Courses

Courses I Teach at Penn

Sects and Violence in East Asia

(Split-level seminar open to undergrads and grad students; on deck for Spring 2017)

The countries of East Asia have a long tradition of vilifying marginal religious movements. Journalists, governments, and anti-cult activists have often regarded groups such as Falun Gong, the Unification Church, and Aum Shinrikyō as hotbeds of sexual promiscuity or threats to peace and order. Yet these portrayals problematically assume that “real” religions are ascetic or pacifist; they may also overlook the violent techniques that governments have used to keep potentially seditious religious movements in check. This course investigates the fact and fiction of popular portrayals of marginal religious movements, showing that East Asian governance of religions is both historically and conceptually linked to the contemporary geopolitics of counterterrorism.

Japanese History & Civilization

(Grad seminar on deck for Spring 2017)

Selected readings from recent publications in the field of Japan studies, with a particular emphasis on the disciplines of anthropology, history, sociology, and political science and a focus on scholarship that situates Japan vis–à-vis global trends. Students will work on a research project related to their particular interests.

Japanese Popular Culture

(Undergraduate lecture; taught every Fall)

Today, Japanese manga, anime, J-pop, and film have a global audience. But these exports can only be truly understood in light of longstanding domestic anxieties about sex, violence, “the kids these days,” and vulnerability to natural and anthropogenic disaster. This course traces some of these anxieties through critical examinations of manga, anime, light novels, video games, television, music, and fashion in Japan. As we engage with the assigned texts and films, we will investigate how the popular culture products of the present reflect Japan’s past and envision its future. We will also have repeated opportunities to ask whether these media products are truly “Japanese,” why people call them “popular” (and what they mean when they do), and what exactly the commonplace word “culture” actually means.

Asian Religions in the Global Imagination

(Seminar; Fall 2016. Open to undergrads and grad students)

Which traditions should feature in a list of Asian religions? Does the term “religion” even apply to intellectual traditions like Confucianism or the supposedly non-theological “philosophy” of Buddhism? Why are Indian conservatives trying to ban books written by non-Asian academics, and why are scholars of religion wondering whether “Asian religions” even exist? How did mindfulness meditation make its way into American corporate offices, and how did yoga infiltrate American public schools? When Jon Stewart pauses for “a moment of zen,” what does he mean? Does his usage match the thousands of hits for “zen” in the Home Decor section of amazon.com?

This seminar answers these questions and more by critically examining the missionary impulses, colonial exploits, and translation endeavors that contributed to the rise of Asian studies and the emergence of the scholarly notion of “Asian religions.” It shows the crucial roles played by Asian agents and their European counterparts in the formation of modern conceptions of religion; it also engages reflexive questions regarding theory, method, and the geopolitical underpinnings of Asian studies and religious studies alike. Ultimately, the course traces flows of ideas and practices like mindfulness meditation, zen™, Reiki, and yoga out of Asia and into the rest of the world, showing how the very things that needed to become religion in the geopolitical context of the nineteenth century have largely transcended or bypassed that category today.

The Politics of Shintō

(Split-level seminar open to undergrads and grad students; next up Spring 2018)

This course investigates how competing interest groups read their own interests into the nebulous category of Shintō. Secondary readings from archaeology, anthropology, folklore studies, history, and religious studies are paired with primary sources covering topics such as cultural essentialism, eco-religion and animism, religion and nationalism, the invention and preservation of tradition, and aesthetics.

Japanese Religions

(Graduate seminar; last taught Spring 2016)

The phrase “Japanese religions” is a fiction. For most of Japanese history there was no analogue to the word “religion,” and for most of Japanese history people did not categorize their veneration of buddhas, bodhisattvas, kami, and other non-obvious entities as “Buddhism” or “Shintō.” Moreover, both of these “traditional Japanese religions” are indebted to continental ideas, ritual practices, and institutions, making their status as “Japanese” somewhat suspect.

For lack of a better term and for the sake of convenience, scholars often use the word “religion” when describing the ritual practices and doctrines related to empirically unverifiable realities and non-obvious entities in Japan. This course covers “Japanese religions” in this sense. Topics include Buddhism (sects, founders, major doctrines, ritual practices, political ideology, worldview), Shintō (kami veneration, imperial politics, National Learning), Shugendō mountain asceticism and Onmyōdō divination practices, “new religions,” religion-state relations, and common practices related to death, pilgrimage, deities’ cults, fiction, and visual and material culture.

Introduction to Japanese Civilization

(Lecture, Spring 2018)

What does it mean to describe “Japanese civilization”? Who benefits from this framing, and if “Japanese civilization” exists, when does it begin and what are its boundaries? This survey course examines the culture of the archipelago from prehistory to the present through a combination of primary source readings and secondary scholarship in the fields of history, religious studies, literature, art history, and the social sciences.

Courses Previously Taught at UW-Madison

Love & Sex in Buddhism

(last taught Fall 2014; may offer again at Penn in 2018 or 2019)

From monastic celibacy to sanctified sex, this course examines the wide variety of attitudes and practices towards love, desire, and attachment in the Buddhist tradition. Readings include primary sources from South and East Asia, secondary scholarship on Buddhist social history and doctrine, and theoretical literature on gender, sex, and the body.

The Religion of Anime

(lecture; last taught Spring 2015)

Be it shrine maidens, gods of death, and bodhisattvas fighting for justice; apocalypse, the afterlife, and apotheosis… the popular Japanese illustrated media of anime are replete with religious characters and religious ideas. This course uses anime as a tool for tracing the history of how media and religion have been deeply intertwined in 20th and 21st century Japan.

Courses Under Development

The Problem with Solutions

(Seminar, co-taught with Kimberley Thomas)

Are liberalism, toleration, secularism, religious freedom, and human rights workable solutions for the problems of extremism, sectarianism, and terrorism? Are development, market liberalism, and conservation workable solutions for problems of economic inequality and environmental degradation? This course examines the unintended outcomes of well-intentioned policies through six thematic units; students will conduct original research pairing at least two of the course topics (e.g., development and human rights).