About

My field of research is religion in medieval China (roughly fourth to tenth century, CE). To date I have concentrated on three major areas of interest: bodily practice in Chinese Religions; the creation and transmission of new religious practices and doctrines; and the religious dimensions of commodity culture.  In particular, I have focused on self-immolation, Chinese Buddhist apocrypha, the history of tea, and religion and the military.  I work with primary sources written in literary Chinese and my research engages with that of scholars who publish in English and French as well as in modern Chinese and Japanese.  Although my work is grounded in traditional Sinology—a discipline based on knowledge of the literature, history, and culture of pre-modern China—my publicationsare also aimed towards scholars of Religious Studies. I Self-immolation Self-immolation is an under-researched topic that is important for our understanding both of Buddhism in China and also the bodily forms of religious practice that appear in other cultures.  In my research I seek to explain how seemingly anomalous practices can provide new ways of understanding religion.  This project has resulted in a book, and a number of articles and book chapters. My first article on the topic, “Where Text Meets Flesh: Burning the Body as an ‘Apocryphal Practice’ in Chinese Buddhism” (1998), explores how texts (both apocryphal and canonical) and practices in Chinese Buddhism operated in a mutually reinforcing cycle so that doctrinal innovations spurred new modes of bodily piety while, conversely, practices that lacked textual sanction drove the creation of scripture. The book, Burning for the Buddha, is a comprehensive study of the subject.  It seeks first to place self-immolation in historical, social, ethical, cultural and doctrinal context via a thorough investigation of the practice throughout Chinese history.  Second, it investigates how self-immolation was constructed as a Chinese Buddhist practice by three types of historical actors: self-immolators, their biographers, and the compilers of hagiographical collections.  The book offers a detailed history of self-immolation in China from medieval times until the early twentieth century, and includes many annotated translations from primary sources. Four related articles and book chapters—“Spontaneous Human Combustion: Some Remarks on a Phenomenon in Chinese Buddhism”; “Fire and the Sword: Some Connections between Self-immolation and Religious Persecution in the History of Chinese Buddhism”; “Self-immolation in the Context of War and Other Natural Disasters”; and “Written in Flames: Self-immolation in Sixth Century Sichuan”—explore in more detail aspects of self-immolation that are only touched upon briefly in the book, such as the spontaneous nature of holy death, self-immolators as martyrs, self-immolation as a response to war and natural disasters, and self-immolation as a practice suitable for end-times. I have also published an article on Chinese Buddhist self-immolation in historical context and some annotated biographies of medieval self-immolators. II Apocrypha My studies on Chinese Buddhist apocrypha address how new concepts of religious practice entered the Buddhist canon in the form of scriptures composed in medieval China, rather than works translated from Indic languages. My article on a major apocryphal Buddhist text that decisively shaped Chinese Buddhism (“Another look at the pseudo-Śūramgama sūtra”) is the first study of the text in any European language. This study lays the foundation for my SSHRC-funded project, a scholarly translation (from Chinese to English) and book-length study of the Śūramgama sūtra.  “The Silent Samgha: Some Observations on Mute Sheep Monks” presents a new perspective on how monastic practice in medieval China was re-imagined on the basis of certain obscure passages of Buddhist scripture. III Tea The project on the role of tea in Chinese religions takes the form of a book-length monograph currently forthcoming from University of Hawai’i Press and a number of articles.  The chapter “Buddhism, Alcohol, and Tea in Medieval China,” in a volume on food and religion in traditional China, describes how Buddhists were active not only in changing people’s attitudes towards intoxicating substances, but also in spreading tea drinking throughout the empire. The book, Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History, explores the contours of religious and cultural change in traditional China from the point of view of a commodity. I trace the development of tea drinking from its mythic origins to the late-imperial period (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries), and examine the changes in aesthetics, ritual, science, health, and knowledge which tea brought with it. The book contains many translations from the Chinese primary sources, including poetry. IV Religion and the Military in Medieval China The objectives of this SSHRC-sponsored project are to understand connections between the world of religion and the world of the military in medieval China (roughly fourth to tenth centuries CE). In particular, the research examines the interfaces between Buddhist and Daoist doctrine and practice and the concepts, institutions, and individuals that can be understood to constitute the “military” in medieval China. The issues are examined both from the side of the military, using historical documents from official and unofficial sources, and from the perspective of Buddhism and Daoism as seen in textual and art historical materials. Some questions that drive this research include: how did religious concepts and practices fit into the worldview of professional and conscript soldiers? What specific ritual practices were deployed in military life? Why and how did military leaders become patrons of religious institutions? Conversely, how and why did Buddhist and Daoist practitioners and scriptures make use of military concepts and images? The answers to such questions are clearly not restricted to the military arena, but will help us to understand better the seen and unseen worlds that medieval Chinese people inhabited. The project offers insight into the conceptual underpinnings of much of the later (post year 1000 AD) religious traditions of China, and allows us to see the significance of foundational Chinese ideas about martial practice and imagery for the religion and culture of neighbouring countries such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Education

University of California, Los Angeles: 1995 to 2001. PhD, East Asian Languages and Cultures (Chinese Buddhism). Advisor: Robert Buswell. Dissertation: Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism. Italian School of East Asian Studies, Kyoto: July to December 1999. Researcher. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London: September 1993 to September 1994. MA, Religious Studies (with Distinction). Advisor: T. H. Barrett. Thesis: Temperance Tracts and Teetotallers under the T’ang: Buddhism, Alcohol and Tea in Mediaeval China. Christie’s Fine Arts Course London: September 1986 to June 1987. University of Cambridge (St. John’s College): 1982 to 1986. BA, MA, Oriental Studies (Chinese). Special Subject: Tang Intellectual History, supervised by T. H. Barrett and David McMullen.

Other Publications

PEER REVIEWED BOOKS Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015. Reviews: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 78, no. 3 (October 2015), 659-660 [T. H. Barrett] [electronic]; Hanxue yanjiu tongxun (Newsletter for Research in Chinese Studies) 34, no. 2, May 2015, 20­–21 [Liao Zhen 廖箴]; New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 17, no. 2 (December 2015), 126–27 [Maria Galikowski]; Religious Studies Review 42, no. 3 (September 2016), 225 [Barbara Hendrischke]; Journal of Asian Affairs 47, no. 2 (2016), 341–43 [Susan Pares]; Journal of Chinese Studies, no. 63 (July 2016), 308–316 [Victor Mair]; CHINOPERL 35, no. 1 (July 2016), 58–61 [Peter Micic]. Burning for the Buddha: Self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism. Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian Buddhism 19. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.
Notices: Chronicle of Higher Education 53, no. 28, p. A21; Choice 45, no. 1 (September 2007), p. 115. Reviews: Hanxue yanjiu tongxun (Newsletter for Research in Chinese Studies) 26, no. 3, August 2007, 55–56 [Stefania Travagnin] [electronic]; Middle Way 82, no. 2, August 2007, 119 [Simon Hui-Chiao]; Tang yanjiu 13, December 2007 [Chen Huaiyu]; Journal of the American Academy of Religion76, March 2008, 198–202 [Natasha Heller] [electronic]; The Journal of Religion 88, no. 2, April 2008, 269–270 [Marcus Bingenheimer] [electronic]; Journal of Asian Studies 67, no. 2, May 2008, 678–681 [Wendi Adamek] [electronic]; Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 69, no. 1, June 2009, 221–225 [Vincent Goossaert] [electronic]; Journal of Chinese Religions 36, 2008, 124–127 [Linda Penkower]; H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews, November 2009 [Ryan Overbey] [electronic]; Religious Studies Review36, no. 3, September 2010, 193–198 [Liz Wilson] [electronic].  
EDITED BOOK Buddhist Monasticism in East Asia: Places of Practice. edited by James A. Benn, Lori Meeks, James Robson (Routledge, 2009).
Reviews: Journal of Buddhist Ethics 18, 2011 [Pei-Yin Lin] [electronic]; Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 74, no. 2 (2011) 339-40 [Malcolm McNeill] [electronic]; Journal of Chinese Religions, 38 (2010 [appeared 2012]), 75–78 [Yifa]; Religious Studies Review  38, no. 1 (March 2012), 37, [Brian J. Nichols]. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 41 (September 2012), 484-486 [Chipamong Chowdhury].  
JOURNAL ARTICLES “Self-immolation, Resistance and Millenarianism in Medieval Chinese Buddhism,” Medieval History Journal, 17.2,(October 2014), 229–254. “Multiple Meanings of Buddhist Self-Immolation in China—A Historical Perspective,” Revue des Études Tibétaines 25 (December 2012), 203–212. “The Silent Saṃgha: Some Observations on Mute Sheep Monks,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 32, no. 1–2 (2009 [2010]), 11–38. “Another Look at the Pseudo-Śūramgama Sūtra,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 68, no. 1 (June 2008), 57–89. [Table of Contents] [Abstracts] “Written in Flames: Self-immolation in Sixth-century Sichuan,” T’oung Pao 92, no. 4-5 (2006), 410–465. [electronic] “Where Text Meets Flesh: Burning the Body as an ‘Apocryphal Practice’ in Chinese Buddhism,” History of Religions, 37/4 (May 1998), 295–322. [JSTOR]   CONTRIBUTIONS TO BOOKS “Biographies of Eight Auto-Cremators and Huijiao’s Critical Evaluation” in Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook, edited by Robert F. Campany, Wendy Swartz, and Lu Yang. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. “The Lotus Sūtra and Self-immolation,” in Readings of the Lotus Sutra, edited by Jacqueline I. Stone and Stephen F. Teiser, 107–131. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. “Spontaneous Human Combustion: Some Remarks on a Phenomenon in Chinese Buddhism,” in Heroes and Saints:The Moment of Death in Cross-cultural Perspectives, edited by Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shinohara, 101–133.  Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007. “Fire and the Sword: Some Connections between Self-immolation and Religious Persecution in the History of Chinese Buddhism” in The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses and Representations, edited by Bryan Cuevas and Jacqueline Stone, 234–65. Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian Buddhism 20. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.   NOT PEER REVIEWED EDITED BOOKS Images, Relics and Legends: the Formation and Transformation of Buddhist Sacred Sites. Essays in Honour of Professor Koichi Shinohara. Edited with Jinhua Chen, and James Robson. Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic Press, 2012. Reviews: Journal of Chinese Religions, 41.2 (2014), 100–103 by Michael Walsh Buddhism and Peace: Issues of Violence, Wars and Self-sacrifice, edited with Jinhua Chen. Hualien: Tzu Chi University Press, 2007. [Catalogue]   CONTRIBUTIONS TO BOOKS “One Mountain, Two Traditions: Buddhist and Taoist Claims on Zhongnan shan in Medieval Times,” in Images, Relics and Legends: the Formation and Transformation of Buddhist Sacred Sites. Essays in Honour of Professor Koichi Shinohara. Edited by James Benn, Jinhua Chen, and James Robson, 69–90.  Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic Press, 2012. “Introduction,” in Buddhism and Peace, Issues of Violence, Wars and Self-sacrifice, edited by James Benn and Jinhua Chen, 1–11.  Hualien: Tzu Chi University Press, 2007. “Self-immolation in the Context of War and Other Natural Disasters,” in Buddhism and Peace, Issues of Violence, Wars and Self-sacrifice, edited by James Benn and Jinhua Chen, 51–83.  Hualien: Tzu Chi University Press, 2007. “Buddhism, Alcohol, and Tea in Medieval China” in Of Tripod and Palate: Food and Religion in Traditional China, edited by Roel Sterckx, 213–36. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. [Catalogue]   ENCYCLOPEDIA ENTRIES “Diet” (228–29) and “Self-immolation,” (758–59) in Encyclopedia of Buddhism. New York: Macmillan 2004. REVIEW ARTICLE “Buddhism, Bodies, Medicine, and Spellcraft.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 76 (1–2): 181–95. BOOK REVIEWS Mark Meulenbeld, Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel, Daoism: Religion, History and Society, No. 8 (2016), 285–293. Stuart Young, Conceiving the Indian Buddhist Patriarchs in China, Journal of Chinese Studies, no. 63 (July 2016), 316–322. Jonathan Silk, Buddhism in China: Collected Papers of Erik Zürcher, Journal of the American Oriental Society 136, no. 1 (2016), 155–156. Barend ter Haar, Practicing Scripture: A Lay Buddhist Movement in Late Imperial China, Studies in Chinese Religions 1.2, 198-200.  Wendi Adamek, The Teachings of Master Wuzhu: Zen and Religion of No-Religion, Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, 42/4, 524-525. Lillian Lan-ying Tseng, Picturing Heaven in Early China, Canadian Journal of History XLVIII (Autumn 2013), 382­–83. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra: A New Translation, with Excerpts from the Commentary – By Ven. Master Hsüan Hua, Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38/4 (December 2011), 673–75. Morten Schlütter, How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China, Journal of Asian Studies 68/4 (November 2009), 1267–68. Stephen F. Teiser, Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples, History of Religions 49/1 (August 2009), 104–106. Martha P. Y. Cheung, ed. An Anthology of Chinese Discourse on Translation. Volume 1: From Earliest Times to the Buddhist Project, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 19/1 (January 2009), 132–34. Stephen Eskildsen, The Teachings and Practices of the Early Quanzhen Taoist Masters, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 18/4 (October 2008), 541–43. Benjamin Penny, ed., Daoism in History: Essays in Honour of Liu Ts’un-yan, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 18/4 (October 2008), 543–45. Jinhua Jia, The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism in Eighth- through Tenth-Century China, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 18/4 (October 2008), 545–47. Eugene Wang, Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 17/3 (July 2007), 351–52. Vincent Goossaert, ed. Sanjiao wenxian: Materiaux pour l’etude de la religion chinoise, (Revue Annuelle, no. 4), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 17/3 (July 2007), 352–53. Robert E. Florida, The Buddhist Tradition: Volume Five of Human Rights and the World’s Major Religions, Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 36/1 (2007), 169–70. Alan Cole, Text as Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahāyāna Buddhist Literature, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 17/1 (January 2007), 95–97. S. A. M. Adshead, T’ang China: The Rise of the East in World History, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society16/3 (November 2006), 332–33. H. W. Bodewitz and Minoru Hara, eds. Gedenkschrift J.W. De Jong, Studia Philologica Buddhica Monograph Series XVI, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 15/3 (November 2005), 382–83. John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies65/1 (June 2005), 207–215. Charles Le Blanc, Rémi Mathieu et. al, Philosophes Taoïstes II, Huainan zi,Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 15/1 (April 2005), 123–25. Tansen Sen, Buddhism, Diplomacy and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 68/1 (February 2005), 154–56. Michel Strickmann (edited by Bernard Faure), Chinese Magical Medicine, Journal of Asian Studies 63/4 (November 2004), 1113–14. Catherine Despeux, ed., Bouddhisme et Lettrés dans la Chine Médiévale, Journal of Chinese Religions 31 (2003), 229–31. Hamar Imre, A Religious Leader in the Tang: Chengguan’s Biography, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society13/3 (November 2003), 421–22. Antonino Forte and Frederico Masini, eds., A Life Journey to the East: Sinological Studies in Memory of Giuliano Bertuccioli (1923-2001), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 13/3 (November 2003), 430–32. David Schaberg, A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 13/3 (November 2003), 419–21. Robert Ford Campany, To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 13/1 (April 2003), 138–40. Brook Ziporyn, Evil and/or/as the Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 12/1 (April 2002), 120–22. Shiyi Yu, Reading the Chuang-tzu in the T’ang Dynasty: the Commentary of Ch’eng Hsüan-ying (fl. 631-652), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 12/1 (April 2002), 130–32. Joseph P. McDermott, ed., State and Court Ritual in China, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 10/3 (November 2000), 422–24. Bernard Faure, The Will to Orthodoxy: a Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 10/1 (April 2000), 137–39. Donald Holzman, Immortals, Festivals and Poetry in Medieval China, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 9/3 (November 1999), 458–60. Dominik Declercq, Writing Against The State: Political Rhetorics in Third and Fourth Century China, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 9/3 (November 1999), 460–61. Charles Orzech, Politics and Transcendent Wisdom: The Scripture for Humane Kings in the Creation of Chinese Buddhism, Journal of Asian Studies, 58/4 (November 1999), 1115–16. Jérôme Ducor, Le Sûtra d’Amida prêché par le Buddha, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 9/2 (July 1999), 337–39. Christian Daniels and Nicholas K. Menzies, Joseph Needham Science and Civilisation in China, volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology; Part III: Agro-Industries: Sugarcane Technology and Forestry, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 9/2 (July1999), 341–43. Stephen Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 9/1 (April 1999), 198–200. Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue, eds., Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 62/2 (1999), 388–89. John Kieschnick, The Eminent Monk, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 8/3 (November 1998), 496–98. Francois Jullien, The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 8/3 (November 1998), 498–500. Livia Kohn, Laughing at the Tao: Debates among Buddhists and Taoists in Medieval China, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 8/3 (November 1998), 500–502. Isabelle Robinet, Taoism: Growth of a Religion, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 8/2 (July 1998), 307–309. Tadeusz Skorupski, ed., The Buddhist Forum, vol. IV, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 8/2 (July 1998), 305–307.

Memberships

United Kingdom Association for Buddhist Studies, International Association of Buddhist Studies, Association for Asian Studies, American Academy of Religion, T’ang Studies Society, Early Medieval China Group, Society for the Study of Chinese Religions, Chinese Military History Society.

James A Benn

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