Campus & Community

Buddhist studies chair named

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Janet Gyatso appointed first Hershey Chair

Janet Gyatso will assume the new professorship at HDS. Gyatso taught in the religion department at Amherst College for 11 years. (Photo by Steve Gilbert/StudioFlex Productions)

Janet Gyatso, who taught in the religion department at Amherst College for the past 11 years, has been appointed the first Hershey Chair in Buddhist Studies, pending approval of Harvard’s governing boards. The new professorship at Harvard Divinity School focuses on “the thought, practice, and values of contemporary Buddhism, both in Asia and the West.”

“The establishment of the Hershey Chair in Buddhist Studies at Harvard Divinity School marks an important milestone for Buddhist studies in America, and I’m thrilled to be this chair’s first occupant,” said Gyatso, who started teaching at Harvard last week. “This is a critical opportunity to strengthen the study of world religions at the Divinity School as well as to help conceive and develop Buddhist studies at Harvard overall.”

“The Hershey Buddhist Studies professorship provides a unique opportunity for the Divinity School to promote scholarship and teaching about this religious tradition of the world and we are grateful for the gift that made this chair possible,” said J. Bryan Hehir, chair of the Divinity School’s executive committee. “The appointment of Professor Janet Gyatso to this position assures that we have an extremely talented scholar and teacher to fill the chair. Her work on Tibetan Buddhism, gender, and Buddhist ethics is innovative and will not only strengthen our offerings in this field but lead them in new directions.”

Gyatso expressed a desire to “help make new pathways for academic Buddhist studies. My current work is in gender theory – which also touches broadly on theory of the body – and in related topics in monastic law. Over the last few years I have also felt growing interest in exploring the many potentials of Buddhist ethics. In all these domains I am pursuing both historical and theoretical study.”

In the fall semester, Gyatso is teaching two courses: “Reading in Tibetan – Medical and Monastic Writings” and “Buddhist Ethics.” In spring 2002, she will teach two seminars: “Issues in Buddhist Philosophy” and “Buddhist Monastic Law.”

“Another aspect of my happiness to be at Harvard is for the collaboration it will make possible for my work in Tibetan religious social history with other colleagues here in Tibetan studies, and with the Tibetan Buddhist Research Center in Somerville, to which I and others at Harvard have close connections,” Gyatso added. “I expect these various aspects of my work to be positively influenced and inspired by my wonderful colleagues at HDS and also the excellent opportunities afforded by the Center for the Study of World Religions.”

Gyatso’s most current research includes a historical and theoretical study of sex, gender, and women in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism; her book on that topic is due out in 2002. Her Ph.D. dissertation was titled “The Literary Traditions of Thang-stong rGyal-po: A Study of Visionary Buddhism in Tibet.”

In addition to her many years at Amherst, Gyatso has been a visiting professor at the University of Michigan (spring 1999) and at HDS’s Center for the Study of World Religions (spring 1997). She received her Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981 and was also an undergraduate there.

The Hershey Professorship of Buddhist Studies was established in 1998 when the Hershey Family Foundation endowed it “to serve as the cornerstone for an expanded program in Buddhist Studies, augmenting the curriculum in world religions at Harvard Divinity School and complementing the existing program in Buddhist Studies offered at Harvard University.”

Don Swearer, the McDowell Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College, was a visiting Hershey professor during the 2000-01 academic year while the search for the permanent chair was under way.