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Buddhist Languages Professor Diego Loukota Dies at 38 of Brain Cancer


Prof. Diego Loukota, a scholar of Buddhist languages, who was described by his peers as having a once-in-a-generation level of intellect, died on 17 March of glioblastoma, an incurable form of brain cancer. He was 38 years old. Prof. Loukota is survived by his wife, their three children, and his parents.

Prof. Loukota worked as an assistant professor of Asian languages and cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). UCLA professor and chair of Asian languages and cultures Seiji Lippit described Prof. Loukota: “His ability to work across so many languages of the Buddhist tradition was unmatched, and it allowed him to do pioneering work, drawing connections across languages, texts, and traditions that had not been seen before.” (UCLA Newsroom)

Prof. Loukota’s journey into Buddhism and Asian languages and cultures began in his hometown of Bogota, Colombia, where he learned basic Sanskrit and Japanese by visiting used book stores in the city. His inordinate talent for languages became apparent in 2014, when Prof. Loukota was doing his doctoral work at UCLA. One of his professors, Stephanie Jamison, was teaching a course on Iranian languages, and she was surprised to see Prof. Loukota taking notes in Chinese.

Prof. Loukota was fluent in seven modern languages and eight ancient languages. UCLA Prof. Stephanie Balkwill, who was married to Prof. Loukota, stated that he only needed to spend one week in a location in order to pick up the local dialect.

As a scholar, Prof. Loukota’s primary focus was the study of inscriptions and unpublished documents in Central Asian languages, with special attention being paid to how they contributed to Buddhist history and the historic trade routes connecting Asia with the Mediterranean region.

Prof. Jamison, a specialist in Asian languages and cultures, and of classics, had this to say regarding Prof. Loukota’s scholarship: “When I first met him, it was immediately clear that he was going to be unlike any graduate student I had yet encountered—his vast knowledge base and the scholarly maturity of the questions he asked were those of a senior colleague.

“But despite his evident superiority in all these classes, he never used it as a wedge between himself and his fellow students. His aim was always to create community, to spark in them the same enthusiasm for the subject that was so infectiously evident in him—and he was remarkably successful.” (UCLA Newsroom)

In addition to being a brilliant scholar and philologist, Prof. Loukota had a deep understanding of the need to build community in academic spaces.  His wife, Prof. Balkwill, described his desire to provide mentorship and leadership in the community, saying: “He was very proud of being a Latino scholar in a field in which the Latinx community has always been critically underrepresented. And doing that at UCLA meant a tremendous amount to him. He was so proud to be at a public university, and one that served the Latinx community as unambiguously as UCLA seeks to.” (UCLA Newsroom)

Prof. Loukota also was a champion for the humanities in higher education. “He believed very strongly that the humanities have a role to play in countering nationalist political agendas and political agendas that are inherently biased and unequal,” Prof. Balkwill noted. “And in better preparing students to deal with misinformation and social inequity.” (UCLA Newsroom)

Prof. Loukota and Prof. Balkwill both studied at Peking University as undergraduates. Using his inordinate ability to study and understand languages, Loukota learned Mandarin specifically so he could earn his master’s degree from the school. He met Balkwill while he was there, and they were married in Beijing in 2014. That same year, they moved to UCLA so that Loukota could study with Prof. Gregory Schopen for his doctoral work.

See more

In memoriam: Diego Loukota, 38, specialist in Buddhism and ‘once-in-a-generation’ intellect (UCLA Newsroom)
Asian Languages & Cultures Ph.D. Student Wins Prestigious Fellowship in Buddhist Studies  (UCLA College Humanities)

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