John S. Strong
Fellow: Awarded 2015
Field of Study: Religion
Competition: US & Canada
Born in China, brought up in France, Switzerland, and New Jersey, I went to college where my family had gone for generations: Oberlin, Ohio. There, my interest in Buddhism was sparked by a class my Freshman year, and four years later, upon graduation, a Thomas Watson fellowship made possible a “Wanderjahr” in Asia. A desire to study comparative religion and a need for a draft deferment then took me to Hartford Seminary, in Connecticut, where I got an M.A. (in 1972). This was followed by a Ph.D. in History of Religions from the University of Chicago, in 1977. For the last 35 years, I have been teaching at Bates College in Maine, with periodic excursi: research years in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and Japan, and visiting professorships at Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.
My interests have focused on South and Southeast Asian Buddhist narratives and cultic traditions. A book on the Sanskrit legends surrounding the 3rd century B.C.E. Indian emperor, Aśoka, was followed by a study of the Thai and Burmese cults of a Buddhist saint named Upagupta, and then by a book on hagiographical traditions abut the Buddha himself. My Guggenheim project is a sort of extension of a study I published in 2004 on Relics of the Buddha. Bodily relics of the Buddha and of enlightened Buddhist masters are common objects of veneration throughout the Buddhist world. In my fellowship year, I propose to look at “Buddhist Relics in Western Eyes,” starting with the views of the Portuguese, in the 16th century, who, understanding relics from within their own Roman Catholic tradition, ritually destroyed Buddhist relics they deemed to be “pagan.” I will then move on to the views of British colonialists who used relics to their own advantage but also tended to “museumify” them; and to the attitudes of early buddhologists who thought there was no place for relics in Buddhism. The final chapter of the project will focus on the place of relics in “Western Buddhism” featuring a field study of the “Maitreya Loving Kindness Relics” tour, which, for the past few years, has sponsored exhibits of a great collection of Buddhist relics throughout North America and Europe, to the fervent interest of crowds of devotees, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist.