ASU doctoral student wins fellowship for research on free funeral service societies

June 11, 2020

Arizona State University religious studies doctoral candidate Mulung Hsu has been awarded the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellowship in Buddhist Studies for his dissertation titled, “Engaging Suffering: Free Funeral Service Societies and a Socially Engaged Buddhist Soteriology in Contemporary Myanmar.”

The fellowship is a prestigious and competitive award given by the American Council of Learned Societies. There are only around 10 winners each year. Mulung Hsu Doctoral candidate in religious studies and graduate teaching assistant Mulung Hsu. Photo courtesy of Mulung Hsu. Download Full Image

Hsu’s dissertation and research focuses on relief organizations called free funeral service societies (FFSSs) that emerged from Myanmar in the 1990s. The organizations started as a response to rising funeral costs and have grown into a nationwide grassroots effort dedicated to a variety of welfare services.

The services they provide include clinical care, education, emergency aid and disaster relief. They have even been involved in promoting public awareness of COVID-19, helping to collect donations of medical supplies to local clinics and hospitals.

Here Hsu, who is also a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and the Center for Asian Research, discusses his research and accomplishment.

Question: Can you tell me a little bit about your research and the topic of your dissertation?

Answer: In Myanmar, where almost 90% of the population are Buddhists, most FFSSs are naturally associated with Buddhist communities while only a few are affiliated with Christian, Hindu and Muslim communities. Despite their different affiliations, FFSSs throughout the country are committed to promoting the "welfare of others," "without discrimination of race and religion." My project focuses on the ways in which FFSSs and their practices are shaped by Buddhist ethical principles and soteriology, and it also looks to FFSSs as a site for emergent interfaith collaboration in social welfare provision.

Q: How long have you been working on this research topic? What got you interested in it?

A: My first time being a free funeral volunteer in Myanmar was in the summer of 2013. Growing up in Taiwan, where the "afterlife service" is a multimillion-dollar industry, I never imagined that funerals could be done for free. This brief encounter with death, with mourning and with the free funeral service was a transformative experience that showed me a culturally unique way of engaging with and alleviating others’ suffering. It has led me to commit my doctoral research to FFSSs and their welfare services. I have been conducting short-term summer field research with FFSSs every year since 2016 in order to familiarize myself with Burmese terminology, customs and practices associated with death and funeral.

I am intrigued by the shifting public opinions and attitudes toward FFSSs and their services. Over 20 years ago when the famous movie star Kyaw Thu, the current chair of Free Funeral Service Society-Yangon, started his second career in free funeral service, he found himself despised among his peers in show business for all the bad luck he might bring to others. In present-day Myanmar, Kyaw Thu is a widely revered humanitarian superstar. The free funeral service, among other social services, has become one of the popular merit-making practices foundational to the traditional Buddhist quest for merit, ethical perfection and enlightenment. “Funeral one time, monastery 10 times” — for some Burmese Buddhists, as this Burmese proverb suggests, doing the free funeral service can even be 10 times as meritorious as visiting the monastery. I am interested in how this radical social-religious change happened, and how encountering and engaging suffering allows Burmese Buddhists to experience, imagine and embody the soteriological rewards of the free funeral service.

Q: Why do you think it is important to study this topic?

A: FFSSs, among other Buddhist social and political movements, offer a lens through which to explore emergent ways in which the modern relevance of Buddhism is sought in and through reinterpretations of Buddhist practices and soteriology. In recent years Myanmar has seen the rise of Buddhist ultranationalist movements, claiming that acts in the defense of the nation and Buddhism from religious others are essential to the Buddhist quest for enlightenment and soteriological liberation. FFSSs, which are known for their commitment to promoting the "welfare of others (Pali: parahita) without discrimination of race and religion,” constitute a socially inclusive Buddhist mass movement that is ideologically distinct from the nationalist movements. They look to inclusive social services as a socially engaged path to liberation. Recent writings of Burmese Buddhism among scholars and public intellectuals have focused on the Buddhist nationalist movements. My dissertation project on FFSSs — an equally significant but less publicized Buddhist social movement dedicated to socially inclusive relief work — contributes to this scholarship a corrective to the exclusive attention to nationalism and a reframing of the central concerns in modern Buddhism in Myanmar.

Q: How did you feel when you heard the news you won the fellowship?

A: That was one of the most exciting moments of my life. My adviser Juliane Schober has once said, “the road to success is filled with failure.” I was expecting an email that started with “I regret to inform you ...” but was greeted by “Congratulations!” It goes without saying that I was exhilarated. However, I don’t see that as my own achievement. I am able to develop a fundable research project only because the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and Center for Asian Research together have created an intellectually vibrant environment in which I have the opportunity to work with and learn from many brilliant and engaged professors and fellow graduate students, to whom I owe gratitude.

Q: How are you planning to present the research once it is completed (an article, book, conference lecture, etc.)?

A: In the past two years, I have worked with Dr. Schober to present my preliminary findings at several conferences dedicated to Theravada Buddhist and Asian studies and published an article in Journal of Burma Studies. I believe, however, what I have done is merely scratching the surface. The 10-month field research supported by the fellowship will be the basis of my dissertation, in addition to which I have planned to develop journal articles and a monograph dedicated to Buddhist welfare services and humanitarianism in contemporary Myanmar.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: My Burmese name is Chit Minn, which means "King of Love." It was given to me based on the day of the week that I was born, which was Monday, by my first Burmese teacher, U Saw Tun, at Northern Illinois University. He actually gave me several choices and Chit Minn was a particularly unique and interesting one. I asked U Saw Tun what kind of "love" that means. Does it mean romantic love or all kinds of love? He said, at that time, that it can mean all kinds of love. In retrospect I think he was messing up with me because most of the time "chit" means romantic love, but I have zero regret and I thank him for tricking me into choosing this unique name. 

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

ASU agribusiness professor’s research awarded for ‘Lasting Impact’

Ashok Mishra changed agricultural policy around the world and initiated several government-wide projects for the well-being of self-employed farm family businesses

June 11, 2020

He changed agricultural policy around the world, initiated several governmentwide projects for the well-being of self-employed farm family businesses and has spoken before legislative and executive branches in Washington, D.C., and to policy-savvy audiences who have adopted or acknowledged his constructive perspective.

Along with his co-authorBarry Goodwin, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University, who's the William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor, Arizona State University Agribusiness Professor Ashok Mishra published their research, “Farm Income Variability and the Supply of Off-Farm Labor,” in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics in 1997. The paper now has received the 2020 Publication of Lasting Impact award from the Agricultural Finance and Management section of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA).

Professor of Agribusiness Ashok Mishra Ashok Mishra. Download Full Image

The Publication of Lasting Impact award is granted to encourage excellence in publications in fields consistent with the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. One award is given each year for a publication with the publication date falling at least 10 years before the year of recognition. Entries are judged based on the enduring quality of the publication to the profession. The award is made by the Agricultural Finance and Management section of the AAEA, and a committee of applied economists from the AAEA selects the article from all nominations. 

The award is an important recognition for Mishra’s work that has been referenced more than 420 times in the literature.

“We are very excited and humbled to receive this award, and it’s an important milestone in our career,” said Mishra, who joined the Morrison School of Agribusiness at the W. P. Carey School of Business in July 2015. “We are happy to note that the work has set forth significant changes in agricultural policy in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.”

As the Marley Chair in Food Management at the Morrison School of Agribusiness, Mishra's research addresses food security, food value chains, household economics and agribusiness finance. Whether it’s how gender affects cropping decisions amid climate change or how hydroponics alters urban farming, he's always been fascinated by the economics of feeding people.

“ASU has become a launchpad for research that can make a difference,” Mishra said. By better understanding food systems and food security, he said, governments can enact better policies to ensure the population thrives.

Mishra’s research that was given the Publication of Lasting Impact award highlights the issue of income variability and how farm family members allocate their time in dual employment.

“When designing policies, policymakers must take into account total household income and total household net worth, not just farm income and farm net worth,” Mishra said. “As a result, policymakers have instituted total income and total net worth thresholds to receive government support.”

The agricultural income support program was enacted in 1933 to secure a stable supply of food and fiber for the American population. At the same time, the program was meant to provide financial assistance to self-employed farm businesses, farm people and rural areas. 

“If policymakers chose to reduce farm income support, it could have several consequences,” Mishra said. “First, it could lead to food insecurity, higher food prices and lower farmland values. Lower farmland values could increase borrowing costs for farming businesses and total cost of farming and eventually affect agricultural value chains.”

This would kick in significant uncertainty in production quantity and prices and could lead to unpredictable income for farming businesses. 

Unpredictable income might motivate farming families to reallocate their time in dual employment.

“Members work off the farm for more stable and higher incomes and fringe benefits such as health insurance and retirement benefits,” Mishra said. “This in turn may create labor shortages of both family and hired farmworkers if household members work in the nonfarm economy, and that could cause higher labor and production costs.”

The study shows that farm program payments could be counterproductive in the economic well-being of the farm household. Generous farm subsidies in the past seven decades have discouraged farmers and their spouses from working off the farm. The study highlights the importance of exploring the household model, thinking specifically about its application in contemporary agricultural policy analysis.

Before joining the W. P. Carey School in 2015, Mishra was the Donald E. Welge Endowed Professor at Louisiana State University. Before that, he spent a decade as an economist for the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He received his bachelor’s degree in agriculture and agricultural economics from the G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in India, his master’s degree in economics from the University of Aberdeen in the U.K. and his doctorate in economics from North Carolina State University.

Mishra has been commended for his research awards in applied economics and agribusiness, being named a fellow by the Western Agricultural Economics Association in 2020. He was also recognized as a fellow by the Northeastern Association of Agricultural Resource Economists in 2013.

Shay Moser

Managing Editor, W. P. Carey School of Business