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Sara McClintockAssociate Professor

I (they/them) am a Buddhist philosopher and scholar of religion whose interests converge at the intersections of ethics, metaphysics, truth, and story. My first introduction to Asian thought and practice took place during my undergraduate years while a student at Bryn Mawr College. During that time, I traveled weekly to Philadelphia to study t’ai chi with Maggie Newman, a student of Cheng Man-ch’ing, creator of the Yang short form of t’ai chi ch’uan.

My years at Bryn Mawr were filled with turmoil in the aftermath of my experience as a survivor not only of rape but also of the misogyny and absurdity of the judicial court system. According to this system, I was not allowed to speak about the only witness to the crime—a man who had since been murdered but whose killers had also been acquitted, thus rendering his very existence a verboten topic at the rape trial. The impact of this trauma on my developing persona was profound. While initially I had been interested in philosophy and loved my courses in Aristotle and Plato, I found that words became ineffectual means for exploring my complex emotions. Instead of pursuing a philosophy major, I shifted to painting, where I discovered the incredible richness of the world of color. While I enjoyed learning to paint and draw, even more fascinating to me was the relativity of perception—the way the eye sees the “same” color differently depending on lighting, placement, and especially adjacent colors. In addition to practicing t’ai chi, I spent a lot of time mixing paint.

After obtaining my BA in Fine Arts from Bryn Mawr in 1983 and spending some time working as a waitress in Greenwich Village, New York, I headed out West, landing in North Beach, San Francisco. Unsure of myself, I sought to explore the nature of perception and reality while continuing to work out my own trauma and pain. I moved into a small hotel room on Columbus Avenue and supported myself with my work as a barista in a local gelateria. In my free time, I rode buses and trams around the city, hung out in Caffè Trieste and City Lights Bookstore with some leftover Beat poets, studied t’ai chi with another of Cheng Man-ch’ing’s students, Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, and tried to write poetry. Most of my artistic attempts failed, but while in California, my interest in religion began to expand. Not only did I encounter numerous artists and writers who were also practitioners of various forms of Hindu and Buddhist meditation, I also found myself drawn to the Tin How Taoist Temple in nearby Chinatown and fascinated by the pilgrims climbing on their knees up the steps of the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. I decided to pursue my interests in graduate school.

In 1987, I entered a graduate program at Harvard Divinity School, where I began my study of Sanskrit and, later, Tibetan. Most exciting was my encounter with the Buddhist philosophical stance of emptiness—according to which objects have no independent or intrinsic reality—especially as combined with the bodhisattva’s ethical commitment to unflagging compassionate activity. In courses with the person who would become my eventual PhD advisor, Masatoshi Nagatomi, I explored these twin ideals while also continuing my study of the wider stream of Indian religious texts and practices. During these years at Harvard I also studied with such inspirational teachers as Michael Aris, John Braisted Carman, Diana Eck, A.K. Ramanujan, and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza. After I obtained my MTS (Masters of Theological Studies) in World Religions in 1989, I spent a year studying religion at Columbia University with Robert Thurman and others. In 1990, I returned to Cambridge and officially entered doctoral studies in Harvard University’s Committee on the Study of Religion in 1991. In addition to the teachers already mentioned, I had the good fortune to study Sanskrit with Jim Benson, to learn from the wise and generous Charles Hallisey, and to have among my excellent companions Karen Derris, Tara Doyle, Lisa Prajna Hallstrom, Maria Heim, Steven Hopkins, Stephen Jenkins, and Susanne Mrozik.

Starting in the early 1990s, I was fortunate to be able to spend significant time living and studying in India, where I read Sanskrit and Tibetan texts with traditionally trained Indian and Tibetan scholars, including Ram Shankar Tripathi and Geshe Yeshe Thabkhe, at the Central Institute (now University) of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath. While there, in addition to developing skills in reading Buddhist texts, I also learned how to wear a sari, chew paan, ride a scooter in Banarsi traffic, and relish the ragas of classical Hindustani music as introduced to me by the masterful sitarist, Rabindra Narayana Goswami, and the exuberant tabla player, Ramchandra Pandit. It was a joyful and fruitful time, a period in which I began to more deeply develop my interests in the Indian literary dimensions and the Tibetan reception of Buddhist philosophy in conversation with the incredibly generous and much mourned scholar-monk, Lobsang Norbu Shastri, often in the company of my American colleagues and longtime friends, Andy Rotman and John Dunne.

It was during this time that I became interested in the seeming conundrum of the idea of a Buddha’s omniscience. How could a Buddha know everything when there are no independent things to know? Working with my teachers, I launched into a study of the extensive writings of two eighth-century Indian Buddhist polymaths, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, on this difficult topic. These thinkers are known for their intricate weaving together of several strands of Indian Buddhist philosophical thought: the forms of inferential reasoning stemming from Dignāga (c. 6th c. CE) and Dharmakīrti (c. 7th c. CE); the foundationlessness of the Madhyamaka tradition looking back to Nāgārjuna (c. 2nd c. CE); and the phenomenological or idealist analyses of the Yogācāra tradition as exemplified by the works of Vasubandhu (c. 4th c. CE) and Asaṅga (4th c. CE). The result was an impressive marrying of scholasticism and anti-realism, rationality and anti-foundationalism, according to which Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla were able to mount several competing versions of the Buddha’s omniscience without having to commit themselves to a single final or absolute doctrine.

My time in India segued into another incredibly fortunate and formative period when I subsequently spent two years in the late 1990s doing research under the supervision of Tom J. F. Tillemans at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Living and studying in Europe, I greatly increased my knowledge of Indian and Buddhist philosophy, learning also from the other European faculty members, including Johannes Bronkhorst and Cristina Scherrer-Schaub, who were then working and studying in Lausanne. I also was also fortunate to be able to travel to Hiroshima for the 3rd International Dharmakīrti Conference in 1997, where I met delightful Japanese colleagues, including Shōryū Katsura, one of the conference organizers and a scholar who would become for me something of a mentor at a distance. During this period, I got to know many other wonderful new colleagues including Vincent Eltschinger, Toru Funayama, Pascale Hugon, Ryusei Keira, Birgit Kellner, Helmut Krasser, Ernst Prets, Ernst Steinkellner, and Toru Tomabechi.

Sadly, while living and working in Switzerland I heard news that Professor Nagatomi, my advisor at Harvard, had passed away. This was not only tragic, but it was also a difficult circumstance for me since there were no other scholars at Harvard at that time who could take on the supervision of my doctoral thesis. Fortunately, though, Harvard was amenable to allowing Professor Tillemans to take over the directorship. During the early 2000s, I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, where I taught courses in Tibetan language and South Asian religions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and completed my dissertation. I obtained my PhD from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University in 2002 with Tillemans as my advisor, and with Charles Hallisey and Leonard van der Kuijp filling out the committee. In 2005, I came to Atlanta to take a position at Emory University, where I have since been active as a teacher in both the Department of Religion and in the Graduate Division of Religion, and where I am also an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Philosophy. My courses include such topics as Buddhist philosophy, Indian philosophy, Buddhist narratives, women in Buddhism, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and theories and methods in the study of religion.

My publications continue to take up the epistemological themes that have driven me since my days as a fine arts major, asking questions about the nature of knowledge in the absence of absolute or independent objects of knowledge. Along the way, I have also come to appreciate the narrative and ethical components that inevitably accompany and shape our construction of truth, and my papers and publications reflect this interest as well. My journal articles and book chapters include playful pieces that touch on the Buddha as a trickster figure, gender in emptiness, ethical reading and the ethics of forgetting and remembering, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla’s theories of conventional truth, a Buddhist refutation of the Sanskrit Grammarian’s sphoṭa (“bursting” or “disclosure”) theory of linguistic reference, and so on. A full listing can be found on my CV, which you can download here, where you can also find my articles.

In Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason: Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla on Rationality, Argumentation, and Religious Authority (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010), I expand on the work done for my dissertation to argue that Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla employ a rhetorical conception of rationality—meaning they understand rational argumentation to be a function, in part, of the audience to which it is addressed. It is due to their recognition of the embedded and embodied aspects of language and concepts that they are able to mount parallel sets of arguments in defense of the doctrine of the Buddha’s omniscience. Despite this flexibility, however, they nevertheless do maintain that there are better and worse versions of truth. The canons of rationality by which such judgements are made are inherently shifting and intersubjective affairs, though. At the end of the day, it makes the most sense to say that a Buddha knows everything by not knowing anything—at least in the sense that a Buddha must transcends the ordinary dualistic structures of knower and known.

Also among my publications is The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make? which I co-edited together with my good friend Georges Dreyfus (2002, Boston: Wisdom Publications). The book takes up the doxographical distinction between two supposed philosophical schools that allegedly differ in both their methods and their metaphysical commitments. The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika distinction was influential in the Tibetan reception of Indian Buddhist thought, although the degree to which it reflects a reality in India is open to question. In the volume, scholars present readings of both Indian and Tibetan philosophical texts in light of their understanding of the distinction. Dreyfus and I seek as well to demonstrate the danger of doxographical distinctions that elide differences between individual philosophers in favor of delineating a unified school.

Other recent publications include the co-edited volume, Reverberations of Dharmakīrti’s Philosophy (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2020), co-edited with Birgit Kellner, Horst Lasic, and Patrick McAllister, and containing papers from the 5th International Dharmakīrti Conference held in Heidelberg in 2014. Another major co-edited volume, TheRoutledge Handbook of Indian Buddhist Philosophy (Routledge, 2023), co-edited with William Edelglass and Pierre-Julien Harter, includes chapters by 42 scholars covering the major authors of Indian Buddhist philosophy.

Upcoming publications include a revision of a previously published translation of Nāgārjuna’s Ratnāvalī entitled Precious Garland: An Epistle to a King (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997), prepared with John Dunne originally for private distribution at a teaching by His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama in Los Angeles. The revised translation includes an extensive introduction and working editions of the available Sanskrit and Tibetan texts. The new version, entitled Nāgārjuna’s Precious Garland: Ratnāvalī, is slated for publication in March 2024.

As for current projects, I am presently at work on a philosophical exploration of the transactional, ethical, and camouflagic nature of truth tentatively entitled Becoming True in a Transactional World. The book takes inspiration from the writings of Śāntarakṣita, Kamalaśīla, and other Indian Buddhist authors, while also exploring the implications of a theory of truth in which none of the three poles of knowledge (knower, knowing, and known) is independent or enduring. Here I draw in part on the thinking of John Dewey and others. The book seeks to examine the ethical and narrative aspects of the production of knowledge, utilizing categories and theories drawn from the Indian Buddhist epistemological, Madhyamaka, and Yogācāra streams, and reflecting on the implications of these theories for contemporary life.

Since attending the XIIth Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies in Lausanne in 1997, I have remained active in the association and I served as a member of the Board of Directors from 2015—2023. In 2008, I organized the XVth Congress of the IABS, a major international conference that brought 425 scholars from around the world to Emory for six days of panels and conversations. I continue to be active internationally, maintaining a special relationship with the Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, where I have spent time as a Visiting Fellow. I serve as well on the Board of the 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha project, an ambitious initiative aiming to translate the entire canon of Indian Buddhist texts preserved in Tibetan and to publish these online. And I have offered service for many years to the Mind and Life Institute, where I am also a Fellow.

At Emory, I have been active in promoting the arts, and I served as the Principal Investigator for a grant for undergraduate education from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation from 2008–2013. Under the auspices of the grant, I helped to bring a major exhibition (Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism) to Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum in 2012. The grant also allowed us to sponsor Tenzin Norbu, a Tibetan master painter from the Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala, India, for two periods as artist-in-residence; and to produce a rare Ache Lhamo (traditional Tibetan opera) performance, Sukyi Nyima, featuring a dozen traditionally trained musicians, singers, and dancers in 2013. Related to this, I worked with others to bring internationally renowned Tibetan folk singer Techung to campus for a two-year residency in the Department of Music, which included the formation of a student Tibetan Music Ensemble. I also co-taught (with Tara Doyle) a course on Buddhism and the Beats that resulted in a student-produced exhibition based on archival work at Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

In 2021–2022, I served as a Teaching Fellow with Emory’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, working on a project entitled “Developing Critical Thinking Tools for Engaging Critical Pedagogy.” My goal was to discover new ways of engaging with students that unravel the hierarchical power dynamics of the traditional classroom and that allow for the creation of genuine learning communities in which all participants are recognized as both teachers and students. This work takes its inspiration from figures like Paolo Freire and bell hooks, and sees the practice of education as a practice of freedom. Recognizing the historical situatedness of our knowledge construction is a driving force in my teaching and pedagogy, just as it is in my research on Buddhist epistemology. My commitment is to the reality that all persons possess valid knowledge and that everyone can be a teacher for others. While truth is paramount, its fleeting, dependent, intersubjective, and embodied nature should never be forgotten.

When not busy with teaching and research, my passion is to discover ever new ways to nourish freedom and joy in daily life. Opening my eyes to the beauty around me—which I find in the flora, the fauna, the humans, the streets, and the activities of the amazing city of Atlanta—I see that every moment is an opportunity to recognize something profound in myself and others. Opening myself directly to the profound sufferings and horrors of this floating world, I seek ways to take in the mass of pain and transform it into wisdom and tenderness to send back out to the world. Being a scholar of philosophy and religion does not require me to shut off my feeling dimensions. I can still grieve and anguish and protest the despicable hatred and violence around me. And I can still love and cherish my fellow-mortals, including my loving mother, my brave son, my precious friends, my inspiring colleagues, my curious students, my diverse neighbors, and even my enemies or those who despise me. When I wake up each morning, I try to remember the words of one of my beloved teachers, whom I never met in person but who has touched me with his words, Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–2022): “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live each moment fully and to view all beings with eyes of compassion.”


  • PhD in Religion, Harvard University, 2002
  • MTS in World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, 1989
  • BA in Fine Arts, Bryn Mawr College, 1983

Research and Teaching

  • Buddhist philosophy
  • Indian and Tibetan Buddhism
  • Indian philosophy and religion
  • Buddhist ethics and narrative traditions