Summer 2024 /Global Pomona/

Margaret Dornish: Emerita Professor of Religious Studies (1934-2023)

Emerita Professor of Religious Studies Margaret “Peggy” Dornish, who taught at Pomona for 32 years, died on December 27, 2023. She was 89.

Dornish attended Smith College from 1952 to 1956, where she majored in English language and literature and graduated magna cum laude. While studying religion at Claremont Graduate School in the late 1960s, she became interested in Buddhism, both on a scholarly and personal level.

“Her dissertation on D. T. Suzuki was a pathbreaking departure from the almost exclusive focus on Abrahamic traditions at the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate School,” says Zhiru Ng, professor of religious studies.

“I find Buddhist philosophy and ethics compelling,” Dornish told Pomona College Magazine in 2001. “I think most people who study Buddhism can’t help being influenced by it.”

She received a teaching post at Pomona College in 1969. When she began at Pomona, Dornish was among a handful of women faculty and the lone female instructor in a building that did not have a women’s bathroom.

For a time, she was the only person at The Claremont Colleges teaching Asian religions. She played a pivotal role in extending the scope and methodologies utilized for the study of religions at The Claremont Colleges. She was extremely proud of the transformation of Pomona College’s Religious Studies Department, which went from what she called “a seminary” to an intercollegiate discipline with an emphasis on religions across the globe.

She also was instrumental in strengthening other programs at the College, including Asian Studies, Women’s Studies and American Studies.

“She was a rock,” said Professor of Japanese Kyoko Kurita. “At Pomona she became a defender of the minority during the days when diversity was not appreciated as much as it is today. I would not be here today if she had not supported me in my early years at Pomona when there was no support system for the starting faculty.”

Dornish regularly taught courses such as Mysticism East and West, Transformation and Utopia, Encounter with Japan (a first-year seminar) and Zen Buddhism. Her trademark lecture was “What is Zen?”

She traveled to Japan roughly a dozen times, encouraging Claremont Colleges faculty, students and staff to attend the Kyoto-based monastery at Tofuku-ji, where her good friend Keido Fukushima served as abbot and ceremonial head over scores of temples.

“Being single, and because of the way I see things from Buddhism, there’s a kind of shape to my life,” Dornish told Pomona College Magazine in 1998. “I don’t lead two lives, as most of my colleagues do. They have their teaching, and they have their family. I only lead one life, so the things I’m interested in personally are the things I’m interested in professionally.”

Ng remembers Dornish as “fearless and frank” and “an amazingly courageous woman with a big heart.”

After retiring from Pomona, Dornish moved to Carlsbad, California, and joined the League of Women Voters in the San Diego area. She contributed a number of articles to their journal and became one of the leaders.

“There are no big choices in my life, just small steps,” Dornish was fond of saying. “No big decision to go this way or that way, just incremental decisions—and lots of opportunities.”