Research Projects

Here is a brief summary of my research projects past, present and future:

Jātakas in Indian Buddhism

This is an ongoing research interest of mine, as reflected in work on Pāli and Sanskrit jātaka texts, including the final ten jātaka stories of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā and the two relevant decades of the Avadānaśataka. I am also interested in the intersection between the jātaka and avadāna genres. However, the project really took off when I was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2017. I am using the money to create an online searchable database of jātaka stories in Indian texts and art, with the help of research assistant Dr Chris Clark (due to be launched at the end of 2019). Alongside the database creation I am exploring themes including the relationship between textual and visual narratives (the subject of a symposium in September 2019, and a collected volume provisionally entitled Narrative Visions and Visual Narratives in Indian Buddhism). I am also starting to work on a monograph on the diversity and unity of Indian jātakas across multiple contexts.

Buddhas and Pratyekabuddhas in the Avadānaśataka

I first got interested in the jātaka stories of this glorious and under-appreciated text, and published draft translations of the two relevant chapters in the open-access journal Asian Literature and Translation. After teaming up with a group of other scholars to tackle the whole text, I ended up working on the pratyekabuddhas chapter as well, and this in turn sent me off into other research about these intriguing figures. Finally, I pulled together the two jātaka chapters, the pratyekabuddha chapter, and the chapter of predictions to buddhahood – the first forty stories of the text – and am publishing this, with an extensive introduction, as Many Buddhas, One Buddha (Equinox 2020). In that book I put forward an argument about how the text understood the relationship between Śākyamuni Buddha, other buddhas, and pratyekabuddhas. I also address how the first forty stories form a discrete textual unit of their own.

The Story of Story in Early South Asia: Character and Genre across Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Narrative Traditions

This AHRC-funded project, which began in January 2013 and ran until July 2016, examined shared elements in the stories preserved by the religious traditions of early South Asia. The project was a collaboration with Dr. James Hegarty of Cardiff University, whose expertise in Brahmanical Hindu narrative traditions complements my own background in Buddhist and Jain studies. Many of the findings and reflections from the project can be read on, while the major published output is my 2017 monograph Shared Characters in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu Narrative: Gods, Kings and Other Heroes (Routledge).

A Thai Life of the Buddha: A study of a rare Buddhist manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford

Thanks to a 2011 British Academy Small Research Grant, for two years I worked with Prof Toshiya Unebe (Nagoya University, Japan) and Dr. Sarah Shaw (Oxford) on Bodleian MS Pali a. 27 (R), a beautiful illustrated manuscript from 18th century Siam. The manuscript contains an anthology of liturgical texts in the Pāli language, accompanied by 40 miniature paintings depicting scenes from the Buddha’s extended lifestory (eleven past lives plus final life). Illustrations of the Buddha’s final life are rare in Thai manuscripts, and these images preserve a distinctively Thai biographical and iconographic tradition. The images are therefore particularly valuable to scholars, and in combination with the texts they raise important questions about the history of Thai Buddhism. In addition the manuscript is accompanied by a letter from an early 19th century missionary, providing insight into the earliest understandings of Buddhism by Europeans. Our study was published with full colour images of the manuscript illustrations by the Bodleian Library as Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from 18th century Siam.

Narrating Karma and Rebirth: Buddhist and Jain Multi-life Stories

This project was funded by a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, which I held in the Department of Religious and Theological Studies at Cardiff University, 2009-2012. In addition to various conference papers and articles (see publications list), the main output is a monograph published by Cambridge University Press.

Abstract: Buddhism and Jainism share the concepts of karma, rebirth, and the possibility (and desirability) of escape from rebirth, though each has a different interpretation of these. Within the literature of both traditions we find many stories about remembered past births, illustrating progress on the path to awakening, the workings of karma, or the jumbled nature of rebirth that makes renunciation the most appealing option. These stories have much to reveal about Buddhist and Jain attitudes towards the mechanisms of rebirth and the pursuit of long-term (multi-life) religious goals. This project will compare multi-life stories from the different traditions in relation to the role of karma in rebirth, the key religious paths and goals, and the role of such stories in the teaching careers of awakened beings. The project will help to ascertain the distinctively Buddhist and Jain uses of this genre, thereby illuminating the significance of the stories within each tradition, as well as contributing to our understanding of the extent of interaction between Buddhist and Jain schools during their formative periods.

The history of the jātaka genre in Theravāda/Pāli Buddhism

My doctoral research project, completed at the University of Oxford in 2008, explored developments in the use and understanding of jātaka stories in Pāli narrative sources and later Theravāda reflections. The dissertation was revised for publication as Jātaka Stories in Theravāda Buddhism (Ashgate 2010).