In Memoriam: Kenneth Kraft


Kenneth Lewis Kraft, Professor emeritus in Lehigh’s Department of Religion Studies, died October 1, 2018 at his home in Haverford, PA.  A memorial service was held in his honor on May 4, 2019 in Rochester NY at the Zen Center founded by the renowned Zen scholar and monk Roshi Phillip Kapleau.  Ken studied meditation practice with Kapleau and played a significant role in the early history of the Rochester Zen Center, one of the oldest and largest Zen Buddhist organizations in the United States.  Ken and his wife Trudy were married at the Center.  Attending the memorial service representing both the Religion Studies Department and Lehigh University were Distinguished Professor emeritus Norman Girardot and Professor Lloyd Steffen.  Other academic colleagues, Zen Center members, along with Ken’s family and friends, were in attendance at the Buddhist Memorial Service at the Zen Center.  Ken’s daughters, Eva Kraft and Louise Baigelman, spoke in tribute to their father, as did his brother, Robert Kraft, and his University of Vermont colleague, Stephanie Kaza, with whom he edited the acclaimed volume in Buddhist environmentalism, Dharma Rain. Others in the audience, including Norman Girardot, also offered their memories of, and reflections on, Ken as a loving father, distinguished scholar, outstanding teacher, caring colleague, and person imbued with the Buddhist spirit of compassion.  The service, conducted by the Abbot Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede concluded with traditional Zen chants and darani recitations for Ken’s safe passage through the Bardo realm of the recently deceased.  As is said in the Zen Center’s chant book:

Great is the matter of birth and death
Life slips quickly by
Time waits for no one
Wake up! Wake up!
Don’t waste a moment

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Ken Kraft was a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Michigan, and he received his Ph.D. in East Asian Studies from Princeton University in 1984.  He came to Lehigh in 1990 where he taught courses on Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, and had particular interests in the potential of Buddhism to serve as a catalyst for social action and environmental protection.  Trained in medieval Japanese Zen, Ken’s volume, Eloquent Zen, examined in scholarly detail the life and work of Daito, who helped in the transmission of Zen from China to Japan in the 14th century, and Ken established himself as a meticulous scholar able to write lucidly and engagingly about  Japanese culture and Asian philosophy and poetry.  Ken believed, however, that Buddhism possessed resources with which to address contemporary global issues, and he became a leader in what is known today as “engaged Buddhism.”  Ken could translate and interpret medieval Japanese poetry, but he could also write about the relevance of Buddhist values and insight regarding problems like nuclear waste disposal and the torture of inmates at Abu Graibe prison.  

Ken’s numerous publications had significant international influence both in scholarly circles and more broadly for a general public interested in East Asian spirituality. He was also active on various advisory boards concerned with making Buddhism broadly accessible and meaningful,  including the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Berkeley; The Buddhism Project: Art, Buddhism, and Contemporary Culture (New York); the Forum on Religion and Ecology (Yale University); Journal of Buddhist Ethics; the Religion Working Group on Genetically Modified Organisms (University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics); the Rochester Zen Center; and the World Faiths Development Dialogue (World Bank).  Never a sequestered Ivory Tower academic, Ken was always directly engaged with the difficult predicaments of life on this planet.

Ken published his last book, Zen Traces, in June of 2018, and it included a dialogue between American literature and Zen Buddhists.  He also in recent years mastered Photoshop for a book of “memes” humorously designed as internet koans tersely satirizing current political developments.

Ken was a superb teacher, and he received an award that meant a great deal to him, Lehigh’s senior teaching award in the early 2000s.  He engaged students in the classroom and applied his Zen wisdom and Buddhist values to his teaching, challenging Lehigh students and their job aspirations by appealing to the Buddhist precept of right vocation.  Buddhism was a central part of Ken’s life, and one of his edited volumes focused attention on Phillip Kapleau, Ken’s mentor, who wrote the influential book, Three Pillars of Zen. As noted, Ken had been in residence at the center earlier in his life, and he continued to practice meditation and find joy in a Zen life during his retirement.

At Lehigh, we fondly remember Ken’s acerbic and knowing smile at faculty meetings, his significant scholarly works, and his role as a public intellectual concerned with making Buddhism relevant to our benighted world.  But most of all, he will be remembered as a gifted teacher and existential mentor to many devoted students who were “waking up” to the relevance of Buddhism in their lives.  

Ken is survived by his wife Trudy, his two daughters, Eva and Louise, his son-in-law Max, grandchildren Daniel and Ella, his brother Robert and numerous nieces and nephews.  At Lehigh he was a valued colleague whose kindness, wisdom, and mischievous sense of humor will be greatly missed.  


Thursday, May 9, 2019