Gregory Schopen became interested in religious studies when he read a book about Buddhism in high school. “I tell my students to be very careful about what you read because you never know where it’s going to lead you,” Schopen said.
Buddhism’s complexity and novelty led him from Deadwood, S.D., to Black Hills State College (Spearfish, S.D., majoring in American literature), to McMaster University in Ontario, Canada (M.A., history of religions), to the Australian National University in Canberra (Ph.D., South Asian and Buddhist studies; thesis: Bhaisajyaguru-sutra and the Buddhism of Gilgit).
Schopen’s parents were very supportive of his choice of study, although his grandparents had reservations. “They were worried about the well-being of my soul,” Schopen said.
Today Schopen is recognized as an expert in Buddhist philosophy and Mahayana lifestyles. He lectures internationally, contributes to numerous papers, and has written several books including Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks (1997), Buddhist Monks and Business Matters (2004), and Figments and Fragments of Mahayana Buddhism in India (2005), among others.
In January Schopen joined the Brown faculty in the Department of Religious Studies as the Rush C. Hawkins Professor of Religious Studies.
Schopen’s current research focuses on Indian Buddhist monastic life and early Mahayana movements. Buddhism is multifaceted; there is no single Buddhism, Schopen said. Originating in India, Mahayana Buddhism is one of many branches — arguably the oldest and still sharing the basic foundation of Buddhism. Schopen studies monasticism as a religious institution and how it works both in India and in the Christian world.
Like the many branches of Buddhism that originally intrigued him, it was the promise of a larger and varied conversation that brought Schopen to Brown. “I knew the work of several people here in religious studies, work that I admire,” Schopen said. “I’m interested in people who are working on similar things in very different geographical areas.”
After three and a half decades of scholarship and writing, Schopen recognizes that “there is far more to learn in the field than what I already know.” So the conversation continues, but the field has also brought him accomplishments and experiences he never expected. In 1985, he was among 25 distinguished thinkers and activists who received MacArthur Fellowships, a group that included human rights champions Marian Wright Edelman and Robert M. Hayes and the dancer/choreographers Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. He has taught and studied Buddhism in Tokyo, Paris, Kyoto, Oxford, and Christchurch, New Zealand. He works in eight languages beyond English: French, German, Italian, classical Sanskrit, Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit, Pali, inscriptional Prakrits, and classical Tibetan.
In addition to his international appointments, Schopen has served on the faculty at Indiana University–Bloomington (1984–91), the University of Texas–Austin (1991-99) and the University of California–Los Angeles (1999–2012).
His experience as a teacher of religious studies and Buddhism has been positive and engaging. “The students are interesting, unusually polite, and they do the reading,” Schopen said, “but to get a discussion going ...”
He is optimistic that the move from California to Rhode Island and his first encounter with Brown students will rekindle the conversation and spark challenging, rewarding discussions.