Dr. Roger J. Corless was born in Merseyside, England, in 1938. He exhibited interest in both religion and science at any early age. His family attended church infrequently during his childhood, partly because Brits tended to stay at home during the World War II years in order to avoid the bombings. His interest in religion grew during this time because he found that it tried to answer the questions of "why?" that science at that time was not addressing. He read many books about different religions that he found at lending libraries and or purchased from mail-order book services. At the age of 16, he announced to his mother that he was a Buddhist.
After beginning his university studies in veterinary science he changed to religion after being assured that he would not have to become a vicar. He did not consider himself "fully Christian" at the time. In his study of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible and participation in the Anglican Eucharist he found that his experience of Christianity and of God was enlivened. A few years later, in 1964, he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. His interest in Buddhism, however, did not disappear and, as he notes, he:
"...used elements of Buddhist tradition to keep the Christianity alive, especially in regard to the temptation to idolatry because in the Christian tradition we talk so much in personal terms of God, we forget that there is a major mystical and theological tradition of talking of God in impersonal or transpersonal terms, and I think very often we are too simplistic by concentrating only on the personal..."
He received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Kings College, University of London, in 1961. Because he could not find a university in England at which to pursue graduate studies in Buddhism, he went to the the U.S. to enroll in the Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin. He completed his Ph.D. in 1973 in Buddhist Studies and joined the faculty of the Department of Religion at Duke University.
During his academic career Roger wrote extensively and published four books and more than fifty articles on Buddhism, Christianity, Buddhist-Christian Dialogue and Gay Studies. He co-founded the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies.
Colleagues at Duke recall him being out as a gay man from early in this time there. Roger expressed frustrations with his work at Duke because Buddhism seemed to be marginalized in the Religion Department. He was a strong supporter of the Student House for Academic and Residential Experimentation at Duke and fought unsuccessfully against its demise in the 1980s.
In 1980, Corless took refuge as a Gelugpa Buddhist under Geshela Lhundup Sopa. His refuge or dharma name was Lhundup Tashi, which means "spontaneous fortune." Later he became a Benedictine Oblate, taking Gregory as his oblate name after Pope Gregory, whose instruction to Augustine of Canterbury was not to destroy the pagan temples, but to bring them into the church. Roger understood himself as a dual practitioner and did not seek to blend the two practices or traditions.
Corless was a strong voice for "gay sangha" and was very well-known in LGBT Buddhist networks. He wrote articles on Buddhist practice in LGBT communities and often gave dharma talks at gay Buddhist groups and centers.
After his retirement from Duke in 2000, he relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area where he was active with the Gay Buddhist Fellowship. A colleague notes that these final years in San Francisco and Hawaii were perhaps his happiest. In his house he had three shrines: one for Buddha; one for Christ; and one for Native American spirituality. He cultivated a network of gay male friends that called themselves The Billy Club. He started writing a gay novel. He continued speaking and writing about gay sangha until his health began to fail. He died on January 12, 2007, after a prolonged battle with cancer.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman with information taken from an obituary in the spring 2007 newsletter of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, the transcript of a 1996 interview with Roger Corless from www.innerexplorations.com and recollections of his Duke colleague Ron Butters.)
Biography Date: April, 2008
Buddhist | Catholic (Roman) | Author/editor | Clergy Activist | Theology