Tessa Bartholomeusz: In Memory of a Scholar Lost Far, Far Too Early

 Jeff Tatum’s FOREWORD for In Defense of Dharma and Florida State University’s Lecture Program in Her Memory Tessa (1) Tessa among her colleagues

I.  Tessa J. Bartholomeusz Lecture Series:  The Tessa J. Bartholomeusz Lecture in Religion has been established by the faculty of the Department of Religion, Florida State University, in memory of our late colleague. Tessa Bartholomeusz (1958-2001) came to Florida State as assistant professor in 1993, following an appointment at Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis and the completion of a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 1991. She was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1997, and to full professor in 2001. While at Florida State, Professor Bartholomeusz established a reputation as a leading interpreter of Buddhism through such works as Women Under the Bo Tree (Cambridge, 1994), Buddhist Fundamentalisms and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka (State University of New York, 1998), In Defense of Dharma (Curzon Press, 2002), and numerous articles in scholarly journals. Professor Bartholomeusz also received a number of awards for teaching at Florida State University, served as treasurer for the American Institute of Sri Lanka Studies and as the book review editor for the Journal of Asian Studies. The Tessa J. Bartholomeusz Lecture is supported by the Department of Religion through its account at the Florida State University Foundation. Anyone wishing to join in supporting this project is invited to contact the Department of Religion at 850-644-1020, or to speak with one of the faculty.

II. Jeff Tatum: “Foreword” in Tessa J.Bartholomeusz,  In Defense of Dharma, Routledge Curzon, 2002

Tessa Jane Bartholomeusz was born on 13 August 1958 in the seaport town of Trincomalee. Her father, a Dutch Burgher officer in the Sri Lankan Army, was an alumnus of Royal College and a graduate, one of Sri Lanka’s first, of Sandhurst; her mother, an Englishwoman, had trained at the Royal Academy of Music. It was not long after her birth that Tessa’s family recognized the degree to which the political and social perturbations of the time threatened to blight their prospects. Emigration to the USA supervened, followed by hard-earned, that is to say thoroughly merited, prosperity. These are details of Tessa’s life that possess more than merely personal interest, because the cosmopolitanism of her heritage and the circumstances of her immigration became profound influences on her intellectual and scholarly development, as readers of her work will quickly recognize. Hence, then, the centrality to her research of issues such as the relationship between religion and ethnicity, the complexities and complications attending (or dogging) the constructions, academic and vulgar alike, of the West and the East, and – and this especially – marginalization, whatever its situation and whatever its derivation, be it a function of race, religion, or gender. Though she began her university career as the holder of a scholarship in drama, Tessa was soon attracted to the comparative study of religion, in which occupation her attentions were quickly concentrated on the religions of South Asia. She took an Honors Degree in Religion at the University of Florida; an MA in Religion from the Florida State University followed, after which she studied Buddhism and Hinduism at the University of Virginia, where in 1991 she received her PhD in the History of Religions with a dissertation on Buddhist lay nuns in Sri Lanka. Students of South Asia must go there, of course, and so Tessa’s education included stints at Varanasi Hindu University (where she studied Sinhala) and at the University of Peradeniya. She also studied Sinhala at Cornell University. Tessa taught Hindi in the Department of Oriental Languages at the University of Virginia and religious studies at Indiana University in Indianapolis. In 1993 she joined the Faculty of Religion at the Florida State University, where, at the time of her death, she was Professor of Religion. She was a brilliant teacher: her classes were always filled, and her success was appreciated by her colleagues, as her multiple teaching awards – she received a University Teaching Award, The Superior Liberal Studies Honors Teaching Award, and a University Teaching Incentive Program Award – attest. It was not simply her charm or her style that attracted undergraduates in abundance (though more than a few undergraduate women, from various disciplines, looked to Tessa as a role model, a position in which she was not entirely comfortable): it was her passion for her scholarship, her ideas, and her determination to convince her classes how very much the ways in which we think about religion or gender or violence matter to the lives of everyone, even comfortable, cosseted middle-class Americans.

Tessa’s first book, Women Under the Bo Tree: Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka, appeared in the series Cambridge Studies in Religious Traditions in 1994. Her interest in the dasa sil mata, what she described as a “lay nun,” went back to 1983, when, during a visit to Sri Lanka, one of her relations offered to introduce her to a Buddhist nun, an offer she met with skepticism. (“I had been taught that there were no nuns in Theravadin Buddhist countries,” as she would put it when recollecting the event.) The woman she met, Sister Sudharma, a seventy-year-old “mother of the ten precepts,” fascinated her: here was a figure whose very existence instantiated the adaptability, the vivacity, of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka (as well as the importance of studying religion “on the ground” and not exclusively in a library or classroom), and who embodied the complications of gender, of femininity, in South Asian society in general and more specifically in Sri Lankan Buddhism. Thereafter she could not stop reading about female renunciation in South Asia, not that there was so much to read about the topic in those days, and in any event most of it was more concerned with “influences” than with the lived realities of the thousands of individuals who constituted the “phenomenon” of female renunciation. Hence the impetus for the research that resulted in Women Under the Bo Tree, a comprehensive account of the history of the re-emergence of female renunciation in the nineteenth century, of Buddhist ideas about gender that shaped the tradition of female renunciation, of the multiple and diverse voices of past and present-day nuns, their supporters and their critics – all of which shed considerable light on the position of women in contemporary Sri Lankan society and all of which was formulated in a style accessible to students of gender and religion who are not South Asian specialists. Women Under the Bo Tree had been preceded by specialist articles that adumbrated her treatment of the topic, the most frequently cited of which remains “The female mendicant in Buddhist Sri Lanka” (in J. Cabezon (ed.), Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, 1992). But it was the book that made the topic mainstream, and it was an instant success, going through two printings, despite its price (the expense of the book was a source of concern to Tessa, who worried that its cost might render it inaccessible to academics and intellectuals in Sri Lanka). The book, at once historical and anthropological, showcases all of Tessa’s best techniques: its evidence derives from sources that are archival and textual (canonical texts, diaries, and even literary works are exploited), and, of course, from interviews with multitudes of lay nuns (and with others holding strong opinions about the institution of the dasa sil mata); the interpretation of that evidence, because it integrates interviews with documentation, whatever the difficulties resulting therefrom, eschews simplicity as it instead discerns changing historical patterns in a fabric of daunting particularity. This is why one finds in Women Under the Bo Tree such rich accounts of the careers of Anagarika Dharmapala and Miranda de Souza Canavarro beside the stories of lay practitioners such as Sister Sudharma. Contexts and individuals are, in Tessa’s approach to religion, what matter: hence the book’s inclusion of an ample dramatis personae. The book received many accolades; Tessa appreciated them all, but she especially relished a review that complimented her work for its “judicious empathy and thorough social and historical contextualizing of its subject” (Journal of Asian Studies, 1996, p. 747). These were her chief intellectual values.

And here, perhaps, is the right point to return to her passion for scholarship. Ideas excited her, but also people. In the preface to her dissertation, she neglects the usual starched dissertationese to write: “I am so happy that I was able to conduct research in such a spectacular setting, and with such interesting and helpful people. All of the people whom I met in the course of my fieldwork were extremely kind and gracious … My friendships with the lay nuns among whom I conducted research were an invaluable source of comfort to me. I only hope that I can do them justice in the pages that follow” (p. vi). She was ever grateful to the Colombo Young Men’s Buddhist Association for their unfailing courtesy and helpfulness, even – especially – in the midst of intellectual disagreements (v. “The Buddhist and the American,” The Buddhist, LXVII, 1997). The same affection for the men and women of Sri Lanka was evident in her genuine anxiety that, in conducting fieldwork in Sri Lanka, she might reduce Sri Lankans to mere subjects, thereby cheating them of their humanity (v. “Watching Americans watching Sri Lankans,” Sri Lanka Studies, September 1992). The greatest part of this sympathy sprang from Tessa’s natural compassion, as those who knew her will recognize at once, but a large part also owed itself to her unusual situation with respect to Sri Lankan society, in which she was at once an insider and an outsider: a Burgher, a woman, and half-English at that, but also an academic reared in America (she began her Sinhala studies in India and in Ithaca), she combined an insider’s pride (and pain) in Sri Lanka with an outsider’s enthusiasm for its every facet. Her journeys to Sri Lanka were different, in vital respects, from those either of the stranger or of the ex-patriot, and this special space gave her a distinctive perspective from which to view the culture she so much loved.

After Women Under the Bo Tree, related papers appeared – an exploration of the life and the fiction of Canavarro (an exercise in literary criticism as well as historical narrative), a defense of Dharmapala – but also new, and varied, topics, such as her examination of Buddhist–Catholic relations in the late nineteenth century, a paper on the changing status of women in Sri Lanka owing to the advent of what she, and others, describe as Buddhist fundamentalism, and an essay on neo-orientalism. One-trick ponies never impressed Tessa. She often said that she knew how much her work would benefit if she could only slow down, read and re-read, rewrite and re-edit. But her ideas were too many and varied, and she once remarked, long before she was diagnosed with cancer and therefore without a hint of irony, that she did not believe that a single lifetime would suffice to allow her to study all of the issues in Buddhism and in Sri Lankan society that she so very much wanted to understand. Gender, however, remained an abiding concern, and one paper in particular displayed her nuanced mastery of the manifold significances of gender in canonical Buddhism and in Sri Lankan society: “Mothers of Buddhas, mothers of nations: Kumaranatunga and her meteoric rise of power in Sri Lanka,” Feminist Studies, 25, 1999. There the privileged category of motherhood is shown to possess a cultural and political potency, deriving from its function as a metaphor for dependent-arising, that, in the case of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga’s election as prime minister in 1994, overpowered other gender assumptions that would normally have been impediments to her political success.

The methodology is consistent. An issue, or a set of issues, aroused Tessa’s curiosity and motivated her to assemble relevant data (texts, documents, interviews) for analysis, the results of which illuminated problems, conceptual and practical alike, and pointed the way toward further progress. Theoretical awareness, in Tessa’s view, was crucial to intelligent analysis. But theoretical perspectives mattered to the extent that they helped one to understand better the data before one: theorizing, especially theorizing untethered to the practical effects of religion on everyday life, was never the point. In other words, knowledge, and its potential for helpful application, was the thing to be expanded. This was, for Tessa, the essence of scholarship. She had little time for infinite regressions of problematizing (by no means the same thing as adding refinement or nuance to an argument), a habit that she regarded as a sort of beating around the bush in an effort to escape commitment or criticism. Real conclusions, she believed, become signposts, and, often, targets; that, she knew well, was proof that one was making a difference (no one should be surprised by the degree to which she admired the writings of S. J. Tambiah and H. L. Seneviratne for these very qualities of boldness and courage).

In no aspect of her work is the desire to be helpful more obvious than in her collaborations with the distinguished historian Chandra R. de Silva. Together they edited Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka (1998), a richly varied collection of essays each of which deals with various Sri Lankan minorities and their responses, invariably complex, to Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalist ideology, itself, as they and their contributors insist, a not uncomplicated phenomenon. But it is certainly a contested one, and some reviewers, although admiring the clarity of the book’s introduction, co-authored by Tessa and de Silva, and while appreciating the careful and subtle expositions of each paper, were anxious over the broader category of fundamentalism and about the actual existence of Buddhist fundamentalism. Nevertheless, there emerged a general consensus that the book was a must-read, not least because its papers engaged, at both a theoretical and pragmatic level, an issue of genuine importance to Sri Lankan society. Here, then, was a book whose purpose was to help to situate certain aspects of Sri Lankan Buddhism “on a larger map of movements analyzed by scholars of religion and politics” (p. 1) and which sought to help, through the elucidation of past and present habits of identification and discrimination, to clarify difficult aspects of the current state of affairs in Sri Lanka. In Tessa’s two independent contributions to this volume, she examined two significant transformations in Sri Lanka’s Christian communities (like all the essays in Buddhist Fundamentalism, Tessa’s is scrupulous in stressing the high degree of diversity that obtains even within collective groupings): first, the Sinhalization of the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka, a process in which elements of Sri Lankan culture that were historically regarded as Buddhist (and certainly not Anglican) have come, by way of indigenization, to be reconfigured as Sinhala and therefore suitable for Sri Lankan Christianity; and, second, the conversion to Buddhism of a relatively small number of Burghers and the conceptual complications that ensue from an analysis of their simultaneous shift toward further marginalization (as Buddhist Burghers) and toward the center (as assimilated Buddhist Burghers). A more obvious specimen of research intended to point the way toward further progress is de Silva’s and Tessa’s, The Role of the Sangha in the Reconciliation Process, No. 16 in the series A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Reconciliation, Reinterpretation & Reconciliation, (Colombo: Marga Institute, 2001). There one finds a powerful argument for the importance of history and tradition (often confounded) as crucial factors in Sri Lanka’s political life, an argument deployed in urging the state, and other elements in Sri Lankan society, to expend greater resources in order to enhance “the education of the sangha and education about the sangha” (p. 24).

The troubles in Sri Lanka never ceased to disturb Tessa, who more than once was found weeping over yet another instance of terrible news. Violence more and more claimed her attentions, out of which concern she wrote papers such as “First among equals: Buddhism and the Sri Lankan state” (in I. Harris (ed.), Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia, 1999); “Women, war and peace in Sri Lanka” (in E. B. Findly (ed.), Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women: Tradition, Revision, Renewal, 2000); and, most relevant for this book, “In defense of dharma: Buddhist just-war thinkers in Sri Lanka” (Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 6, 1999). All of these brought her to the subject of this book, by means of which she hoped, as in her collaborative undertakings with C. R. de Silva, to inform, to elucidate, and to help – and, once again, to situate an issue of Sri Lankan society “on a larger map of movements analyzed by scholars of religion and politics.”

The present volume was accepted for publication before Tessa knew she was dying. During her final months it was only with difficulty that she could concentrate on revision – she felt that the book was too repetitive in parts and there were places in which she would have liked to refine her argument somewhat further – and after the unexpected collapse of her mother, who died suddenly in the arms of Tessa and her father, she was unable to continue with her academic work. Which means that any subsequent revisions have been limited to simple corrections and formatting, because it was impossible to be certain of precisely what changes Tessa would have made in her final version. That we have the book at all, signpost and target that it is (and that Tessa would have had no other way), is thanks to the professionalism and decency of Jonathan Price and to the editors of this series, Charles Prebish and Damien Keown. A debt is also owed to the Department of Religion at the Florida State University.

So what remains? After this book, there are a very few pieces, already in press, still to come. And there are also a couple of unpublished papers, one on elements of anti-feminism in American Buddhism, the other dealing with the preservation of difference and marginal status in the writings of feminist and gay American Buddhists. But after these, silence. In a very brief career – too brief – Tessa has given us an ample body of work (there are scholars who retire having written less). How much more would she have taught us? At the time of her death, Tessa had already undertaken a new research project: the Sri Lankan diaspora in North America, another examination of marginalities and assimilation. She had secured her first grant in support of her research and had conducted interviews at Buddhist temples in Tampa, Houston, and Los Angeles. In fact, she had already presented certain preliminary conclusions in a paper entitled “Sri Lankan monks and Sri Lankan identity in the diaspora,” which she delivered to the Southeastern Conference of the Association of Asian Studies in January 2001. But that book, to which she looked forward as a happier undertaking than the writing of this one, will remain unwritten. At least it will not be written by Tessa. Nor will any of the other books, the ideas for which she carried around in her head, each one awaiting its turn. The loss is indescribable. But it is the consolation of a scholar’s life that her published works will persist in speaking for her, will continue to inform and inspire others, so long as they are read. Even when there is no-one yet alive who can remember the sound of her voice or the sparkle of her smile, there will always be her data, her analysis, her bold invention and her affectionate, intelligent engagement with Buddhism and Sri Lankan society or – truer to Tessa – with Buddhists and the people of Sri Lanka. Ergo etiam cum me supremus adederit ignis, vivam, parsque mei multa superestes erit.    


Filed under Buddhism, cultural transmission, education, female empowerment, historical interpretation, Indian religions, life stories, meditations, sri lankan society, unusual people

6 responses to “Tessa Bartholomeusz: In Memory of a Scholar Lost Far, Far Too Early

  1. Tara A Bartholomew (Tara Bartholomeusz, Tessa's sister in U.S.A.

    yes, that’s right. Tessa died of a very treatable cancer that went far too long undetected.

  2. Vinod Moonesinghe

    My deepest condolences. Her work has been essential to my research into Cannavarro.

  3. Despina

    We feel thankful for her work and her existance. Such a touching soul. Thank you. May her soul rest in peace.

  4. Stan

    I was a graduate student at Virginia at the same time as Tessa, though she was more advanced than I. The normal Hindi professor handed the class instruction off to her, saying that she was unusually gifted with languages. I remembered her was brilliant, warm and very patient. Very sad to see that she passed at such a young age.

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