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Meet the Fellows: 2018 Newcombe Fellow Jeffrey Nicolaisen

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship fosters the original and significant study of ethical or religious values in all fields of the humanities and social sciences. The 2018 class, announced by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, includes Jeffrey Nicolaisen, a doctoral candidate in religion at Duke University. Jeffrey’s dissertation, titled  Equality of Life: Thinking with Multi-Species Relationships in Taiwan, investigates the Taiwanese Buddhist concept of “equality of life” through human, dog, and monkey interaction.

Jeffrey explains the story behind his dissertation topic:

Prior to pursuing a Ph.D. in religion, I studied environmental engineering in Japan, where I first encountered Zen Buddhism. Later, as an engineer at an environmental consulting company, I advised some of the world’s largest companies on environmental health and sustainability. One of my goals in pursuing a Ph.D. was to find forms of ecological ethics that could provide an alternative to the corporate sustainability model.

After my first year of Ph.D. coursework at Duke, I went to Taiwan and stayed at Dharma Drum Mountain, a Buddhist organization with a library known for its Buddhist collection. There, I found a thriving and innovative community of monks and nuns who centered their Buddhist practice on spiritual environmentalism. One of the nuns there introduced me to the work of Shi Chao-hwei. Perhaps Taiwan’s most politically active nun, Chao-hwei founded the Life Conservationist Association more than twenty years earlier to advocate for the Taiwanese Buddhist concept of “equality of life.” An ecological ethic based on the “equality of life” captured my academic attention. I set out to map an ecological web that involved Buddhists who fight against killing, indigenous hunters who fight to protect their traditional hunting practices, monkeys that fight with local farmers for the fruits of their orchards, and dogs who find themselves in the middle: protected by Buddhists, prized by indigenous people, and both friend and foe to monkeys. This ecological web led beyond the ecological ethics of corporate sustainability and populated my dissertation with a cast of both human and nonhuman characters who provide insight into different ways to approach the ecological challenges Taiwan and the world face today.

For more information about the 2018 Newcombe Fellows and a list of their dissertation titles, click here.


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