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Raoul Birnbaum

Birnbaum portrait
Professor Emeritus
Buddhist studies and Chinese religions, from medieval times to the present; religion and visual culture in China.
Research Interests: 

Raoul Birnbaum works in the interdisciplinary fields of Buddhist studies and the study of Chinese religions. Trained in visual studies, history of religions, and ethnography, his research is rooted in historical approaches. These studies have concentrated on three great themes: the major deity cults of Buddhist China, visions of the landscape intertwined with religion, and close examination of the lives of individuals within this religious field, including their expression through visual means. Following an earlier focus on medieval times in China, in recent decades he has concentrated on significant figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the 17th-century figures and phenomena to which they often turned as the models and sources for their practical and conceptual foundations.

The largest on-going project focuses on the artist-monk Hongyi 弘一大師 (1880-1942), a remarkably complex, inventive, and influential figure in Chinese Buddhist worlds. He also has been investigating the many worlds of St. Francis, with field research in that medieval saint's Umbrian homeland, studied both for the intrinsic interest of these materials and to establish comparative pressure on the Hongyi studies.

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. In this regard, based on an archive of extensive fieldwork photography, he has been working on a study of visual aspects of Buddhist life in post-Mao China.


Mailing Address: 

Raoul Birnbaum

University of California, 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 artist-monk, Hongyi Dashi (1880-1942).


"Out of a Dream: A Calligraphic Gift," in Chinese Religious Culture in 100 Objects, ed. Adam Yuet Chau (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2024).


"Master Hongyi's Confucian Dreams," in Individuals and their Inner Worlds in Chinese Religious Life, ed. James Benn, Benjamin Brose, and Ji Zhe (volume under review).


"Master Hongyi (1880-1942) and his Way of Life," in Buddhist Masters of Modern China, ed. Benjamin Brose (Boulder: Shambhala, forthcoming 2025).



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).



"Vinaya Master Hongyi's Vinaya Problem," in Take the Precepts as Your Master: Monastic Discipline and Practices in Modern Chinese Buddhism, ed. Ester Bianchi and Daniela Campo (Leiden and Boston: E. J. Brill, 2023), 23-94.


“Highland Inscriptions in Buddhist China,” T’oung Pao 103.1-3 (2017), 261-278.


"Two Turns in the Life of Master Hongyi, a Buddhist Monk in Twentieth-Century China," in Making Saints in Modern China, ed. David Ownby, Vincent Goossaert, and Ji Zhe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 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.


SOME EARLY ESSAYS (highly selected)

“African Buddhists? Some Issues in Buddhist Transmission Across Cultures,” in Buddhism and Africa, ed. Michel Clasquin and J. S. Kruger (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1999), 93-108.


“Secret Halls of the Mountain Lords: The Caves of Mount Wutai,” Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 5 (1989-1990) [Etudes taoïstes en l'honneur de Max Kaltenmark], 115-40.


“Chinese Buddhist Traditions of Healing and the Life Cycle,” in Healing and Restoring: Medicine and Health in the World's Religious Traditions, ed. Lawrence E. Sullivan (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 33-58.


“The Manifestation of a Monastery: Shenying's Experiences on Mount Wutai in Tang Context,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 106.1 (1986) [Sinological Studies in Honor of Edward H. Schafer, ed. Paul W. Kroll], 119-37.


“Seeking Longevity in Chinese Buddhism: Long Life Deities and their Symbolism,” in Myth and Symbol in Chinese Tradition, ed. Norman J. Girardot and John S. Major, published as a double issue of Journal of Chinese Religions 13-14 (1985-1986), 143-176.


“Notes on the Provenance and Meaning of a Central Asian Narrative Manuscript,” in Along the Ancient Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums, ed. Herbert Härtel and Marianne Yaldiz (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982), 214-15.


“Buddhist Meditation Teachings and the Birth of 'Pure' Landscape Painting in China,” Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions 9 (1981), 42-58.

Selected Presentations: 

Extended interview, October 8, 2019, with Professor Jiang Wu, Center for Buddhist Studies, University of Arizona

Part One:

Part Two:

Teaching Interests: 

Courses Taught on Recall (post-retirement)

FQ 2019   COWL 84  Chinese Approaches to Human Values (undergraduate seminar for College Scholars Program)

WQ 2023  HAVC 127B  Buddhist Pure Lands

Honors and Awards: 

Recent honors and external grants

Lin Li-kouang Distinguished Lecture for Buddhist Studies, Centre d'études interdisciplinaires sur bouddhisme (Paris), June 9, 2022

Visiting Researcher, Dept. of Philosophy, Università degli Studi di Perugia, Fall 2018.

Member and Trustee's Fellow, 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, UCSC Academic Senate, 2013

Patricia and Rowland Rebele Endowed Chair in History of Art & Visual Culture

Additional major grants, fellowships, and honors: 

National Endowment for the Humanities (three years), American Council of Learned Societies, Asian Cultural Council, Harvard University (Mellon Faculty Fellowship), Metropolitan Museum of Art (Clawson Mills Post-Doctoral Fellow, two years), Phi Beta Kappa

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
professional training and employment as goldsmith, Cartier, NY (late 1960s)