Jan Willem de Jong (founding professor of South Asian and Buddhist studies at the ANU) died in Canberra on the 22 January 2000. His passing will mean more to scholars of Buddhism and Indology in Europe, Japan and the United States than to most Canberrans. Like most specialists he was not well-known outside his area of expertise -Buddhist philology- but within that arena he was without question one of the most important scholars of his generation.
De Jong came to ANU in 1965 from the University of Leiden where he had been Professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies since 1956. In 1956 he had also been a UNESCO delegate to the Buddha Jayanti celebrations in India to mark the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha's birth, death and enlightenment. There he had the first of his two meetings with the current Dalai Lama and also travelled to Nepal as one of that country's first foreign visitors. He met the Dalai Lama again in Canberra, on his first official visit.
In the mid-1960s when de Jong came to Canberra ANU was actively recruiting international scholars for its burgeoning Faculty of Asian Studies. At that time too A. L. Basham, the renowned professor of Indian history was also lured to Canberra from London. De Jong and Basham were in the same Faculty, each had an international reputation, as was to be expected they stood each others' company rather badly. Nevertheless their combined presence in Canberra boosted the profile of South Asian studies in Australia. Because of his presence the ANU was able to offer that rarest of majors, Sanskrit, and doctorates in Buddhist studies.
Languages were one of de Jong's greatest strengths: Dutch, German, English and French were not enough for him to work in. For his 1949 thesis (Cinq chapitres de la Prasannapada), on a difficult Mahayana Buddhist text, he learnt Danish just to read one book that was particularly relevant. Over the years he added works in Italian and Russian to his reading list. During the Cold War he visited Petersburg to use their vast collection of Central Asian manuscripts. De Jong was always attracted to things that were just that little bit more difficult and he took pride in introducing Russian scholarship into the mainstream of Indological studies, or more particularly Buddhist studies for it is there he will be most remembered.
Following his own interests in philosophy, he studied from 1939-45 in wartime Leiden. He studied the classical languages of Buddhist Asia: Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and Classical Tibetan. Most scholars are content to focus on one or two of these, de Jong was unique for his extraordinary abilities in all these languages. At the time he was a student, the university was officially closed because of the German occupation. Classes were held secretly in private homes. After the war he was one of the first to be invited to continue study in the United States. He went by boat as a visiting scholar at Harvard University for a year in 1946. It is there that he met the great US expert in Buddhist Sanskrit, Franklin Edgerton as well as the late Daniel Ingalls, both of whom he respected greatly for the rest of his life. He returned to Europe and travelled from the French port of landing straight to Paris where he stayed from 1947-50, attending the University of Paris and the Coll¸ge de France. He attended courses given by Paul Demiˇville as well as meeting Marcelle Lalou. Ever a Francophile, he continued to write some articles in French throughout his life. In Paris he met and married his wife, Giselle.
From Paris he returned to Leiden where he was appointed Research Assistant (1950-53) and then Lecturer (1953-56). Between 1949 and 1997 de Jong produced more than 820 publications in English and French (many articles were also translated into other languages, notably into Japanese). His standing as a scholar is based on the consistently exemplary quality of that enormous output. His specialty was the critical review of important monographs. He was not at all an inspiring speaker, as anyone will know who attended his 1992 Basham lecture at the ANU, but on paper he was incomparable. He was incisive and well-informed, if a little minimalist. He was invariably scathing of opinions with which he disagreed. Never one to mince words he always stated his academic grounds, but the sometimes vitriolic tone of his comments made him enemies, especially in the United States. He seemed to take on the role of self-appointed standard keeper of Buddhist studies, at a time when that area was much smaller than it is today. He was trenchant in his criticisms of bad scholarship, never hesitating to say when he considered authors not up to dealing with the subjects they had chosen. Even if his review of another scholar's work were favourable he would still list corrections to be made. Some say he was too critical, too much concerned with attacking others instead of showing how things should be done. His own editions of the Ramayana in Tibetan, the Dharmasamuccaya, or the life of the Tibetan yogi Milarepa however belie this. One of his most lasting contributions is the series of survey papers written over several years and reprinted in Japan in 1997, A brief history of Buddhist studies in Europe and America. No other scholar could have attempted the breadth of work necessary to bring off this survey.
After his retirement in 1986 he continued to write, spending much of his time keeping up with scholarly publishing in Europe and his correspondence with colleagues all over the world. The Indo-Iranian journal was one of the lynch-pins of his career. He founded it with life-long colleague, F. B. Kuiper in 1955. De Jong remained one of the two editors-in-chief from the beginning until 1998 (volumes 1-41). Published mostly from the Netherlands this is one of the premier journals in Buddhist studies. Hardly a best-seller though, he once told me that there were only three subscriptions to this journal in Australia. Nevertheless his reviews published in that journal could break (or make) academic careers around the world.
He made no secret of the fact that one of the best things about being Editor-in-chief was that he was sent enormous numbers of books to review. His love of books went beyond bibliophilia and bordered on bibliomania. When he arrived the ANU Library had barely any books covering his area, by the time he retired he had single-handedly overseen the creation of a world-class research library for Indological and Buddhist studies. This is one of his legacies to Australia, along with the number of individual who have studied Sanskrit. There is only one other library for Buddhist and Indological studies in the country to rival that held at the ANU, de Jong's own vast collection. I have seen other houses in Canberra where books have taken over, but never to the extent of the de Jongs' house. A visit there would always revert to books, they would arrive almost daily from colleagues and publishers, they fill a complete wing of the house and more. He read without ceasing, even beside his exercise bike sat Heidegger. No PhD student would ever visit without being given a vital reference to the latest developments in their area of Buddhist studies or Indology in general. Anyone who has seen his collections is overwhelmed, there are thousands of books, in all the languages of Buddhist Asia, and Buddhist scholarship. If you needed a Mongolian or Manchu dictionary, a Khotanese or Sogdian reader all those he had, inscriptions from the Silk Road, all manner of early editions of Sanskrit texts. The fate of the library is uncertain but it is unlikely that it can remain in Canberra, there isn't a library interested in ten thousand obscure volumes on Buddhist studies in more than a dozen languages.
His books came from many sources, after the war Europe had been flooded with second-hand books, as a youngster too de Jong attended book auctions in Leiden, he told me of an old newspaper photograph where he was seated at a book auction surrounded only by men with white beards. He always bought selectively and with an eye for scholarly acumen as well as a good price. Throughout his life he continued to acquire new books. Some of his greatest treasures were found here in Canberra, he haunted book sales, garage sales and with his wife was also a long time helper at Lifeline where he helped sort and price the foreign language books.
De Jong was an intensely private person who kept people at arm's length, he was protective of his time to work but also he felt more comfortable dealing with scholars on paper than in person. He was a prompt correspondent but always brief and to the point. His PhD. students -with a few exceptions like Gregory Schopen and Paul Harrison- came mostly from Japan where his reputation as a scholar of Buddhism is enormous, simply because he was one of the few European scholars of Buddhist studies to realize early on that Japanese scholars have an tremendous head-start on the study of Chinese and Tibetan forms of Buddhism. He was regularly invited to Japan and gave lectures to packed and appreciative audiences. He had also been invited to the International Sanskrit conference in Turin this year but ill health meant he could not attend.
His overriding interest was in philosophy, with a secondary interest in literature. He followed the trends in publishing in Germany, France and the Netherlands and was always interested in the writing of modern history. He reacted angrily to the revisionist trend in modern history, especially the attempts to deny the holocaust. In spite of a long life involved with scholarship de Jong never wrote anything auto-biographical. He nevertheless encouraged his friend, the important German-born Buddhist scholar Edward Conze (1904-79) to write his memoirs. These were published in two volumes in 1979 (Memoirs of a modern gnostic). De Jong expressed disappointment he was never able to read the infamous third volume which Conze said was too thorougly defamatory ever to be published, refusing even to risk sending a copy through the post.
The field of Buddhist studies is different now that he has died, he was a guardian of the philological heritage of European scholarship on Buddhist Asia. That school is of course not in favour in the US or indeed Australia but remains strong in Europe. A recent US article referred to de Jong as an "arch-philologist" but his theoretical position was much more complicated than that. From his early writings it is possible to see that he had a strong sympathy with Buddhist viewpoints, but like most academics of his generation this never intruded into his personal life. His was an intellectual life, which had intellectual rewards.
He is survived by his wife, two daughters resident in Australia and a son in the Netherlands and a total of eight grand-children (seven boys and one girl). Then of course there remain the books, more than ten thousand of them, and as many again on other areas of scholarship, he spent a lifetime collecting these, now he no longer moves amongst them.
1 February 2000