Max Brandstadt ’13 says his fascination with Buddhism in China was sparked during a trip he took last year to see the incredible spectacle of the Giant Buddha of Leshan. The largest carved stone Buddha in the world, the Leshan statue is 233 feet high, looming over a confluence of three rivers from its red cliffside perch. “His ears are taller than me; his big toe is bigger than me,” Brandstadt said. “It’s really otherworldly.”
The rising Bowdoin senior describes being almost pushed down a slippery, steep path to the Buddha’s feet by other visitors packed in around him. The ancient site, carved in the 8th century, is thronged with both tourists and religious seekers. “It’s not a dead relic, it’s an active sacred site,” Brandstadt said. “I got pretty interested in Buddhism after that.”
This summer Brandstadt has received a Martha Reed Coles Arts and Humanities Fellowship to begin researching an honors project that blends religion, history, and Asian studies. He is a double major in Asian studies and classical studies, has been studying Chinese for three years, and studied abroad semester last fall in Beijing.
While he was in China, Brandstadt says he was surprised to see how restrictive the Chinese government’s policies were toward Christianity, something he quickly realized is not just a modern-day phenomenon. “The situation I observed in China was not merely a reflection of current politics, but a manifestation of a perennial struggle between religion and government with deep roots in Chinese history, and features particular to Chinese culture,” he has written in his research synopsis.
So this summer, he’s begun investigating the role that Buddhism, which like Christianity is not native to China, has played in fomenting rebellion in China. He theorizes that the Buddhist practice of separating monks from their families and society by placing them in monastic communities, or sanghas, helped to sever their loyalties and ties to the old order.
“But my research has recently moved more into the realm of how the sangha formulated both anti-establishment and pro-establishment ideologies,” he explained. “It is really about how Chinese society adapted to the introduction of monastic communities, which, as entities that were initially quite foreign to China’s indigenous culture, provided both opportunities and dangers to the Chinese establishment.” He is looking particularly at the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), which was when Buddhism became accepted as a Chinese religion and attracted high-ranking converts, according to Brandstadt.
Brandstadt’s advisors reflect the interdisciplinary nature of his work. His primary mentor is John Holt, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies. He is also working with Christopher Heurlin, assistant professor of government and Asian studies. Songren Cui, associate professor of Asian studies, is helping Brandstadt translate Chinese texts.
Brandstadt says he will take advantage of Bowdoin’s Chinese book collection, donated to the college in 2009 by the widow of Frederick W. Mote. Mote, a Princeton University professor, was one of the foremost scholars of Chinese history in the 20th century. He possessed nearly 6,000 Chinese and English language texts, many of which were found during his hunts through old bookshops in China.
Taking advantage of the quiet weeks of summer, Brandstadt plans to read a lot of primary and secondary sources, as well as Buddhist scriptures. “[The summer fellowship’s] a good opportunity to not have the distractions of other schoolwork,” he said.
The Martha Reed Coles Fund supports fellowships for students researching a topic in the arts or humanities under the direction of a faculty member. The competitive fellowship is just one among many that Bowdoin College offers to qualified students to support summertime research, projects or internships.