You said in your message that everyone you happened to speak to about Stefano would always mention his human qualities before his academic accomplishments. I am a witness to that, and I also think the excellence of the latter would actually ensue from that of the former. There was an effortless, graceful quality to his personality that went directly into his scholarship, which is probably why we were all so fond of him. For all the monumental learning and skills he possessed, I could never detect a shred of intellectual posturing in any of his words, spoken or written. His scholarship was never about himself, it really was about the things he loved and would make you love. You come away from reading one of his highly erudite studies on, say, An Shigao’s translation idiom with a sense of discovery and almost necessity for what may have seemed at first an esoteric topic for a handful of specialists.
He could be impressive without even trying to impress. I think this fundamentally unpretentious character of his scholarship is also key to appreciate its significance. Take his book on the Guangzan jing, In Praise of the Light: ostensibly a very technical edition and translation of parts of a Chinese translation of a Larger Prajñāpāramitā text. Then you go to p. 92 and find a sub-section – not even a section, never mind a chapter – simply called “3.2.2 Printed editions”, which goes on for thirty dense pages. A masterpiece. This is in fact the best introduction that I know of to all the printed editions of the Chinese Buddhist canon, their history, lineages, variants and mutual relationship, and now that it’s there, I cannot think how I could tackle, how anyone could tackle the study of any text in the Taishō without knowing it. Yet, this was just a sub-section buried inside a book. I was privy to the making stages of that book, many years ago in Japan, and I know that for Stefano this little monument was simply an extended footnote of sorts that was necessary for the reader to make sense of the complex apparatus to his translation.
Then there is An Shigao. This is the earliest translator of Buddhist texts into Chinese that we know of, right? It is now almost easy to forget that before Stefano’s many studies, it was customary to gloss over the obscure, impenetrable idiom of these early renditions. But they’re no longer so obscure now, as a whole gigantic page on how Buddhist discourse can reinvent itself in altogether different linguistic settings has come to life, and again we owe that to Stefano.
And then the Prajñāpāramitā literature. Stefano had been studying it for a long time, hoarding in his mind and in his drafts an unparalleled knowledge that, believe me, would make even Lamotte’s pale in comparison. Apart from his early monograph on the Guangzan jing, Stefano had more recently published a very substantial article on the topic – thirty-nine pages on double columns – in the Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism; just the tip of an iceberg, but enough to see how much he knew and was ready to share. His next book was in fact to be on The Da zhidu lun 大智度論(*Mahāprajñāpāramitā-upadeśa) and the History of the Larger Prajñāpāramitā. Others will be better informed about its status, but the last time I had an update, in January, I had the impression it was practically finished, and its publication, in any form, is really something we should be looking forward to.
As Michael has rightly observed, Stefano had this admirable skill for detail without ever losing the bigger picture. He could see the forest and the trees, and even better, he could show them to you. The list of the things I have learned from him would quickly exhaust my own knowledge of Chinese Buddhism, but two at least deserve mentioning here. One was that you cannot really study *Chinese* Buddhism without taking a proper look at the other side, even if – indeed, all the more reason – you are a historian rather than a textual scholar. The other is that our understanding of Buddhist texts should always be anchored to actual textual surroundings rather than proceed from handy abstractions. He would caution me from lightly making use of dictionaries of Buddhist terms, from Mochizuki to the DDB; they are useful, no doubt, he said, but are you sure that that occurrence of that term in that text you are reading is actually clarified by a dictionary entry based perhaps on one or two examples? Better bear a modicum of patience and build your own ad hoc dictionary first, with as many examples and parallels you can find. This was Stefano, a hidden library behind every published line.
Finally, before I go on too long, I think we shouldn’t forget Stefano’s publications in Italian, which for obvious reasons are less likely to have reached the wider readership they yet deserved. His first book – Fazang: Il Trattato del leone d’oro (Padova: Esedra, 2000) – was an annotated translation and critical edition, with an introductory essay, of the famous Treatise on the Golden Lion (Jin shizi zhang 金師子章). A little gem already. More recently, he had published a partial translation of the Liudu ji jing 六度集經 (Storie delle Sei Perfezioni. Racconti scelti dal Liudu ji jing, Padova: Marsilio, 2013), again with an introduction and notes, from which a specialist reader can learn so much even though they are meant for a broader public. Likewise for his 62-page long historical overview of Buddhism in China from the origins to the Sui (“Il Buddhismo cinese dalle origini al 581”, in Mario Sabattini and Maurizio Scarpari, eds., La Cina, vol. 2: L’Età imperiale dai Tre Regni ai Qing, Torino: Einaudi, 2010, pp. 429–490). Simply the best I have ever read in this format. And there are many more studies he had in Italian – on Buddhist lexicography, on Madhyamaka thought, on the luminous mind, on the Chu sanzang ji ji, and more – that would warrant learning the language for anyone interested in these topics.
It is clear that the above and what else has been written in this trail only just starts to cover it. And as I explained at the outset, I am reluctant to expand into reminiscences at this moment. But while we are all mourning our dearest friend, this much should be clear beyond us: it is really a magnificent scholar that we have lost.
Antonello Palumbo (SOAS)