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Kevin Buckelew

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

Kevin Buckelew specializes in the study of Chinese Buddhism. He received his B.A. in the liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College, and his Ph.D. from Columbia University's Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. 

His research focuses on Buddhism in premodern China, with special attention to the rise of the Chan (Zen) Buddhist tradition and to interactions between Chinese Buddhists and Daoists. Thematically, his work explores how religious identities take shape and assume social authority; how materiality, embodiment, and gender figure into Buddhist soteriology; and how Buddhists have grappled with the problem of human agency. He has performed research in China, Taiwan, and Japan with the support of grants from the Fulbright program and the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai. His articles have been published or are forthcoming in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, T’oung Pao, History of Religions, and Numen.

His first book project, Discerning Buddhas in China: Authority, Masculinity, and Freedom in Chan Buddhism, explores how Chan Buddhists made the unprecedented claim to a level of religious authority on par with the historical Buddha Śākyamuni and, in the process, invented what it means to be a buddha in China. This claim helped propel the Chan tradition to dominance of elite monastic Buddhism during the Song dynasty (960–1279), licensed an outpouring of Chan literature treated as equivalent to scripture, and changed the way Chinese Buddhists understood their own capacity for religious authority in relation to the historical Buddha and the Indian homeland of Buddhism. But the claim itself also raises questions. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was easily recognizable by the "marks of a great man" that adorned his body, while the same could not be said for Chan masters in the Song. So how exactly could one recognize a Chan master as a buddha? The Chan tradition never arrived at a single conclusive answer to this question. Instead, the question animated a variety of Chan rituals, institutional norms, literary practices, and visual cultures. The book pays special attention to themes of gender and masculinity in the construction of ideal Chan mastery as a form of buddhahood, as well as to the overlooked role that tropes of sovereignty played in discussions of the ideal Chan master’s buddha-like freedom and authority.

He is also co-editing a volume with Megan Bryson entitled Buddhist Masculinities, which is under contract with Columbia University Press.

His second book-length project, tentatively entitled Labor and Leisure in Chan Buddhism, will explore themes of debt, obligation, productivity and idleness across a variety of textual and visual contexts related to Chan in Song-dynasty China.

Selected Works

“How Chan Masters Became ‘Great Men’: Masculinity in Chinese Chan Buddhism.” In Buddhist Masculinities, edited by Megan Bryson and Kevin Buckelew, forthcoming. 

“Possessing Enlightenment: Sorcery, Selfhood, and Tragic Responsibility in a Chinese Buddhist Apocryphon.” Numen, forthcoming.

“Ritual Authority and the Problem of Likeness in Chan Buddhism.” History of Religions 62, no. 1 (2022): 1–48.

“Becoming Chinese Buddhas: Claims to Authority and the Making of Chan Buddhist Identity.” T’oung Pao 105, no. 3–4 (2019): 357–400.

“Pregnant Metaphor: Embryology, Embodiment, and the Ends of Figurative Imagery in Chinese Buddhism.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 78, no. 2 (2018): 371–411.

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