I am a transdisciplinary medical humanities scholar who is fascinated by historical and contemporary intersections between Buddhism, medicine, and crosscultural exchange. I have a Ph.D. in History of Medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (2010), and teach Asian history, medicine, and religion at Penn State University’s Abington College, located near Philadelphia.
The major theme in my scholarship is discovering the role of Buddhism in the global transmission and local reception of knowledge about health, disease, and the body. I approach this topic using methodologies from history, religious studies, translation studies, ethnography, and documentary filmmaking, among other fields.
I am continually seeking opportunities to cross disciplinary lines in publishing and presenting my work. I regularly publish writing for non-scholarly audiences, and am passionate about connecting my scholarship and teaching with contemporary issues and events both within and beyond the academy.
I come from a bilingual and transnational Latino family with roots in Colombia, Uruguay, Spain, England, and the US. I spent my early childhood in Paraguay, and moved to the US in second grade. All of this is to say that my interests in crosscultural exchange, translation, and global movements of ideas came to me quite naturally!
I began my interest in Asian religion and medicine as an undergraduate majoring in Anthropology and Cognitive Science and minoring in East Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. After graduating in 1996, I lived in Asia for four years — over two years in Thailand, with extended stays in India, China, and Indonesia as well. During this time, I trained as a practitioner of Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM), and spent time learning hatha-yoga and other Asian healing modalities. I also participated in extended stays at Buddhist meditation centers and monasteries in Northeast Thailand and India, including a summer as ananāgārika (white-robed monastic resident) in a Thai Forest-tradition monastery. Although I am neither a yogi nor a Buddhist, I have maintained some amount of practice of both throughout the rest of my adult life.
While I was working as a practitioner of Thai Traditional Medicine, I wrote several book about the practice of Thai massage, herbal medicine, and spiritual healing traditions. When I became a graduate student, however, I left behind clinical practice in order to intensively pursue academic approaches to Asian medicine. Although I am no longer involved professionally in the field, I have maintained contacts with many Thai healers and Western practitioners of TTM, and have engaged in ethnographic research among these communities over the years.
I returned to the University of Virginia in 2002 to pursue a Master’s Degree in East Asian Studies. My thesis (defended in 2005, and published as a book Traditional Thai Medicine) explored the cultural influences that led to the creation of modern TTM. In 2005, I entered the Ph.D. program in the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins, where I completed fields in the global history of medicine with emphasis on Asia. My dissertation (2010) focused on the relationship between Buddhism and medicine in medieval China.
I joined the faculty at Abington College in 2010, where my research and writing has continued to focus on the history and contemporary relationship between Buddhism and medicine. I have been a humanities fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University. I am active in various Asian Studies organizations in the Philadelphia area and internationally, most notably my involvement with the International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine and the association’s journal, Asian Medicine. I have maintained an active publication schedule, focused on my own writings as well as major collaborative works that are intended to foster the nascent field of the study of “Buddhist medicine.”
Throughout, I have also remained interested in innovative teaching, as well as public engagement. I regularly am a guest lecturer at Asian medicine schools, and frequently give public lectures in the Philadelphia area.
The past few years have witnessed the meteoric rise of the “Mindfulness Revolution” in mainstream popular media, and the enthusiasm for the study of the health benefits of meditation in American scientific circles is steadily increasing. While growing in sophistication, the literature focusing on mindfulness has tended to overlook the fact that there are many connections between Buddhism and wellbeing that go far beyond mindfulness (and beyond meditation more generally), both historically and today. My research investigates the rich spectrum of therapeutic repertoires and resources that Buddhism has made available to its devotees in history and today — beyond the headlines and social media buzzwords associated with mindfulness.
In virtually all periods and locations, Buddhism has provided individuals with intellectual tools to frame and understand illness, has shaped health-seeking behaviors in conscious and unconscious ways, and has offered a range of popular therapies and institutional structures for delivering healthcare. These have been adapted and elaborated across virtually all of Asia, and have often specifically played a major role in the popularization of the religion in new recipient cultures. Placing our contemporary interests in the benefits of meditation in this wider global context helps us to better appreciate the rich diversity of practical tools for mental and physical healing made available by Buddhism, and contextualizes contemporary developments within a historical framework that does not privilege the modern or Western vantage point.
At various points in my career, I have studied the relationship between Buddhism and healing in a number of different contexts, including medieval China, modern Thailand, and the contemporary Americas. Building on my interdisciplinary academic background, my work integrates methodologies from history of medicine, religious studies, translation studies, literary studies, and anthropology, among other disciplines. My investigation of the nexus of transnational transmission and local dynamics of reception is driven not by commitment to a specific disciplinary method, but rather by a series of interlocking questions that are inherently interdisciplinary:
What are Buddhism’s doctrinal teachings about health and wellbeing, and how are these transformed by processes of crosscultural translation? How has Buddhism been presented as a healing modality in distinct locations and time periods, and who forwards such positions? How do key institutions, social networks, and transnational flows of information between them influence the implementation of these ideas and practices? How do local and international political and economic interests shape their reception over the long term?
My research on these questions also engages with theoretical matters of interest to the humanities and social sciences more broadly, such as how to model the interactions between cultures, how to understand texts that are products of multiple layers of literary and cultural translation, and how to think about the categories of “religion” and “medicine” in crosscultural context.