James Blumenthal, an associate professor in the School of History, Philosophy and Religion, died Oct. 8 from complications after a long struggle with cancer. He was 47.
Blumenthal was an accomplished Buddhist scholar who also taught at Maitripa College in Portland. His work focused on the history of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and he did translation work for the Dalai Lama in addition to writing and co-authoring several books on Buddhism.
Blumenthal spent a total of three years in Asia, living primarily in Tibetan refugee communities in India and Nepal. He was a committed activist for peace and social justice, and also an ardent Deadhead, attending many Grateful Dead concerts over the years. He was married to Tiffany Blumenthal, and had a son, Benjamin, age 7, from a previous marriage.
Stuart Sarbacker, who worked alongside Blumenthal in the School of History, Philosophy and Religion, recalled his friend’s gentle and kind personality.
“Students flocked to his courses on the history and philosophy of Buddhism, often building a relationship with Jim that would last throughout their academic career at OSU and beyond,” he said.
Jon Munster, manager of the Book Bin in Corvallis, is a former student of Blumenthal’s who benefited from his dedicated, focused approach to student advising. He recalled Blumenthal pulling over on I-5 so he could continue to grade papers, and how he took time out of his busy schedule to teach Munster and another student classical Tibetan for seven terms.
“He was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge when it came to Buddhist philosophy. I don’t remember him ever saying ‘I don’t know’,” Munster said. “There were a few times when I caught him reciting Tibetan to himself because he couldn’t remember the answer in English.”
Blumenthal lived in a manner that reflected his Buddhist teachings.
“I remember him telling me once about someone visiting the department and saying, ‘You must be the Buddhism Professor.’” Munster said. “Jim asked him how he knew, and the person said, ‘It’s because you’re the only one smiling!’”
“He was such a gentle and compassionate person, and gave so much to me to help get me through school,” Munster said. “From our first meeting, when he showed up at the crack of dawn to talk with me so that I wouldn’t be late for work, to all of his own time that he spent teaching me Classical Tibetan for two years, he was truly a selfless individual. He made it a point to help me realize that I was selling myself short and was capable of so much more than I thought. He was truly a great man, and I will miss him dearly.”
Blumenthal’s gentleness was paired with a sharp intellect and he was highly regarded in his field, Sarbacker said.
“He was a key figure in the development of the Asian Studies program and in the reemergence of Religious Studies at OSU,” Sarbacker said. “His work on Indian and Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist philosophy is highly respected within contemporary Buddhist Studies. He was a sharp and subtle debater, able to disarm arguments and still find a way to make everyone laugh at the same time.”
Lani Roberts, an emeritus faculty member, was working in the philosophy department when Blumenthal was hired in 1999. She recalled walking into the student waiting room that she shared with Blumenthal and other colleagues, to find Buddhist monks in formal ritual robes, waiting to see him.
“I loved that,” she said. “So unexpected yet so welcome.”
Roberts was also able to spend time with Blumenthal and his family.
“His son was a true blessing and he loved him a lot,” Roberts said. She was present at an event in Portland where the Dalai Lama gave a talk, and Blumenthal’s son Benjamin presented him with flowers. “Jim could not have been more proud.”
Blumenthal was active with Greenpeace before he pursued graduate studies, and once wrote about how his inner-activist felt guilty about not continuing to take an active role in protests and actions. But then he began to see his work as a teacher as a form of activism.
“Since college students are at one of the most formative stages of their lives, I believe educating students about philosophical ideas like dependent-origination and the compassionate models embodied by the great bodhisattvas is one way to contribute,” he wrote. “I encourage everyone to sincerely ask themselves what they can do to help. We all have something to contribute.”
Blumenthal was a mentor to many students, and often referred to his own formative years under an influential mentor. When he was a student at the University of Wisconsin, his doctoral advisor was Geshe Sopa Rinpoche, one of the top Tibetan scholars of Buddhist philosophy. Recalling his time with ‘Geshe-la,’ Blumenthal wrote, “He is not only an incomparable scholar of the tradition, but he thoroughly embodies and exemplifies what he teaches. Everything I know or understand about Buddhism is thanks to Geshe-la’s kindness, skill, wisdom, compassion, and as he was so aptly named, “spontaneous patience.” I pray that I have the merit to be his student again in future lives.”
Classes were cancelled for the day at Maitripa College in Portland, where Blumenthal was also a professor, to honor his passing.
In addition to his wife and son, Blumenthal leaves Benjamin’s mother and stepfather, Sara and Tripp Ritter. He is survived by his parents, Susan and Jack Blumenthal, and brother, Tom Blumenthal, of Los Angeles.
Remembrances are welcome at jim.blumenthal.muchloved.com/frame.aspx?
Further information will be available at www.maitripa.org as it is confirmed.
~ Theresa Hogue