Abigail MacBain

Lecturer in Premodern Japanese Studies


Abigail MacBain is a scholar of premodern Japanese history and religion.

Prior to joining the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh in autumn 2022, Abigail was a Postdoctoral Research Scholar and lecturer at Columbia University, where she also completed her PhD in the Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures in 2021.  Her dissertation, "Precepts and Performances: Overseas Monks and the Emergence of Cosmopolitan Japan," examined the circumstances behind the relocations of several Buddhist monks from various parts of the Asian mainland to Japan in the mid-eighth century. She also looked at their influence on the religious, cultural, and political affairs of the period. 

Abigail’s research has earned her research, language, and writing grants from the Fulbright Program, the Blakemore Foundation, Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Program, the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture, and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. She has presented on her research at Princeton University, Columbia University, Doshisha Daigaku, Bukkyō Daigaku, and annual conferences for the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) and American Academy of Religion (AAR).



  • PhD (2021) - Columbia University, Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures
  • MA (2008) - McMaster University, Department of Religious Studies
  • BA (2004) - St. Lawrence University, Departments of Religious Studies and History-Asian Studies


  • 2021-2022 - Columbia University; Postdoctoral Research Scholar, lecturer
  • 2018-2019 - Kyoto University; Visiting Researcher, Fulbright Graduate Research Fellow
  • 2014-2018 - Columbia University; Teaching Assistant (intermittent)
  • 2009-2013 - Consulate General of Japan in Miami; JET Programme Coordinator and  Coordinator for Educational & Cultural Affairs 
  • 2006-2008 - McMaster University; Teaching Assistant
  • 2004-2006 - JET Programme; Assistant Language Teacher, Aomori Prefecture

Responsibilities & affiliations

Steering Committee:

  • American Association of Religion (AAR), Japanese Religions Unit
  • PMJS 
  • Edinburgh Buddhist Studies


  • Association for Asian Studies (AAS) 
  • American Academy of Religion (AAR)
  • Society for the Study of Japanese Religions (SSJR) 
  • British Association for Japanese Studies (BAJS)
  • European Association for Japanese Studies (EAJS)

Undergraduate teaching

Cohort Lead:

  • Third-year Japanese students on the Year Abroad


  • Pre-modern East Asian History
  • Society & Culture in Pre-modern East Asia


  • Buddhism and the State in Early East Asia 
  • Japanese Religious Traditions (not offered in 2023-2024 academic year)

Postgraduate teaching

  • Buddhism and the State in Early East Asia 
  • Japanese Religious Traditions (not offered in 2023-2024 academic year)
  • Classical Japanese (not offered in 2023-2024 academic year; contact for more details)

Current PhD students supervised

Secondary Supervisor:

  • Sara Atwood (PhD, Art History) – Women’s experiences on Mt. Kōya in Edo period Japan
  • Arden Taylor (PhD, Asian Studies) – Masculinity in warrior Noh plays

Research summary

 Abigail's research focuses on religious transmission and its role in transregional communication, cultural development, and global awareness at the early Japanese court. In particular, she is interested in the circulation of Buddhist texts, ritual implements, sacred images, and musical entertainment. 

Current research interests

-Japanese overseas relations -Buddhist transmission -Silk Road studies -Religions interactions and exchanges -Shōsōin studies

Past research interests

-Mountain-based religious movements -Honji-suijaku; Shinto-Buddhist syncretic practice -Monastic precepts (vinaya)

Conference details

University of Sheffield, Sheffield UK ; June 2023

  • Transpacific East Asia: Transformations and Trajectories in Music and Sound
  • “Celebration and Celebrants: The Multicultural Spectacle of Tōdaiji Temple’s Eye-Opening Ceremony”

The KIZUNA India-Japan Study Forum, New Delhi IN/Online ; Feb. 2023

  • Discovering India-Japan Civilizational Ties and Southeast Asia Connectivities
  • “South Indian Faces & Traces in Eighth-Century Japan: The Life & Legacy of Bodhisena.”

Princeton University, Princeton NJ USA ; Sept. 2022

  • Doctrine and Practice beyond Borders: International Interactions in East Asian Buddhism
  • “The Vinaya Veneer: Reexamining the Role of Monastic Precepts in Japan’s Precepts Master Solicitation”

American Academy of Religion (AAR), San Antonio TX USA/Online ; Nov. 2021

  • Religion in Service to the Japanese State panel
  • “Tōdaiji Temple as State Protector and Familial Temple.”

Association for Asian Studies (AAS), Online due to COVID-19 ; Mar. 2021

  • “Precepts, Platforms, and Politics: Eighth Century Japan's Precepts Master Solicitation.”

Columbia University, New York NY USA ; Feb. 2017

  • EALAC: 26th Annual Graduate Student Conference on East Asia                                   

  • “The Ongoing Legacy of Ethnicity for Bodhisena, the First Indian in Japan.”

Columbia University & Bukkyō Daigaku, Kyoto JP ; June 2016

  • Encounters & Intersections in East Asian Religions: A Columbia University Graduate Student Conference in Kyoto

  • “They Say He Came From India: the Eighth Century Brahman Bishop Bodhisena’s Use in Medieval Japanese Art, Literature, and Religion”中世日本の美術、文学、宗教に登場する八世紀のバラモン僧正菩提僊那」 (in Japanese).

American Academy of Religion (AAR), Montreal QC CA ; May 2008

  • Eastern International Regional Conference, McGill University   
  • “Buddhist Nationalism in the Development of the Japanese State”

Invited speaker

Salisbury University, Salisbury MD USA ; Mar. 2021

  • “Buddhism and the Nara State,” for “Japan and Korea in the Chinese Crucible” course

Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies ; Oct. 2019

  • “Guided tour around Nara.”

Fulbright International Education Administrators ; June 2019

  • “How Religion Helped Shape Kyoto: A Brief Tour Through Higashiyama”

Columbia University, New York NY USA ; Mar. 2018

  • “Japan and South Korea: Additional Tensions and Controversies” for “Introduction East Asian Civilizations: Korea” course

Papers delivered

Doshisha University, Kyoto Asian Studies Group Oct. 2019

  • “Platforms of Legitimacy: Searching for a Precepts Master and Shifting Monastic Ordinations in Eighth Century Japan.”