"My courses introduce students to the religious and philosophical traditions of East Asia and encourage them to understand multiple worldviews."
One of the things Kopf appreciates about a liberal arts education is how it contributes to society’s reflections on what it means to be human. “It asks questions like What makes us human? or How can we lead a fulfilling and meaningful life?” he says, “As a scholar of religion, it also helps me examine what religion is and the role it plays.”
He also believes that the liberal arts contributes to intercultural and interreligious understanding. “We tend to divide the human community into us and them,” he says. “I believe that only when we understand a multiplicity of cultures and traditions can we become fully human.”
Kopf’s scholarly interests are divided into three main areas. “I’m interested in exploring the little known phenomena of Japanese Buddhism such as postmortem weddings, pilgrimages, and outreach programs such as the Vowz Buddhist bar and the suicide prevention program of Ven. Nemoto,” he says. “The purpose of this research is to better understand Japanese culture, Buddhism, and the religious phenomenon in general.”
He also enjoys working on a method of interpretation to make Japanese texts more accessible to an English-speaking audience. “This is important since most of my students and many readers of my work are not proficient in Japanese.”
And his interest in Buddhist texts is not only historical but also philosophical. “As a philosopher, I want to understand the way we use concepts to understand the world,” he says. “In my current project, I’m trying to develop global ethics based on the Buddhist concepts of no-self and emptiness.”
A non-essentialist framework allows us to think through diverse beliefs about the world and enables us to see the world from multiple perspectives. This ability to switch codes and cognitive schematas not only increases intercultural understanding (a necessary condition for peace) but also enhances our knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in.
“My courses introduce students to the religious and philosophical traditions of East Asia and encourage them to understand multiple worldviews,” he says. “This requires some openness and flexibility. Luther students tend to be intellectually curious.” Kopf finds that most students seem genuinely intrigued in the traditions of East Asia even if they lacked interest in this field of study prior to his course. Some even decide to make it their major or conduct research in this field.
Kopf finds the most rewarding aspect of being a professor is the possibility to mentor students interested in East Asia, guide them in their struggles to understand new conceptual frameworks and cultures, and work with them on joint research projects. “I appreciate that Luther supports these collaborations and encourages faculty from different disciplines and divisions to design new and exciting courses,” he says. “Plus, our membership in consortia such as the Associated Colleges of the Midwest facilitates study abroad and collaborative research opportunities.”
“I routinely teach two study-away courses called Experiencing Mahayana Buddhism and Disaster and Enlightenment,” he says. “Both courses are for religion credit and take students to Japan, China, Hong Kong, and/or Korea.”
In the Buddhism course, the group lives in two monasteries, meets Buddhist practitioners, and explores various forms of Buddhist practice. In the second course, the class goes on pilgrimages to sacred mountains and museums that commemorate disasters. The goal of the course is to examine the way people memorialize dead. “On both trips, students interact with students from universities in Japan and Hong Kong,” he says.
Kopf received his Ph.D. in comparative religious studies from Temple University. Before that, he studied Catholic theology on the graduate level at the University in Tübingen and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
“In preparation for my dissertation, I spent one year conducting research in the Kantō area in Japan,” he says. “Since I began teaching at Luther in 1997, I spent two years of research at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture and one year of research at Tōyō University, both in Japan. I also taught for one year at Hong Kong University as well as three, one-week intensive courses at Saitama University, Japan.”
Kopf says that his studies in Christian theology, expertise in religious traditions of East Asia, and experience of living in four countries have prepared him well for his current position. “It enables me to introduce students to the studies of comparative religions, philosophies, and cultures.”