Skip to main content

Natasha Heller

Associate Professor, Associate Chair

I am a cultural historian of Chinese Buddhism with research interests spanning the premodern period (primarily 10th through 14th c.) and the contemporary era. My work seeks to find unexplored perspectives through which to understand religious history. Illusory Abiding: The Cultural Construction of the Chan Monk Zhongfeng Mingben, my first book, is a study of an eminent monk of the Yuan dynasty using poetry, calligraphy, and gong’an commentary to explore the social and cultural dimensions of Chan Buddhism. I continue to write frequently on Song and Yuan dynasty Buddhism and have authored or co-authored many book chapters and journal articles, including for Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism. The relationship between religion and literature is an ongoing concern in my research.  

My second monograph, titled Literature for Little Bodhisattvas: Making Buddhist Families in Modern Taiwan is under contract in the Contemporary Buddhism series at the University of Hawai‘i Press. Literature for Little Bodhisattvas explores the rich and inventive corpus of Buddhist children’s literature, showing how authors and illustrators engage with scriptures, commentaries, and visual traditions against a backdrop of the concerns of global modernity.  

I have just begun research for my third book, on trees in Chinese Buddhism. By examining trees in the literature, philosophy, and social life, my study will argue that trees conjoined the lived realities and cultural imaginaries of Buddhism. I intend this project to help bridge the disciplinary divide between environmental history and the study of religion in Asia, as well as to challenge anthropocentric histories by engaging arboreal temporalities.  

I will be a Faculty Fellow of UVA’s Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures in AY 2023–24 and 2024–25. For AY 2024–5 and 2025-6, I will be teaching in UVA’s first year Engagements program as well as in the Religious Studies department. I welcome inquiries from prospective graduate students wishing to work in the areas of Buddhist Modernities or Religion, Literature, and Culture.