Circus Act

Submitted by Marjan Hajibandeh

Marjan Hajibandeh ‘09E continues her conversations with newly tenured faculty. Next in line is Maria Heim.

Knowing of Maria Heim’s long list of achievements, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn about her experiences in a three-ring circus. While she spent time as an acrobat, a flame thrower and a lion tamer, she was most famous for her juggling skills. People would gather from all over the country to witness her throw large pieces of furniture in the air, all while balancing a Bengal tiger on her nose.

Before you start believing me, I should come clean. Heim, associate professor of Religion, never actually worked for the circus. When we sat down for a chat the other day, the only thing she juggled was her six-month-old son. Though as squirmy and wobbly as any baby, Zack was no tiger.

But he was born the day after college administrators finalized their tenure decisions. In fact, Heim told me that she was still in the hospital when she received a congratulatory telephone call from President Marx. As Heim told the story, I realized that she was the only woman in the group of eight faculty members considered last year for tenure. I asked her why she thought that was.

“There is a lot to juggle,” she said.

She knows colleagues and classmates who’ve had babies during grad school and then struggled to finish their degrees. She knows others who’ve had children before earning tenure and have faced similar challenges. So really, she says, she had it relatively easy.

When I asked Heim why her own experience appeared to be so streamlined, she attributed it to a supportive husband and good fortune.

“My book came out before my first son did,” she said with a laugh. And we already know about Zack’s impeccable timing.

Heim insisted that she was especially fortunate, but I was convinced luck had little to do with it. She started her Ph.D. at Harvard when she was only 21, having already studied Sanskrit for two years as an undergraduate. She spent several years—including one as a Fulbright scholar—in Ahmedabad, India, learning from linguistic experts and textual scholars in universities, institutes and monasteries. By the time Heim joined the Amherst faculty, she had already spent four years teaching in the California State University system. 

Heim is now working on her next book, which challenges long-held interpretations of ethics in Theravada Buddhism. Up to now, scholars have widely agreed that Buddhist ideology values the “intention” behind a person’s action over the action itself or its consequences. Studying ancient Pali texts, Heim reexamines this idea. By looking at what roles choice, disposition and emotion may play, she analyzes the original context and meaning of the word “intention.” Heim is thoroughly engaged in the study of ancient languages—she’s often the first to translate the texts she examines. She uses her language skills to connect with her original interests: comparative ethics, moral psychology, theories of emotions and the nuanced workings of the mind. As a teacher, Heim weaves these concepts into her courses.

“The Pioneer Valley is great for Buddhism,” she informed me, and as director of the Five College Buddhist Studies Certificate Program, she should know. “There is a great concentration of scholars as well as a lot of general interest in the topic.”

After discussing the many facets of Buddhism in popular culture—meditation, yoga, Zen—I asked about the misconceptions students most commonly bring with them to the first day of class.

“Most often,” she answered, “they think Buddhism is not a religion but a rarified religious experience. Like any of the world’s major religions and religious traditions, it has its sects and branches; similarly, because Buddhism is practiced in many different parts of the world, each region has its own distinct flavor and history.”



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