Remembering the Life and Work of ALC Professor Emeritus Luis Oscar Gomez (1943-2017)
Luis Gómez, distinguished scholar of Buddhism, passed away in Mexico City on September 3, 2017. At the time of his death, he was Professor Emeritus of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. He had retired from the faculty on January 1, 2009.
The son of a physician, Luis Gómez was born in Puerto Rico on April 7 1943, growing up in the town of Guayanilla. He received his B.A. degree in 1963 from Universidad de Puerto Rico, enrolling there at age sixteen. He received his Ph.D. degree in Buddhist Studies, Indic Philology, and Japanese Language and Literature from Yale University in 1967. His first academic position was at the University of Washington. After that, he returned to Puerto Rico for four years, serving as chair of the Department of Philosophy at the Universidad de Puerto Rico.
He joined the University of Michigan faculty as an Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies in 1973 and was promoted to full professor in 1979. In 1986, he was named a “Collegiate Professor,” the highest faculty rank in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at Michigan, naming his professorship after his former colleague and mentor, the distinguished Chinese historian Charles Hucker.
Luis Gómez’s contributions to Buddhist Studies during his thirty-five years at Michigan spanned the areas of graduate training, undergraduate teaching, and scholarship. He founded Michigan’s highly regarded Ph.D. program in Buddhist Studies, which has produced several generations of outstanding scholars. That his students specialized in Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Indian, Thai, and Burmese Buddhism testifies to his wide-ranging knowledge, as well as his high level of proficiency in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as Latin, French, German, and Italian (in addition to his native Spanish). His work as a graduate mentor was honored in 1995, when he received the John H. D’Arms Award for Distinguished Graduate Mentoring in the Humanities. In recognition of his outstanding undergraduate teaching, he was named Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in 1997. A dedicated administrator, he chaired the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures for a decade.
Luis Gómez’s scholarship on Buddhism covered a remarkable range of important topics over his career, including Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, and pan-Asian Buddhism, with a particular emphasis on the literature and religious vision of the Mahayana. He wrote a number of groundbreaking articles devoted to the “sudden vs. gradual” dichotomy in both early Chinese Chan and at the Samye Debate in Tibet. Among his books, his Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light (1996) is considered the definitive study of this highly influential Buddhist scripture. He also published extensively in Spanish.
His remarkable dedication to understanding human experience led him to acquire a second Ph.D. some thirty years after his first, in Clinical Psychology from the University of Michigan in 1998. In his dissertation, he examined evidence of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the lives of Roman Catholic saints.
After his retirement from the faculty at the University of Michigan at the end of 2008, Luis Gómez remained fully active as a scholar and teacher, continuing to publish energetically. Among other things, he made major contributions to the Norton Anthology of World Religions, including a complete translation of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, a work that he regarded as a guide for his life. Dividing his time between Mexico City and the San Francisco Bay Area, he taught at El Colegio de México, where he held the rank of Profesor Investigador, and was an Academic Director at the Mangalam Research Institute for Buddhist Languages in Berkeley. In Mexico City he also put his training in psychology to use by practicing as a therapist. In addition, he taught Buddhism to practitioners. He retained a strong interest in the theory and practice of translation, attending the Translation and Transmission Conference in Boulder, Colorado in June this year, despite his illness. Right up to the time of his death, he was working with Paul Harrison of Stanford on an English translation of the Sanskrit text of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa.
He remained the consummate scholar until the end, writing to a friend, “You probably can guess, from past experience, that I am now an expert oncologist and can pretty much carry on a conversation with my doctors as a colleague.” There was nothing he was not interested in and well informed about, from punctuation to world politics, but he wore his considerable erudition lightly, and was always ready to share it freely with others.
A major figure in the field of Buddhist Studies for half a century, Luis Gómez will be sorely missed by his many students, colleagues, and friends.
During the difficult days of his final illness, he was sustained by the love and support of Lourdes Vergara, his devoted partner for the last ten years of his life. He is survived by his first wife, Ruth Maldonado, their children, Luis Jr. and Miran, and their grandchildren, Andy and Angelina. Luis Gómez is also survived by his many students, who owe him so much. Through them, his legacy has passed to their own students.
-Donald Lopez and Paul Harrison