Danny Fisher sits down with John Harding and Charles Prebish to discuss the work of the late Dr. Leslie Kawamura.
The death of the University of Calgary’s Dr. Leslie Kawamura this past week was a tremendous loss to the world of Buddhism; he was a rare person who played hugely significant roles in the development of both Buddhism in North America and academic Buddhist Studies on this continent.
I spoke to John Harding — Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lethbridge, and a co-editor of Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada — and our friend Charles Prebish — the recently-retired Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies at Utah State University, and author of (among many other important works) Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America — about Dr. Kawamura and those pioneering efforts.
John, would you say something about the Kawamura family’s role in the Jodo Shinshu community in Western Canada?
Their stories are connected to several temples including the first Buddhist temple in Canada east of the Rocky Mountains — this was the temple founded in Raymond, Alberta, in 1929. Rev. Yutetsu Kawamura was the second minister there and Leslie Kawamura was born in that temple in 1935. Remarkably, Yutetsu Kawamura was among the ministers who celebrated the 75th anniversary of this temple in 2004. He was in his mid-nineties then and had served at a number of other temples during the intervening decades—including in Hawaii and British Columbia. He had only just avoided deportation during the forced relocation policies of the early 1940s, but went on to be appointed to the Order of Canada and other high distinctions.
Rev. Yutetsu Kawamura was born and trained in Japan, but his memoir, The Dharma Survives with the People, indicates his innovative ideas calling for greater adaptation of Jodo Shinshu to Canada, including reaching beyond the traditional Jodo Shinshu community and fostering the training of Canadian-born ministers including those without Japanese ethnicity.
Within a couple of years of the 75th anniversary of the temple in Raymond, Yutetsu Kawamura had passed away and the temple had been sold as part of a consolidation to the new Buddhist Temple of Southern Alberta (BTSA) in the nearby city of Lethbridge. Rev. Leslie Kawamura gave the moving eulogy for the Raymond temple, his own birthplace. That temple was not only the first in Canada outside of British Columbia, but it was also the administrative center of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism immediately after WWII. Jodo Shinshu dominated the Buddhist scene in Canada for more than half of the 20th century, so this rural temple was a center of Canadian Buddhism as well as the social and religious hub of the local Japanese-Canadian community. The influence of the Kawamuras and other prominent Buddhists from this surprising rural hub extended to ministerial and academic advances for Buddhism in North America and beyond. For example, Dr. Masatoshi Nagatomi, Harvard’s first Professor of Buddhist Studies, was the son of the first Raymond minister, Rev. Shingo Nagatomi. As noted already, Dr. Leslie Kawamura, a leading Buddhologist in Canada with extensive influence in Buddhist studies, was the son of Rev. Yutetsu Kawamura, the second minister. Yutetsu factors into this realm of influence too as Richard Robinson, who founded the first Buddhist Studies program in North America (Univ. of Wisconsin—Madison), used to drive down from Calgary to Raymond to learn Buddhism from Rev. Yutetsu Kawamura. The links and influence are remarkable.
Of course, Rev. Leslie Kawamura’s influence goes beyond his role with the Raymond temple and includes important innovations at the Honpa Buddhist Temple of Lethbridge from the end of the 1960s to the mid-1970s when he took an academic position. This history deserves more attention as does the more recent period in which Leslie served Jodo Shinshu in Canada as the Director of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada – Living Dharma Centre.
Would you say something about Dr. Kawamura as what Chuck might call a “scholar-practitioner?” How did he understand these two roles and their relationship to one another? (I notice you use the titles “Rev.” and “Dr.” interchangeably when speaking about him.)
Dr. Kawamura was dedicated to both dimensions of the “scholar-practitioner” as a minister in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and a scholar of Yogacara Buddhism. Neither was a mere side interest. He completed professional training in both dimensions in North America and in Japan (including M.A.s at both Ryukoku University and Kyoto University in the 1960s before his Ph.D. in Canada in the 1970s). Rev. Dr. Kawamura fulfilled complete career trajectories in both roles, as reflected by both of these titles, Rev. and Dr. The practitioner/ministerial role can be mapped from his birth in the Buddhist temple in Raymond, Alberta, where he his father was the minister to his training at Ryukoku, his position as minister for the Lethbridge Honpa Buddhist Church of Alberta, to the Canada-wide role he held at the end of his life as the Director of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada – Living Dharma Centre.
This is a full career for Rev. Kawamua; however, Dr. Kawamura had an extremely full and influential career as an academic as well. In addition to graduate training at Kyoto University, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Saskatchewan under the Buddhologist Herbert V. Guenther. After graduating in 1976 he spent a full 35-year academic career at the University of Calgary right up until his death. There are too many academic accomplishments and accolades to list from the time he joined through his recent distinction of receiving the Order of the University of Calgary. This site offers some sampling of his many contributions at the U of Calgary as well as beyond (it also provides a link to The Dr. Leslie Kawamura Graduate Scholarship in Buddhist Studies). For example, he was a co-founder of the Buddhist Section of the American Academy of Religions and a founder or influential contributor to so many academic organizations connected to Buddhism and Asian Studies. The endowed Numata Chair in Buddhist Studies at the University of Calgary would not have happened without him and thrived under his leadership. I attended several workshops that Leslie organized to bring together scholars in informal and enjoyable settings to discuss their work and build relationships-one of his many specialties. One of these gatherings, the Numata Chair 15th Anniversary Symposium at the University of Calgary in spring of 2004, included almost all the past holders of the Numata Chair in Calgary. These eminent scholars from around the world clearly shared a very high opinion of Leslie-as a person and a scholar-as well as praise for how well he used the Numata endowment for advancing scholarship about Buddhism.
Although this description only scratches the surface of his academic or ministerial contributions, my point is how remarkably full and effective Rev. Dr. Kawamura was in both of these dimensions. I realize that I have not written much about the relationship between them. I have two observations, one my own and one borrowed.
My colleague Hillary Rodrigues and I wrote Introduction to the Study of Religion in part to help clarify fuzzy disciplinary boundaries in the often misunderstood field of religious studies. Some of the confusion arises when there is inadequate separation between the study of religion and the doing of religion, for example, if the academic study or teaching of religion suffers from distortions or assumptions arising from a particular faith commitment. In this sense, Dr. Kawamura was an exemplary scholar-practitioner in his ability to wear more than one hat and wear each with style-including conforming to the rigorous standards and ideals of both communities. In this sense, it helped that his two hats-ministerial and scholarly-emphasized quite different traditions, Jodo Shinshu and Yogacara Buddhism respectively. Of course, it is possible for a scholar-practitioner to perform both roles well within the same tradition and Leslie’s interests in Buddhist studies were wide and not as neatly confined as I suggest above. This is a round about way of expressing esteem for his knowledge and ability in various Buddhist traditions, various Buddhist languages, and various roles as scholar and practitioner, all accomplished without setting off alarm bells among those of us who are at times concerned about the boundaries between these roles.
I still have said too little about how Dr. Kawamura understood the relationship between scholar and practitioner. To speak more directly to this central aspect of your question, I defer to the observation borrowed from one of his former graduate students, Dr. Sarah Haynes. She is especially well qualified to offer insights on this question because she worked closely with Dr. Kawamura in her own studies linked to one of the areas of his academic specialization, she helped him organize conferences, and has even conducted research on the communities he contributed to as a Jodo Shinshu minister. In a recent email exchange, Dr. Haynes wrote that “for Leslie, as a scholar-practitioner, it was all about the bodhisattva ethic. About embodying compassion and manifesting that when he interacted with his colleagues and students. If one thing became clear to me this past week, especially in emails from former students and colleagues, Leslie showed compassion and generosity to most everyone.”
Chuck, you are one of fifteen visiting professors to have held the Numata Chair in Buddhist Studies at the University of Calgary, an endowed position that wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Dr. Kawamura. Would you please tell us about that experience for you? What was it like working with Dr. Kawamura?
I held the Numata Chair in the Fall of 1993. It was a remarkable time, as I got to teach a graduate seminar on American Buddhism to a lively group of Calgary Religious Studies students, and spend time with all the members of the Religious Studies Department. Apart from being an absolutely brilliant Religious Studies Department, the members of the faculty actually enjoyed each other’s company and socialized together…and I was included in all their events. In addition I was given an office and computer, so I had the freedom to work on many of my research projects. As a result I completed my book A Survey of Vinaya Literature, as well as several articles and chapters, the publication of which led to my final promotion at Penn State.
Working with Leslie Kawamura on a daily basis was a delight, as he was nurturing, supportive, and challenging. I occasionally attended one of his courses, and was able to discover on a first-hand basis what a special teacher he was. Apart from our academic interaction, he and his family made sure that I was well taken care of, and included me — and my wife — in special occasions, like their Canadian Thanksgiving celebration in October. Leslie also arranged for me to give a lecture at the Lethbridge Buddhist Church, where I was finally able to meet his father and thank him personally for the wonderful Buddhist beginning he gave to my mentor, Richard Robinson. Being with Leslie for a semester allowed me to see what a huge impact he made on Asian Studies and Buddhist Studies at the University of Calgary…and beyond. I still have no idea how he had the energy to keep the incredibly busy schedule that he did. Sabbaticals notwithstanding, my time in Calgary with Leslie was the most exciting and rewarding time of my career.
You were telling me that during your time as Numata Chair, you two ate lunch together every day and that “during those hours [you] got possibly the best Buddhist education [you’ve] ever received.” What exactly did Dr. Kawamura offer in those hours? How did his teachings accentuate the tremendous learning and research you’d already done at that point?
The highlight of my time in Calgary was our daily lunches. Usually, around noon, Leslie and I would meet in his office, often with other faculty members and students included, and just brainstorm about all things Buddhist. Nothing was ever pre-planned. We just spontaneously discussed whatever came up on any specific day. It didn’t matter whether it was Vinaya or Vimalakirti, monasticism or meditation, the discussions were lively and free-spirited. It reminded me of similar occasions I’d experienced when visiting Masatoshi Nagatomi at Harvard two decades earlier. With Leslie, as with Nagatomi, I was absolutely astounded at the breadth of his knowledge and learning. He simply knew things that I never would have imagined he knew…and he knew most of them far better than I did. These freewheeling sessions colored a lot of what I wrote about in subsequent years, influencing not only my work in traditional Buddhology but also my thoughts about the developing American and Canadian Buddhist scene. There’s a lot of Leslie’s influence poking out from between the lines of my then future publications that he probably never saw. In October 2010, when I gave the Keynote Address at the Buddhism in Canada conference at the University of British Columbia, I found myself almost continuously distracted because there were just so many points in my presentation that hearkened back to those conversations in 1993.
In addition to the Numata Chair, Dr. Kawamura was instrumental in the creation of many scholarly organizations and activities. Would you please put his work into context for us? How has Dr. Kawamura been an influential figure in Buddhist Studies broadly?
Leslie Kawamura was instrumental in the formation of many professional societies, including the Canada Mongolia Society, the International Association of Buddhist Studies, the North American Association of Buddhist Studies, the Society for Tibetan Studies in Alberta, and the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies. In addition, as noted above, he helped to create perhaps the most vibrant venue for Numata Visiting Professorships of anywhere in the world. And for all of this, he was awarded the “Order of the University of Calgary” in June 2010.
Yet what I remember best is Leslie’s work as one of the second group Co-Chairs of the Buddhism Section of AAR, which I co-founded in 1981. Along with Collett Cox, he advanced the unit that George Bond and I had begun, and helped it become one of the very most successful units in the American Academy of Religion. Every year at the Business Meeting of the Section, Leslie and I would quietly sit in the audience and reflect about the incredible strides the discipline of Buddhist Studies had made on the North American continent, and how our own “North American School of Buddhist Studies” rivalled the old Anglo-German and Franco-Belgian schools.
Yet Leslie’s influence goes way beyond his impressive record of scholarly contributions through publication and professional societies. He was the most astounding mentor of graduate students I have ever met. It was always exciting to watch Leslie re-connect with his former students at conferences, and to know that it was his selfless efforts that helped to carve out careers for these brilliant young scholars. For me, he was the true embodiment of wisdom and compassion, and Buddhist Studies is far greater for his work and his civility.
The Dr. Leslie Kawamura Graduate Scholarship in Buddhist Studies has been created in his honor at the University of Calgary. You may donate here.