On the morning of July 10, 1970, the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal included headlines relating to Congress rejecting a ban on sending troops to Cambodia, the US government moving to desegregate school districts in Mississippi, Florida, and other Southern states, and that at 61 deaths, the American death toll in Vietnam was the lowest in more than three and a half years.
Tucked away in the paper, under the obituaries, was a short article without a byline: “Prof. Robinson, 44, Critically Burned in Heater’s Blast.” Richard H. Robinson, who had started the country’s first dedicated doctorate degree in Buddhist studies, initially survived the explosion that blinded him and burned most of his body. Doctors didn’t expect him to live through the night; yet he survived another four weeks at the University Hospital before dying from complications related to the accident.
Robinson left behind an estranged wife, two children, a girlfriend, and countless students who had been in awe of the man who commanded numerous languages and expected them to follow suit. His death rocked the department that he had started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—there was no apparent successor—and his students scattered across the globe, carving out niches for themselves in areas of academic scholarship in which they would become experts. Now, 50 years after his death, we’re taking a long-overdue look at Robinson, who mentored some of today’s top Buddhist thinkers and set the groundwork for Buddhist higher learning in the US.
Richard Hugh Robinson was born on June 21, 1926, in Carstairs, a small town about 40 miles north of Calgary, a two-hour drive along the eastern edge of Banff National Park. Robinson’s father’s family hailed from Ireland, his mother’s family from western Scotland.
As a teenager, Robinson developed an interest in Asia. He started learning Chinese after discovering that the son of a local laundry-man could teach him. But Robinson’s father insisted that he “study something useful,” recalled his widow, Hannah Robinson, and Robinson graduated from the University of Alberta with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1947. His desire to study Chinese and Buddhism was ultimately satisfied, however, when he matriculated several years later at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
It was in a Buddhist studies class at SOAS that Robinson met his future wife in 1951. Mentioned in the academic obituaries only as his wife and mother of his children, Hannah Grenville was working as a registered nurse in London, where she had settled after leaving Germany as one of the estimated 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children who were granted access to leave Germany, Poland, and other European countries in the nine months leading up to the second World War.
“I read a book called Peaks and Lamas by Marco Pallis,” recalled Hannah Robinson, now 90. “There was one chapter on Buddhism and one chapter on Tibet and I got very interested and wanted to go.” She learned that if she wanted to travel to Tibet, she ought to learn Tibetan, and so she enrolled at SOAS.
Her first impression of Robinson was that “he asked a lot of questions and had a lot of opinions.” They married the following year, and while Robinson studied Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, and Sanskrit, he and his wife started a family. Their daughter, Sita, was born in 1955, and a son, Neil, followed in 1957. Robinson’s PhD—on early Madhyamika in India and China—was completed in 1959, and the family moved to his native Canada, where he started teaching at the University of Toronto’s Department of East Asian Studies.
Robinson lived and worked in an era when revealing one’s personal faith was enough to discredit one’s academic work, no matter how profound or revolutionary the scholar’s contribution to the field. Even 50 years later, Robinson’s closest students and mentees could only guess whether or not he had been a practitioner. But Hannah Robinson said that both she and her husband were Buddhists, that they had kept a shrine in their house, meditated, and practiced in the Tibetan and Indian traditions. And according to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun and the founder of India’s Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, Robinson was “one of the first Western Buddhist scholars courageous enough in the world of academia to declare themselves as practicing Buddhists.”
Tenzin Palmo, who met Robinson just once when he visited India in the 1960s, recounted a story Robinson told her about a conversation he had had with Tibetologist David Snellgrove (who had been Tenzin Palmo’s Tibetan teacher at SOAS.). When Snellgrove said that he was converting to Catholicism because “We can’t possibly become Buddhist, can we?” Robinson responded, “Well, I’m trying.”
Robinson was active in the Toronto Buddhist Church, a Jodo Shinshu temple whose congregants were primarily second-generation Japanese Canadians. He also founded a group called the Ashoka Society, which taught college students.
The family’s time in Toronto, however, was short-lived. In 1960, Robinson was hired by the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor. The family packed up and moved to the lower 48, with Robinson teaching Chinese, Sanskrit, and Asian art—the last being a new area of study that required quite a few museum trips. He quickly advanced to a tenured position.
Through his steadfast advocacy, academic prowess, and chutzpah, Robinson convinced Wisconsin to start a dedicated doctorate program in Buddhist Studies in 1961, something not in demand at all in the years before American convert Buddhists began stomping around South Asia and taking up meditation. Robinson created a program that valued linguistics, history, art—all the things that he had studied in a patchwork manner, now packaged up into one program.
“I think of him as being the pioneer of trans-discipline studies, in the sense that if you have a problem, you can bring in any field you want to solve that problem—there is no limitation,” said Lewis Lancaster, the first graduate of the program, who went on to start a PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley, and today is professor emeritus in the school’s Department of East Languages and Cultures. Robinson stocked his department with experts he found beyond the coffers of Western academia. The faculty included Geshe Lhundub Sopa, who had administered His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s geshe exams and eventually became the first Tibetan to receive a tenured position in an American university, and Minoru Kiyota, who was held at a WWII internment camp as a teenager with his Japanese parents, received his PhD in Buddhist Studies in Japan, and became professor emeritus at Madison.
Madison in the 60s was a “magical” place, recalled the meditation teacher and neuroscience research consultant Shinzen Young (then known as Steve), where politically progressive students protested the Vienam War, embraced the Black Power movement, and tried mind-altering drugs.
“For the first time, large numbers of people were interested in things like Buddhism,” Young said. “Robinson was one of the few people academically trained in Indian Studies and Buddhist Studies and so forth. So that was the place to be because that’s where you came if you wanted to do that kind of thing.”
Robinson was demanding—aggressive yet nurturing—and had a large physical presence that allowed him to command any room he was in. He expected his students to have a language of expertise, a working knowledge of Sanskrit, Pali, and Chinese, plus two modern languages.
“He was my role model. He was my ideal, like ‘When I grow up this is what I want to be,’” said Young, who was in his early twenties during the program. “He had this extraordinary range of knowledge combined with a brilliant wit, and so he would, in a single conversation, weave incredible complexity, and you practically had to have a couple of PhDs just to appreciate what he would do with language.”
Charles Prebish, who started out studying dentistry and later became the leading authority on American sanghas, said he breezed through his first semester in the program with As, but at that point he had yet to encounter Robinson in the classroom. Meanwhile, to offset some of the financial burdens of being in graduate school, Prebish applied for and in 1968 was awarded a National Defense Education Act Grant in Hindi.Robinson was “one of the first Western Buddhist scholars courageous enough to declare themselves practicing Buddhists.”
Not long after, Prebish’s phone rang on a Friday afternoon. When he heard the department chair’s voice on the other end of the line, he wondered what he had done to get in trouble.
But in fact Robinson had heard about Prebish’s grant, and he was calling to talk him out of it. Robinson said that Hindi wasn’t a language that would help the student with his Buddhist studies, and he invited Prebish to be his research assistant instead.
“I could have just jumped up and down. I was so excited. He said, ‘Why don’t you think about it over the weekend and let me know on Monday.’ I said, ‘No, I can tell you right now. I’m happy to do this! I should pay you to take this!’” Prebish remembered.
For the next two years Prebish assisted Robinson, working on the manuscript for The Buddhist Religion, which was published in 1970 and became the standard text for introductory Buddhist courses. For Prebish, and for many of his other students, Robinson took an active role not only in guiding their current studies but also in carving out a clear path for the rest of their academic careers. For Prebish the focus was American Buddhist communities; for Young it was the esoteric teachings of the Shingon school in Japan.
“[Robinson] said the way to have a long and successful career is to find an area in Buddhist studies that most people aren’t terribly interested in, and you will become the world’s authority in that area simply because you will be one of the few people that are doing it,” Prebish said.
Robinson was an “independent spirit” who admired that characteristic in his students, Lancaster said; the professor never wanted to create “clones of himself,” but rather fostered work that was new, exciting, and the student’s own.
“With his flexible mind, he would have been more than happy that so much that I have written is contrary to what he wrote. He’d enjoy it tremendously,” said Jeffrey Hopkins, Robinson’s student and now professor emeritus of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia.
Robinson also took an active role in advocating for the hiring of his students in the religious and Asian studies departments of other universities—and not always for altruistic reasons.
“He certainly helped to promote my hiring at Berkeley,” said Lancaster, who went on to start a doctorate program there. “It was something he really wanted for the program, because if somebody got hired by Berkeley, it would, in a sense, validate what he was trying to do in the academic world.”
On the home front, the Robinsons were raising their children, with Hannah occasionally sitting in on her husband’s classes and the couple hosting a Buddhist group in their home. Their circle of friends included graduate students and refugees from eastern Europe who had settled in Wisconsin.
As the 60s progressed, Robinson became deeply engaged in the counterculture: he was passionate about opposing the Vietnam War and about another cultural staple—psychedelics.
“Through this period he lost his way. Maybe he was thinking he had found his way, but the vision that I admired him so much for evaporated,” said a former colleague who asked not to be identified. “He did not buy a little red sports car, but he did everything else.”
It was during this time that the Dalai Lama sent several Tibetan lamas who had fled the Chinese takeover to the United States to start learning English, and Robinson threw himself into learning more about their language and culture. Robinson had also separated from his wife and had a new girlfriend, a graduate student 20 years his junior who was no secret in the department.
One day in the late ’60s, Hopkins recalled, Robinson showed up at his door and said, “Let’s get a house.” They found a farmhouse in Cambridge and created North America’s first (and unofficial) Tibet House.
“Of course, we just named it that ourselves,” Hopkins recalled. They lived there together with other students and visiting Tibetan professors and held events. Although he was not an overnight resident, Geshe Lhundub Sopa spent a lot of time at the farmhouse as well. Robinson lived there until early in 1970, when his girlfriend and he began living by themselves in another farmhouse. His old room was filled by Khensur Ngawang Lekden, a Tibetan scholar who was a visiting professor at Madison.
Although he was a scholar, Robinson was also interested in the more esoteric practices of Buddhism and Eastern thought, including physiognomy, the assessment of character from a person’s outward appearance, a practice used as far back as the ancient Indian, Chinese, and Greek civilizations. (Prebish, Robinson’s former research assistant, recalled that his mentor had wanted to meet his newborn son to examine the child’s head.) To some, these Eastern practices later seemed to have forecast his early and untimely death in 1970. Robinson had his horoscope read every year by an Indian, who saw fire and mortar in the professor’s future, Hopkins said. And just a few months before Robinson’s death, Khensur Ngawang Lekden, the Tibetan professor who was living in Robinson’s former room at the Tibet House, prophesied that Robinson was going to have trouble.
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On July 9, just hours after he had debated Prebish in his office and declared him ready to take his comprehensive exams, Robinson went to the basement of his home to reignite a pilot light. The gas explosion was powerful enough to shift the foundation, though Robinson managed to get himself upstairs, escaping the flames in time to be pulled to safety.
After nearly a month in the burn unit, Robinson died on August 6, 1970. His death was international news in the Buddhist world. Lewis Lancaster, his first graduate student, was on research leave from Berkeley and at Kyoto University when the news came about Robinson’s death.
“The Japanese scholarly community at that time in Kyoto admired him,” Lancaster said. “So they were very disheartened by his early death. They felt it endangered the transmission of academic research in Buddhist studies.”
When Robinson died, Shinzen Young was also in Japan, living at a monastery and waiting to be formally ordained. He had been planning to live as a monk to carry out his dissertation research on Japanese Shingon esoteric practices and then return to academia, but the news of his role model’s death shook him to the core and changed his trajectory.
“It’s like, ‘This is what I want to be when I finally grow up,’ but what good is it?” Young recalled thinking. “What good is all that knowledge and all that intelligence when your body is literally a shard of agony day after day after day? This completely changed my whole value system, my whole orientation. Meditation, liberation, and freedom became tangible concerns for me,” Young said.
“The Japanese scholarly community was very disheartened by Robinson’s early death. They felt it endangered the transmission of academic research in Buddhist studies.”
Back in Wisconsin, there was a good deal of tension in the department that resulted from the gaping hole left by Robinson. In the years to come, however, a new face of the department would emerge: that of Geshe Sopa, who had been hired by Robinson to co-teach Tibetan with him. Even though he lacked a Western academic degree, Sopa rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a full professor.
“Part of the reason why Robinson hired Geshe Sopa was that he wanted not just this kind of almost colonial perspective of a scholar looking in from the outside. He wanted the philosophers from within the tradition to be represented,” said John Dunne, a professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and holder of the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the Center for Healthy Minds at Madison.
In many ways, Sopa continued the work that Robinson had started: training the first generation of Buddhist scholars emerging from Buddhist Studies programs in the US.
Sopa also organized the Dalai Lama’s first trip to Madison in 1979 and convinced the Tibetan leader to come back and give a Kalachakra empowerment, a ceremony that authorizes participants to practice tantra— the first ever held in the West. Through his work with the Deer Park Buddhist Center near Madison, which he established in 1975, Sopa continued to engage with the Tibetan community spiritually and academically, including the sponsoring of 100 Tibetan refugees to settle in Madison in 1992. He retired in 1997 as professor emeritus after more than 30 years of teaching and in 2014 died at Deer Park at the age of 92.
“‘We who are of yesterday are now in all your cities and camps,’” said Shinzen Young, thinking back on his late professor’s legacy and quoting Tertullian, an early Christian who lived during the time when Christianity was transitioning from cult to legitimate religion. Tertullian could see that Christianity would become a dominant force in society and the religion of the establishment, not the counterculture.
Young feels the same way about the Buddhist students of the 1960s.
“I’m old enough to remember an America [of the 1950s] that wasn’t going to be any different,” Young said. “If you grew up during the ’50s, the notion that something from the East would blow in and pervade North American civilization was unthinkable. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar that they would be teaching Buddhist meditation to US Army personnel and basketball players and [mindfulness practice] would be in every hospital and therapy program and board room,” Young said.
In many ways, this history was shaped by Richard Robinson. Madison no longer has the program that Robinson started— following several departmental reorganizations over the decades, the university now offers a PhD in Asian Languages and Literature with an optional concentration in Buddhist Studies—and yet, as John Dunne remarked, “there’s certainly a kind of continuity in the program that has produced a number of leading Buddhist Studies people.”
“It’s just amazing to think he died at 44, and what might have happened if he had been able to live on to a nice, ripe old age,” said Prebish, Robinson’s former graduate assistant. “I’ve got to believe that the scholarship he would have turned out would have been just immense.”
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