He was a chemistry major, headed for a career in dentistry, when he took a seat that fall day in a class on "Buddha and Buddhism." From that very first day, says Charles Prebish, "I knew I was home."
Because his mother was still hoping he'd be a dentist, Prebish went on to dental school at Case Western Reserve University the next year. But his heart wasn't in it. Within a few months he had dropped out and enrolled, instead, in a graduate program in religion. Now, 40 years of Buddhist study and practice later, Prebish is helping to change the face of religious scholarship in Utah.
For a century and a half despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the state is steeped in religion no university in Utah, including Brigham Young University, has offered a degree in religious studies. That changed last fall when Utah State University inaugurated its religious studies program.
"The conflict in Utah between Mormon and non-Mormon is so deep and ancient that I think most public institutions shied away from doing anything with religion, because it was easier to keep your mouth shut than run the risk," says Norman Jones, chairman of USU's department of history, which houses the religious studies program.
"Many, many people told me that there would be resistance" to forming a program at USU, says Jones. In Utah, "the legacy of religious conflict is so deep, everyone just assumed it would prevent a public conversation about religion." But in fact nobody objected, he says.
The university hopes eventually to raise enough money for five endowed chairs: in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Mormonism. Currently there is the Leonard Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture, held by Philip Barlow, and the Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies, held by Prebish.
What hooked Prebish on Buddhism at 21 still resonates at 62: "The cardinal doctrine of Buddhism although it sounds pessimistic it really isn't says that all life is suffering. That human beings, no matter how much they might experience moments of happiness, ultimately turn those moments of happiness into suffering because they crave and grasp after permanence in a world that is constantly changing."
After watching his ailing father linger for years with a brain tumor before dying in 1961, this notion made sense, Prebish says. "And they had a really good solution: they said you had to give up craving. That the real approach to living life is to live it in the present moment. ... That if you could live life in the present moment and not fill that moment with craving, it was possible to eradicate suffering from your life and in the process you could manifest compassion in the world."
After getting a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Prebish ended up teaching Buddhist studies at Pennsylvania State University for 35 years. He has written or edited 20 books about Buddhism, was a founding co-chairman of the Buddhism section of the American Academy of Religion, and co-founded the online Journal of Buddhist Ethics and the online Journal of Global Buddhism.American Buddhism, Prebish says, is a distinct form of the religion. Although about 80 percent of the estimated six million Buddhists in the United States have Asian-American ancestry, the rest are often people like him, who converted to Buddhism as adults, moved by its teachings.