Skip to main content

Eckerd professor awarded Luce funding to document sexual abuse in American Buddhism

By Robbyn Hopewell
Published July 25, 2019
Categories: Academics, Awards, Religious Studies, Research
California mountains

With the help of a $550,000 grant from the Henry R. Luce Foundation, Eckerd College Associate Professor of Religious Studies Amy Langenberg, Ph.D., and a cohort of scholars will spend the next five years delving into the issues surrounding the alarming phenomenon of sexual abuse in religious communities.

The Religion and Sexual Abuse Project is one of 31 new grantees selected by the Luce Foundation, which awarded just over $14 million in support of five program areas designed to enrich “public discourse by supporting innovative scholarship, leadership development and collaboration across geographic, disciplinary and ideological boundaries,” according to the Foundation.

“This award recognizes the important work that Dr. Langenberg and her colleagues are doing,” said Eckerd’s Director of Grant Development Anna Ruth. “This project would be difficult to complete without this dedicated funding.”

The official proposal offered to take multiple avenues to engage the public “through conferences, public events, publications and a dedicated website, to facilitate new perspectives that will enrich public understandings of these issues beyond sensationalized media reports. This work will potentially benefit the religious communities in which such abuse has occurred.”

Professor Langenberg’s expertise is in South Asian Buddhism, especially Sanskrit Buddhist literature, monastic law, and Buddhist medicine. Her research languages include Sanskrit, Pāli, and classical Tibetan. Her research focuses in particular on Buddhist ways of thinking about gender and sexuality.

Langenberg said she and her faculty partner, University of Central Florida Associate Professor of Religious and Cultural Studies Ann Gleig, Ph.D., decided to apply for the grant with the help of colleagues at multiple universities, including the University of California–Riverside, in part to support a book project on sexual abuse in American Buddhism.

“I am primarily responsible for the historical context of institutions, doctrines, and sexual ethics in American Buddhism, and Ann [Gleig] is primarily responsible for ethnographic research on specific cases of abuse. This is truly a collaborative project, however, and we will be working together closely on all aspects of the research” said Langenberg.

Media attention has been laser-focused on the abuses of the Catholic Church, but recent revelations about American Buddhism prove the issue of sexual abuse is prevalent across faith traditions. New stories spurred by the #MeToo movement about abuse in the Tibetan Buddhist and Zen Buddhist communities highlight an imbalance of power between sacred teachers and followers.

Professor Gleig earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Rice University in 2010.

Gleig said she researches contemporary American adaptations of Buddhism in “convert” communities and is particularly interested in issues relating to power and privilege such as racial, gender and sexual justice. The foundational research question Langenberg and Gleig share is: How do sexual abuse and misconduct crises impact practitioners’ understandings of Buddhism, and what non-Buddhist discourses such as psychotherapy and feminism do practitioners also draw on to make sense of them.

Langenberg said she and Gleig will travel throughout the project to affected communities to complete the book’s three case studies. After publication, they’ll engage in panels and other forums to bring their research to the masses.

She and Gleig each will receive about $20,000 to complete their shared research project. Langenberg will involve her Eckerd students through her Fall Semester 2019 course, Buddhism and Sexuality. She also will enlist aid from her Ford Apprentice Scholar, Jake Duggan, a junior psychology student from Concord, Massachusetts.

“We’re really, really excited about this project, especially the opportunity to bring this issue to the foreground and offer resources from the scholarly toolbox that may help communities as they process and recover from abuse, ” Langenberg said.

Banner photo (top) taken by Eckerd College students during an (unrelated) alternative spring break trip in 2017 to learn about monasteries in the mountains of California.