Monks and Neuroscience: Contemporary Interactions between Buddhism and Science in America

With so many recent developments in the fields of quantum physics, medicine and neuroscience it’s no surprise that Science is one of the dominating domains of authority in modern American culture. Religion, on the other hand, occupies an increasingly turbulent place in the American cultural landscape and in this day and age we have to wonder how these two domains – Science and Religion – will negotiate an ever more complicated interaction.

Historically speaking, Buddhism has been involved in the discourse of Science and Religion in a particularly concentrated and easily visible manner. In the past twenty years a large volume of scholarship has been written on the historical interaction between Buddhism and Science, including works such as:

Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (2015) by Evan Thompson, Buddhism & Science a Guide for the Perplexed (2008) by Donald Lopez, The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation (2012) by Richard Davidson, as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles. There is no denying a certain American fascination with Buddhism and how it relates to Science (Lopez, 208). A fascination so enchanting, that I chose to spend my last semester at UVM engaging in a guided research project on the topic with UVM Chair of Religion Kevin Trainor.

Naturally, it follows that it is appropriate, if not enlightening, to put Buddhist meditators in fMRI machines and see what we can learn. Quite frankly, this is one of the coolest things going on within the discourse of Science and Religion, but like any cool idea, there are problems beneath the surface that excessive enthusiasm can overlook.

“Contemplative Neuroscience,” also referred to as “Neurophenomenology,” is an exciting new field posited by many researchers that looks to reimagine the ways in which religious and scientific approaches can be used to inspect cognitive phenomena. In the article “Neurophenomenology” (2000), Frederic Peters aims to “[introduce] a new methodological approach to the analysis of religious phenomena” (Peters, 379). Peters frames this methodological revision as a relatively necessary step for the proper progression of the analysis of religious phenomena. Why? According to Peters, much of this pressure to update approaches to analyzing religious phenomena comes from modern advancements within fields of Science, particularly that of neuroscience.

It’s notoriously difficult to say, or even argue about what religion is. Definitions have been thrown into the ring that is academic religious discourse for hundreds of years, and Peters highlights the difficulty in arriving at a consensus through academic writing and debates. Perhaps in this modern day and age our scientific meandering has guided us through an approach that will enhance our understandings of religion. Although other scholars are more reluctant to assent to the kind of conclusions that Peters arrives at, Peters has no problem thinking of “religious data” as a “[property] of consciousness” (Peters, 381). From this starting point, coupled with a specific take on consciousness and brain activity informed by modern neuroscience, Peters also makes the assertion that “[recent] technical advances in brain imaging together with increased sophistication of experiments have now made it, at the very least, increasingly difficult to resist the conclusion that brain activity and mental activity are one and the same” (Peters, 389). Even without drawing the same conclusion as Peters it is clear that modern technological developments in Science are relevant to our discussions of religion and religious phenomena.

The basis of this claim pivots on a certain understanding of consciousness and the brain, somewhat reminiscent of a dichotomy between the physical and immaterial. Martin Verhoeven discusses this apparent gap in his article “Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason” (2001). By conceding that the mind and neurological brain activity are the same thing, the argument – which claims that approaches to religious phenomena can be enhanced by a coupling with scientific experiments – loses some ground. Verhoeven writes of “the unfortunate disjunction of matter and spirit that afflicts the modern age. It can assume many forms: a split between matter and spirit, a divorce between faith and reason, a dichotomy between facts and values. At a more personal level, it manifests as a mind-body dualism” (Verhoeven, 80). Juxtaposing a radically materialist scientific approach to a culturally informed approach to religion that resists being reduced to any all-encompassing explanation of religious phenomena characterizes much of this debate. Peters writes, “Neither the radically dualist nor the radically materialist stream of philosophy has made much headway in accounting for both the obvious physiological hardware and sheer fact of phenomenal awareness” (Peters, 384-385). It appears as though there is something within this debate that demands priority over other considerations. With all of the recent developments in modern neuroscience, it seems silly to ignore the fact that there seems to be some link between consciousness and brain activity. It seems even more foolish to pretend that we can talk about religion without it.

Evan Thompson’s
book Waking, Dreaming, Being (2015) provides an excellent overview of the interaction between Science and Buddhism and takes an interestingly philosophical approach to the question, which helps us understand the arguments on both sides. Instead of hastily assuming that adding modern scientific empiricism to religious analysis will enhance our understandings of religion, it may be worth considering how religious understandings of the mind can inform and enhance scientific knowledge. In this way Thompson challenges Peters’ assertion that neuroscience can be superimposed on religious data as some kind of enhancement; instead, their mingling can be seen as a collaboration, which is mutually beneficial for both fields. There is a “gap” present in our understanding of the brain and the mind, which Thompson characterizes as an open-ended problem. Thompson writes, “The gap consists in our not understanding how something subjective or experiential could possibly arise from something that fundamentally lacks subjective or experiential properties” (Thompson, 81). For Thompson both Religion, and more surprisingly, Science, have an interpretive dimension that Science somewhat avoids admitting in claims to objective truth and an authentic access to reality.

Regardless of which view is taken there are still potential casualties and inadvertent oversights latent in the commingling of these historically culturally antagonistic fields. Francisca Cho, although focusing on the role of karma in understanding research relating to Buddhists, highlights an important aspect of what can be lost in a premature intercourse between Science and Buddhism. While a neuroscientist may be quick to dismiss karma as an unnecessary cultural “ball-and-chain” in understanding what meditation does to the brain (or mind if they are not assumed to be the same thing), Cho urges us to reconsider how entire epistemological systems influence how we perceive data, including that of Science. Cho writes, “[The] challenge of karma is not its supernaturalism but its substantial sophistication about what is real, which is far more nuanced than contemporary distinctions between the ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘fantasy’ associated with religion, on the one hand, and the ‘objective truth’ attributed to science, on the other” (Cho, 117). Adding an empirical element to the study of religious phenomena is all fine and well, but what if scientific understandings of physicality and religious understandings of physicality aren’t the same? Even sticking to a phenomenological lens which only looks what appears to be undeniably in front us doesn’t mean that we agree on what is real, what is physical, what is undeniable or what is in front of us.

Thus the debate rages on, as the logistics become more and more tangible, and the concepts more and more ethereal. If the discourses of Religion and Science seem like their intersection doesn’t allow them to say anything nice about each other, maybe they shouldn’t say anything at all. On the other hand, theoretical disagreements about what “physical” really means or if brain activity and consciousness are the same thing seem serious enough to keep debating. The cultural relevance of this topic appears as though it will only increase. As Richard Davidson writes, “[The] Mind and Life Dialogues [become] an ongoing mutual exploration of some of the most profound questions facing humanity in terms of science, ethics, and morality, such as the nature of mind, the nature of the universe and our place in it, the nature of reality, and the potential for the healing and transformation of afflictive emotions into more positive mental states, leading to greater health, harmony, happiness, and possibly both inner and outer peace” (Davidson & Kabat-Zinn, 4). For now Buddhism seems to be at the forefront of this interaction, and with all this at stake it doesn’t seem like it would hurt to keep putting as many monks as we can fit in fMRI machines as possible.

Works Cited

Cho, Francisca. “Buddhism, Science, and the Truth About Karma.” Religion Compass 8, no. 4 (2014): 117-27.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon, and Richard Davidson, eds. The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation. Oakland, CA, California: New Harbinger Publications, 2012.

Lopez, Donald S. Buddhism & Science a Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Peters, Frederic H. “Neurophenomenology.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 12, no. 3 (2000): 379-415.

Thompson, Evan. Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Verhoeven, Martin. “Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason.” Religion East & West 1 (2001): 77-97.


Reflections of a Summer Intern

Over the summer, I was granted the wonderful opportunity to intern at Americana Community Center (ACC) in Louisville, Kentucky. ACC is an organization that specializes in refugee and immigrant services, with programs such as GED and English classes, a sewing class for adult women, after school kids programs, citizenship classes, and taxes and computer help. Louisville is a commonly chosen area for refugee resettlement, and the services that ACC provides the city and its refugee community is invaluable. The Youth Program, which is where I spent my time, is particularly important. My primary role at the Center was to teach art classes to middle and high school students.

My first day on the job, I messed up. I messed up in a way that I never expected. I pride myself on being a socially aware Religion major, where a major part of what I’ve learned is to see and confront privilege (including and maybe especially my own). On the first day, as the students filtered in, the other interns and I were doing a get-to-know-you exercise that involved moving around the room and switching seats. While one of the other interns was explaining how the game worked, I noticed two girls on the edge of the room murmuring to each other. Thinking to fulfill my role as one of the persons in charge, I confidently decided to discreetly quiet them so that it would not be distracting to the other kids. As the murmuring continued, as well as my efforts to shush them, I became extremely frustrated. I’m in charge here, I thought to myself. Why won’t they listen? Then, I started to listen to what they were actually saying to each other—and it hit me. These girls weren’t gossiping like I expected of two middle school aged girls; one of the girls was translating what was being said for the other.

Any time you are working with kids, there are always moments of both joy and frustration, amplified in this case by the language barrier that some of the children and I experienced. Most recent statistics for ACC note that there are families coming from 99 different countries all seeking services in some form or another, and while I consider myself a culturally conscious person given my background in religious studies, it was impossible to remain fully culturally competent in a way that catered to each and every child. Our ACC training in the area consisted of a brief training session and a few handouts (as examples, the two images below).


“How is Culture Like A Car?” Handout


Brief list of nonverbal cultural norms from a handful of contexts.

I spent my time at ACC very self-conscious of my own position and point of view (me, being a white, middle class, 20-something college student), and I came to understand the full extent to which my Religion major influences the way I act in multicultural contexts. I was very careful, perhaps overly so, to be sure not to offend any of the children I was working with (especially after shushing a translating student on my very first day) and to be understanding of the hardships many of them had faced as refugees or first-generation Americans. My position as an intern, an authority figure, and my background, all became very apparent to me in this context. We all know the horror stories of scholars on anthropological missions in the world, who, quite frankly, simply did not understand their position in the grand scheme of things, or used it to further racist, eurocentric aims–you know the ones I mean: middle-aged, white, Euro-American men who traveled around “discovering” people and who used words like “orient” and “exotic.”  Studying scholarly works over the past three years (which included the mistakes and assumptions that many an ethnographer and scholar before me has made) fostered a sense of caution that I myself didn’t even realize until being thrown into an environment where that sort of caution served me well.

Navigating the changing currents and whims of middle and high school aged children, new to the cultural landscape of America, simply would not have been possible without the knowledge and sensitivity I have gleaned over the years as a religion major. Yes, I made some embarrassing mistakes while at ACC, but also learned valuable lessons in the recognition of my own position, and the difference between recognizing this in theory (sitting in a classroom critiquing others and myself) and in practice (being immersed in the lives of children of variegated cultures and backgrounds).

Reblog: Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) in the September issue of Anthropology News

New newspaper column written by Professor Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) on a black church burning in Knoxville, TN for the online September issue of Anthropology News. 

Read it here: When a Black Church Burns (But not to the Ground) by Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 4.48.57 PM

Seen on campus: “Islam vs. Democracy”

Last Thursday, I received an anti-Islam, anti-Muslim flyer titled “Islam vs. Democracy” at my campus office address. I’d been mailed the same flyer during the Spring semester, as well. At that time, I responded by holding a class session in my REL096: Islam course in which we analyzed and critiqued the two-sided flyer, line by line, in the theoretical terms we’d explored all semester (Orientalism, imperialism, authenticity, categorical definitions) and compared to the definitions for Islam we’d read by scholars (like Ernst, Shepard, and Curtis, to name a select few).

It was a challenging class. Most students were horrified–one actually gasped out loud, another approached me after and apologized, having done nothing wrong, for the existence of such material. Many students expressed genuine feelings of disgust and exceptionalism: UVM is a friendly, liberal place, they said; this shouldn’t have happened here. Some asked questions about the role of open spaces and free speech on a public campus; others asked if free speech rules applied on a campus and to whom; and others still asked about the overlapping issues of free speech and campus safe spaces, accommodations, and UVM’s On Common Ground ideals. We solved none of these problems of a contemporary campus broadly or of our own.

But, in April, near the end of the term, so many of my students–even some who rarely spoke in class–offered real critique of the content of the flyer, citing theorists of religion, scholars of Islam, and critics of both. We read the flyer as a primary source to be interrogated, analyzed, and placed in its multiple contexts (what kind of literature was this? who or what was its audience? what do we do with unsigned writings? where was its information factually wrong? to what avail? & etc.).

That was my response this past spring. I scrapped a class about American Muslims in the earliest part of the 20th century so that we could instead talk about a two-sided flyer found on campus for an hour. We applied what we’d learned about Islam, the study of religion, and reading primary sources critically to a new primary source document–the flyer itself. We had an academic conversation first, but also addressed the affective responses it elicited, which ranged from thinking the flyer a joke unworthy of our time to tears, frustration, and anger.

This time the flyer surfaced, however, students hadn’t yet arrived. I sent out a call on Twitter and my personal Facebook account asking if anyone else had seen these flyers. Two colleagues responded that they had seen them in Williams Hall both recently and back in April. I’d found another set of flyers postered in Bailey-Howe Library, and a student sent a direct message on Twitter to say he’d seen them in the Davis Center, a center of student activity (and food) on campus.

Islam vs Democracy close upI won’t republish here the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim diatribes beyond this (purposefully incomplete) photo. There are lots of responses to Islamophobic content, in the broadest senses; and there are responses to those responses. There are books, journals, blogs. I am not a scholar of Islamophobia, and I am deeply aware of the various risks publishing about it can be. The broadest sense of all this isn’t the point, anyway. It is the peculiarity.

In this context, a broad post I might write about how anti-Islam, anti-Muslim rhetoric actually limits engagement on a campus by using fear is too general. It feels like a general response to a general phenomena on campuses writ large. But this wasn’t a general flyer, out there somewhere. This was a flyer on our campus, right here.

These flyers certainly speak about a vast, faceless, dangerous, and imagined Islam, but because they appear on campus, they are directed at us, the members of the UVM community–Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Moreover, because it has been mailed to me personally (but not to my departmental colleagues), I can assume I am a targeted audience for the message of the flyer, and I might further imagine this is specifically in my capacity as the professor of courses about Islam and Muslims in the Religion Department.

So, my response is this: a lament that students arrive in our classrooms today, August 31, and that my classes won’t begin until tomorrow.

Had these flyers gone up in a week, I’d have a clear sense of what my job is, what my obligations are, in terms of my campus. I’d ask students to talk about it. We’d read it, in the constructed space of a classroom which is purposefully set up for interrogation, investigation, and critique. We’d take its claims seriously, talk about where they came from, and what work they do now; we’d maybe theorize why UVM’s campus–why the library, the student-centered Davis Center, Williams Hall, and my mailbox–were imagined to be good spaces for an anonymous poster and author declare “the truth” about Islam in the form of double-sided, photocopied flyers. We’d talk about the possibilities, responsibilities, and challenges of free speech on campuses. We’d talk about reading about religion beyond classrooms, and the value of the skill sets needed to do so. We’d talk about microaggressions and safety for our classmates, colleagues, and staff who were the subject of the flyer’s message. We might even place this flyer in a conversation about Muslims and racialized religious identity–a conversation we normally get to toward the end of the semester.

My classes begin tomorrow. And my syllabus has already changed.

Some Wonder Why and Why Still: Reflections on the Charleston, SC Church Shooting

Todne Thomas Chipumuro

Cariari, Costa Rica


Yesterday, I arrived in Costa Rica to prepare for a writer’s retreat that I will attend for the next five days. As I checked my social media feed over my morning coffee, I was alarmed to discover that a white gunman shot and killed nine black Bible study attendees last night at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last night. The young white man (who is now being identified as 21-year old Dylan Storm Roof)[1] allegedly sat in on the service before nearly an hour before he voiced racist anti-black rhetoric and murdered the three men and six women present[2]. Shocked into reality, my unexamined idea that my writing retreat here could also double as a respite from the onslaught of news about anti-black violence in the United States and the anti-black citizenship discourses and Haitian deportations proposed by the Dominican Republic has quickly dissipated. Black lives here and there are being devalued by the state and its citizens. Blackness, though somehow being called into question by the scandal of racial shapeshifters, still remains an alibi for white supremacist dehumanization, expulsion, social and literal death.


The current tragedy being weathered by the membership of Emanuel AME Church and the broader Charleston community is significant for a number of reasons. As I alluded to above, it evokes a broader conversation about the virulent anti-black racism that is presently being enacted upon black bodies, visualized by technological innovations, and circulated for broader conversation and consumption. Such violence has been a steady testament to the racism that structures carceral govermentality including policing practices and has also initiated meditations on black humanity, the valuation of black lives, the in/visibility of violence against black women and black transgender people, and black theodicy—a theological contemplation about the reasons for black pain and suffering best expressed by a Charleston pastor during a prayer vigil last night, “The question is God: why? Somebody here tonight needs to know.[3]


Nonetheless, the shooting at Emanuel AME is tentatively being classified as a hate crime and is being represented by police representatives and local political figures as a heinous and grievous act, a moral tone not often attributed to the killings of African Americans by police on the part of the mainstream criminal justice establishment. Moreover, the shooting took place within the institution of the church often stably understood as the private sphere, not the public domain of the street, or the contested public/private spaces of the streets and pools of gated communities involved in Sanford, FL or McKinney, TX. The shooting of African Americans within the sanctified, private grounds of the church presumably signals a different kind of targeting, a hateful intentionality that is perhaps not associated with the other instances of anti-black violence we are witnessing in the news. Dylan Roof emerges as a “proper racist” that can be castigated by the broader body politic, a black-and-white case study of hatred that does not speak to the collective ambivalences, cognitive racial biases, and racial anxieties of post-racial racism.   Nonetheless, I would advise caution in divorcing the Charleston shooting from the broader context of anti-black violence that we are witnessing and experiencing; of decontextualizing this as an individual civilian crime; of making this an issue of the private sphere that is divorced from contemporary contemplations of the state. In the poignant conversation “Do Black Lives Matter?: Robin D.G. Kelley and Fred Moten in conversation,” Moten observes that the shooting of Mike Brown illustrates a broader impulse of white settler colonialism and the white supremacist heteropatriarchal state: the execution of black social life which is defined as an insurgent sociality.[4] It is that sociality, signified by black youth like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and the gathering of the slain members of Emanuel AME, that is othered, harassed, and surveilled by the state, state employees, and civilians who deputize themselves as protectors of white supremacist capitalism.


From a historical perspective, the shooting at Emanuel AME is also important because of the particular history of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination and of the historical role of black churches more broadly. Emanuel AME is shaped by a genealogy of African American Christian protest. The AME Church is the first black-organized religious denomination in the United States. Dating back to 1816, the AME denomination was organized by the former slave Richard Allen and his contemporaries who were disaffected with the racial marginalization they experienced in the predominately white St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, PA.[5] An extension of a critical African American institutional and religious complex that sought to create spaces of sanctuary (like the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia organized in 1793) in which people of African descent could worship, rebel, and nourish their full humanity, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was founded in 1816 as well during the early days of the AME denomination. A black southern church with its own rich history that has been heavily shaped by the white supremacist plantation complex and governance, Emanuel AME Church was burned during the events and controversy surrounding the Denmark Vesey slave revolt in 1822—a revolt that was shaped by a radical anti-racist emancipatory view of Christianity. The church was soon rebuilt. Services however were forced underground when all local black churches were outlawed in 1834. The membership of Emanuel AME has thus inherited a tradition of struggle and endurance.


More broadly, black churches like Emanuel AME with its own denominational history of fostering Afro-Christian critique and institutional self-determination and other southern black churches were shaped by the moral critique fostered by the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. It was during these times in which the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL (a key site for civil rights activism) was bombed by white supremacists in 1963 killing four African American girls. The Black Church, then, in a popular white supremacist consciousness emerged as a threat, a site of insurgency, and a strategic node for terrorism. The interplay between black churches and black protest in the times of slavery and the Civil Rights movement has generated a black civic religiosity, embodied in the senatorial career of the recently deceased Emanuel AME pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Therefore, a normative reading of Emanuel AME as distinct and safely ensconced in the private sphere, of the black church solely as a space of black worship and sanctuary divorced from the state, and of the perpetrator as a civilian acting individually divorced from the state must be re-contextualized within a broader context of racist governmenality and Afro-Christian struggle.






Religion@UVM: The Class of 2015

Our Class of 2015 graduated on May 17, 2015. As we’ve come to know and love, they weren’t shy in proclaiming their success!

They are an accomplished bunch! As we featured before, Maeve Herrick won the Robert D. Benedict Award for the Best Essay in the Field of International Affairs. Kathryn Meader received the Outstanding Senior in Religion Award. At commencement, the Class of 2015–and their families and friends–learned that Joseph Oteng was a recipient of the prestigious Class of ’67 award. We are always honored to our students so visibly recognized for their hard work and achievements.

This class has impressed us throughout their careers. They’ve presented at the UVM Student Research Conference, served in our undergraduate Religion Club, served organizations across the University, and–most importantly–learned, worked, read, wrote, read more, and rewrote about religion.

This class, too, had the special distinction of helping us launch our new REL202 and REL203 sequence, which comprises a practicum for extended research and a colloquium, where one’s research is revised and expanded in the context of the graduating cohort and a faculty mentor. This year’s colloquium was led by Prof. Borchert, who took the seniors bowling, perhaps indelibly making a pin the Class of ’15 totem.

We’ve spent the better part of four years listening to these students argue, engage, and wrestle with ideas ranging from religion and pop culture in America to racialized religious formations to Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka to the very term “religion” itself. As their faculty, we’ve listened to their presentations and papers, read their blog posts and research, and written recommendation letters. Prof. Borchert even saw them bowl. These are animated, thoughtful students alumni, and we cannot wait to see what lies in store for them as their post-UVM lives unfold.

We don’t know what comes next, but we hope the Class of ’15 keeps in touch; we hope some of them will be featured as alumni bloggers soon; but we ask very little–only that they continue to think religion, with breadth and depth, in whatever comes next.

As is our ritual, the department hosted a post-commencement reception for our graduates and their loved ones. These are a selection of the photos; for more, visit our Facebook page here.


Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst, graduate Zach Warner, and Prof. Thomas Chipumuro


graduate Shakir Stephen


graduate Maeve Herrick, Prof. Brennan, and Prof. Andrus


Profs. Trainor and Andrus, graduate Kathryn Meader, Profs. Borchert and Brennan


The Class of 2015! Joey Oteng, Kathryn Meader, Maeve Herrick, Shakir Stephen, and Zach Warner


Prof. Thomas Chipumuro and graduate Joey Oteng


Maeve Herrick—Robert D. Benedict Award Recipient

Maeve receiving the Robert B. Benedict Award from Prof. Peter vonDoepp. Global & Regional Studies Interim Director

Maeve receiving the Robert B. Benedict Award from Prof. Peter vonDoepp. Global & Regional Studies Interim Director

Maeve Herrick, a senior Religion major, was presented with the Robert D. Benedict Award for the Best Essay in the Field of International Affairs. Her essay is entitled, “The Sacred City of Anuradhapura: Perpetuating Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism through a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

Some reflections on my research                                    by Maeve Herrick

 Coming up with a topic for my senior paper, which I would be working on over two semesters, was daunting. I was in the class, Buddhism in Sri Lanka, so my topic was going to connect to the title of the course, generally. Because I am a religion and anthropology double major, I also wanted the project to connect in some way to archaeology, which is my concentration in anthropology. Professor Trainor suggested that I look into the “Sacred City of Anuradhapura,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka. As I began to research the city my topic solidified and I became interested in understanding the relationships between Buddhism, Sinhala nationalism, and UNESCO and the ways in which those relationships have been manifested in Anuradhapura. I discovered that the position of the Sacred City of Anuradhapura as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is significant because it exemplifies how UNESCO may be used as a pawn by nationalists who wish to legitimize and create enduring claims to a place. My research on the Sacred City of Anuradhapura explores different narratives concerning the history of the city, the ways that the city was reimagined by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists throughout the twentieth century, and how its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site is problematic.

UNESCO TV video on the Great Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura

A substantial part of my research was involved in examining Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist Brahmacari Harischandra’s claims concerning Anuradhapura, and understanding both how his imagining of the city is inaccurate, and why he constructs the city in the way he does. Harischandra argues that the British presence and archaeological research in Anuradhapura is desecrating the monuments there, that the city is a solely Sinhala Buddhist space, and that the ancient city was physically separated into secular and sacred spaces (Harischandra 1908). It is because of his opposition to British colonialism, his efforts towards the “regeneration of Buddhism and Sinhala culture that had both declined under the harmful influences of colonialism (Seneviratne 1999:28-9),” and his belief that the Sinhala nation has sole rights to the city and to Sri Lanka that Harischandra constructs the history and space of the city in a way that marginalizes other groups in the city (Harischandra 1908, Berkwitz 2004, 35).

Despite the inaccuracies of Harischandra’s understanding of Anuradhapura, in 1948 the city of Anuradhapura was constructed in such a way that Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism became physically manifested in the space (Nissan 1989, 65). Non-Buddhist religious buildings, such as churches, a mosque, and a Hindu temple were removed from the old city of Anuradhapura and many families were relocated from the old city and moved to the nearby New City (Nissan 1989, 65-74). The destruction of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious buildings is symbolic; the people connected to these buildings are not understood to be a part of the nation that is laying claim to the space they occupied, and to the entire island. This construction of Anuradhapura places it as a Sinhala Buddhist place, creating a physical space for the nation of Sinhala Buddhists to claim exclusive heritage.

I was also concerned with the way that UNESCO has been used to legitimize and perpetuate Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist claims to the city. In 1982 the Sacred City of Anuradhapura became a UNESCO World Heritage Site (UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2015). The process of inscription for World Heritage Sites is problematic and has been criticized because sites are nominated by those who possess power (Askew 2010, 22). The Sinhala Buddhist government advocated for Anuradhapura to become a World Heritage Site (Silva 1988, 18). Representations, narratives, and the physical space of the city perpetuate and embody the city as the foundation of Sinhala Buddhist nationhood while marginalizing Tamil and other groups within Anuradhapura (Askew 2010, 22). Inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site legitimizes these narratives, in addition to providing monetary support for continued preservation of the city (Askew 2010, 22, World Heritage Centre 2008, 10).

The severity of the Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist claim to Anuradhapura is evident in a 1985 Tamil attack on the city, where many people were killed, including a number of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis [Buddhist monks and nuns] who were at the Sri Maha Bodhiya, the most important site for Sri Lankan Buddhists (Wickremeratne 2006, 158-159, The Globe and Mail 1985, The Guardian 1985, Nissan 1989, 65). Elizabeth Nissan contextualizes the attack, “In stopping to attack this tree, it could be argued, the gunmen (presumed to have been Tamil ‘Tigers’) attacked a whole construction of the island as continuously and inviolably Sinhala Buddhist” (Nissan 1989, 65). I show that this act of violence was in part a product of decades of nation building, heritage construction, and hegemonic claims to Anuradhapura by Sinhala Buddhist Nationalists (Nissan 1989, 65-67). This construction of knowledge, heritage, and nationhood was aided and legitimized by the inscription of Anuradhapura as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was advocated by those who would benefit most from exclusive claims to Sri Lankan history (Silva 1988, 18).

My research on Anuradhapura exemplifies the ways in which archaeology can be misused by those in power in order to perpetuate nationalist ideologies, to make hegemonic claims to archaeological sites, and to disenfranchise certain groups from their heritage. In the fall I will be pursuing my master’s degree in anthropology with a concentration in archaeology at the University of Denver. I plan to focus on the ways in which archaeologists can better engage with the public in order to change and improve the ways in which knowledge about the past is constructed.


  1. “Tamil attack kills eighty / Massacre of civilians in Sri Lankan town of Anuradhapura.” The Guardian (London). (May 15).
  2. “Toll climbs to 145 in Tamil massacre.” The Globe and Mail (Canada). (May 15).

Askew, Marc. 2010. “The Magic List of Global Status: UNESCO, World Heritage and the Agnedas of States.” In Heritage and Globalisation, edited by Sophia Labadi and Colin Long, 19-44. New York, NY: Routledge.

Berkwitz, Stephen C. 2004. “History and Textuality.” In Buddhist History in the Vernacular: The Power of the Past in Late Medieval Sri Lanka, 20-37. Boston, MA: Brill. Blackboard.

Greenwald, Alice. 1978. “The Relic on the Spear: Historiography and the Saga of Dutthagamani.” In Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka, edited by Bardwell L. Smith, 13-35. Chambersburg, PA: Conococheague Associates, Inc.

Harischandra, Walsinha. 1908. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura. University of California. Accessed October 17, 2014. Google Books.

The Mahavamsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon. 1912. Translated by Wilhelm Geiger, London: Oxford University Press. University of California CDL. Ebscohost.

Nissan, Elizabeth. 1989. “History in the Making: Anuradhapura and the Sinhala Buddhist Nation.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 25 Identity, Consciousness and The Past: The South Asian Scene,  64-77.

Silva, Roland. 1988. “The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka: One Of 32 International Cultural Heritage Projects Launched by UNESCO.” Icomos information 3: 26-35.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2015. “Sacred City of Anuradhapura: Description.” UNESCO World Heritage Center. Accessed May 16, 2015.

Wickremeratne, Swarna. 2006. “Bodhi Puja: All for the Sake of a Tree.” In Buddha in Sri Lanka, 157-166. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


Kathryn Meader—Outstanding Senior in Religion Award Recipient

meader photoA Reflection by Kathryn Meader

Since the beginning of my college career I found myself drawn to the Religion Department. Whether this was because of the personalities of the professors, or the content of their classes, one cannot be entirely sure. Regardless of the reasons, my time with this department has always led to interesting conversations that inevitably stimulated my interest in the study of religion even further. My love of history and its connections with religion truly found an outlet in my study of medieval Christianity, and my research on the twelfth-century abbess, Heloise d’Argenteuil.

This spring, I had the opportunity to participate in the Undergraduate Research Conference held at UVM on April 23rd, and created a poster to introduce my research and its goals. It was lots of fun talking with people about a topic that I am so passionate about, as well as showing that poster presentations aren’t just for the sciences! Being able to create a concise presentation of a very large project is an important skill to acquire, and by presenting my work to others I was better able to understand what my own goals were in finishing the project. Presenting work can often be the most challenging part of a course, but it is always a true test of your own knowledge and grasp of the subject. I enjoyed working closely with an advisor in the Religion Department on a large project, and that was definitely the academic highlight of my senior year. Beyond that, it served as a perfect capstone for all of the skills that I have acquired throughout my four years at UVM.

Going forward after graduation, I plan to stay in the Burlington area for the next year at least, and hopefully find a position with an institution that continues to stimulate my curiosity. I hope to find an outlet to continue exploring the various experiences of religion in daily life, and the history of religious institutions. I will be forever grateful for my time at UVM, and especially for the time I’ve spent with the wonderful professors at 481 Main.

Student Research Conference Poster

Kathryn, who is from Marshfield, Massachusetts, is a double major in Religion and History, and a member of the History honors society, Phi Alpha Theta.

My Conference Experience: Presenting Research as An Undergrad

Selfie from L to R: Marissa, Ellen Eberst, Lily Fedorko, and S. Brent Plate

Selfie from L to R: Marissa, Ellen Eberst, Lily Fedorko, and S. Brent Plate

In March, I had the privilege to give a paper at the Syracuse University Undergraduate Conference on Religion and Culture. I have to say that it was one of the most tiring and stressful, but awesome experiences that I’ve had so far as a religion major. I met a lot of brilliant scholars, like S. Brent Plate (the Author of A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects), and I also met a lot of more senior undergraduates. But before I tell you what this experience was like for me, this intro wouldn’t suffice without giving a shout-out to Lily Fedorko and Ellen Eberst for driving the 5 hours there and back with me, and all of the moral support!!

I am interested in religion and gender, and the conference paper that I presented dealt with these topics; but this blog post needs a trigger warning, because in my paper, I explored cultural concepts about gender as well as the contemporary legal issues that surround the sensitive but important issue of rape. In my paper, “Gender in the Age of Contemporary India: Aspects of Masculinity, Femininity, and Contemporary Legal Issues in a Predominantly Hindu Society,” I wanted to sketch out some of the realities of rape in India as well as the ways in which it is impacted by Hindu traditions. This paper specifically discusses motives behind rapes that occur in India, and drew upon various sources including: article publications, legal texts, news articles and the Ramayana, a Hindu religious text. The Ramayana was significant in my research because there is a present theme of gender and women’s bodies, and how these are affected by power and honor. Being that the Ramayana is a historical and culturally influential text, I used it as a touchstone to talk about how Hindus might mobilize religious ideas about rape. To some extent, I found that rape in India is a gendered desire for honor and power (specifically in terms of males), in many of the cases that are reported by females. This may be simple, but I argued that texts are interpreted, and used in many ways, and one of the ways in which the Ramayana seems to be used is to structure patriarchal systems, including rape culture.

This project started out as an blog assignment for my Studies in Hindu Tradition Religion class with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst. She also helped me to edit my paper very short-notice and very extensively, for which I am eternally grateful. I was so happy to have my paper accepted to the conference, but to give a paper on my own research, that I was completely interested in, was both absolutely nerve-wracking and fulfilling. For me, there was a way in which I had this knowledge that I was presenting that I was seeing uniquely, and that was exciting; but I also had a looming sense that someone might be an expert and ask a question that I should know the answer to—but didn’t. I was scared of drawing blanks, or stuttering over my paper. Plus, I was nervous about the fact that I was presenting on a touchy issue.

IMG_6056-768x1024So with that said, I think fear deserves a lot of the credit in my success, at least during that point in time, because I was imagining things so hugely out of proportion to the point that when I got there, things seemed much smaller. I was still intimidated, but when I saw that I was in a classroom like those in Lafayette, rather than in a room like Billings Lecture Hall (which is colossal) I felt a lot better. There is a way in which I over-prepared, and that proved to be helpful in my situation.

The most important thing that I learned from this conference is that there is nothing to be worried about when you’re the center of attention in a room full of people, at a low-key conference because you have the same thing in common with (almost) everyone else there: you’re there to speak and they’re there to listen to you speak. I think that giving a paper is a great experience if you are interested in becoming an academic because it provides a way to get your name out there, conduct research for a purpose, and practice a key element of academic work.

If there was one thing that I was not expecting from this conference, it was that people (like, real-life PhD candidates and Professors) were impressed by my work (or so I was told!). I was shocked, and still am. But I am also humbled. I think that as undergrads, we might feel that our work is not important because we only do it for a grade in a specific class. In fact, our work is always given a letter, which in a lot of cases, is the only thing that we care about as students. But the conference that I went to showcased everyone’s work as something more than a grade. At the conference, each panel had moderators, who guided us in the sense that they told us how we could, and should do better work; that is, if we were willing to put in the effort. For example, one of the more significant critiques that I received was that my paper was solid, but could be part of some kind of bigger research and therefore, was a work-in-progress. And this makes sense to me because (at least in my universe) everything can, and should be better.

Now that I have participated in a conference, I know that I will probably continue to do so if I have the opportunity again. I have learned that conferences are actually awesome because you have the opportunity to network with great scholars and to hear what they have to say about your own work. To me, this is important because they’ve been where I am right now. Talking to PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows, about their work and what they had to endure to get to where they are now, was kind of like looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, in terms of all of the hard work that is put into becoming an academic.

In terms of viewing myself as a future academic I have thought about the ways in which I could re-work this research. Ideally, I would like to narrow my research down to a more specific time frame. Right now, the partition of India is the historical context that I have in mind. In this context I would like to look comparatively the motives and dynamics behind the gender violence that occurred among Hindus and Muslims after the establishment of Pakistan as a state for Muslims, and India as a state for Hindus. I hope to find an answer to at least part of this question, as I continue to do work on this project in the future.

Senior op-ed highlights Religion


Joey Oteng ’15 (image via UVM Orientation website)

In a recent article in the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student newspaper, senior religion major Joey Oteng discussed religion and religion classes, and asked his readers to join the conversations so prevalent here at 481 Main Street.

Joey’s piece, “Why Religion Should be Discussed,” highlights some of the key questions religion majors are asked to tackle: religion in the public sphere; appropriation, adaptation, and adoption within and across religious traditions; how to talk about a subject fraught with politics and that might transgress mores of “polite dinner conversation.”

He wrote:

“We should want to study religion because it is all around us. Daily rituals as simple of rolling over every morning to check your phone, to mindful practices of yoga or even the culturally appropriated Hindu spring festival of Holi repurposed as secular color runs.”

Do read his whole piece, and then be sure to follow his advice: join us in the conversation.

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