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Michigan Professor Earns Fulbright Funding to Study Buddhist Migration and Identity


Dr. Jon Keune, an associate professor of religious studies at Michigan State University, has received a Fulbright Global Scholar Award for the 2022–23 academic year. He will use the funding to continue his research on the effects of migration on the religious identities of Buddhists in a project called “Transnational Buddhism and Dalit Migration.” In particular, he will travel to the University of Tokyo, the University of Oxford, National Taiwan University, and a Buddhist school in central India to gather interviews and data on people from different countries who identify as Buddhists.

Keune’s work proposes to explore ideas of how a shared religious identity, namely Buddhism, can bring people together. From there, he will examine how Buddhists communicate to overcome and work around other differences they might have.

“My goal is to learn how migration and changed contexts shape people’s religious identities, especially when the migrating group is responding to a history of persecution and trauma in their homeland,” said Dr. Keune. “I’m interested to see what Buddhism means to them as they move to different countries, describe themselves to new kinds of neighbors, and relate to other kinds of Buddhists who have no knowledge of caste and Indian history.” (Michigan State University)

Inspired by the work of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), a Dalit lawyer who became an architect of India’s constitution, social reformer, and convert to Buddhism, dr. Keune’s work will examine the ways that contemporary Dalits—or “untouchables” in India’s millennia-old caste system—navigate religion and society.

“In 1956, Ambedkar and several hundred thousand Dalit followers converted to Buddhism as part of their quest for social equality. For the followers of Ambedkar, who number roughly eight million today, Buddhism represents a critique of caste and promotion of equality,” Dr. Keune stated. “Ambedkar and his followers responded to their particular Indian context, which led them to interpret Buddhism rather differently than Buddhists in other parts of Asia that had their own longstanding traditions.” (Michigan State University)


In recent decades, Ambedkarite Buddhists have been increasingly active among other Buddhists around the world with projects including building, migrating for employment, and traveling abroad for higher education. Dr. Keune’s work will investigate the life stories of a number of Ambedkarite Buddhists as a means to tell the broader story of this group of Indian Buddhists from its inception to the present day.

According to Dr. Keune:

Not only are Ambedkarite, Taiwanese, Japanese, and British Buddhists participating in distinct Buddhist traditions with their own histories, they do this while taking for granted their own local social structures, national political histories, socio-economic status, and cultural sensitivities about religion, spirituality, science, and secularity. It’s only when people from different backgrounds meet, try to understand each other, and interact while following their own agendas, that they become aware of their assumptions.

This project is important because this group of Ambedkarites is an outstanding example of how a historically marginalized and persecuted group is reckoning with their difficult history, asserting their own identities and concerns, and trying to chart a new and more liberated path into the future.

(Michigan State University)

Dr. Keune will draw from years of experience as a scholar working with Ambedkarite Buddhists.

“Over the years, I’ve met more members of the Ambedkarite community, became involved with some of their programs, helped organize a celebration of Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary at MSU with the local community, and imagined how this research project would come together,”  Dr. Keune said. “Now with the Fulbright and a sabbatical year ahead, I’m excited to focus on this full-time and dive deeply into the research.” (Michigan State University)

See more

Professor Receives Fulbright Award to Research Buddhist Migrants (Michigan State University)
Neo-Buddhist Movement: Unravelling The Story Of Transformation Of Ambedkar Into A Religious Figure (ED Times)

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