Q&A with religion professor Reiko Ohnuma

by Ruben Gallardo | 1/31/18 2:00am


Religion professor Reiko Ohnuma’s scholarship explores themes in narrative literature of South Asian Buddhism such as stories, legends and myths. She first became interested in Southeast Asian studies as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. Her academic interests in the culture of the region led her to Varanasi, India, on a post-graduate fellowship, where she decided to pursue a doctorate degree in South Asian studies. Last June, she published her third book, “Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination,” which adds to her repertoire of publications focusing on Buddhist traditions in Southeast Asia. At the College, Ohnuma is teaching Religion 9, “Hinduism” and Religion 42, “Goddesses of India.”

What led you to pursue a career as a scholar specializing in the Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia?

RO: I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley and I was a psychology major. I was unhappy with that major, so at the beginning of my junior year, when I was shopping for classes, a friend of mine told me a crazy story about India. He had visited the country, hiked into the jungle and the next morning he woke up to a monkey handing him a mango. Although now I think that they story was absolutely not true, at the time I thought it was an amazing story and decided to learn more about India through the classes offered at Berkeley. I enrolled in a course called “Introduction to Indian Civilization” and absolutely loved it. I started taking nothing but classes about India that I even extended my time as an undergraduate at Berkeley for another year to complete the major in Southeast Asian studies. After graduating, I went to India for a year on a post-graduate fellowship to study the Hindi language. While studying in India, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in South Asian studies upon my return to the states.

Why did you choose to study Buddhism in India rather than other cultural aspects of the region?

RO: After living in the holy city of Varanasi through a fellowship program offered by the American Institute of Indian Studies, I decided to go to graduate school in general South Asian studies because I wasn’t sure in what I was interested in studying. I went to the University of Chicago for the first year of graduate school and I was miserable. The University of Chicago is a very particular place where most students know their academic interests, but I barely knew what I was doing. At one point, a professor pulled me aside and suggested that I pursue my graduate studies in Buddhism at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I was really clueless, but he was a great professor because he saw what I was interested in and a future for me in that field.

How did you come to teach at the College?

RO: Prior to coming to Dartmouth in 1999, I had two non-tenured track positions. My very first job academic job was at the University of Texas at Austin, which was great, but it was not a tenured track position. My second job was a tenured track position at the University of Alabama, which I did not enjoy because it was really hard to be Asian there. When I got the job at Dartmouth, I was also really attracted to teaching high-caliber students.

Which one of your classes do you enjoy teaching the most?

RO: I really enjoy the “Goddesses of India” class because rather than covering a broad subject matter the course narrows its focus on the goddess tradition in the Hindu religion. We get to analyze in-depth interesting ideas relating to the topic such as the relation between the male and female. Currently, 17 students are enrolled in the class and the format of the course is a mixture of lecture and discussion. I also really enjoy teaching first-year writing seminars, since they allow for a context that zeros in on a specific topic. I’ve taught three different seminars in the past. For example, I taught a seminar called “Sudden versus Gradual Enlightenment in India, Tibet and China,” which was focused on the question of whether you attain enlightenment suddenly and all at once or gradually. This kind of topic perfectly fits the format of a writing seminar course.

Tell me more about your most recent publication, “Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination.”

RO: My pattern in my scholarship has always been that after publishing a major project, I have to rest because I’m not a person that is brining with ideas, ready to move onto the next project. This book is about animal imagery in Buddhist literature, and it explores how animals are used to comment on what it means to be human. On the one hand, Buddhists in India felt a kinship with animals because both humans and animals are suffering beings in the realm of rebirth. On the other hand, Buddhism is a very human-centered tradition that believes only human beings have the ability to make spiritual progress to attain an ultimate goal. So, this creates a distancing from the animals that keeps humans separate from them. In sum, the book explores animal imagery, discourse and focuses on the use of animals in Buddhist traditions. Since the publication of this book, I spoken at conferences on animal studies, which is a burgeoning interdisciplinary field that involves history, literature, religion and philosophy.

Do you see a surge in the number of people currently practicing Buddhism in the United States?

RO: Buddhism is said to be the fastest growing religion in the United States, but it is still a tiny proportion of the U.S. population. The practice is facing issues that stem from the tension between white convert Buddhist and Asian-American Buddhists. The discussion centers around the tendency of white converts to dismiss Asian-American forms of Buddhism because they see these practices as cultural baggage that obscure the heart of the tradition. I do think that Buddhism is fetishized and appropriated by Americans. I think that white convert Buddhists have genuine respect for the tradition, but there needs to be more sensitivity around the Asian roots of the religion and respect toward Asian-American Buddhists who practice legitimate Buddhist traditions.

How would you describe your experience as a professor at Dartmouth?

RO: Dartmouth does a great job at giving faculty the resources that we need to succeed and pursue meaningful research. The quarter system works great for faculty because it means that we have more flexibility in dividing our time between teaching and pursuing research. For example, Dartmouth is great at providing funds for faculty to travel to conferences and promote research. Although the quarter system makes teaching a hectic task because the term moves very fast, when you are not teaching you can spend a significant amount of time immersing yourself in a project. From my perspective, unless I was someone who really wanted to have my own graduate students, there is no other place that I would rather work at.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.