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The Australian National University

Professor C. John Powers

BA (Holy Cross College), MA (McMaster), PhD (Virginia)
Professor. School of Culture, History & Language
ANU College of Asia and the Pacific
T: +612 6125 9509

Areas of expertise

  • Asian History 210302
  • Philosophy Of Religion 220315
  • History Of Philosophy 220210
  • Culture, Gender, Sexuality 200205
  • Studies In Eastern Religious Traditions 220406
  • Religion And Society 220405
  • Religion And Religious Studies 2204
  • Other Philosophy And Religious Studies 2299


John Powers was born in Winchester, Massachusetts and grew up on Cape Cod. His first career ambition was to play professional hockey, and he spent much of his youth working toward that goal. This included summers playing in Canada, hockey camps, working as a referee, coaching youth hockey, and playing Peewee, Bantam, Midget, and high school hockey. 

When he started college, his focus changed in an academic direction, and he became increasingly interested in his studies, particularly philosophy and religion courses. After graduattion, he took a job in marketing and started an evening course in marketing at a local college. After two years, he decided to pursue an M.A. and enrolled in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University, where he focused on Sanskrit Buddhist philosophy as well as Western philosophy. 

While at McMaster, he had a chance meeting with the Dalai Lama and the 16th Karmapa, which changed the direction of his work. He finished his M.A. and transferred to the Religion department at University of Virginia, then the top program in the US for the study of Tibetan Buddhism. The degree in Buddhism was comprehensive: it involved courses in Tibetan, Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as seminars on Chinese, Japanese, and Indian Buddhism, theory and methodology, Buddhist philosophy, and several courses on Hinduism and Islam. 

During his Ph.D. candidature, he taught courses at Virginia Commonwealth University and Mary Washington College, and was a Teaching Assistant at UVA. After graduation, he worked at Gustavus Adolphus College, Wittenberg University, and Grinnell College. 

He then was offered a position as a Senior Lecturer at Australian National University, which he began in 1995. Four years later he was promoted to Reader, and four years after that to Professor. In 2013 he was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, a prestigious honour that is only accorded to a small number of leading academics across the country. He has also received an Excellence in Supervision award from the College of Asia and the Pacific and a national award from the Australian Teaching and Learning Centre for outstanding undergraduate teaching.

Researcher's projects

John Powers is currently working on several projects. His main focus is a book analyzing Chinese government propaganda relating to Tibetan Buddhism. It examines the logic and worldview of this propaganda and how it works on its intended audience (or fails to do so). The final manuscript has been submitted and is being reviewed by editors at Oxford University Press. Publication is expected in 2015.

Another manuscript, Investigation of the Percept and Its Philosophical Legacy in India and Tibet, a joint project funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant, was sent to OUP in March 2015 and is currently being assessed. The team included Jay Garfield, Sonam Thakchoe, David Eckel, Douglas Duckworth, John Makeham, Dan Lusthaus, Ching Keng, Chen-kuo Lin, Eyal Aviv, and John Jorgensen. This study is the first of its kind in Buddhist Studies: it charts the history of a 6th century Buddhist text through India, China, and Tibet, up to the 21st century. It includes studies of the literature, critical editions, and annoted translations. Another volume focused on the East Asian transmission and interpretation of this text is expected to be completed by 2016.

Powers is also working on a translation of the Awakening of Mahayana Faith, arguably the most influential text of East Asian Buddhism, with John Makeham, Mark Strange, Dan Lusthaus, and John Jorgensen. This is under contract with Oxford University Press and is expected to be finished in 2015.

In February 2015, he delivered the final manuscript of The Buddhist World (a comprehensive overview of issues and patterns in global Buddhism) to Routledge. This is currently in the production phase and will appear in 2015. He also has three book chapters in press with OUP, E.J. Brill, and Routledge.

In 2015 he received a grant for $787,000 from the Singapore Ministry of Education as part of a team that includes Jay Garfield and Sonam Thakchoe to explore Daktsang's "Eighteen Great Contradictions" and the response of the Gelukpa order. This will be a major focus of his research during the next three years.

He also plans to publish a study of a previously-unpublished memoir of a British soldier who participated in the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet in 1903-1904. It contains details and information not found in any records to date and will be an important addition to knowledge about this strange colonialist adventure.

Another project, with Thomas McConachie, will be a translation and study of an official PRC document outlining how Tibetan Buddhism needs to change and "reinterpret" itself to accord with "socialist society." Written by a team at a government-funded Tibetology centre, it expands on a government tract and identifies doctrines and texts that are conducive to the sort of Buddhism that might be allowed to survive in China.

Available student projects

John Powers teaches a range of undergraduate courses. His main focus is religion, a topic of great significance in today's world. A perusal of the daily headlines indicates that religious conviction lies at the core of many of the world's most intractable problems, and understanding different belief systems is imperative for undergraduates. 

He also teaches courses on Tibet and China. Tibet is the most sensitive topic for the PRC and its people. It lies at the core of the contemporary Chinese worldview and is a crucial part of how they understand themselves and their country. Without understanding the Tibet belief system in China, it is impossible to make sense of how it interacts with other countries.

Powers is also committed to teaching theory and methodology and has developed or co-taught three courses i this area. Such courses help students learn how to think and analyze and provide analytical tools that will help them in academic endeavours and in their professional lives.

Powers teaches Introduction to Asian Religions, Buddhist Thought, Mysticism, Buddhism, History and Theory, Textual Strategies, Hermeneutics, Tibet and China: Histories and Myths, and India: Emerging Giant, among other topics.

Current course plans include "Global Ethics," which will begin with an exploration of Western ethical theories, including Arisotle's virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, Kant, and Parfit. The next phase will focus on Hindu group-oriented ethics, Buddhist non-theological ethics and possibilities for a just war theory, Confucian formulations that urge individuals to subsume individual aspirations in order to promote social harmony, and the logic and worldview of Shariah law.


Past student projects

John Powers is deeply committed to producing outstanding graduate students. To date he has supervised eight Honours students, all of whom received a First, four M.A.s, and ten successful Ph.D. students. He has developed a comprehensive program that begins with discussion prior to the beginning of their program. The first topic is: what do you want the degree to do for you? After a student identifies his or her ideal career goals, we work together to move in that direction.

All have found the sort of employment they identified at the beginning of their candidatures, and they have published their work with leading presses and journals. Three are now hold tenured positions. One, Dr Pamela Lyon, received the Crawford Medal for the best thesis of 2010. Dr Ruth Gamble has been nominated for the 2014 round. The most recent graduate, Gesar Temur, received outstanding reviews from some of the leading figures in the field for his research on the resurgence of Buddhism in Mongolia; he has been recommended to receive the degree in 2015.

Powers has also worked to improve the Higher Degree Research program in the School of Culture, History and Language. During a three-year stint as Delegated Authority and chair of the HDR program, he developed a series of seminars to guide students through the program. These began with small-group inductions that outlined rules and procedures, milestones and how to manage time, and other topics. Experts from several departments were brought into these to discuss the practicalities of developing a clear research question and an outline, how to make the most of fieldwork time, managing the supervisor relationship, and maintaining focus and enthusiasm during the process. These were well-received by students and led to a significant improvement in completion times.

Other seminars punctuated the program. One focused on how to publish the thesis. A group of ANU's leading academics, scholars with world-class publication records, shared their insights. 

A third type of seminar, developed for students nearing the end of their program, focused on how to get a job. Most Ph.D.s don't consider this until the completion of their thesis, which is far too late. It is important in today's competitive market to begin positioning oneself right at the beginning and to have an eye on the end goal throughout the process. 


Projects and Grants

Grants are drawn from ARIES. To add Projects or Grants please contact your College Research Office.

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Updated:  26 September 2016 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers