Faculty Spotlight: Bryan Cuevas

| Thu, 05/02/24
Bryan Cuevas is the John F. Priest Professor of Religion and a former Guggenheim Fellow in the Department of Religion. Photo by Devin Bittner.
Bryan Cuevas is the John F. Priest Professor of Religion and a former Guggenheim Fellow in the Department of Religion. Photo by Devin Bittner.

Bryan Cuevas is the John F. Priest Professor of Religion and a former Guggenheim Fellow in the Department of Religion, part of FSU’s College of Arts and Sciences. His research interests lie in Asian religious traditions, specifically Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhism, and Tibetan history, language and culture. In addition to publishing several books on his research, his work has appeared in numerous academic journals such as the Journal of Asian Studies and History of Religions.

Tell us about your background and what brought you to FSU.

I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and received my bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Emory University in 1989. After graduating, I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to pursue a master’s then doctoral degree at the University of Virginia in history of religions, specializing in the subject of Tibetan and Buddhist studies. After graduate school, there were some academic job openings in religious studies and Asian religions at various U.S. universities, but fortunately FSU was hiring in my area of expertise — Tibetan Buddhism. In July 2000, I moved from Atlanta to Tallahassee and happily started as an assistant professor in the religion department.

Can you break down your areas of research?

I am a historian of religion and culture of medieval and early modern Tibet between the early 12th and mid-17th centuries. My research includes biographies of Tibetan Buddhist saints from that era, Tibetan Buddhist funerary rites, and Buddhist narrative literature on death and the afterlife, in addition to darker subjects like Buddhist sorcery, ritual magic and demonology.

I have published several works on these subjects and related themes over the years, including an extensive study of over 300 rare Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts discovered in Mongolia and the eastern region of historic Tibet, located in modern-day Sichuan Province in China. These Tibetan-language manuscripts are composed of significant works on the Buddhist esoteric or tantric cult of the fierce divinity Vajrabhairava, a patron deity of the Dalai Lamas.

Historically, the Buddhist cults of Vajrabhairava have played major roles in the religious, ritual, and political lives of Tibetans and Tibetan-speaking people throughout Tibet, India, Nepal, and other Himalayan regions, Mongolia, and even in China during the early Qing period, the mid 1600s. In that period, Vajrabhairava was the presiding deity at the center of Beijing’s famous Forbidden City, an imperial palace complex located in the heart of the old city, representing the divine embodiment of the Qing Emperor.

What makes you passionate about your topics of research?

I have always been drawn to studying religion, particularly obscure customs and practices of early religious traditions and old languages written in different scripts. By the end of high school, I had a mounting interest in the Asian religions and languages. I settled on studying India and Tibet, and this continued beyond college. I am passionate about history, and I love pouring over rare and understudied texts, uncovering fragments of historic events and details of lost or forgotten lives, and piecing them together into compelling stories.

What inspired you to choose your field of study?

I took an Asian philosophy course in college where we read the 1927 Oxford translation of the enigmatic “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” I was immediately mystified and intrigued, and I became obsessed with finding out everything I could about its historical contexts, compilers and traditions. This eventually became the subject of my dissertation and first published book, “The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

Why are your research topics important?

I hope my research helps to heighten knowledge in the humanities and the wider public about the relevance and vibrancy of Tibetan Buddhist intellectual and material culture, both past and present.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Apart from my own research time, I enjoy teaching introductory level classes on Buddhism and engaging with undergraduate students. I also appreciate the focused work I do with my graduate students, helping them achieve their individual research objectives and career goals.

What is your best memory so far from working at FSU?

One of my most treasured memories was in Spring 2008 when I helped FSU and Strozier Library secure the purchase of a massive collection of Tibetan and other Asian-language books and microform materials from the University of Virginia. The collection contains over 25,000 rare and essential works covering religion, history, medicine, science, political, social and legal theory, linguistics, art and aesthetics. The addition of this collection to Strozier's holdings marked a momentous step toward a world-class Asia library at FSU.

Who is someone who has greatly influenced your life and career?

One of the most influential people in my career was the late E. Gene Smith, founder of what is now the Buddhist Digital Resource Center. As the field director of the Library of Congress Field Office in India from 1968 to 1985, Gene was instrumental in gathering, preserving, and disseminating the most comprehensive collections of Tibetan literature worldwide. He was second to none in knowledge and insights about these books, as well as the history and culture of Tibet. Gene became a dear friend and mentor to me from my final years in graduate school until his passing in December 2010. In 2012, an amazing film titled “Digital Dharma” was released documenting Gene’s life work and monumental contributions to native Tibetan speakers and Tibetan studies.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects or goals?

I am continuing research on the history of Buddhist cults of Vajrabhairava in Tibet and Tibetan-speaking regions as part of a long-term study of Buddhist sorcery and the politics of ritual magic in Tibet before the 19th century.

If your students only learned one thing from you (hopefully they will learn much more), what would you hope it is?

History matters, and descriptive approaches to research and writing are distinct from prescriptive ones. Descriptive projects involve a different set of goals, methods, and outcomes than normative ones that aim to prescribe what should or should not have been done in a particular historical context.