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Comparative religions expert Frederic Spiegelberg dies at 97

STANFORD -- Frederic Spiegelberg, professor emeritus of Indian civilization and a pioneer in comparative religious studies at Stanford from 1941 to 1962, died Thursday, Nov. 10, in San Francisco from complications after abdominal surgery. He was 97.

Spiegelberg was considered an inspiring lecturer on the religions of India, the psychology of Buddhism and the spiritual common ground of the world's religions. He visited spiritual teachers at ashrams and monasteries in India, Tibet, Siam, Ceylon, China and Japan.

He was one of a small number of scholars who was knowledgeable both in Sanskrit and Pali, the dialect of the early Buddhist scriptures. He also knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German and French.

Spiegelberg came to public attention in 1949, when he returned from a six-month trip to India and Tibet, financed by a Rockefeller Foundation grant. He brought with him predictions about the coming “black ages” by Nagarjuna, a Buddhist philosopher, contained in a 200-year-old reproduction of a previously unknown first-century manuscript.

Also on the trip, he discovered Tibetan ghost-traps, spindle-like contraptions wound with colored yarns and mounted on roofs of Tibetan villages to trap ghosts. In 1955, he compiled the first complete collection of ghost-traps known to have been taken out of Asia and displayed the collection in the Stanford Art Gallery. He later donated the collection to the university.

The next year, the gallery displayed Spiegelberg's collection of Tibetan wood block prints of Lamaist divinities, demons and magic charms.

Former student Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., described Spiegelberg as one of Stanford's most charismatic professors and “the greatest lecturer I ever heard.” Spiegelberg's class on comparative religions, originally held in a large lecture hall on the Quad in the 1940s, moved to Cubberley Auditorium in 1950 and eventually ended up in Memorial Auditorium, where enrollment exceeded 1,000 students.

Spiegelberg also taught a survey of Indian civilizations, Buddhism, the Bhagavad Gita (the most popular of Indian scriptures), Indian philosophy and masterpieces of Indian literature.

David S. Nivison, a former colleague in Asiatic and Slavic studies, recalled an incident that Spiegelberg related to him: Spiegelberg was delivering a lecture about the enlightenment experience in Indian religions at a time when sonic booms were common during the early years of jet flight. Just as he came to the punch line - “that the experience was like an explosion” - a sonic boom occurred and brought down the house.

In the days before university teaching awards, Spiegelberg was voted one of two “great teachers” in 1950 by the student executive committee.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1897, Spiegelberg went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Tübingen in 1922 followed by a theological degree from the Lutheran Church in Germany. He taught at the University of Dresden, Columbia University, University of Rochester, University of California, Union Theological Seminary and the Pacific School of Religion.

He joined Stanford as a lecturer in religion in 1941 and retired in 1962 as professor of Indian civilization in the Department of Asiatic and Slavic Studies.

During his years in Europe he studied with theologians Rudolf Otto and Paul Tillich, philosopher Martin Heidegger and psychologist Carl Jung. Spiegelberg took over Tillich's position at Dresden in 1933. Four years later Tillich helped Spiegelberg and his late wife, Rosalie, escape Hitler's Germany.

Spiegelberg was author or contributor to several books, including, in German, The Religious Experience of Plotinus, Freedom and Authority: Martin Luther and the Bible and The Secularization of the Japanese Military; and, in English, Zen, Rocks and Water; Spiritual Practices of India; Living Religions of the World; Religion of No-Religion; Alchemy as a Way to Salvation; and Bible of the World.

In 1951, he helped found in San Francisco the American Academy of Asian Studies, the first accredited graduate school in the United States devoted exclusively to the study of Asiatic lands and people. The academy was devoted to studies of the confluence of modern Western psychology and the ancient disciplines of the East, and played a key role in San Francisco's “artistic renaissance” of the 1950s. Its successor organization is the California Institute of Integral Studies.

In his final years, according to Murphy, Spiegelberg “elaborated his view that the highest expression of the religious impulse is to transcend religion in the search for God. He maintained that exclusive notions of the 'right way' for spiritual culture were forms of idolatry.”

Spiegelberg is survived by a daughter, Corinne Wilkinson, of San Francisco. Also surviving from an earlier marriage are a son, Valentin, and daughter, Dorothea Florian, both of Germany.

A memorial service will be held at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco at a future date.



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