Frank E. Reynolds, leading scholar of Buddhism and revered teacher, 1930-2019

Colleagues, former students remember Divinity scholar’s ‘profound’ influence on field

Those who knew Prof. Emeritus Frank E. Reynolds have described him as an institution at the University of Chicago Divinity School, inspiring a generation of students while shaping understanding of an ancient branch of Buddhism.

Reynolds, who died on Jan. 9 at age 88, was a leading expert in Theravada Buddhism, a religion predominantly practiced in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. He is remembered not only for his lasting impact on the field, but for his work as a teacher and mentor during his 34 years on the UChicago faculty.

“He trained some of the greatest scholars of Buddhism, and of the broader history of religions, in our generation,” said Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions. “His influence on both fields has been profound and far-reaching.”

An ordained Baptist minister, Reynolds, AM’63, PhD’71, spent three years teaching at a university in Thailand before becoming a UChicago graduate student. His experience working with Christians, Buddhists and Muslims in Bangkok led him to seek a non-sectarian, empirically oriented approach to religious studies.

In 1967, Reynolds joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, where his interests ranged from Thai civic religion to religious studies in the liberal arts. But Reynolds was held in particularly high regard for his work to deepen knowledge of Theravada Buddhism.

“He shaped how Theravada Buddhism has come to be routinely studied in North America today by historians of religions and area specialists, by textualists as well as by anthropologists,” said former student Charles S. Hallisey, PhD’88, now the Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures at Harvard Divinity School.

Reynolds held editorial responsibilities for various academic publications, including a decades-long stint as co-editor of the History of Religions Journal. Along with wife Mani Bloch he published a translation of a 14th-century Thai Buddhist cosmology, The Three Worlds of King Ruang (1982).

He retired in 2001 as Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions and Buddhist Studies in the Divinity School and the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations.

In 2010, Reynolds received the Norman Maclean Faculty Award from UChicago in recognition of his outstanding contributions to teaching and to the student experience of life on campus. Reynolds’ mentorship extended to colleagues as well, with Doniger calling him “the finest teacher I’ve ever known.”

“He taught me how to teach, everything I know not only about the discipline of the history of religions, what questions to ask and what answers to value, but also about collegiality,” she said. “His generosity to his students, and to me, was part of a far deeper and broader virtue that he had in great abundance; a combination of incorruptible integrity, unflinching self-understanding and genuine concern for other human beings.

“His decency, goodness and compassion were blessings to anyone who was lucky enough to know him,” she continued. 

He was preceded in death by his wife Mani. He is survived by sons Roy, Drew and Roger; nine grandchildren; and his partner of many years June Nash, AM’53, PhD’60.

A memorial service will take place in spring. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be directed to support the efforts of Reynolds’ student, Koson Srisang, to develop a new, updated mission for the Bangkok Student Christian Center. Checks can be made out to the Plainfield Congregational Church at 1 Church Lane, Plainfield MA, 01070 (please reference the Frank Reynolds Future of the Bangkok SCC Project in the memo line).

—Adapted from a story that first appeared on the Divinity School website.