With just 15 junior and senior majors, Yale’s Religious Studies Department does not compete in size with the History, Biology and Economics departments. But the department — which currently has 18 professors — is poised to expand, with plans set to hire three new professors this year who specialize in Asian religions.

Religious Studies chairman Dale Martin said the department will interview five top candidates this semester for a senior professorship focusing on Buddhism. The University has made increasing the number of faculty who study Asian religions a priority, he said.

The Religious Studies Department has historically been strong in Christian, Judaic and Islamic studies, but its offerings in Buddhism and Hinduism have been slim in recent years, Martin said.

“At a time when most universities are instituting hiring freezes or in some cases even cutting their faculty, it says a lot that Yale is willing to invest more money in the study of Asian religions,” Martin said. “In the past, we have had someone teaching Hinduism, but we have not been able to have that in the last few years.”

Martin said once the new senior professor is selected, he or she will be responsible for hiring two junior professors, both of whom will also focus on Asian religions. The candidates for the senior professorship are currently teaching and researching around the world — one is from New Zealand, one is from Canada and one is from Taiwan — and will give public lectures when they interview on campus this November and December.

After teaching Buddhism at Yale for 35 years, professor Stanley Weinstein retired three years ago, Martin said. Since then, Buddhism professors have come and gone– no one has stayed for more than a year. Martin said he hopes the search will bring a permanent replacement to foster growth in the subject.

Jason Protass ’04, a religious studies major, said the lack of a returning Buddhism professor has made studying the religion difficult.

“[Weinstein] was a really, really intelligent man and he held the keys to Yale’s focus on Buddhism,” Protass said. “When he left he didn’t name an heir right away, so the department’s been kind of weak the last few years.”

Protass, who is writing his senior thesis on Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, said he thinks there is enough student interest in the religion to warrant the new professorships.

“It’s a significant turning point because they had a good department a few years ago because they had one of the kingpins on Buddhism,” Protass said. “[But] it’s an interest that hasn’t been addressed before. Everyone’s interested in orientalism. People want to know.”

Religious Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Ludger Viefhues said he and his fellow professors are eager for the new professors to begin teaching at Yale.

“I am totally excited that we are hiring people in the Asian religions,” Viefhues said. “[They] can eventually [speak] to the growing interest in Buddhist studies that I see.”

The department was founded in 1963 with a focus on Christianity and other Western religions, but has made strides in recent years to expand its focus to include more Eastern religions.

Last year, in an effort to revamp the department’s curriculum, the undergraduate major was divided into four groups: comparative, thematic surveys; broad introductions to particular religious traditions; introductory and intermediate specialized religious studies courses; and advanced specialized topics.