Photo by Rob Olson, courtesy of Lethbridge College.

Nearly 15 years after Dr. Shayne Dahl (BA ’07) left the University of Lethbridge with his degree in Religious Studies, he’s coming home in a big way.

Shayne has been awarded a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and will be joining the Department of Religious Studies for the duration of his award. The Banting Fellowship is one of the most prestigious postdoctoral research awards in Canada, with only 70 awarded each year to researchers across the country. Shayne’s award is especially significant for the U of L, as this is the first time the institution has hosted a Banting Postdoctoral Researcher.

For the Banting Fellowship, Shayne will be studying global Shugendō practices amidst discourses of Indigeneity. Shugendō is an ancient Japanese religion that involves mountain worship, asceticism, and ancestor veneration. Stemming from a fusion of Buddhism and Shinto traditions, Shugendō was placed under several legal restrictions during the Meiji Era from 1868-1912 and bounced back following World War II. Since then, a growing number of Shugendō practitioners are emerging, particularly in the time following Japan’s triple disaster of a nuclear accident, earthquake, and tsunami in 2011.

“I think the disasters inspired a lot of people to think critically about society and about values,” says Shayne. Referencing Japan’s strong work ethic and subsequent “workaholic” culture, Shayne says he believes the tragedies made people consider what they were living for.

“The disaster gave a lot of people a pause to think about life, and what they're doing with their life, and how they want to live their life. In my research I'm looking at people who've turned to this very ancient religion.”

Practitioners of Shugendō engage in mountain worship habits—through being outdoors, walking and hiking in the mountains, and engaging with nature—and the influence of Shugendō has increased and expanded in recent years. Now, Shayne says a transition has occurred, where people from countries around the globe have taken an interest in the religion. This led him to question the dynamics of the practice in other regions.

“Do [practitioners] just go to Japan and worship Japanese mountains, or are they going to start worshipping the natural landscape in their home countries? If they’re going to start worshipping there, the natural landscape in their home countries, what are the Indigenous politics of that land and how do they entangle with that? These are some of the questions that my proposal focused on.”

Because the global Shugendō movement is so recent, Shayne is at the forefront of research into the subject. His research will work to document this growing network through ethnographic methods and contextualize the complex interactions that are occurring between global currents and local environments.

Shayne’s interest in Japanese religion stems from the introductory religious studies course he took while at Lethbridge College, taught by Marko Hilgersom. During the unit on Buddhism, Shayne says the material “blew his mind” and he found studying effortless, as he wanted to learn more on the subject. This interest grew at the University of Lethbridge, where he took several courses on Asian philosophy and religion—including a course on Hinduism from Dr. Hillary Rodrigues and Buddhist tradition and Zen Buddhism courses from Dr. John Harding.

“I did get the impression that he was really interested in the work and engaged in way that was pushing back on certain assumptions in the field,” John says of Shayne. “It was a promising way to see him as an undergrad grappling with some of the issues that he would then be refining as a graduate student later on,” he adds.

John is a renowned expert on global Buddhism and is Shayne’s supervisor for the Banting Fellowship. John says he credits the strong fit between the two for some of the application’s success. John’s research focuses on East Asian religions, particularly Buddhism. His most recent project studies the modernization of Buddhism through global perspectives and is supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant. Despite the small size of the Religious Studies Department, John says the benefit of Shayne coming to the U of L for the fellowship means there is an excellent research support network, opportunities for collaboration, and many fits for him, particularly with Hillary Rodrigues.

“Hillary Rodrigues is at the beginning of a SSHRC-funded research project looking at ideas of non-dual spirituality worldwide. It also has that global dimension, and the non-dual spirituality that Hillary looks at also intersects in some interesting ways with Shayne’s work in Shugendō. The training for Dr. Rodrigues was originally as an anthropologist, so he brings an anthropological lens to his research. Shayne knows he has access to Dr. Rodrigues’ expertise as well as mine. The congenial nature of this small institution means scholars are quite happy to work with each other and share insights, so he’ll probably be benefitting from other departments as well.”

Shayne’s record as a scholar is indicative of his competition success. Getting his academic start in Lethbridge College’s General Studies program, Shayne found a passion for learning. Following his graduation from the U of L, Shayne completed his master’s degree at Trent University, where he was awarded the Governor General’s Academic Gold Medal for excellence in his studies. After that, he received his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Toronto, where he also spent time as a lecturer at the institution. Currently, Shayne is finishing up a two-year SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at McMaster University, and recently joined the U of L as a sessional lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies.

He credits his instructors for instilling a love of research and curiosity in him. As a first-generation student, Shayne says it was a completely new and bewildering experience to enter post-secondary and emphasizes the role that the College and the U of L played in his success.

“The hard work that my college professors and university professors put into my education is now coming back around.”

Shayne’s work has proven to be innovative, impactful, and internationally engaging. The prestigious Banting Fellowship provides Shayne with $70,000 each year for two years to support his research. Together with institutional support in research and dissemination funds, the institutional synergy, and departmental support and mentorship – particularly from the Religious Studies, Anthropology, and Indigenous Studies Departments—the fellowship will support Shayne’s research career and give him the opportunity to make an important contribution to his field of research.

“So, when I heard he was successful, [I felt] mostly just delight knowing how well this fit with [Shayne’s] plans, and also a little bit of satisfaction for our university, but also for the folks making the Banting decision, that they recognized the really strong fit that we could have here,” John says.

Shayne’s interest in research as a career path started with an independent study on the vision quest of Native North America. This grew into completing an honours thesis while in his undergrad, supervised by Dr. Leroy Little Bear. It was Shayne’s first experience with ethnographic research, as he conducted interviews with Blackfoot Peoples on the nature of reality and how their visions of the cosmos are enacted through ceremonies such as the sweat lodge and Sun Dance. He credits his academic foundation as a product of the post-secondary system in Lethbridge, which he says is what makes winning the Banting Fellowship so great.

Questions surrounding his ethnographic research continued to burn after his undergrad. Shayne spent some time traveling, relocating to Japan to teach English. When he came back to Canada for his master’s degree, Shayne says the politics of research became apparent to him. With the structure of graduate theses, there is no room for co-authorship or any other benefits for authors who are not the primary student. Shayne says this made additional research with the Blackfoot Peoples tenuous. Not seeing a fair playing field, he shifted gears to Japan. Shayne says he still considers his journey into this research as just beginning, even though he’s considered an expert in his field.

“I still don't feel like I have very much knowledge of Japan. I'm only saying that just to emphasize how much is out there—even the greatest experts on Japanese history, culture and society—they have so much more to learn.”

Shayne is set to start the Banting Fellowship in the summer of 2022—but he has another stop to make first.

While he was applying for the fellowship, he also decided to apply for another prestigious award—the Reischauer Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship in Japanese Studies—at Harvard University. Much to Shayne’s surprise and delight, he found out he won this award shortly after he learned he had received the Banting Fellowship.

“I had been rejected by universities across Canada before winning [the Banting] award and it's one of the highest postdocs you can get in Canada. So, it's like, a series of failures and then kaboom, you [get] the award. And then when I least expect it, the last application out there pending, the one that I had no hope in, that I gave very little effort in applying for, Harvard comes calling. I had that moment, if you look on YouTube and you see those kids reacting to the news that they got accepted into Harvard, I sort of like had my own crazy moment like that.”

The Harvard Fellowship is so prestigious, there have only been 150 recipients of the award since its inception in 1981. Shayne is the first scholar in over twenty years who received their PhD in Canada to win the award. He will spend the next year completing his fellowship with Harvard, starting work on the Shugendō project, before coming to the U of L to finish it.

“There’s going to be a lot of globe-trotting, which is super exciting because it's globe-trotting with a purpose. It's the global and transnational movement of a very old religion that's been imagined in a new light. It’s starting to catch traction everywhere, and in its travels, it’s picking up and losing different components. So, it’s sort of becoming something new, even though it retains its old name of Shugendō, but what does Shugendō mean in the 21st century? That's the question I'm going to try and answer.”

Shayne’s success is owed to the community, especially in Lethbridge. He says the support he has received from the University has been instrumental in his work, and credits his colleagues, friends, and family for their support in his endeavours. Our city even played a significant role in Shayne’s application—when he was considering applying, Shayne met John at Henderson Lake Park—the two walked around the park debating the merits of applying. Shayne says the meeting felt auspicious and special, as it made a local place have significance in his application. It was there that his research ideas were born, ideas that led to his successful appointment.

“Especially during a global crisis, we need to be close to people we trust, our families, our community, the people who support you and believe in you.”