The Meaning of Wright

Professor Dale Wright’s journey to Buddhist enlightenment began when he was a teenager—and he’s spent the last four decades inspiring students to expand their thinking

By Sam Mowe ’07 | Photo by Kevin Burke

Every year on the last day of his popular Buddhist Thought course, Professor Dale S. Wright opens the floor for questions from his students. After deftly clarifying some of the finer points of Buddhist philosophy, he hesitates before responding to the personal question on everyone’s mind that one student will invariably ask: Are you a Buddhist?

It’s not a surprising question, since religious studies students tend to be curious about the inner lives of others, and Wright fosters an atmosphere in which students feel free to ask anything they want. But there is an urgency behind it that reveals an important quality of Wright’s brilliance as a teacher and mentor. As a scholar of religion—having an academic interest in the traditional way that people find meaning in their lives—there is a deep resonance between his intellectual pursuits and his way of being.

After 38 years at Occidental, Wright is retiring from the classroom this spring. His ability to ground his scholarship with levity and practicality has profoundly influenced generations of students. “He has this way of simple, direct communication that situates you clearly and comfortably within a dense web of ideas,” says Ashby Kinch ’92, a professor of English and associate dean at the University of Montana.

“Dale is a true intellectual and a very deep thinker, but he doesn’t get lost in abstraction for abstraction’s sake,” adds Steven Barrie-Anthony ’04, who directs a program on technology and human relationships at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley. “He’s always interested in finding ways that ideas can be meaningful in life and can impact the world.”

Of all the ideas that Wright exemplifies in his approach to teaching, perhaps none is more important than the Buddhist concept of upaya, or the skillful means that a bodhisattva employs to guide beings toward enlightenment. For Wright, that entails getting to know many of his students as individuals and tailoring his lessons and feedback to their different backgrounds and ways of learning.

“For me, upaya is the crucial teaching concept,” says Wright, 69. “What it involves is recognizing that every person in every historical period has their own unique needs and capacities and therefore has to be communicated with through different means. You have to be able to adjust your methods depending on who you’re talking to and in what context.”

“What sets him apart is his ability to see the most important idea in what he’s reading or discussing and then get right to the heart of it,” says Malek Moazzam-Doulat ’92, an assistant professor of religious studies at Occidental, who has known Wright both as a mentor and colleague. In recent years, the two have co-taught a popular course called What Is Enlightenment?

“We will be having a conversation in preparation for teaching a class together, and it will be as scholarly and erudite as any I’ve had,” Moazzam-Doulat explains. “But then we’ll start the class and Dale will just produce this lucid jewel of a thought—simple, profound—and find a way to explain it to first-year college students that connects with them in their lives. That ability to hone something so complex and difficult into its most essential form and then to present it so that it communicates directly—that’s just inspiring.”

How is Wright able to do this? Moazzam-Doulat believes it comes down to one of his basic ethical principles: generosity. “He just insists on reading and interpreting texts and people generously. He engages with their strongest case rather than just identifying their weak points,” he says. “A hermeneutics of generosity—that’s about as apt a name for Dale’s work and teaching as I can imagine.”

A native of San Diego, Wright was introduced to Buddhism early in life and close to his home in Vista. When he was 13, his family volunteered to host their town’s one foreign exchange student, a 17-year-old high school senior from Bangkok—a Buddhist. Wright was immediately smitten by this “older woman” in his life and, after seeing her meditating one day, asked her to teach him how.

“Although it seemed utterly pointless to me at the time, I wasn’t about to ruin the chance to be with her,” he says. “Some years after her departure, I realized that she had let me in on an incredible secret, and I have pursued or dabbled in meditation practices ever since.”

Wright stayed close to home for college, attending San Diego State University with his older sister. After changing his major six times, he settled on religious studies after taking classes with an inspirational teacher named Allan Anderson. Anderson was instrumental in creating a new kind of academic department focused on the secular study of religion. Wright’s secular parents were confused by their son’s decision.

“They didn’t know what I was doing and neither did I,” he says. “But I had the sense that there was a spiritual dimension to human life, that I was unfamiliar with it, and that I wanted to learn more about it.”

He began reading and studying more fervently after graduating from college, immersing himself in philosophy, literature, art, and music. “Chinese Buddhist texts just kept growing on me,” he says. “So I started looking around for graduate programs where I could study religion and learn the Chinese language.” In 1980, Wright completed his doctorate from the University of Iowa.

“It occurred to me in graduate school that being a professor means you get to read and write for the rest of your life,” he says. “If you can get paid to do what you want to do, what could be better than that?”

Following a stint as an instructor at Washington and Lee University during the 1979-80 academic year, Wright was hired at Occidental and, with the exception of two years as a visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, he has taught at Oxy ever since. He was made a full professor in 1991 and nine years later was named the David B. and Mary H. Gamble Distinguished Professor in Religion, one of only a handful of endowed chairs at Occidental.

In his one-on-one advising and mentoring, upaya and generosity allow Wright to support students in ways that are both effective and appropriate to the person.

“He respected my ability as a scholar and with humanity, humor, and dedication challenged me to fulfill it in the way that worked for me,” says Daijaku Kinst ’82, director of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley. “It’s been a quirky, roundabout path combining scholarship, religious inquiry, Zen practice, academic and dharma teaching, and a deep exploration of interfaith dialogue. I would not have had the confidence to take up and continue on this path had it not been for Dale.”

“It’s so common for mentors to have agendas to create ‘little thems,’” says Barrie-Anthony. “But Dale is not that way. I can be unguarded with him because I don’t feel like I have to protect who I am and who I want to become. And yet, he’s still willing to do the hard work of telling you when you’ve gone astray with a project. I remember working on my senior thesis and him telling me he thought I was pushing too far in a particular direction. It was a difficult conversation for both of us, I think, but as a result I ended up shifting the direction of my project and his feedback ended up shaping the work I did in graduate school.”

Wright’s ability to determine what he can meaningfully contribute to a student’s particular path—both academically and personally—has resulted in his students flourishing in many different disciplines. A number of his students have gone on to earn Ph.Ds in religious studies, philosophy, and Asian studies. Others have gone on to be attorneys, physicians, diplomats, and psychologists, as well as pursue less conventional careers in Asian medicine, yoga, and music. There is even one Zen master.

Many of these students remember times that Wright could elegantly connect his intellectual work with the wider world. As a sophomore at Oxy during 9/11, Grace (Egbert) Ortman ’04 recalls a gathering in Herrick Memorial Chapel and Interfaith Center soon after the attacks, where Wright spoke about the problem of dualistic thinking. “He drew a line connecting global politics and the philosophies we had been studying,” says Ortman, who now teaches religious studies and English at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas. “He cautioned us wisely against thinking in us-versus-them terms. We could seek understanding through dialogue.”

This blending of deep learning and practical insight is also a hallmark of his writing, which attracts both an academic and general readership. Wright has published a number of books, including The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (2009) and What Is Buddhist Enlightenment? (2016), and his scholarship has increasingly focused on what it means to live a worthwhile and meaningful life. After retiring from teaching, Wright plans to devote more time to writing. Oxford University Press recently asked him to write a book in its “What Everyone Needs to Know” series. His contribution, naturally, will be titled Buddhism: What Everyone Needs to Know.

In addition to the element of wisdom that Wright exudes in his academic teaching, there is something else that his students are intuiting when they eagerly ask him about his personal religious views. For Wright, teaching and writing is an expression of the spiritual dimension of human life.

“As somebody who was raised in a secular way, it wasn’t going to be possible for me to be traditionally religious,” he says. “So it became obvious to me that in order to meaningfully participate in this domain of life, it had to be reimagined and rediscovered outside of the hold that the major religions had on it. So I have tried to approach my career as though it’s part of a spiritual practice.”

But now it really is the last day of class. And though Wright might hesitate as he did years ago—his reluctance to self-reveal serving as a way to maintain space for others to shape themselves—I want to know more about this man who’s meant so much to me. Not that I think he’s enlightened—although, honestly, I also don’t think he’s not enlightened—but I still have the sense that his perspective can guide me toward the kind of life I aspire to live. I lean in expectantly, hopefully, and ask again: Are you a Buddhist?

“It’s complicated,” he says. “Half of my reading is in contemporary Western philosophy and the other half is Buddhist texts. But from Buddhist points of view that I admire, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Buddhist or not. What you’re after in life is wisdom, understanding, insight, compassion, and skillful participation in the world. You can find those qualities from any point of view. What matters is the kind of life you’re leading.” 

Sam Mowe ’07 is a writer in New York and former student of Wright’s. He continues to rely on Wright’s wisdom and asked him for career advice while interviewing him for this article.