AAS Member Spotlight: Thomas Patton

Thomas Patton is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies, and Associate Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre, at the City University of Hong Kong. A scholar of religious studies, Patton is a specialist in Buddhism in Southeast Asia—specifically Myanmar—and has been a member of the AAS since 2005.

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

When I was a masters student living in Boston in 2003, a classmate asked me to drive him to New York City to visit his friend who was presenting at an AAS conference. While sitting in the lobby of the conference venue, I was beside myself to hear dozens of people talking casually about Asian Studies as if they were chatting about the weather. I immediately registered for the conference and spent the remaining 3 days enthralled by the conversations and interesting people I met, one of whom would later become my PhD advisor.

How did you first become involved in the field of Asian Studies?

Back in the late 90s I traveled to Myanmar to ordain as a Buddhist monk with the expectation that I would have some sublime experiences. Well, they certainly were sublime but for reasons I could never have imagined. The day I arrived at the monastery, most of the monks were sitting around watching DVDs of Jennifer Lopez music videos. The ones who weren’t watching the videos were playing video games on a Playstation. When I asked if any of them meditated, they all burst out laughing! My stint as a monk was cut short due to visa problems, but when I returned to the States, I enrolled in a masters program for Buddhist Studies to help me better understand all that I experienced while in Myanmar.

What do you enjoy most or what were your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

The travel. Growing up in a small, rural town in Upstate New York, I never traveled much and only left the country for the first time when I was 21 years old. I went to India and then Myanmar and became hooked!

Tell us about your current or past research.

My current research is on lived religion in Myanmar, specifically examining local cults of Buddhist wizard-saints and peoples’ relationships with them, shrines, miracles, and other manifestations of religious devotion. My book, The Buddha’s Wizards: Magic, Protection, and Healing in Burmese Buddhism (Columbia University Press, forthcoming October 2018), explains the world of wizards, spells, and supernatural powers in terms of both the broader social, political, and religious context and the intimate roles that wizards play in people’s everyday lives. It also offers a new lens on the political struggles and social transformations that have taken place in Myanmar in recent years.

Future projects include a book on Buddhist spells, magical diagrams and sacred spaces; as well an article on the role of dreams as sources of revelation in Burmese Buddhism and another on the emergence of satirical cartoons aimed at ridiculing and exposing vices of specific monks or aspects of the monastic sangha seen as corrupt.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

Devote yourself to mastering the language(s) you will need for your research. The hard work you invest in the beginning will pay off down the road. Also, be flexible in where you apply for jobs. The job market has been quite tough, and I don’t imagine it getting better in the near future. So be open to living and working outside of your home country.

Outside of your work in Asian Studies, tell us something interesting about yourself.

If I didn’t become an academic, I would have opened a coffee shop or roastery. I really enjoy roasting my own coffee beans and brewing them in all kinds of brewing devices.