Andrew Macomber, Japanese B.A. 2010, joins us to talk about his new book Buddhist Healing in Medieval China and Japan, and life after UMass.

What degree(s) of study did you receive and when? 

I graduated in 2010 with a BA with honors in Japanese Language and Literature and a minor in Chinese.

How did you discover your interest/passion for these programs?

My initial interest was in Buddhism, which I discovered in high school through writings on Zen by scholars like D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. I knew early on I wanted to study the ways that Buddhism developed in East Asia, so I started taking Japanese classes when I was in my second year at a community college. I was encouraged in this decision by a dai-senpai who, as an alum herself, also recommended I transfer to UMass the next year—which I did. I found UMass to be a wonderful place to further my study, especially given the incredible opportunity to take two semesters of classical Japanese. I eventually wrote an honor’s thesis on an Edo-period work, Idle Chat on a Night Boat (Yasen kanna), in which the author Hakuin, a famous Rinzai Zen priest, describes how he overcame “Zen sickness” using a secret meditation method given to him by Hakuyu, a Daoist-style immortal believed to live in northeast Kyoto. Writing this thesis gave me the chance to explore my growing interest in the intersections between Buddhism and medicine in Japanese history. It wouldn’t have been possible without the generous guidance of Professor Reiko Sono and Peter Gregory, now Professor Emeritus of Smith College.

What professional experience do you have post-grad? 

After finishing at UMass I took the 2010–2011 year to apply to graduate schools in the US and Japan. I was juggling options when the triple disaster struck Japan in March of 2011. This tragic event brought home the immense value of understanding Buddhism and religion in Japan, which in subsequent months became important resources, both spiritual and material, for many people impacted by the disaster. That fall, I entered a PhD program in the Religion Department at Columbia University. During my time there I was fortunate to receive generous grants from the Japan Foundation, the Japanese government (Monbukagakushō), and Kyōu Shooku, a small library in Osaka known for its impressive collection of historical documents related to traditional medicine. This funding allowed me to spend three years in Nagoya and Kyoto where I conducted research under Professor Abe Yasurō, a specialist of medieval literature and religion at Nagoya University, and met many other scholars and peers who warmly offered both assistance and friendship. (It also gave me the chance to follow in Hakuin’s footsteps and visit the legendary Hakuyu's grave, among other religious sites and temples related to my research). After teaching courses at Columbia and New York University, in 2019, I earned my doctorate and started my current position in the Religion and East Asian Studies departments at Oberlin College.

What advice do you have for current students in the EALC program and in general?

In terms of language learning, I was lucky to receive no-nonsense advice early on from another senpai, Brian Gesiak (an alum also featured on the site). I remember it like this: Serious learners of Japanese would do well to learn hundreds of the most commonly used kanji as quickly as possible, since literacy opens endless avenues of self-study in the way of books. Spaced-repetition apps like Anki are great, but Brian’s method was to handwrite multiple compounds grouped by kanji over and over again, which worked wonders for me at the time. And when you’ve got the kanji down, I would also suggest getting in the habit of reading books in a genre of interest without a dictionary by your side. As painful as it is to not understand every word, your curiosity in the subject will prompt you forward through the text, you’ll be forced to practice recall, and you’ll learn the skill of deducing meaning from context. You need only find something fun to read. For me, it was (and occasionally still is) the folklore-inspired novels of authors such as Yumemakura Baku and Morimi Tomihiko. Of course, if you have the opportunity, definitely study abroad—ideally in a city filled with furuhonya, used book stores!

What are your favorite memories relevant to your studies? 

First and foremost, my classes: Buddhism and literature with Stephen Miller, religion with Reiko Sono, classical Japanese and kuzushiji with Stephen Forrest, classical Chinese with David Schneider, Japanese culture with Doris Bargen, and calligraphy with Zhongwei Shen, not to mention all of my wonderful modern language courses. I also fondly remember evenings on the twenty-third floor of the W. E. B. Du Bois Library watching snow building up outside as I toiled away at my honor’s thesis. Especially meaningful was my year living in Thatcher Hall with Ian Coupal, Sam Haymann, Brian, and other friends.

What inspired you to write your book? 

C. Pierce Salguero, who is a scholar of Chinese Buddhism and medicine, brought me on as co-editor for the book. It's a collection of essays by an international group of scholars representing the latest research on Buddhism and medicine in East Asia, a quickly growing subfield within Buddhist Studies and East Asian Studies. In the chapter I contribute to the volume, I examine a Buddhist healing ritual created to eliminate "corpse-vector disease," a contagious and sometimes deadly disease that first emerged in Japan in the late twelfth century. What’s fascinating from my perspective is that the monks who created this ritual drew upon not only Buddhist forms of healing, as we might expect, but also techniques we would nowadays associate more with traditional Chinese medicine. 

What do you want to tell the world about your new book? 

Owing to the recent "mindfulness revolution," it's become something of common knowledge today that Buddhist meditation practices are deeply connected with healing of the mind and the body. In fact, there's a long and rich history of connections between Buddhism and healing, and each of the book's essays illuminate a different aspect of that history in medieval China and Japan. If that’s not a good enough reason to check it out, the Kindle version is (at the time of writing) only $9.99 on Amazon—not your typical price tag for an academic book!

What’s next for you? 

I’m excited to start my second year teaching at Oberlin College in September. In the meantime, I’m tying up some loose ends for an article on Buddhist responses to epidemics and working on my first book project, which explores the history of Buddhist healing rituals in medieval Japan.

Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on my time at UMass. I hope current and future students will find the experience as rewarding as I did.

Andrew's book will be published through Hawai'i Press in August, 2020

C. Pierce Salguero and Andrew Macomber, eds. Buddhist Healing in Medieval China and Japan (August 2020, University of Hawaii Press)