Faculty Spotlight: Jimmy Yu, Associate Professor of Religion
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in Taiwan and migrated to the United States when I was 11. I grew up in New Jersey and New York. I received my B.F.A. at the School of Visual Arts in New York, my M.A. from the University of Kansas, and my Ph.D. from Princeton University. I joined the faculty at FSU in 2008.
When did you first become interested in Chinese religious traditions, particularly Buddhism and Daoism?
I first became interested in Buddhism in Taiwan. Later, I became a Buddhist monk for about 10 years right after college. When I returned to lay life, naturally I pursued higher education in Buddhist studies. At KU and Princeton, I began to approach Buddhism from the cultural context of Chinese civilization. That’s when I realized that Chinese Buddhism is intimately connected to all aspects of Chinese religions, such as Daoism and indigenous cultic traditions. My first book (“Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions, 1500-1700”) focuses on four shared bodily (self-inflicted violent) practices in different premodern Chinese religious traditions.
What are your current research interests, and what makes you passionate about them?
I am currently writing a monograph on the late venerable Sheng Yen’s (1931-2009) Chan or Zen Buddhist thought. It is the first historical study in any language on a man who was born at the margins of society, living through war-torn China to becoming one of the most respected Buddhist clerics of our time. It is also a story of a cleric who sought to preserve, integrate and perpetuate the rich variegated tradition of “Han transmission of Buddhism” that culminated in his creation of the Dharma Drum Lineage of Chinese Chan. I have known Sheng Yen for close to 30 years. This book is a tribute to him.
What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your field of study important?
Sheng Yen was known for his relentless focus on Buddhist education and Chan teachings in Mandarin and English-speaking countries. He was a prolific writer on many topics dealing with not only Chan Buddhism but also environmental protection, reformulation of religious rituals (such as weddings and funerals) and Buddhist education; both of his graduate and the seminary institutions have provided the platform for the academic and theological study of Chinese Buddhism. In the West, he was mostly known as a Chan master who had led hundreds of intensive Chan or Zen meditation retreats all over the world, and who helped to carved out a presence of Chan in mainstream Buddhism in the world today. However, much of the historical details, and the genesis of his Chan thought, are unknown to Westerners. My second book project fills this lacuna and historicizes Sheng Yen’s writings in the sociopolitical currents that he traversed in his lifetime, from mainland China to Taiwan to America.
Who are your role models? Who has influenced you most in your life?
It was Sheng Yen who first set me on my path in learning about Buddhism, both personally and academically, and my own Chinese roots. I’m also grateful for my two academic mentors, Daniel Stevenson and Stephen Teiser, who showed me the tools for researching and historicizing Buddhism and Chinese culture. Without them, I would not be able to be here today.
What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?
Causes and conditions brought me to FSU, which is my first teaching position. I really love the faculty, resources, people and students here. Incidentally, the Chinese transliteration for Tallahassee, Florida, is “Tacheng, Fozhou,” which means “The City of Pagodas, the Province of the Buddhas.” I find this auspicious.
What is your favorite part of your job?
At FSU I’m able to teach the courses I’m interested in and get to develop the Buddhist studies program here. So far, I’ve been able to establish the permanent professorship, graduate funding for Buddhist studies, an annual lectureship and postdoctoral positions. My aim is to make FSU a vibrant and one of the leading universities for Buddhist studies.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Challenges are opportunities for growth. Over the years I’ve been here, I’ve learned to train graduate students while researching my own topics of interest. After my second book, my plan is to integrate the interests of my grad students with my own and return to researching Chinese Buddhism in the cultural context of premodern China.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I have actually established a meditation center in the middle of the city, the Tallahassee Chan Center (https://tallahasseechan.org/), hoping to provide a sanctuary for everyone living here. A lot of FSU faculty and students, as well as state workers and locals, come. So running a center keeps me busy. On a personal note, I like reading studies on neuroscience, which I find fascinating.
If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?
Critical thinking. To learn to read, think and see through the cultural discourses that shape culture and history. When students are able to learn to do this academically, they will be able to apply this same ability on themselves and discover its usefulness for shaping their own lives.