Raoul Birnbaum

Raoul Birnbaum

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: 

I work in the multidisciplinary field of Buddhist studies and study many of the elements – visual, conceptual, textual, aural, social – that we might think of when we consider the culture(s) of Buddhist China.  Most broadly, I am 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?  Much of my early work concentrated on the medieval period of Chinese history.  Now in recent years I have focused on more recent times, mainly from the late nineteenth century to the present. 

Early publications centered on Buddhist “deity” traditions, beginning first with studies on the international cult of the Healing Buddha, and then on the Chinese traditions of mountain sites where bodhisattvas are believed to appear before devotees (especially Manjusri Bodhisattva and his spectacular light-filled visionary emanations in the Wutai Mountains of northern China).  In relation to alpine visions, I’ve also been interested more broadly in the construction of geography in Chinese Buddhist worlds, most particularly the formation of a variety of conceptual maps of power across the Chinese landscape, with potent nodal points and intricate webs of connections.

My current work centers on the world of Buddhist practice in modern and contemporary China (late nineteenth century to the present), with particular focus on an enigmatic and compelling individual, the dazzlingly talented monk Hongyi (1880-1942).  Also I am 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 in progress at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), in preparation for a major exhibition of seventeenth-century paintings in late 2016.

In addition to continuing study of Chinese Buddhist texts and visual materials, my 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.  Engagement with these living traditions, including close study with some of its learned exemplars, has been fundamental to the progress of my research and understanding.


203 Cowell College
Office Hours: 
Spring Quarter, 2015: Wednesdays 11-1 and by appointment
Mailing Address: 

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


Selected Publications: 


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 Enigma of Kuncan (1612-1675), or When is a 'Chinese Landscape Painting' also a 'Chinese Buddhist Painting'?" - extended essay for volume to accompany a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) of seventeenth-century Chinese paintings from the Tsao Family Collection, in active preparation for anticipated late 2016 publication.

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

"Remembering Ven. Miaojing (1930-2003)," in Figures of Buddhist Modernity, ed. Mark Rowe, et al., (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, forthcoming).


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).

Buddhist Practice, Inside and Outside: Chinese Buddhist Approaches to Engagement with the World (Chicago: Open Court, 2016 [in preparation]).


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


"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), pp. 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), pp. 75-124.

"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), pp. 195-226.

"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), pp. 175-207.

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

"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), pp. 113-138.


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

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 (Canada), Fall 2013

University-wide Excellence in Teaching award, UCSC, 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, College of the City of New York