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Religious studies PhD candidate wins Fulbright fellowship

Blayne Harcey

Religious studies PhD candidate Blayne Harcey. Photo courtesy of Blayne Harcey.

September 04, 2020

Fourth-year religious studies PhD student Blayne Harcey is the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) Fellowship. The fellowship is designed to enhance foreign language and area studies for future educators in the U.S. by supporting their dissertation research abroad.

His current research project is titled, "Locating Lumbini: Transnational Buddhism and the Construction of World Heritage in Nepal," and it engages the Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini as a case study for exploring the complicated material outcomes of Buddhist encounters with modernity. 

The Fulbright will support him for 12 months of research in Nepal and India as he conducts interviews and collects archival materials to support his dissertation.

“My research attempts to explore how the process of rediscovery, excavation and development of the Buddha's birthplace has been shaped by, and is shaping, global Buddhism and its transnational movement of ideas, commodities and people,” said Harcey, a student in Arizona State University's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

“Central to my investigation is a focus on the shifting material effects engendered by the logics of development operative within organizations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization that have underwritten these projects of development in ‘third world’ Asia.”

The Fulbright-Hays DDRA program favored Harcey’s research because it touches on the processes of international development in Nepal. Thanks to FLAS funding from ASU’s Center for Asian Research, he has spent the last three years learning Nepali, which is indispensable for conducting research at Lumbinī.

Harcey originally applied to the Fulbright Student Program in fall of last year, but found the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship would be better suited for his research.

“The Fulbright-Hays is a far more intensive application process, which requires a 10-page statement of purpose and outline of the research to be conducted,” Harcey said. “I think that my application was successful because I had gone through the process of drafting and defending my dissertation prospectus to my committee just a few months before applying.”

His dissertation committee consists of Juliane Schober, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies faculty professor of religious studies, Gaymon Bennett, associate professor of religious studies, and Anne Feldhaus, emeritus professor of religious studies, who helped him with the application process.

“Blayne is a highly motivated young scholar with a promising career path in Asian religions and in the anthropology of religion,” Schober said. “His project will construct the historical genealogies that shape a complex and transnational quest for Buddhist origins; it is at once an ingenious and long-overdue undertaking. I am delighted that Fulbright-Hays now recognized the importance of his work by investing in Harcey's academic future.”

Harcey started his academic journey as a philosophy major at Colorado State University, where he was introduced to Buddhist philosophy in a course that looked at a wide range of philosophical thinking from Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism.

“The more I was exposed to Buddhism the more interested I became,” Harcey said. “I ended up taking five classes which covered Buddhist ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, cosmology and even consciousness studies.”

He went on to be accepted to the University of Chicago master’s degree program in Buddhist philosophy, but was ultimately drawn to the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. While he was there he was drawn to a more anthropological and historical approach to the subject. 

“At Iliff I switched my focus to sites of modern Buddhism, those pilgrimage destinations that have become ‘world heritage centers’ in the modern era,” Harcey said. “While my background in Buddhist philosophy has been extremely helpful, I am increasingly interested in the ways that humans form and inhabit diverse social worlds that consist of various institutional and communal formations of power.”

After graduating with his master’s degree in religious studies, Harcey knew he wanted to continue his research and decided to apply to ASU after a year out of school.

“I ultimately decided to add ASU to the list the following year for two main reasons. First, the diversity of the faculty and their research interests and second because Dr. Juliane Schober’s work in Theravada Buddhist traditions aligned nicely with my own interests in Buddhist pilgrimage and relic veneration in South and Southeast Asia,” Harcey said.

Harcey plans to return to ASU once he has completed the fellowship to continue working on his dissertation. He intends to continue to incorporate his experiences in South Asia in the classes he teaches at ASU and to bring his knowledge to future jobs in academia.

“I am beyond grateful to all of those individuals who have helped me achieve this level of success,” Harcey said. “I plan to take every opportunity possible to extend that privilege to the wonderful assistants and collaborators who continue to be the driving force behind the research, and eventually to my students in the classroom. As a scholar in the humanities I firmly believe that my task is to empower students to think critically about the ways in which humans form and inhabit diverse social worlds.”

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