QUERY> Modern Buddhist biographies for the undergraduate classroom?

John Makransky's picture

Dear Colleagues,

Would you please suggest modern Buddhist autobiographies or biographies that you think suitable for an undergraduate class on Buddhist Biography? I seek English-language texts that would engage undergraduates, which will contextualize Buddhist teachings and practices within stories of a Buddhist life, and which also highlight various tensions, challenges, problems posed by the need to navigate the socio-cultural patterns or institutions of that person's culture. I would welcome both modern Asian Buddhist biographies as well as biographies of Buddhists in non-Asian cultures, and hope to collect biographies of both men and women.

I would gladly receive responses on-list, and can also receive suggestions off-list at makransk@BC.EDU

Thank you,

John Makransky
Associate Professor of Buddhism and Comparative Theology
Boston College

Dear John,

I would highly recommend Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia, edited by Justin McDaniel, Jeffrey Samuels, and myself.

This book introduces contemporary Buddhists from across Asia and from various walks of life. Eschewing traditional hagiographies, the editors have collected sixty-six profiles of individuals who would be excluded from most Buddhist histories and ethnographies. In addition to monks and nuns, readers will encounter artists, psychologists, social workers, part-time priests, healers, and librarians as well as charlatans, hucksters, profiteers, and rabble-rousers―all whose lives reflect changes in modern Buddhism even as they themselves shape the course of these changes.

Here it is on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Figures-Buddhist-Modernity-Jeffrey-Samuels/dp/082...

Mark Rowe

Dear John,

I could recommend Chen-hua, In Search of the Dharma. Memoirs of a Modern Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim, edited by Yü Chün-fang, State University of New York Press, 1992. Hope this helps.

daniela campo

Dear John,

I'm not sure if this will be out in time for your class, but Alicia Turner, Brian Bocking and myself are publishing "The Irish Buddhist" with Oxford in spring 2020.

It's the biography of U Dhammaloka, an Irish-born migrant worker turned anti-colonial Buddhist monk who was a celebrity preacher in Burma and an active organiser in Siam, the Straits Settlements, Ceylon, India, Japan and Australia between 1900 and 1913. From the Buddhist Studies point of view the book explores the cultural negotiations that the first ordained western Buddhists engaged in, the Asian networks (particularly plebeian, ethnic minority and diaspora) that Dhammaloka negotiated, the construction of globalising Buddhism and the relationship between Buddhism and social movements in high colonial Asia.

The story is a very lively and conflictual one which should be accessible to undergrads - Dhammaloka was tried for sedition at least once, put under police and intelligence surveillance, had at least five pseudonyms and faked his own death before his eventual disappearance


Laurence Cox

Dear John,

An excellent book designed for just this purpose is:

Todd Lewis (ed.), *Buddhists: Understanding Buddhism Through the Lives of Practitioners * (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

Many of its 33 short bios are devoted to pre-modern figures, but at the same time there are several treatments of modern figures too.

Brad Clough

Dear John,

You might consider Urmila Pawar’s The Weave of My Life: a Dalit Woman’s Memoirs.  Although the narration is focused on her life generally, she writes a good deal about what it meant to her and those around her to follow BR Ambedkar in converting to Buddhism.  

The translation from Marathi is very readable, although students with no prior knowledge of South Asia (esp. caste and untouchability) may feel a bit lost in the cultural references.

A paperback edition came out in 2015:   https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-weave-of-my-life/9780231149013 

Best regards,


Jon Keune
Assistant Professor, Religious Studies
Michigan State University

Hi John,

Not sure if your use of modern is specific to the figures or the biographies themselves, but here are some suggestions.

There are over 100 Buddhist biographies here (http://shmb.la/buddhist-bios), but here are a few specific ideas:

Shambhala's Lives of the Masters series does just this and the first volume on Gendun Chopel by Don Lopez fits your description really well - contemporary, dealing with institutions, and has the benefit of a wider Buddhist context with his travels to India and Sri Lanka. http://shmb.la/gendun-chopel

Volumes from this series on Atisha (James Apple) and Tsongkapa (Thupten Jinpa) will release in coming months.

Holly Gayley's profile and letters of Khandro Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche, Inseparable Across Lifetimes also offer a very compelling story of Buddhist institutions in times of change. http://shmb.la/inseparable-across-lifetimes

The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi might also do the trick: http://shmb.la/freda-bedi

Alexander Gardner's forthcoming biography of Jamgon Kongtrul may also work very well for what you are trying to do: http://shmb.la/kongtrul-gardner

A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered is an interesting mix of autobiography and biography with contributions from the likes of Luis Gomez, Thomas Merton, Erich Fromm, Alan Watts, Philip Kapleau, Gary Snyder, Robert Aitken, Masao Abe, and many more.

While much of Zen Master Yunmen (http://shmb.la/zen-master-yunmen) by Urs App is translations of his work, the first 80 pages or so will give a reader an understanding of his fascinating life but also a very clear introduction to Chan.

Light on institutional hooks but possibly of interest is the biography on the Bengali teacher Munindra: http://shmb.la/munindra

Hope these help.