Nagatomi Masatoshi (1926-2000) was Harvard’s first fulltime Professor of Buddhist Studies. While earlier faculty has lectured on Buddhist subjects in various temporary capacities, Nagatomi was the first to teach an ongoing series of graduate and undergraduate courses on Buddhist subjects.
Nagatomi began his study of Buddhism at a young age when, as the eldest son born into a Buddhist family in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, he was groomed to inherit the abbacy of the family temple from his father. His first exposure to America came when his father shifted course and became a Buddhist missionary. In a path mirroring that of the missionary parents of Edwin Reischauer, Nagatomi’s father took his family to the United States in an effort to spread the Buddhist faith. Shortly before World War II, Masatoshi was sent back to Japan to receive a college education. He studied first at Ryukuko and then Kyoto University, surviving an extended period of wartime conscription in the shipyards of Kobe and eventually earning his B.A. in Indian Philosophy and Buddhism. His parents meanwhile lived out the war as prisoners of the Manzanar internment camp in California. After the war, Nagatomi returned to the United States and entered graduate school at Harvard, studying under the Sanskritist Daniel Ingalls. He completed his Ph.D. degree in 1957, with a dissertation entitled An English Translation and Annotation of the Pramânasiddhi Chapter of Dharmakîrti's Pramânavârttika. After graduation he remained at Harvard, initially as Instructor of Sanskrit, until his 1969 appointment as Harvard’s first Professor of Buddhist Studies. Although primarily affiliated with the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Nagatomi held a concurrent appointment and taught courses in the Department of Far Eastern Languages. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1996.
Although not a Buddhist proselytizer per se, one could make the argument that Nagatomi was a missionary for the field of Buddhist studies. He published very little in the course of his long career, instead devoting the majority of his time to the development of his students. Many of the current generation of Buddhist scholars in America studied under him, and he oversaw dissertations and fielded questions on subjects spanning Buddhist ecumene – from matters of classical Buddhist epistemology to the spread of Buddhism in the modern West. In 1986, Nagatomi also founded the Harvard Buddhist Studies Forum, which continues to this day as a venue for lectures and conversations on all manner of Buddhist subjects.
Perhaps the most fitting illustration of Nagatomi’s range as a scholar and teacher of Buddhism, and the degree to which he nurtured the field, is the fact that, upon his retirement, no fewer than three faculty appointments in Buddhist studies (in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Divinity School, and the Committee on the Study of Religion) were required to fill his shoes.