LaFleur, W.

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William LaFleur(1936 - 2010)

A native of Patterson, New Jersey, LaFleur received his BA from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned two master’s degrees, one in comparative literature from the University of Michigan and another in the history of religions from the University of Chicago. He also completed his doctoral work at the University of Chicago, where he studied with Joseph Kitagawa and Mircea Eliade. After completing his PhD in 1973, LaFleur taught at Princeton University; University of California, Los Angeles; Sophia University, Tokyo; and University of Pennsylvania, where he was the E. Dale Saunders Professor of Japanese Studies.

LaFleur was a groundbreaking figure in the interdisciplinary study of Buddhism and culture in Japan and trained two generations of graduate students in these fields. His seminal work The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (University of California Press, 1986) broke away from a traditional focus on specific Buddhist figures and lineages and instead approached Buddhism as the “cognitive map” by which medieval Japanese of all Buddhist schools and social levels made sense of their world. He also uncovered an intimate relation between the Japanese Buddhist episteme and medieval literary arts. The innovative studies now emerging from a generation of younger scholars working at the intersections of Buddhism and literature owe much to LaFleur’s influence.

A scholar of far-reaching interests and expertise, LaFleur refused to be confined by any single research area, historical period, or method of approach. In addition to his work on Buddhist cosmology and the “mind” of medieval Japan, he was a gifted translator and interpreter of poetry and published two volumes on the medieval monk-poet Saigyō. He was deeply interested in Zen, especially as a resource for contemporary thought. He wrote and edited several books and essays, introducing to Western readers the work of the thirteenth century Zen master Dōgen, the Kyoto-school figure Masao Abé, and the twentieth century philosopher and cultural historian Watsuji Tetsurō. In 1989, he became the first non-Japanese to win the Watsuji Tetsurō Cultural Prize.

LaFleur’s Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan (Princeton University Press, 1994) expanded his earlier attention to Buddhist notions of the body and catalyzed his growing interest in comparative public philosophy and social ethics. In his later career, while continuing to study medieval Japanese religion and literature, he produced pioneering studies of Japanese bioethics, highlighting contrasts with Western approaches to such issues as abortion, organ transplants, and medical definitions of death. Altogether, he wrote or edited nine books. He left several other projects still in progress; some of which will be published posthumously. (Source Accessed Jan 16, 2020)

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