Associate Professor and Department Chair
Office Hours: MW 9:30 -11:30 or by appointment
Zeff Bjerken is originally from Santa Barbara, and he has been teaching at the College since 1999. He teaches courses on the religions and cultures of India, Tibet, China, and Japan, on the sacred texts of Asia, and on theory and method in the study of religions.
In his own words
As a teacher, my goals are to inculcate empathy, interpretive sophistication, and critical self-reflection in my students. The discipline of Religious Studies plunges the student into the most profound issues of value, as it introduces the student to an enduring conversation—not always peaceful—about ultimately serious matters. The study of Asian religions, especially, requires that students develop their empathy and imagination in order to understand these foreign beliefs and practices. In my classes I assign passages from various genres of sacred texts, which range from densely reasoned doctrinal treatises to evocative works of poetry, from stories of saints and sinners to artful works of propaganda. Reading these primary sources introduces the religious ideals of the community, and students gain an appreciation for how a religious tradition represents itself as an orthodox and unified community.
But I also assign short stories and novels that present conflicts within or between religious traditions, or that explore tensions between prescribed ideals and actual social practices. Whereas religions often seek to privilege one set of symbols or values above all others, or even one text above all others, these stories explore the way in which different symbols, values, and narratives collide and quarrel. It is the tension between conflicting values and contesting voices within a tradition that makes the subject of religion ripe for debate and theoretical analysis. My goal is to introduce students not only to the exotic “otherness” of a foreign worldview, but to initiate them into a western tradition of disciplined investigation, so that they become familiar with the tools used in the secular academy for rendering religion and culture intelligible.
As a historian of religions, my research has mainly focused on the comparison of the two religions of historical importance in Tibet, namely Buddhism and Bon. For my research on Buddhism and Bon, I have spent years in South Asia pursuing archival research and textual analysis, mainly at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, at the Menri Bon Monastery in Dolanji India, and at the Triten Norbutse Monastery in Kathmandu Nepal, where I have collaborated with Tibetan scholars and monks.
2001 - Ph.D., Buddhist Studies program in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan
1993 - M.A., Buddhist Studies program in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan
1989 - M.A., Comparative Philosophy of Religion, University of California, Santa Barbara
1986 - B.A., Religion, Reed College
He has pursued fieldwork research in the Himalayan regions of North India, Nepal, and Tibet, and lived in monasteries there. Also, he has served as an editorial assistant for Religions of Tibet in Practice (Princeton University Press, 1995) and for The Tibet Journal.
- History of religions in Tibet
- Buddhist historiography
- Religious syncretism and the formation of political identity in Asia
- Use of critical theory in understanding and explaining religions
Below are a few links to search engines and websites that I often use in my teaching and research on Buddhism and Tibetan religions, culture, and politics:
And here are some interesting and provocative sites on religion:
- RELS 101 Approaches to Religion
- RELS 105 World Religions
- RELS 115 Religion & Society
- RELS 120 Religion, Art, & Culture
- RELS 210 Theories in Study of Religion
- RELS 240 Buddhism
- RELS 248 Religious Traditions of China and Japan
- RELS 310 Sacred Texts
- RELS 340 Tibetan Buddhism
- RELS 450 Religion, Violence and Conflict
- RELS 451 Capstone Colloquium
- HONS 175 In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith
- HONS 240 Value and Tradition in Asian Religions
"On Mandalas, Monarchs, and Mortuary Magic: Siting the Sarvadurgatiparisodhana Tantra in Tibet." Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 73.3, (Fall, 2005).
"Exorcising the Illusion of Bon 'Shamans': A Critical Genealogy of Shamanism in Tibetan Religions." Revue d'Etudes Tibetaines, no. 6, (September 2004), 4-59.
"Echoes of Current Controversies over Mystical Experience in Medieval Tibetan Buddhist Debates about Enlightenment." The Tibet Journal vol. 29.4 (Winter 2004), pp. 3-18.
"Hall of Mirrors: Tibetan Religious Histories as Mimetic Narratives." Acta Orientalia, volume 64 (2003), 177-223.
"Cracking the Mirror: A Critical Genealogy of Scholarship on Tibetan Bon and the 'Canonical' Status of The Crystal Mirror of Doctrinal Systems," The Tibet Journal Vol. 23.4 (1998), 92-107.