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Raoul Birnbaum

Birnbaum portrait
Professor and Patricia and Rowland Rebele Endowed Chair in History of Art and Visual Culture
Gary D. Licker Memorial Chair at Cowell College (UCSC), 2015-2018
Buddhist studies, especially Chinese practices from medieval times to the present; religion and visual culture in China.
Office: 831-459-4155
Research Interests: 

Raoul Birnbaum works in the interdisciplinary field of Buddhist studies. His studies are concerned with understanding the variety of historically and socially situated views of the world associated with Chinese Buddhists: at specific times and places, how have Buddhists characteristically seen the world, where does meaning reside for them, in what ways have these matters been articulated and transmitted?   

Early publications focused on some of the principal “deity” cults (of buddhas and bodhisattvas) that engaged the imaginations of medieval Chinese Buddhists and continue to flourish to the present day. In relation to these deity cults, Birnbaum also looked to the mountain pilgrimage sites that together form a latticed network of power in Chinese conceptions of the landscape. More recently, his research has focused mainly on Buddhist life in modern China (late nineteenth century to the present), with a long-term project on the dazzlingly talented monk Hongyi (1880-1942), a notable Buddhist teacher as well as a highly disciplined and original calligrapher. He also has been looking at a parallel period and figure, the seventeenth-century monk-painter Kuncan, who carried out his work in the midst of upheaval as the Ming dynasty fell to Manchu invaders. This study of Kuncan and his contemporaries is part of a larger, team-based project which has led to an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) - "Alternative Dreams: 17th-Century Chinese Paintings from the Tsao Family Collection," August-December, 2016.

In addition to continuing study of Chinese Buddhist texts and visual materials, Birnbaum's work has been strongly influenced by intensive field study over several decades within Chinese Buddhist monastic communities and across a wide variety of the mountain sites that form the backbone of this tradition’s conceptual geography. 


203 Cowell College
Office Hours: 

Fall Quarter, 2016: research leave at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

Winter Quarter, 2017: Wednesdays 11:00-1:00 and by appointment

Spring Quarter, 2017: Wednesdays 11:00-1:00 and by appointment

Mailing Address: 

Raoul Birnbaum University of California, Santa Cruz Cowell Faculty Services 1156 High Street Santa Cruz, CA 95064


Selected Publications: 


"Alternative Identities, Oblique Portraits, and Revealed Interiors: A Theme in Later Chinese Visual Culture," for a volume on seventeenth-century Chinese painting and its contexts, edited by Stephen Little, to be published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"Fragility, Collapse, and the Onrush of Time: Bringing Mortality to Visibility in Chinese Buddhist Worlds of Practice," in Histories of Mortality, ed. Karen Bassi, volume under review.

"Why was Vinaya Master Hongyi so interested in Vinaya?," for Vinaya Revival in 20th-Century China and Taiwan, project directed by Ester Bianchi and Daniela Campo, in preparation.

Long-term book project in active preparation: a biographical study of the extraordinary twentieth-century Buddhist monk and cultural figure, Hongyi Dashi (1880-1942).


The Healing Buddha (Boulder: Shambhala, 1979; London: Rider, 1980; Boston: Shambhala, revised edition, 1989 [additional chapter and preface]. Il Buddha della Guarigione: Il Guaritore Divino nel Buddhismo, tr. Patrizia Nicoli (Rome: Ubaldini, 1981). Der Heilende Buddha, tr. Rosemarie Fuchs (Bern, Munich, Vienna: Otto Wilhelm Barth, 1982).

Studies on the Mysteries of Mañjusri: A Group of East Asian Mandalas and their Traditional Symbolism (Boulder: Society for the Study of Chinese Religions, 1983).


Face to Face: subterranean appearances and the interior world of Chris Russell (Brooklyn: Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture, 2013).


"Two Turns in the Life of Master Hongyi, a Buddhist Monk in Twentieth-Century China," in The Making of Saints in Modern China, ed. David Ownby, Vincent Goossaert, and Ji Zhe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 161-208.

"When is a 'Chinese Landscape Painting' also a 'Chinese Buddhist Painting'?: Approaches to the Works of Kuncan (1612-1673) and Other Enigmas," in 17th-Century Chinese Paintings from the Tsao Family Collection, ed. Stephen Little (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2016), 94-129. Volume received the 38th annual George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award from the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA).

"Human Traces and the Experience of Powerful Places: A Note on Memory, History, and Practice in Buddhist China," in Images, Relics, and Legends: The Formation and Transformation of Buddhist Sacred Sites, ed. James A. Benn, Jinhua Chen, and James Robson (Toronto: Mosaic Press, 2012), 113-138.

"In Search of an Authentic Engaged Buddhism," Religion East & West 9 (2009), 25-39. French translation in Voies de l'Orient 122 (Winter, 2012), 20-36.

"The Deathbed Image of Master Hongyi," in The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations, ed. Jacqueline Stone and Bryan Cuevas (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007), 175-207.

"Light in the Wutai Mountains," in The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience, ed. Matthew T. Kapstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 195-226.

"Buddhist China at the Century’s Turn," The China Quarterly, no. 174 (June, 2003), pp. 428-50. Reprinted in Daniel Overmyer, ed., Religion in China Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 122-44.

"Master Hongyi Looks Back: A 'Modern Man' Becomes a Monk in Twentieth-Century China," in Buddhism in the Modern World: Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition, ed. Steven Heine and Charles S. Prebish (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 75-124.


Teaching Interests: 

Courses Regularly Taught

COWL 84    Chinese Approaches to Human Values

HAVC 22     Religion and Visual Culture in China (large lecture)

HAVC 122A  Sacred Geography in China

HAVC 127A  Buddhist Visual Worlds (large lecture)

HAVC 127B  Buddhist Pure Lands

HAVC 190D  The World of the Lotus Sutra

HAVC 190F  Chan Texts and Images

HAVC 190G  Buddhist Wisdom Traditions

HAVC 203    Buddhist Views of the Human Body



Honors and Awards: 

Recent honors

Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, Fall 2016

Gary D. Licker Memorial Chair at Cowell College (UCSC), 2015-2018

University of California Humanities Research Institute, residential fellowship, Fall 2015

Hooker Distinguished Visiting Professor, McMaster University (Ontario, Canada), October 2013

University-wide Excellence in Teaching award from UCSC Academic Senate, 2013


Education and Training: 
Ph.D., Religion, Columbia University
M.Phil., Religion, Columbia University
M.A., Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University
B.A. (Honors), Asian Studies, The City College, City University of New York