William R Lafleur

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Description of Bioethics Expertise

The Center for Bioethics is deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Senior Fellow William LaFleur, who passed away Friday, February 26.

E. Dale Saunders Professor in Japanese Studies
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Pennsylvania


Prof. LaFleur received his Ph.D. in 1973 from the University of Chicago. Subsequently he taught at Princeton University, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the E. Dale Saunders Professor in Japanese Studies. William LaFleur was a groundbreaking figure in the interdisciplinary study of Buddhism and culture in Japan and trained two generations of graduate students in these fields. His seminal Karma of Words (1983) was among the very first Western-language studies to break away from a focus on specific Buddhist schools or sects and to adopt an innovative cross-disciplinary approach, bringing to light the intimate relation between the Japanese Buddhist episteme and the medieval literary arts. Prof. LaFleur was a scholar of far-reaching interests and expertise, one who refused to be confined by any single research area, historical period, or method of approach. In addition to his ongoing work on Buddhist cosmology and the “mind” of medieval Japan, he was a translator and interpreter of the medieval monk-poet Saigyō; he also wrote on Dōgen and Zen thought and on the work of Watsuji Tetsurō, becoming in 1989 the first non-Japanese to win the Watsuji Tetsurō Prize. He later turned his attention to mizuko kuyō practice and Buddhist accommodations of abortion in Japan’s early modern period, and in the latter part of his career, he did pioneering work on the study of Buddhism and bioethics in contemporary Japan, highlighting contrasts with Western approaches to such issues as abortion, organ transplants, and medical definitions of death. Besides being a scholar of extraordinary scope and imagination, Bill was also an exemplary teacher and mentor. His abounding sense of good humor, warmth of spirit, and unfailing kindness towards his students will not soon be forgotten. We will miss him greatly.
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Last updated: 03/01/2010
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