Jessica Main

Associate Professor

Relevant Degree Programs


Graduate Student Supervision

Master's Student Supervision (2010 - 2020)
Relearning religious practice when home is across the sea: the case of TenrikyM in British Columbia (2020)

The Japanese New Religious Movement, Tenrikyō, views a specific geographical point in Tenri City, Japan as the “Origin” (jiba)—where humanity was conceived by God the Parent, the central deity of Tenrikyō, and a number of other deities. Identified by their foundress, Miki Nakayama, in the 19th century, and the location of Tenrikyō headquarters today, the jiba is far across the ocean from followers whose families migrated to Vancouver, British Columbia. In a religious sense, followers living in overseas diaspora communities have become both physically and spiritually displaced from their Origin. In this thesis, I examine how Tenrikyō adherents in Vancouver practice when they are so distant from the “Origin.” Based on fieldwork and interviews, I have found that many choose, or desire, to return to the Origin. I argue that at the Origin and the surrounding sacred landscape followers become immersed in intensive, daily group practice. These intensive experiences are crucial for active followers to develop a connection the Origin and the surrounding sacred landscape and this connection continues to be important after they leave Tenri City. After they leave Tenri City, practice then becomes a matter of re-learning how to be at-a-distance from the Origin and the surrounding sacred landscape. Followers in Vancouver come to face the anxieties and difficulties associated with practicing in the area and begin to feel a nostalgic longing for the immersive environment they had experienced. While in Vancouver, followers maintain this connection to the Origin and the surrounding sacred landscape in Tenri City from afar through monthly services. These services invoke a sense of nostalgia through ritual, clothing, food and events but leave those who have not yet been to the Origin feeling no connection or sense of nostalgia. For this reason it becomes ever more important for Tenrikyō followers in Vancouver to encourage people to return to the Origin and the surrounding area, so they too may establish a connection.

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Restoring a lost lineage: reinventing the Karma Kagyu scholastic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism in-exile post-1959 (2020)

In both popular and academic discourse, Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhism is known for its meditation practices and sometime is considered anti-scholastic. However, I claim that the Karma Kagyu does have a historical scholastic lineage and that the Sixteenth Karmapa attempted to revive it during the twentieth century. This thesis is a critical analysis of the Karma Kagyu scholastic tradition from the medieval period to the present day. Throughout I adhere to the cross-cultural and comparative concept of “scholasticism” as defined by José Cabezón, and khepa as discussed by Sakya Pandita (1182-1251). Khepa (mkhas pa) is a crucial but ambiguous Tibetan term that includes meanings of “scholarship” and “scholasticism.”The history of the Karma Kagyu scholastic tradition can be broken into three periods: an early period of invention, a middle period of decline and loss, and a recent period of revitalization. The Third Karmapa (1303-1339) established a formal academic tradition during the fourteenth century and this tradition declined by the seventeenth century under the rule of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682). This decline was a result of the Tibetan Civil War between the Ü and Tsang regions of central Tibet and was perpetuated by a hegemonic Buddhist sectarian ideology that suppressed non-Geluk scholastics.This history explains why there are so few Karma Kagyu scholars and monastic institutes, or shédra, in-exile post-1959. It also highlights the work of the Sixteenth Karmapa (1924-1981) to restore the Karma Kagyu scholastic tradition and hybridize it with modern curricula and educational institutions during this same period but itself began to decline in 1993, negatively influenced by both the Seventeenth Karmapa succession controversy and a strong antagonism between Karma Kagyu monasticism and scholasticism. This latter tension is embodied by the difficult relations between Rumtek Monastery and Rumtek Shédra. My analysis of the Sixteenth Karmpa’s efforts to revive the scholastic tradition in-exile rely to some extent on a positive understanding of the theoretical framework of The Invention of Tradition (1983) by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger in which “invention” is not a deceptive act but a creative hybrid of old and new.

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A monastic scholar under China's occupation of Tibet: Muge Samten's (1913-1993) autobiography and his role as a vernacular intellectual (2019)

This thesis explores Muge Samten’s (dmu dge bsam gtan, 1913-1993) life and scholarly works in the context of China’s colonization of Tibet. He was a leading Tibetan intellectual, considered one of the three great scholars (mkhas pa mi gsum) of twentieth century Tibet. He was a vernacular monastic intellectual during this crucial period of transition and, while serving as an official within the civil bureaucracy of the People’s Republic of China in Eastern Tibet, Muge Samten was able to employ his monastic knowledge and official position. The fact that he had both monastic and official influence allowed him to play a major role dealing with the historical fate of Tibetan language and religion under colonial China. These two roles, traditional and official, were respectively “normative” and “situational” in the manner that Yogendra Malik (1981, 1-17) proposes for vernacular intellectuals in context of colonial India. Using Malik’s terminology, Muge Samten exercised his “normative” authority through traditional knowledge and “situational” authority as an official in response to the hostile political circumstances of the communist takeover of Tibet. His life thus was an illustration of a Tibetan response to China’s occupation.His unique position meant that he introduced communist ideas and ideology to Tibet. He engaged in the production of dictionaries, editing official periodicals, translation of government documents in the early 1950's, and later advocated protecting Tibetan grammar from the language reform proposed by the Nationalities Publishing House in Beijing in 1969. During the 1980's, he revived Buddhist teachings and sustained Geluk ordination practices at monastic institutions that had been decimated during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), serving as preceptor for many monks throughout monasteries in eastern Tibet. Muge Samten’s activities in Tibet could be characterized as situational, adapting to the political climate of an occupied Tibet. His role in reviving Geluk ordination lineages could be considered normative, relying on traditional monastic tradition and religious status. And finally, the sustainability of Tibetan language and resuscitation of Tibetan identity can also be examined in his autobiography through the lens of “vernacular intellectual,” highlighting the unequal power between him and the political authority within Communist China.

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The outward contemplative in higher education: mindfully forging ontological security in intersubjectivity (2018)

This thesis is concerned with three fundamental questions. First, why does North American higher education minimally engage with the existential dimensions of its students (their interests and inquiries regarding the formation of their personal narratives of meaning, moral directions, and a sense of stable identity)? Second, what are the potential psychological and social consequences of such negligence? Third, how can contemplative pedagogy adequately address such existential dimensions? This thesis explores the history of Western higher education, particularly the way that changing educational philosophies and curricula of education have affected the understanding of the self. I argue that there has been a radical shift in the understanding of self in higher education. The self has been progressively ejected from its proximate temporal, material, institutional, and metaphysical surroundings. In the process, the internal self became the source for truth and ethics formerly derived from the objectivism of religion and science. With the loss of objective moral and existential facts as philosophically disputable, politically uncomfortable, and institutionally irrelevant, this new self was made to bear a heavy burden. In these conditions, minimal engagement with existential dimensions of students in higher education can exacerbate ontological insecurity, where the individual experiences an instability and discontinuity in their sense of self. I argue that ontological insecurity has become normalized within higher education, leading to the perpetuation of destructive behaviours on both individual and group levels. Contemplative pedagogy has the potential to address issues of ontological insecurity. By examining the major discourses of contemplative pedagogy, I argue that current two dominant discourses of mindfulness, scientific-psychological mindfulness and transpersonal mindfulness, are inadequate in addressing ontological insecurity. I propose supplementing mindfulness with traditional Theravada notions of dependent co-arising and the phenomenological-existentialist understanding of intersubjectivity. By integrating dependent co-arising and intersubjectivity with mindfulness, a student can be sensitized to their existential dependence on social relationships with others. Ethically sensitive relationships with others provide the fundamental source of ontological security.

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Mapping the Garden of Truth: Buddhist and Idiosyncratic Elements in the Religious Space of Shinnyo-en (2015)

New Religious Movements (NRMs) are typically understood by observers as deviant, bizarre—even pathological—forms of religion that are born in times of crisis and joined by people in crisis. This understanding, however, overlooks the similarities and often close connections between new movements and more established “parent” traditions. Shinnyo-en is a Buddhist-derived NRM that began in 1930s Japan. It has strong ties to Shingon Buddhism and is also characterized by idiosyncratic practices and an emphasis on its charismatic founding family. Like other Buddhist-derived NRMs, Shinnyo-en is simultaneously contiguous with a parent tradition and distinguished from it. Abandoning the language of pathology, I suggest that we think of NRMs in the modern period as occupying non-locative conceptual “spaces” similar to those of “established” religions, secular spaces, and other ideologies. The very meaning of the name Shinnyo-en 真如苑—the “Garden of Truth,” literally a “borderless garden” (en 苑) of “thusness” (shinnyo 真如, Skt. tathatā)—evokes the image of an expansive, cultivated space. I argue that the space of Shinnyo-en contains two modalities. In its first modality, practitioners and observers see Shinnyo-en as a modernized form of esoteric Buddhism promulgated by the charismatic founding family, which draws on ritual and doctrine inherited from the Shingon school and from Mahāyāna Buddhism generally. In its second modality, initiated practitioners experience Shinnyo-en’s idiosyncrasy, which is a function of unique practices and beliefs that cannot exist apart from the charismatic founding family. The two modalities of the Shinnyo-en tradition are equally important to members, and must be simultaneously kept in mind to best understand this and other Buddhist-derived NRMs. With this map of the Garden of Truth, Shinnyo-en’s idiosyncrasies that have hindered scholarly and popular understanding become more intelligible, especially the profound emphasis on the founding family and the novel practices and hierarchies they introduced.

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Current Students & Alumni

This is a small sample of students and/or alumni that have been supervised by this researcher. It is not meant as a comprehensive list.

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