Historian of World Religions
Thomas’s historical versatility was stunning—unmatched by any professor we have ever encountered, with the exception of his colleague, Ted de Bary. During the “Golden Year” from 1977 to 1978, when Mary Evelyn went on to Columbia to pursue her PhD in Confucianism with de Bary and John went to live with Thomas, we were the beneficiaries of these two brilliant minds. Over the years, Thomas introduced and officiated at the weddings of several of his students. So it was that, with Thomas presiding, John married Mary Evelyn in the midsummer of that golden year.
With this wedding and the completion of our doctorates, we set out on a three-decades-long journey with him—one that would stretch beyond our graduate years and into our teaching years. Thomas was with us throughout, including attending and speaking at many of the Harvard conferences we convened in the 1990s on religion and ecology. At the culminating conference in New York in 1998 at the American Museum of Natural History over 1000 people gathered to hear him speak. They would not let him leave the stage when the moderator indicated his time was up.
Thomas’s appreciation for the wisdom of the world’s religions was legendary. Well before interreligious dialogue became a topic for discussion, he was immersing himself in the texts and traditions of India, China, and Japan. His books on Buddhism and on the Religions of India are still in print from Columbia University Press. Following the Vatican II document Nostrum Aetate that spoke of the “rays of Truth” available from the world’s religions, he observed that, indeed, these traditions held not just rays of truth but floods of illumination.
Poetic, insightful, and playful, Thomas moved through diverse religious traditions with a profound appreciation for their spiritual dynamics. We recall afternoons after class when a group of us would gather with him in the campus dining area or ratskellar. We would explore the Pali texts of Buddhism or the Sanskrit scriptures of Hinduism. We were intrigued by the enigmatic turn of the hexagrams in the Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching). More than once he guided us through the tossing of coins to build a hexagram from this classical text in response to a question. Rather than dwell on the divinatory dimension of the I Ching, however, he urged us on to deeper reflection on the poetic lines of the text. We still ponder the wisdom that one hexagram indicated—that in our driven, acquisitive world, “the small get by” (hsiao kuo). Perhaps, he noted, we may even move toward a world where Fritz Schumacher’s notion, “Small is Beautiful,” may come to be realized, and "Nature's Economy" may be respected.