Kenneth Kraft Obituary

Kenneth Kraft Obituary

July 16, 1949 – October 1, 2018


Kenneth Kraft, professor of Buddhist studies and Japanese religions and author of several books on contemporary Buddhism, died on October 1 at his home in Haverford, PA. He was 69.

The cause of death was cancer, his family said.

For almost 50 years, Kraft was deeply engaged in Buddhist studies. He was recognized as a brilliant scholar and a leader in his field, impacting countless readers and students in their understanding of Zen Buddhism.

Kraft’s insights and writing were ahead of his time: his work in Japanese Zen and socially engaged Buddhism began in the mid-1980’s. Kraft believed that Buddhism had resources that were freshly relevant in a time of ecological crisis. Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, an anthology coedited in 2000 by Kraft and Stephanie Kaza, was an early contribution to the emerging field. Kraft's 1992 book Eloquent Zen: Daitō and Early Japanese Zen was selected as an "Outstanding Academic Book" by Choice magazine.

“With his impeccable rigor and deep experience with Zen, Ken Kraft was a true scholar-practitioner, a colleague of the highest order, valued by many for his clarity, insight, and respectful cordiality.  His penetrating mind, warm heart, and sharp wit will be sorely missed.” said Stephanie Kaza, Ph.D., co-author of Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism.

Dr. Kraft received a B.A. from Harvard University in 1971, an M.A. in Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of Michigan in 1978, and a Ph.D. in East Asian Studies from Princeton University in 1984. He graduated from the Lawrenceville School in 1967.

After graduating from Harvard, Kraft skipped commencement and headed straight to the Rochester Zen Center, in New York. In 1978, Kraft entered a Ph.D. program in East Asian Studies at Princeton, and then studied and practiced in Japan for four years. He spent time as a visiting professor at the Stanford University Japan Center, and was a visiting scholar at the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism, both in Kyoto. He also taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College. In 1990, he joined the Religious Studies department at Lehigh University, teaching courses on Buddhism, Japanese religions, and environmental ethics. At Lehigh, he served as chair of the department and director of the College Seminar Program. In 2005, he received a Lindback Foundation Award for distinguished teaching by a senior member of the Lehigh University faculty.

Along the way, Kraft edited and published several books and numerous articles on engaged Buddhism. His most recent book, Zen Traces, was published just four months before his death in June 2018. In Zen Traces, Kraft explores American Zen by pairing passages from four sources: Traditional Zen, Contemporary Zen, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain.

“Ken Kraft provided a unique opening for American Buddhism and American wisdom in general. He was a source of fresh and spacious new insights and enjoyments,” said Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., author of The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery.

In 1992, Kraft was featured in "The Creative Spirit," a PBS television series. In 2008, he participated in "Secrets of the Samurai Sword," a NOVA documentary, and, in 2009, "Inquiry into the Great Matter: A History of Zen Buddhism," an independent film.

Kraft has served on the advisory boards of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Berkeley, California; the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University; the Journal of Buddhist Ethics; the Rochester Zen Center; and the World Faiths Development Dialogue in Washington DC.

Kenneth Lewis Kraft was born in Cincinnati, OH on July 16, 1949, and grew up in Princeton, NJ. His father, Lewis Kraft, was a homebuilder in New Jersey, and his mother, Eve Kraft, was Executive Director of the Education and Research Committee of the United States Tennis Association, and a varsity tennis coach at Princeton University.

Dr. Kraft is survived by his wife, Trudy, his two daughters, Eva and Louise, son-in-law Max, grandson Daniel, brother Robert, as well as numerous nieces and nephews.