practices as well as more ethnographic descriptions of rituals and practices. I include a lot of photos in those books. A lot of them are based on interviews and information gathering that I did during those four years.
I learned a lot about Thai massage and Thai herbal practices and participated in a lot of Buddhist meditation retreats, ceremonies, and healing practices. All of that was between 1997 and 2001. It was just almost five years for me, maybe four and a half. During that period of time, I did leave Thailand. You have to leave Thailand if you're not a resident to renew your visa. So I would travel to neighboring countries, sometimes just for a weekend, sometimes for a longer period of time. During that time, I took the opportunity to go to India twice for more meditation, and also yoga study. And then I did some traveling in China and Malaysia as well. But for the most part over those four and a half years, I headquartered in Thailand in Chiang Mai, dedicating myself to studying and also writing the books that I mentioned earlier.
Over that period of time, I was starting to write books. I was in my 20s, trying to write books and not knowing how to write books—trying to put what I was seeing into words and developing different manuscripts, like the one about massage, herbs, spiritual practice, and history. I just realized the limitations of my knowledge and how I was here seeing things at a superficial level, how little I knew about the history of Thai medicine, Southeast Asia, and Buddhism. It was a transition over those years, where I became interested in the more scholarly, more academic, more historical approaches.
At that time, there wasn't much of an English book market in Thailand, but India has a huge English book market. So I would take side trips to India and come back to Thailand with old steamer trunks full of English publications from academic publishers in India that republished books from Western university presses. And so I would pick up hundreds of these books and bring them back to my little treehouse in Chiang Mai—piles of books all around me everywhere. At a certain point, it became clear where my passion was: not in continuing to learn more practice. My passion was going to be academic. And so, about four and a half years later, I decided to come back to the US and go to graduate school.
Because my wife calls it a treehouse. It was a house in this little rain forest village right outside of Chiang Mai. So trees were growing. It wasn't up in the trees, but trees are growing all over the house, all sides. It was a house buried in the trees.
During that time, Chiang Mai changed very little. That had to do with the fact that the Thai economy crashed in 1997, right as I was arriving in Thailand. There was a huge economic crisis and the long-term effect was that it froze the development and construction in Thailand for several years. So Chiang Mai was still the second-largest city in Thailand, and it had a pretty large tourist industry, but it had a sleepy town vibe to it. And that was still the case when I left in 2001. I actually went back in 2012. It wasn't the first time I've gone back. But when I went back in 2012, those 10 years had completely changed the city. A huge amount of development hadn't taken place yet in the time that I was there.
In India, I spent time in yoga ashrams with a lot of Hindu chanting, ritual, and philosophy, and so forth. But for me, the reason for being at the ashram was always for the more physical, more health-based, more body-based practices, whereas the more spiritual or mental kind of practices that I was interested in were coming from Buddhism. So as for the particular type of Buddhism that I was exposed to in Thailand…. having done a lot more study than I did at that time, I know now that modern forms of lay-based meditation or reformed forms of meditation became popular among lay people in the late 19th century. I did spend a fair amount of time, maybe four months at a meditation retreat center, maybe three at a Thai monastery as a resident with the shaved head and the shaved eyebrows, and everything.
That monastic center, Wat Phananachat, is part of the Thai forest tradition. But it's a monastery that was run by an English Abbot. Most of the people that were there were European or Australian. There was that sort of meditation crowd. And then there are the healing practices, which are also based in Theravada Buddhism, that I was introduced to in Chiang Mai. I was always an outsider in those environments, I was always the observer who was coming in to observe, to learn about these practices. These were much more local and definitely not so Western-influenced. So I never got as deep into, say exorcisms, spirit, mediumship, and so forth as I did into meditation because of some of the cultural and language barriers.
We could make more detailed and refined distinctions between different types of Buddhism, but very broadly, my experiences were all in Theravada Buddhism, but very heavily influenced and mediated through my English language learning of the tradition from teachers and monks who were primarily Westerners. Not so much in Chiang Mai. The monastery, Wat Pananachat, is pretty far on the other side of the country. I should have mentioned this from the beginning. But the meditation retreats that I was getting very passionate about during that time were taught by S. N. Goenka, who's a very well-known Burmese meditation teacher who has a global network of schools. I was at the Goenka center in Thailand a lot. That was the primary place I was learning meditation.
There's a tradition in Thailand where you're supposed to spend the rains retreat (pansa). It's a three-month period in the rainy season, at a monastery, before you've come of age. Is that still a thing? I don't know—at least it was in the 90s, early 2000s. I haven't spent a lot of time in Thailand since then, so I don't know if it still is a tradition that the kids are doing these days. But back then, I got it into my mind that it was something I should do before getting married. So I spent the rains at Wat Pananachat, the forest tradition monastery that I was talking about earlier. That is a traditional, very orthodox Thai monastery even though the teaching is done in English and the abbot was British.
It was a very strict traditional format there. So I shaved my head, shaved my eyebrows, and wore white outfits for the period of time that I was there. I had gone expecting meditation was the primary thing that I was expecting to get out of it. But it turns out that, in the forest monasteries particularly in the rainy season, there's a whole lot of manual labor that gets done. Maintenance work, not necessarily hard manual labor, but a lot of maintenance work. So the job that I enjoyed the most and that I like signing up for the most was sweeping. It's a monastery in the jungle. These dirt pathways connecting all the buildings are pretty large and complex. In the jungle, the leaves fall from the trees and they cover up the pathways. You get insects, snakes, and other kinds of dangerous animals that like to hide under leaves. That can become a problem. So my job was to go down the path and sweep the leaves off the side of the path. By the time you got to the end of the path, you had to start over at the beginning and keep going through an endless round of sweeping. I would do this for hours, and hours, and hours at a time—really getting to know all of the different kinds of ants, beetles, and all the things that would like to be under those leaves. But I treated it as a meditation. It was my sweeping meditation. I did a lot of this sweeping meditation. At night in the monastery, the sweeping is done and the leaves collect. It's kind of dangerous to walk around at night without a flashlight. Step carefully, because you never know what you're going to step on.
One night one of the other laypeople like myself, a resident lay person, got bitten by Dtakab (ตะขาบ), which is a really large, nasty-looking, red, poisonous centipede. They're as wide as your thumbs and they're nasty. They bite — or I don't know if it's a sting. Anyway, this young kid, early 20s, got stung by one. I guess he stepped on it, and it crawled up his pant leg and bit him in the groin. He kind of stumbled back to the rest of us who were hanging out in the dining hall. He started to collapse and have seizures. His breathing got really labored. His stomach, his abdomen got really stiff and distended. He started having a serious reaction to it. So one of us ran and got the monk who was a doctor. I don't know what kind of doctor he was, but he came back to us and took a look at the kid. He had a herbal tea that he wanted him to drink made out of plants that were growing around the monastery.
So he gave him that drink and then he asked us to sit with him and chant the honor to the Buddha. There's a sort of a standard 'Namo tassa bhagavato arahato' chant that is really popular in Theravada Buddhism. He told us to sit around with him and help him to chant all night long, or as long as we needed to. It turned out it was all night that we sat there with him doing that chant. And by morning, he was okay. But I use this example as a story sometimes in my classes to talk about what kind of therapeutic value chanting has. That the doctor monk comes in and prescribes herbal tea and chanting.
As it turns out, the herbal tea had some kind of antitoxin or anti-fever effects. That's the reason he chose that particular plant, which I asked about because I was interested in those things. The chanting is another thing that I think was extremely therapeutic at that moment for two reasons. One is that the kid was a committed Buddhist, so presumably chanting, or having a group of people around him chanting probably raised his confidence that he was going to be okay. It was invoking the protective power of the Buddha. Perhaps there's some kind of spiritual protection or magical protection of some sort as well.
But also, the act of chanting was regulating his breathing as his whole abdomen gets distended, and he's in a lot of pain. The chanting requires you to modify your breathing, and take deeper breaths. As the chanting moves through your body, it has an overall vibration that soothes the body in a way. I talk about that example a lot with my students, just to point out how many different facets of healing are present just in that one little episode, in the things it might be sort of easy to discount all of that as being superstition. There's actually much more going on than you might initially think. If you observe and watch how the therapy is being used in a crisis situation. If I just told you all in the monasteries, “the monks chant in order to heal,” that sort of sounds like, to an undergraduate, something like superstition. If you look at it closely, if you see how it's implemented at the moment, a lot is going on there that's therapeutic.
They're more common on the internet using the Japanese name than the Thai name, but on Wikipedia, it’s 'Scolopendra subspinipes'.
Before there was a project, I had a group of students that were doing a research poster, as part of an independent study that I was overseeing. They were doing a research poster on mindfulness in the Philadelphia area. We have several major hospitals that are doing mindfulness clinics, as well as research into the medical benefits of mindfulness here in the area. And so I had three of my students working on this poster for the semester. About halfway through, one of the students in the group, a Chinese American student, asked, "hey, wouldn't it be interesting if we contrast the mindfulness stuff that is in this poster with the kinds of practices that my grandmother does at her temple?" And I thought that was an interesting, great idea. So I had her run with it.
This team of students wound up interviewing the grandmother and also the head monk at her temple. They went to the temple, took some photos, and did a recording of their interview. And it became part of the poster. For me at that point, this was pretty early in my career teaching at Abington College. I'd maybe been there for two or three years at this point. I was honestly struggling with how to engage students in proper research. My first book is all philology. It's closely looking at the metaphorical connotations of individual Chinese characters and how they relate to other types of knowledge in Chinese history. It's very difficult to have undergraduates involved in that kind of research when they can’t read Chinese. Honestly, it's very difficult to even get them excited about that kind of research. And I teach at a college which is the most diverse campus within the Penn State system.
We are an Asian American Serving Institution. I think about 30% of our students identify as having Asian heritage. Some of them are international, but a lot of them come from Philadelphia's Asian American neighborhoods. A lot of them are first-generation Americans, who speak Asian languages, and who are very closely tied into their communities. This young woman who had this idea to incorporate her grandmother's practices into our research poster opened my eyes.
When my students in my classes go out to the community and to the temples to do their ethnographic project, it often turns out that at least one student in the group, or sometimes more, either might live in the area, or have family members that attend that temple. They, at the very least, have some linguistic and cultural facility to be able to make those connections in the temple and be able to understand what they're seeing. The students are coming into the classroom as the content experts who have gone out into the field, and who have learned about the practice of American Buddhism as a living tradition. They have made these connections and gathered this material. They come back to the classroom and share it with the students. Eventually, they make contributions to the project and it goes up online.
When the students then come back and bring their ethnographic materials back to the classroom, it is flipping around the typical professor-student power dynamic. There is not the sage-on-a-stage model, where the professor is teaching what American Buddhism is all about out of a textbook or out of my own scholarly expertise. That dynamic is flipped around. So it's the students themselves who are the producers of the content and the translators, or the mediators of that content in the classroom.
Another thing I think is really important about that dynamic is it also intentionally reverses the typical deficit model of English language learners, either international or domestic students who speak English as a second language. Too often, they are treated as liabilities in the humanities classroom because their language skills are not perceived as being up to the level to be able to do proper humanities work like writing papers and so forth.
To my mind, that attitude is completely overlooking the real assets that bilingual and bicultural students have, which is to be able to do this cultural bridging and linguistic translation to bring their communities' stories into the classroom. And allow us to center the lived experience of Asian American immigrants and refugees in the classroom when it comes to studying American Buddhism. The way that the project has emerged out of that style of pedagogy has structured the whole project from the beginning.
Eventually, the project became robust enough that I was able to publish a research article based on the findings of the project. To do that, I had to take stock of the materials that the students had gathered and organize it into some kind of structure. That's where the six themes on the website came from. It was my attempt to take a step back and take a bird's eye view of the materials, and see how they were describing Buddhist engagements with health care.
These categories weren't things that I had thought of initially that I would then find in the area temples. On the contrary, categories emerged from the ethnographic materials that the students gathered. So some of the themes that emerged from this material were surprising to me. Before I didn't know too much about American Buddhism, and even less about how that intersects with the healthcare system. So I learned a lot from the students, in the context of the class and reviewing the material. Back to the origins of this project, the idea emerged from this one Chinese American student, from her interviewing her grandmother and her grandmother's temple leader. For me, this brought to light the whole dimension of American Buddhism in Philadelphia. As somebody academically interested in Buddhism, and living right here in the area, I did not have any exposure to American Buddhism in Philadelphia.
Since that time, I've been presenting some of this material at different venues around Philadelphia—some academic venues, some cultural organizations, as well as some Buddhist groups, primarily white meditation groups in the area. I've been presenting the findings of the Jivaka project and showing the diversity of Buddhist approaches to healing that are right here in Philadelphia. I'm not surprised anymore, but I always was surprised that people who have lived in this area for decades, are practicing Buddhists themselves, are completely unaware of the sheer number of Buddhist temples and all of the various activities that are going on in the area. I have been speaking about the project around the area and at some academic conferences. But I've mostly spoken about it here in Philadelphia as a way of trying to contribute to raising awareness locally about both religious and medical pluralism.
That topic has become even more important in the last four or five years as the political climate in the US has deteriorated, and we've moved further and further away from tolerance in this country. Particularly recently with violence against Asian Americans and other incidents that have been taking place. Regarding consciousness-raising or awareness-raising, Jivaka can serve as an interesting multimedia experience for people to be able to understand more about the diversity here in Philadelphia. And demystify, or de-exoticize, some of the stereotypes about Asian Americans, Asian American communities, and Asian American Buddhism. So that's why I keep putting this material out there. Every time I do, I am always very clear to give credit to the students who have generated this material because it is, at the foundation, a collaborative project. I provide a platform for the data to get collected together and to be presented in visually compelling ways and so forth. But it's really been the students in my classes that have produced this material.
One of the explicit purposes of putting the project out in the public is to push back against prejudice, to help to expand awareness of medical and religious pluralism. Part of that is de-exoticizing Buddhism. There are a lot of stereotypes about what Buddhism is all about that are part of mainstream American culture. A lot of ideas that Buddhism has are about peacefulness, silence, and meditation. Of course, those are the facets that drew me to it in the first place, too. And those are the facets that draw a lot of people to Buddhism, to the study, and to the practice of Buddhism.
But as soon as you spend any amount of time among actual Buddhists, in the living tradition of Buddhism, you quickly find out that Buddhism is much more than silent meditation. It's about family; it's about food; it's about parties; it's about noise; it's about people who are living their lives and gathering together in temple spaces to share their stories, and to share their sorrows and to celebrate their milestones. All of that is going on in these temples because they are community centers and places where people can gather together, share their food, and enjoy their culture with each other.
That's all stuff that we tried to capture in the documentary films on the Jivaka project. We wanted to showcase the real multi-dimensionality of Buddhism and push back against some of those typical stereotypes on what Buddhism is all about.
This connects my philological research in medieval Chinese Buddhism with contemporary Asian American Buddhism here in Philadelphia. The central question in my research on medieval China is about what happens when Buddhism moves across cultures. I'm looking at the introduction of Buddhism from India into China in the medieval period. To what extent you can see that as a transmission of a tradition that becomes influential in a new place, verses to what extent you can identify individual translators and adopters of Buddhism. My scholarship on medieval China was part of the movement in Buddhist studies to pay more attention to the agency of individual Chinese adopters and translators. And to showcase how cultural transmission, or cross-cultural exchange, happens because of the activities of individual people on the ground doing these kinds of translational work.
To some extent, that same kind of question can be asked about the introduction of Buddhism to America. A lot of attention has been placed on the role of mindfulness and meditation. They're really popular practices that are taking off in the U.S. But a lot of the stuff that I'm interested in has more to do with how Buddhism shows up in people's everyday lives, and how people are understanding Buddhism, engaging with the tradition, the temple spaces, or each other. I'm much more interested in the day-to-day, the everyday lived dimension of Buddhism among individual people. The Jivaka project is trying to capture the stories and the perspectives of individual practitioners in that way.
I initially had no idea that Philadelphia would be such a good place to study Buddhism. The size of Philadelphia has something to do with it. And it's probably also important that we're here in the Northeast. It's a manageable city, so a project like Jivaka could attempt to be comprehensive in identifying all of the Asian American temples in the city, or around the city. I don't think that we have done that, but we've come pretty close. And that was the intention. There are about 45 different institutions in our sample, so 45 is a manageable number. But on the other hand, those 45 temples represent virtually every major form of Buddhism that exists in the world.
The temples kind of match the demographics of Philadelphia. We have a lot of different kinds of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian temples. But we also have temples representing Thai, Burmese, Lao, Mongol, Kalmyk, Korean, as well as Japanese and American Buddhism. We also have many meditation centers that are run by some of the major modern, non-traditional forms of Buddhism. So we have a very representative sample here in the area. When I was designing the scope of the Jivaka project, what I wanted to pay attention to were institutions that exist as permanent physical locations. We were not able to incorporate all of the various informal gatherings and meditation groups that meet in other kinds of spaces. We wanted to focus on institutions that had a physical location or permanent physical address.
By virtue of making that choice, what it did was lead us towards prioritizing the Asian American institutions, because they will often be the ones that have temples that are physical locations. Out of the 45 temples, roughly 35 of them are predominantly Asian American spaces where English is a second language. When it came to making the videos for the projects we selected, we wanted to have a broad selection of both different types of sectarian affiliations, but also different kinds of cultural and linguistic spaces to be able to show that diversity. They're short videos, and we wanted to get across the diversity of Buddhism in Philadelphia in a shorter amount of time. We weren't able to go everywhere, but we got a good range of different forms of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, and non-traditional institutions from different cultures.
Philadelphia is also home to some major universities with major university medical centers. It's a destination for medical care for the tri-state area here, so there's quite a large footprint of biomedicine here in Philadelphia. The intersections between the temples and the health care system might go under the radar unless you're part of one of these communities. But the temples are serving really important functions, particularly for immigrant and refugee communities where there may be linguistic or financial barriers to entering into the mainstream healthcare industry. The temples are filling an important gap there.
Some of the activities that the temples are involved in include providing transportation and translation services for members of the temple when they have to interact with medical professionals. Some temples are involved in helping their members set up health insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. There's also a lot of bulletin boards and word of mouth sharing of information about doctors who speak the language, or other kinds of informal medical advice and information that circulates within the temple spaces as people are gathering together. There are more traditional types of practices that are being done in the temples. At one end of the spectrum, you have the Won Institute of Graduate Studies, which is an acupuncture school, and Chinese medicine school, which is run by one of the local temples. But then at the other end of the spectrum, you have all kinds of informal massages, herbal teas, and herbal medicines being discussed and participated in during the social time within the temple.
There's a wide range of those traditional medicine practices. More "religious" practices take place, such as healing rituals. Different forms of Buddhism have very different rituals. But across the board, for every temple that the students visited, when the students asked about healing rituals, we were given information about various types of practices that take place at all of the temples. Meditation is very widespread and is almost always understood as being something good for your mental health, if not your physical health as well. There's a whole range of intersections with food and health that emerged from the materials that were gathered. It ranges from people just feeling that being vegetarian is good for your health, to very specific dishes being made, or types of foods that were being brought to the temple and shared among the members—served to the monks or served to the community at different times of the year that go along with the food traditions of different cultures. So all of these taken together are a snapshot or a brief overview of all the various types of intersections with medicine that are taking place here.
One of the things that I'm interested in exploring when we go back out into the field is how these temples navigated the pandemic. I have a feeling some of the temples may have closed down, but I also have a feeling that some of the temples might have continued in virtual formats to serve the health care needs of the community in different ways. That's something I don't know anything about at the moment because these temples may have Facebook pages or WeChats or Twitter feeds, but I'm not able to read them. I don't have students working on the project at the moment, so we haven't been able to track some of these virtual movements. But I have envisioned a future iteration or future chapter of the Jivaka project where we can explore more in-depth how Buddhist temples in Philadelphia helped community members to navigate the pandemic.
On the website, we started a little tab for Buddhism during the pandemic, collecting some reading materials for use in the classroom. I taught a class based on some of that material just this past semester, looking at Buddhist responses to COVID more generally—around the world, looking at news reports, and some scholarly work that has come out so far. Just sort of taking the pulse of how Buddhist communities and organizations around the world have responded to COVID as background or preparation for looking into what happened here in Philadelphia more closely. So hopefully, that'll happen next year.
This is an important point: these are not my relationships. The idea wasn't to send students out into the field to build relationships for me to maintain. I know some people at a small number of temples, but I am not the one who's been out in the field. I haven't been the one who's created those relationships. It's students who have done that. When students aren't able to do that work, I don't have open lines of communication with the temples. So I'm on hold waiting for students to go back out into the field to continue that project. It still is very much primarily a teaching project and not a research project for me.
The newest member of the Jivaka project family is Jivaka Global. The idea is to have a global picture of Buddhist medicine. I have identified about a dozen institutions, and Lan Li is organizing students at Rice University to do little write-ups of them. We are starting with some institutions that have a very strong connection with Buddhist healing of various types. There just happened to be institutions that I have some knowledge of or some relationship with that I'm starting with. From there, what I'm hoping is that once we launch Jivaka Global with these initial 12 or 15 sites, we will then open up to having faculty collaborators at other institutions around the world. And potentially have their students working on similar profiles of Buddhist medical institutions, and be able to start gathering a larger collection. Here, the idea is not to be comprehensive. We can't do what we tried to do in Philadelphia, which is to capture every institution in the world that has to do with Buddhism and medicine.
The main ideas are: 1) showcase medical and religious pluralism; 2) look at the various ways Buddhism and medicine intersect in different types of institutions; 3) push back against stereotypes about Buddhism; 4) push back against monolithic ideas about what Asian medicine is all about; and 5) contribute to our understanding of both Buddhism and medicine globally. Again, this project is a pedagogical project, a teaching project. The intention is to have students involved in exploring these different institutions and raising their own questions about what's interesting to them about these various locations. And doing some readings around different facets of Buddhism, Asian medicine, history, maybe contemporary geopolitics. Just different background readings that different students are doing that line up with their own interests, and then bring their own critical eye to writing these profiles. So the idea isn't to get a consistent story about what Buddhist medicine is all about, but rather to continue to showcase the real diversity of different approaches to health and healing that different Buddhist institutions are involved in.
Dr. Pierce Salguero is a trained Thai massage therapist, historian, medievalist, philologist, ethnographer, and documentary filmmaker. Salguero attained his Ph.D. in History of Medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 2010, and currently teaches Asian history, medicine, and religion at Penn State University’s Abington College.