“You bow like a Japanese,” Masatoshi Nagatomi told me with his characteristic giggle. Thus began nine years of mentoring in Buddhist studies until his passing last year. He assured my worried Japanese mother that I would be safe in America and that he and his wife would look after me. His grandfatherly kindness extended co invitations for dinners at Thanksgiving, gifts of Japanese pickles, and the officiating of my Buddhist wedding. I am sure that during the course of his almost forry years at Harvard, every student of Mas Nagatomi similarly felt his bodhisattvic kindness and his dedication to nurturing his students not only in scholarly life, but also in life more broadly.
Nagatomi joined the faculty at Harvard University in 1958 as an instructor in Sanskrit, and by 1969 had been designated Harvard’s first professor of Buddhist Studies. Although the study of Sanskrit and Indian Buddhism marked his training at Kyoto and Harvard Universities, his astonishingly broad mastery of languages allowed him co work on Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhism as well. He was an active member in many learned societies, including the American Oriental Sociery, the American Academy of Religion, and the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies. He retired from Harvard in 1996 after training students in every Buddhist tradition, supervising over thirty doctoral dissertations and scores of master’s theses. In his dedication to his students, Nagatomi sacrificed the enhancement of his own repUtation through volumes of scholarly publication. Instead, he produced three generations of Buddhist Studies scholars with specializations in Indo-Tibetan, Sino-Japanese, and even American Buddhism. Many of his students went on to become leading scholars of Buddhist Studies in the United States, including Robert Thurman, Stanley Weinstein, Jeffrey Hopkins, Jan Nattier, Alfred Bloom, and Peter Gregory. His legacy continues at Harvard as well in the form of the Harvard Buddhist StUdies Forum, an organization that invites scholars of Buddhism from around the world co participate in an ongoing lecture series and occasional symposia.
Nagatomi was the only son of a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist priest who served as the chief Buddhist priest and community leader at Manzanar, one of the Japanese-American internment camps during World War Two. Born September 1, 1926, in Kuroi (Yamaguchi Prefecture), Japan, Nagatomi spent his early years crisscrossing Japan and the United States. Ultimately, like his father, Nagacomi was also ordained as a priest and became a champion of Jodo Shinshu in America. While he quietly served as the vice-abbot of a temple in Yamaguchi Prefecture, he promoted new developments of Buddhism in America. He challenged Jodo Shinshu Buddhists to adapt Shinran’s religious insights co coday’s complex and pluralistic American landscape with an eye co academic study. His emphasis on maintaining an academic dimension co Buddhist practice was also a hallmark of his advice to many other American Buddhists. His service to Buddhism in America, in addition co nurturing so many of its leading figures, included his work as an advisor to the Institute of Buddhist Studies in California, the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies, and Tricyclemagazine.
A true bodhisattva who crossed the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Nagacomi’s dharmic impact continues today in so many lands, so many people.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.