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A Golden statue of Buddha.

Understanding Buddhism

New chair established by José Cabezón, leading scholar in Tibetan Buddhism

Dr. José Cabezón is the inaugural XIVth Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara, a position supported by collective community gifts to establish this endowed chair over 20 years ago. Now nearing retirement after 22 years on campus, Cabezón hopes to continue strengthening the study of Buddhism after his departure. He is creating the José Cabezón Endowed Chair in South Asian Buddhism through a charitable remainder trust, joining UC Santa Barbara’s Legacy Circle.

“The fact that my chair was funded by the local community made me realize the power of philanthropy to contribute to the mission of the university,” said Cabezón. “It has always been in my mind whether I might be able to do something like that.”

Since its founding in 1964, UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Religious Studies has taught students to think, write, and speak about religions — rituals, traditions, texts, and experiences — in deeply informed and critical ways. UC Santa Barbara has the largest religious studies department in the University of California system, and one of the largest departments in the United States solely dedicated to the secular study of religion. The department is widely recognized as one of the best in the nation, with Buddhist studies as one of its strengths.

“I thought, what can I do to ensure that UC Santa Barbara continues to be at the forefront of Buddhist studies? That led me to endowing a chair in one of the areas that currently doesn’t have an endowed chair: South Asian Buddhism. By creating this chair, my hope was that support could also go to graduate students working in that area,” said Cabezón.

Early in his studies, Cabezón lived for six years with Tibetan refugees in India at the Sera Je Monastic University. In the monastery, Cabezón was immersed in the traditional program of studies and became fluent in the Tibetan language. He was asked to serve as the Spanish translator for His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, translating for him from Tibetan to Spanish and English. These experiences enhanced his ability to work with traditional scholars on the classical texts of Buddhism, often written in archaic Tibetan and Sanskrit.

The study of the Buddhist world is geographically divided into three areas. In this context, South Asia includes India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. India is the cradle of Buddhism despite its practice fading in the 13th century. The doctrines, rituals, and art of ancient and medieval India are the basis for all forms of Buddhism in Asia.

“It’s hard to imagine a Buddhist studies program without someone whose expertise is in India or South Asia,” said Cabezón. “I want this chair to serve as an anchor for the UC Santa Barbara Buddhist studies program, grounding the study of Buddhism in the study of South Asia and the study of Sanskrit.”

Cabezón’s gift will establish the third endowed chair in Asian religions in the department. The Bhagvan Vimalnath Endowed Chair in Jain Studies was established in 2020. Dr. Fabio Rambelli, department chair and also a specialist in Japanese Buddhism, holds the International Shinto Foundation Chair in Shinto Studies.

“Professor Cabezón’s decision to establish an endowed chair in South Asian Buddhist studies is another expression of his vision, leadership, and commitment to scholarship,” said Rambelli. “Keeping alive the study of the classics of Buddhism will be crucial for the continuation and development of Buddhist studies as a whole well beyond South Asia. And thanks to Professor Cabezón’s visionary gift, the Department of Religious Studies will continue to play its role as a world-class center for the academic study of Buddhism in its various forms and ramifications and from multiple methodological perspectives.”

“Religion is a major force in the world. It’s one of the most powerful motivations that drives people to act, and it has implications to many areas of human life. Students have an ongoing interest in the humanities, the perennial big questions that confront human beings. It’s hard to think that a highly educated person today wouldn’t have at least some background in the study of religion, including Buddhism,” said Cabezón.

Cabezón has already established a campus legacy through his decades of teaching and research. Now, through his estate gift, his legacy will continue to support the Department of Religious Studies far into the future. Over the last several decades, the forces of globalization have dramatically changed the religious landscapes of our state, the nation, and the world. The academic study of religion has never been more important.