Reiko Ohnuma

Reiko Ohnuma new Religion Department Chair

Professor of Religion Reiko Ohnuma has just been named Chair of the Dartmouth Department of Religion, effective July 1, 2018. Prof. Ohnuma is a specialist in the Buddhist traditions of South Asia (with a particular focus on narrative literature, hagiography, and the role and imagery of women), but also teaches courses on Hinduism. She holds a B.A. from the University of California (Berkeley) and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). She is the author of Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (Columbia University Press, 2007); Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2012); and Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2017). She will be teaching Rel. 41.03, “Women, Monasticism, & Buddhism” (identical to WGSS 44.07), in Winter Term, 2019. 

"Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination"

Professor Reiko Ohnuma‘s Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2017) is "a masterful treatment of animals in Indian Buddhist literature," comments Natasha Heller, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, in her podcast interview with Professor Ohuma in New Books Network. "Although they are lower than humans in the paths of rebirth, stories about animals show them as virtuous and generous—and often the victim of human failings. In the life stories of the Buddha, animals serve as 'doubles,' thereby adding nuance and complexity to various episodes in the Buddha’s life.

Professor Ohnuma on Buddhism and Nature of Mothering

It was while researching stories about the Buddha literally giving away his body parts to humans in need that Reiko Ohnuma began to think about motherhood. A mother herself, Ohnuma, associate professor of religion at Dartmouth since 1999, says the stories of extreme self-sacrifice struck her as “very similar to the intensely physical nature of mothering.”

In fact, she characterizes motherhood as the “most appropriate metaphor” for the Buddha and his teachings. Mothers represent love, self-sacrifice, and compassion. Yet, because mothers direct these feelings toward their children rather than all people, they represent the very opposite of the Buddha’s exhortations to love everyone equally. This contradiction is at the heart of Ohnuma’s book Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism, published last year by Oxford University Press.