The following citation was presented at Franklin & Marshall College's Commencement Ceremony on May 11, 2013:
David McMahan, whose Ph.D. hails from the University of California, Santa Barbara, came to Franklin & Marshall College's Department of Religious Studies as an assistant professor in 1999, and has been a full professor since 2011. His interests and his career make him the polar opposite of a narrow specialist, although he is in fact very much a specialist in the Buddhist tradition, and has the language tools of Pali and Sanskrit and an impressive list of publications to prove it. He has written books on both early Buddhism in India, and on recent Buddhist interactions with Western thought. His work has brought him to three continents -- Asia, Europe and North America -- and he has eagerly explored a fourth, Africa, in his spare time.
Professor McMahan's work is characterized by looking at traditions at points of major transition. His first book, "Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visionary Imagery in Mahayana Buddhism," explored the shift in the notion of knowledge from the earlier Theravada to the later Mahayana tradition. He found that the metaphor of sight replaced the metaphor of hearing as a way of describing how truth reveals itself to the adept. This had implications for Buddhist meditational practices, and for what passed as authoritative knowledge in the whole of the Buddhist tradition. The book is highly readable, despite the seeming esoteric nature of its topic, and relates to current disputes about how we know what we know in the contemporary West.
Professor McMahan's second book, "The Making of Buddhist Modernism," has made him a rising star in the firmament of Buddhist Studies in general and in that of Buddhist modernity in particular. Both Buddhism and Western modernity are fluid, even oceanic in their scope. David manages to pinpoint a pattern in all this movement by focusing on the way the discourse of science, liberal Protestantism, and romanticism intersected with certain key Buddhist terms and practices from the 19th century onward. He has recently edited an additional volume of collected essays on the same theme, in which many participants test his ideas and add their own. This and the many invitations to share his work across the world speak loudly of how well his work has been received. This year Professor McMahan, on his sabbatical leave, with the support of a generous and highly competitive Fellowship, is researching monastic practices both in the United States and in various Asian countries. This study will culminate in a fourth book where he will investigate to what degree religious practice and thought are embedded in local cultures, despite globalization.
In addition to his enviable breadth and the clarity of his exposition, Professor McMahan also has an unexpected and disarming sense of humor. His many travels across the world in pursuit of his subjects have elicited telling stories of human encounters. His gift as a storyteller is one of the reasons he has also been one of F&M's strongest teachers. He has a way of conveying incongruities with just the right timing. Part of students' appreciation for his teaching is no doubt linked to the way his sense of humor loosens the atmosphere in the classroom, permitting a relaxed give and take. Whether Professor McMahan is "very Zen," as one student put it, perhaps only a Zen master can tell. But even short of that salvific state, he manages to create a setting in which most students shed their fears of entering into conceptually difficult terrain. This is both unusual and enviable. The scholarship becomes eminently teachable and students are made aware in Professor McMahan's subtle way that there is an intellectual life, which is not at their fingertips, and for which they need to reach.