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Religion major wins Class of ’21 Award

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on June 27, 2016 11:15 AM

Photo by Foster Seybert

What is religion, exactly? A sacred book? A belief in an invisible force? A system of morality? A way of life?

Religion major Pema McLaughlin ’16 spent many hours wrestling with this question—so simple yet so deep— in a senior thesis on American Buddhism, which won the Class of ’21 award.

While many religions are preoccupied with eternal truths and revolve around unchanging scriptures, they are fundamentally social activities, Pema says, evolving over time and place. Over the last 30 years, for example, a form of Buddhism has gained currency among middle-class, educated, white Americans, often as part of the self-help movement—which has led some scholars to dismiss it as a “night-stand religion.”

But this characterization is unfair, according to Pema. “Religion is often divided into ‘traditional’ religion—authoritarian, hierarchical, devotional—and ‘modern’ religion—democratic, contemplative, and progressive,” Pema says. “I argued that lived religion can’t be so neatly split along this dichotomy. The ways people actually behave and practice disprove the idea that someone meditating at home is somehow freer and more modern than someone making offerings to monks in a temple. However, this way of thinking has a great deal of power and appeal in an American religious context, and practitioners shape their communities to live up to our ideas about modern Buddhism.”

Pema examined the dilemmas facing this community through a careful analysis of Tricycle, an American Buddhist magazine founded in 1991 and proclaimed as “the first Buddhist magazine in the West.”

Prof. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri [religion] described the thesis as “outstanding” and called Pema “an extraordinary student,” sentiments that were echoed by the orals committee. In addition to classes in religion, Pema studied history, Chinese, and Japanese sword arts.

“Winning the award was, for me, made into a huge honor through the enthusiasm of the faculty who've made my Reed experience so amazing,” Pema says. “I've been mentored by the Religion faculty with such kindness, care, and enthusiasm, and the award reinforced for me that my academic work had really communicated my admiration for them and how they've inspired me.”

The Class of ’21 Award is bestowed annually upon one or two members of the graduating class and recognizes “creative work of notable character, involving an unusual degree of initiative and spontaneity.” Biology major Michael Weiss ’16 also won the award this year for his thesis on communication among killer whales.