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Buddhist Studies

Faculty in Religious Studies

Erik Braun: South and Southeast Asian Buddhism, Buddhism in the West
David Germano: Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhism
Natasha Heller: Chinese Buddhism
Kurtis Schaeffer: Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhism
Michael Allen: Hinduism and South Asian Buddhism
John Nemec: Hinduism and South Asian Buddhism

Affiliate Faculty

Steve Weinberger (Religious Studies; Tibetan language)
Michael Sheehy (Contemplative Sciences Center; Buddhist contemplative systems)
Dorothy Wong (Art History; East Asian Buddhist art)
Ariana Maki (Tibet Center; Tibetan and Himalayan art)

Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia

For over half a century, the University of Virginia has been a leader in Buddhist Studies among North American universities. It serves as an international nexus for the study of Buddhism, with six faculty members who engage fulltime in teaching and research about Buddhism as well as many others whose scholarly interests intersect with Buddhism.

Collectively we offer graduate-level training in the Buddhist literatures, histories, and cultures of South, Southeast, Central, and East Asia. With training in Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan, graduate students develop as expert translators through seminars focused on the reading and interpretation of Buddhist texts and cultures. We also ensure that our students work with Buddhist communities and institutions throughout China, India, Japan, Tibet, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere by making field research an integral part of graduate education. Finally, students become experienced in theories, methods, and urgent conversations within the broader field of Religious Studies.

Faculty bring expertise in Chinese Buddhist studies, Theravāda Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, South Asian and Tibetan tantric traditions, Buddhism in the West, and philosophy, history, and literature from the major regions in which Buddhism has flourished. Students often take classes in other departments at UVa, such as Art History, Anthropology, or English to develop multidisciplinary approaches to Buddhist Studies. Buddhist studies faculty collaborate with the University community, the international scholarly community, and Buddhist communities in training the next generation of scholars. Since 1979 the program has produced over 90 PhD graduates, many of whom now teach at major universities throughout North America.

Program Requirements for the PhD in Buddhist Studies


PhD students are assigned a primary advisor whom they should routinely consult on the planning and progress of their degree program. In addition to mentoring students with respect to their learning, research, and writing goals, advisors guide and approve course selections, language plans, comprehensive exam plans, the dissertation prospectus, and the dissertation itself. By area, advisors are typically: Chinese Buddhism (Heller); Southeast Asian Buddhism (Braun); Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhism (Germano or Schaeffer); South Asian Buddhism (Allen, Braun, Germano, Nemec, Schaeffer). 

Course Requirements

PhD students in Buddhism must complete no fewer than 12 seminars or tutorials on topics related to their areas of specialization. Typically, students will take 6 seminars or tutorials in their primary field of specialization (Buddhism in a particular language and area), 3 seminars or tutorials in a secondary field (often a related field of Asian religious studies, such as Hinduism or Chinese Religions), and 2 electives in other fields beyond the field of primary specialization. In addition to these 11 courses, students are also required to take 2 seminars on theory and method. One of these must be RELG 7360 (“Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion,” required of all PhD students in Religious Studies). The second seminar may be a theory or method course offered either in Religious Studies or in another department, with the approval of the student’s advisor(s). Finally, since every PhD candidate must have a UVa faculty member from outside the department on their dissertation committee, advisors may encourage students to take at least one course outside of the Department of Religious Studies. Such courses are typically counted towards the electives category, and in some cases the theories and methods category. Collectively, these courses contribute to fulfilling the GSAS requirement of at least 45 credit hours of graded graduate coursework.

Students who enter the PhD program with a relevant prior graduate degree may petition for “advanced standing” by the end of their first year in order to obtain up to 15 transfer credits toward their UVa degree, thereby reducing the graded graduate coursework requirement to 30 credit hours (typically, 10 classes). If advanced standing is approved, the student should work directly with their advisor(s) to formulate a coursework plan that balances depth in one’s area of specialization with a wider field of research. Again, and as appropriate, students can and should take classes in other departments of the university. 

Language Requirements

PhD students in Buddhist studies must acquire high proficiency in the languages necessary for advanced research in their area of specialization. In coursework high proficiency typically entails the following:

  • South- and/or Southeast-Asian Buddhism: (a) four years of either Sanskrit or another primary research language (Pali, etc.); and (b) two years of a second language relevant to the student's research interests (including Sanskrit for those who select Pali as their primary research language, or vice versa).
  • Tibetan Buddhism in South Asian context or Tibetan Buddhism in east Asian Context: four years of Tibetan (both classical and modern) and three years of either Sanskrit or Chinese.
  • Chinese Buddhism: four years of Chinese and two years of a second language relevant to the student’s research interests, such as Japanese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, etc., to be determined in consultation with one's advisor(s).

PhD students in Buddhism must also pass a reading competency examination in at least one modern research language other than English that is useful for their scholarly work. A “modern research language” is a language with a contemporary body of academic literature relevant to the student’s program such as French, German, Spanish, modern Japanese, modern Chinese, Hindi, modern Tibetan, and so forth. "Modern research language" here does not include classical languages such as classical Japanese, classical Chinese, classical Tibetan, Sanskrit, Pali, etc., or languages that lack a significant body of scholarship relevant to the student’s research.

Course Load

PhD students should complete their course work requirements within the first three years of their program (or two years if they have "advanced standing"). Students typically enroll for a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester (note that a 3 credit "non-topical courses" counts toward this total). It is possible to take more credit hours, and students should consult their adviser regarding a larger course load. It is important for students to ensure they are making specific progress toward degree requirements with each and every course.

Examples of semester course loads for PhD students in Buddhist Studies include:

  • Seminar: 3 credits
  • Seminar: 3 credits
  • Classical language at the graduate level: 3 credits
  • TA-ship: 3 credits (Students should register under RELS 8995)


  • Seminar: 3 credits
  • Seminar: 3 credits
  • Classical language: 3 credits
  • Classical language: 3 credits

Note that it is possible to continue taking courses after the program course requirements have been met. This is especially relevant if seminars or languages courses that were not taught during one's coursework period are taught in subsequent years.

Comprehensive Examinations

Students will take three comprehensive exams, in addition to any required language exams. The first exam focuses on Buddhism (consisting of a general reading list as well as one specialized list chosen by the student); the second covers the student's secondary area of research; the third is on theory and method in the study of religion. In some cases there will be a required fourth exam in the student’s primary classical language. Students must complete all examinations by the end of the semester following the completion of coursework (although it is possible and often useful to take some of the exams earlier during coursework). Each exam will be supervised by two faculty members: a primary examiner and a secondary examiner. The format of the exams and the reading lists will be arranged by the examiners in consultation with the student.

Dissertation Prospectus

Following the completion of comprehensive exams, students must assemble a "prospectus committee" of no fewer than three faculty members, including one's primary advisor and two other faculty familiar with the student’s work. (Keep in mind that the dissertation committee must include a tenured or tenure-track UVa faculty member from outside the Department of Religious Studies. It is best to include this person on the prospectus committee as well, if possible.) The student then prepares and defends a dissertation prospectus. The prospectus details the topic, sources, methodology, and predicted argument of the dissertation. An oral defense of the prospectus should be undertaken by the end of the second semester following the completion of coursework requirements. After completing course work, exams, and prospectus, the student is ABD, "all but dissertation". 

Field Research

PhD students in Buddhism are typically expected to complete at least one academic year of study or research in Asia in the year following the completion of their comprehensive exams and dissertation prospectus.

Dissertation Completion

Students typically write their dissertations after fieldwork, taking 1–2 years to do so. The culmination of the process is the dissertation defense, which is an oral examination on the dissertation. Dissertation defenses should ideally be scheduled several months before the proposed graduation date in order to ensure sufficient time for editing prior to submission of the final draft of the dissertation.

Ideal PhD program schedules may thus look like this:

Without advanced standing:

Course work: Years 1–3

Comprehensive Exams and Dissertation Prospectus: Year 4

Field Research: Year 5

Dissertation Completion: Year 6

With advanced standing:

Course work: Years 1­–2

Comprehensive Exams and Dissertation Prospectus: Year 3

Field Research: Year 4

Dissertation Completion: Years 5–6

Non-Topical Research Courses

PhD students must enroll in a 12-hour course load. Within this framework they may, in consultation with their advisor, enroll in up to 3 hours of non-topical research in order to successfully manage their program requirements:

    • RELS 8998 Non-Topical Research: Preparation for Master's Research, no thesis director
    • RELS 8999 Non-Topical Research: For Master's thesis, taken under the supervision of a thesis director
    • RELS 9998 Non-Topical Research: Preparation for Doctoral Research, no dissertation director
    • RELS 9999 Non-Topical Research: For Doctoral Dissertation, taken under the supervision of a dissertation director

For courses numbered 8998 and 9998, a faculty member will have to be assigned for each student. For 8999 and 9999, the student's research advisor would be the appropriate faculty member.