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The Rising Popularity of Tibetan Buddhism among Chinese in Mainland China – A Conversation with Professor Gray Tuttle

There is a general widespread interest in modern Tibet at Columbia University, so Professor Gray Tuttle is discussing with Khenpo Sodargye about the reasons for the rising popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in Mainland China, the development of the Buddhist academy, the movement towards vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhism, and the issue of lay practitioners becoming Dharma teachers.

SYNOPSIS

Columbia University’s Professor Gray Tuttle asks Khenpo Sodargye of the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy about the reasons for the rising popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in Mainland China, as well as about the evolution of Larung Gar, vegetarianism among Tibetan Buddhists, and the issue of lay practitioners becoming Dharma teachers.

A disciple of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, one of the leading lamas of the twentieth-century, Khenpo Sodargye’s task has been to spread the Nyingma teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Tibetan Code of Happiness which he sees as the key to reducing suffering and being happier.

Khenpo Sodargye first explains that Tibetan Buddhism offers the most well preserved, complete system of study, because Tibetan Buddhism can best be understood in Tibetan, rather than in the Chinese translations. Scholars have long flocked from China to Tibet to study this complete and undamaged system of Dharma, making traveling there a remedy for their lack of a more enlightened culture.

Larung Gar owes its growth to the Chinese who, as a society, are not a religious people, having only recently begun to realize there is a need for reform and losing narrow-mindedness, not merely in a material sense but, more importantly, in an internal or spiritual sense. As a result, the quest for the satisfaction and enrichment of the inner heart is of greater importance now than it has ever been, and many more people are now beginning to seek inner happiness through an education of the mind based on some kind of religion. At Larung Gar, quite a few of the great masters who hold the Dharma lineage from Lama Rinpoche still reside at the academy.

During the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (from the thirteenth to the seventeenth-century), due to the determined efforts of the emperors, a great number of people began to study Tibetan Buddhism. Later, Master Tai Hsu and Fazun together founded Hanzang Jiaoli Xueyuan in Chongqing, which played a critical role in the development of Buddhism during that time.

Since the end of the twentieth-century, Tibetan Buddhism has become popular and widespread in China and among many Buddhist groups, some basing their faith in the hope of receiving rebirth in the pure land (Tibet). When people seek out a lama, they often find that the majority of lamas are quite proficient in the Dharma and that their guidance goes far beyond merely telling people to prostrate or recite and chant scriptures. True lamas have the capacity to convince enlighten wisdom seekers by relying on well-grounded Buddhist doctrine. A Buddhist lineage that has remained unbroken from the Buddha’s time until now exists only in Tibet, so there is nowhere else where such an intact lineage can be found. A complete theoretical system of study and the uncommon Vajrayana practice also attract many outside visitors to Larung Gar.

Being a vegetarian in Tibet has been a challenge due to transportation difficulties and poor growing conditions, but many monasteries are mostly vegetarian because, in the ultimate teachings of the Buddha, disciples would never be allowed to eat any sentient being’s flesh. As genuine Mahayana practitioners, we should promote and practice vegetarianism, because it is part of the Buddha’s teachings and directly benefits the lives of all sentient beings.

Buddha said that both ordained and lay people can take the responsibility of practicing and realizing the Dharma by themselves or by spreading Dharma teachings to others. Lay people account for a majority of followers while purely monastic groups are decreasing due to the many external attractions of the material world, making it much more difficult for people to choose to become ordained and hold the pure precepts within a monastic life. Everyone can equally study the Dharma; the Buddha said that everyone can follow his teachings. However, there are rather strict requirements for lay practitioners, if they want to teach and propagate the Dharma. Such requirements are described in the sutras and relate to the differences between lay people and those ordained — for example, lay people may have more selfish thoughts concerning their families and careers.

One’s own behavior should meet certain qualifications that are in accord with the nature of virtue; in addition, one should have received systematic Buddhist training, without which it is not permissible for someone to teach the Dharma precepts. It is unrealistic to solely rely on monastics to spread the Dharma teachings. Lay people could first tutor a small Dharma study group, and then, gradually, become proficient enough to lead a more profound discussion of the Dharma.

Professor Tuttle concludes by describing the widespread interest in Tibet at Columbia University. Looking back to the Qing Dynasty and to as recently as the early twentieth-century, when Chinese and Tibetans were able to peacefully coexist, gives Professor Tuttle reason to be optimistic as he finds himself looking at the past as a way of finding hope for the future.

Preview

“Tibet has perfectly preserved its teaching lineages. I am almost certain that such a complete lineage is only this well preserved in Tibet and thus, I feel that I can safely say that there is nowhere else where such an intact lineage can be found.”

Main Part of Conversation

The Popularity of Tibetan Buddhism Among Chinese

Introduction of Khenpo and Professor Tuttle

Tim McHenry of the Rubin Museum of Art: I believe that all of you know a certain amount about Khenpo Sodargye, so let me tell you a little bit about Dr. Tuttle.

Dr. Tuttle is the Leila Hadley Luce Associate Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. He was here recently to celebrate the publication of a book he edited, called The Tibetan History Reader. We’re delighted that he’s returning to have a conversation with Khenpo Sodargye on the subject of why Tibetan Buddhism has now become so popular amongst the Chinese in Mainland China. We are lucky enough this afternoon to be witness to it. Please join me in welcoming Professor Gray Tuttle and Khenpo Sodargye.

Professor Tuttle: Thank you all for being here today. First, I just wanted to take a moment to introduce our guest of honor today, Khenpo Sodargye. Khenpo Sodargye is a native of Drango in Kham and a leading Buddhist teacher, who has lived at Larung Gar since the founding of the Academy. As one of the original disciples of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, one of the leading lamas of the 20th century, his task has been to spread Tibetan Buddhism in general, and the Nyingma teachings in particular. He is especially interested in the Tibetan Code of Happiness, which he sees as a science of finding happiness.

The Popularity of Tibetan Buddhism Among Chinese

Professor Tuttle: I think that it is worthwhile to start by asking Khenpo Sodargye to reflect a bit on the rising popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in China, for those who aren’t familiar with or who haven’t had the lengthy experience that he’s had.

Khenpo Sodargye: Today I am happy to have been given this opportunity to meet with Professor Tuttle and Mr. McHenry from the Rubin Museum of Art as well as you, here in the audience. This is a very precious opportunity for me. Being a monk from Tibet, the Land of Snows, I believe that the exchange of ideas and discussion between our two cultures is very necessary. Therefore, I want to first thank those people who have made this happen.

In regard to Professor Tuttle’s first question, why are there so many Han Chinese currently seeking the opportunity to study in Tibet? I have also been thinking about this for quite some time, and believe that there are several good reasons for such a growing interest.

First, Tibetan Buddhism offers a very well preserved, complete system of traditional study. In the autobiography of Master Fazun, the master addresses this point by saying that his initial motivation for going to Tibet was primarily to continue his study of Buddhism and that only in Tibetan Buddhism could he study those texts that had not been translated into Chinese by previous Chinese masters such as Yijing. Master Fazun had a keen interest in Vajrayana and therefore planned to translate the related texts to make up for certain pieces that had been missing in Han Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism also includes an abundance of worldly subjects such as history, geography, mechanical arts and crafts, as well as medicine, and it was the rich knowledge in all of these areas that, taken all together, comprised Master Fazun’s initial goal of entering Tibet for study.

In contrast, Master Nenghai had a slightly different motivation: he was primarliy focused on learning and practicing Vajrayana. Soon after he had started to learn Buddhism, he encountered many indices of Buddhist scriptures in the Yonghe Temple. From these he concluded that Han Buddhism was in some ways less than ideal, when compared with Tibetan Buddhism, because the indices that he had encountered were more profound and advanced. Afterwards, as he was preparing to enter Tibet from Chongqing, he met Master Dayong who had just completed studies and was returning from Japan. The two masters had some conversations, over the course of which Master Dayong described the ways in which it was even more remarkable and superb to study Vajrayana in Tibet as compared with studying in Japan. With this profound influence, Master Nenghai continued on to Tibet. Master Nenghai, later became known as a prominent figure of contemporary Chinese history who went to Tibet for study.

The story of these two masters is actually included in Professor Tuttle’s book, Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China. I read it when I was in Hong Kong and have just now asked him to sign the book for me. From reading his elaboration on these two stories in his book, and reading both Master Nenghai’s biography and Master Fazun’s autobiography, I feel there can be a potent counter argument to the belief of many Westerners that going to Tibet is in itself, a kind of unrealistic utopianism. While I must admit there are certain cases where this is true, I believe that, in fact, most people should go to Tibet for some form of Vajrayana study and for other foundational scientific studies such as astronomy, geography and so on, or for the very reason that a complete and undamaged system of Dharma is still being well maintained in Tibet. So not all travelers to Tibet are unrealistic and romantic; rather, some have legitimate desires and motivations that can most certainly be met.

Furthermore, and more importantly, traditional cultures in many countries have become marginalized and objectified by modern societies. Given this situation, Tibetan Buddhism, represents an especially ancient and highly valuable science of mind and traveling there can help to remedy the lack of a more enlightened culture. These days, people are particularly in need of spiritual food—material support alone cannot meet their inner needs.

A Visit to New York 20 Years Ago

Professor Tuttle: I’m thinking about the role, specifically of someone like Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, reaching out to connect to a Chinese audience. I had the good fortune to hear him teach when he was here in New York City in 1993, and have followed the growth of your home institution of Larung Gar since then.

Can you talk about the foundations of the teachings that are unique to the monastery, the organizations that have grown out of that institution, and the general outlook for such outcomes as the spread of your idea of the Tibetan Code of Happiness? And what has either continued since his time or what might have changed in the last decade since his having passed away?

Khenpo Sodargye: Twenty years ago, in 1993, I accompanied His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche to New York, where His Holiness gave Dharma teachings at a number of Dharma centers. A couple of days ago when I was in Boston, I met with some professors who had met Lama Rinpoche those many years ago, and I had a similar experience when I visited Columbia University and met with a group of professors who had met Lama Rinpoche back at the time of that first visit.

I was very young at that time and was carrying his bags, following behind Lama Rinpoche all day long, hardly able to absorb everything that was happening. But this time, I was deeply impressed by the focus of these professors, who had clearly maintained a persistent devotion and had been making great efforts to understand Tibetan Buddhism, and not just for a short period of time, given that they had begun researching this field, very seriously and attentively, 20 years ago, and now 20 years later, were still pursuing it vigorously. To me this shows a very admirable academic spirit.

Also quite notable is that when we were here 20 years ago, we established a Larung center of Sutra and Tantra in New York. Since then, many Sutra and Tantra centers, as well as Bodhi Associations, have been established in different places in the US and in other countries that have continued to evolve to the present day. I’m guessing that many scholars present here today may have come from some of these centers. Additionally, with respect to Larung Gar, when H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche came to New York, it was reported in the local newspaper that His Holiness was the headmaster of the biggest Buddhist academy in the world at that time and that Larung Gar Buddhist Academy offered a Buddhist education to over 2,000 people, which was considered a large number. Today it continues to grow and flourish, and the number of monks, nuns and laypersons has greatly increased in recent years.

One particular reason for this growth is that many Chinese, who as a society are not a religious people, have begun to realize there is a need for reform and for opening up, not merely in a material sense, but more importantly, in an internal or spiritual sense. As a result, the quest for the satisfaction and enrichment of the inner heart is of greater importance now than it has ever been. Twenty years ago, when I first came to the U.S., the economy here was very healthy. Even so, people found it difficult to obtain true permanent happiness by relying solely on their economic and material wealth; as a result, many more people are now beginning to seek inner happiness.

Whether I am in Tibet or in the Han areas or in any other country, I always tell people that if you want to understand the meaning of happiness, you need an education of the mind based on some kind of religion. With such an education you can maintain a happy mind no matter what external state you might find yourself in. Without such an education of the mind, buying a house may bring you delight in the beginning; or you may be excited over the purchase of a new car, but these things will only bring you joy for a short period of time. Other examples of this kind of happiness might be, getting married, which engenders a kind of giddiness at first, or the sense of satisfaction that building a successful career can provide. Any of these activities might make you feel happy for a while, but this kind of limited enjoyment transforms again and again into the root cause of yet more suffering.

Accordingly, I feel that a true education of the mind and the promotion of wisdom, are extremely important for us to consider today. At Larung Gar, twenty years after the passing of Lama Rinpoche, quite a few great masters who hold the Dharma lineage from him now reside in our academy. They possess the great strength that comes, not only from wisdom, but also from deep compassion. This is immensely helpful to others in many respects and on many levels. I believe that with the work of communities such as Larung Gar, that the Dharma will continue to be transmitted and propagated.

Furthermore, and more importantly, traditional cultures in many countries have become marginalized and objectified by modern societies. Given this situation, Tibetan Buddhism, represents an especially ancient and highly valuable science of mind and traveling there can help to remedy the lack of a more enlightened culture. These days, people are particularly in need of spiritual food—material support alone cannot meet their inner needs.

The Movement Towards Vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhism

Han Chinese Followers of Tibetan Buddhism

Professor Tuttle: Following up on that question, I’m curious about the idea of people’s lives gaining more meaning than that which comes from material wealth alone. There has been some discussion that the reason Tibetan Buddhism is so popular today in China is due to some kind of crisis caused by a lack of belief, and yet from what Khenpo stated earlier, in the 1920s and 1930s, there was also a strong interest in Tibetan Buddhism, not just among monks like Fazun and Nenghai, but also among lay people all over China. Every big city in 1930s China had some kind of Dharma center, welcoming traveling lamas and so forth. At that time, there was a lot of interest in tantric rituals, initiations, and so on. But there were also serious students of the academic side of Tibetan Buddhism. Hanzang Jiaoli Xueyuan, in Chongqing, became the site of the Sino-Tibetan Buddhist institute

So I’m curious how the balance of interests plays out nowadays. Is there an equal balance between people who want initiations and people who want to engage in exoteric studies? During the 1930’s, there were very few Chinese monks who wanted to study Tibetan Buddhism. Fazun and Nenghai were the most famous exceptions. These days there are many more. Why is this so, and what do you think is the reason for that difference?

Khenpo Sodargye: Historically, especially in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, due to the determined efforts of the emperor, a great number of people began to study Tibetan Buddhism. Later, Master Tai Hsu and Fazun together built up Hanzang Jiaoli Xueyuan in Chongqing, which played a critical role in the development of Buddhism during that time.

Today, however, there exist several difficulties that affect the continued spread of the Dharma in this way. Actually, since the end of the 20th century, Tibetan Buddhism has become quite popular and widespread in both the Tibetan and Han Chinese regions. Among many Buddhist groups, some base their faith in the hope of receiving rebirth in the pure land; some members of these groups are elderly and may not be very well educated. Additionally, a great number of intellectuals are also part of this community. As for my own involvement, I have been teaching the Dharma in China for over 20 years. From my experience, I also find that an increasing number of intellectuals, have shown an overwhelming appetite for Tibetan Buddhism. Ten years ago, I surveyed 125 intellectuals and from that wrote the book, The Sprays of the Wisdom Ocean. In the course of pursuing that research, I became aware that many intellectuals who possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher, had an especially deep love for Tibetan Buddhism.

There are many reasons for this, in addition to those that I have already mentioned. In particular, when people seek out a lama, they often find that the majority of lamas are quite proficient in the Dharma and their guidance goes far beyond merely telling people to prostrate, or recite and chant scriptures. True lamas have the capacity to convince wisdom seekers by relying on well-grounded Buddhist doctrine. Whether the student is seeking macro or micro perspectives, modern concepts or knowledge, corresponding answers for all of these can be found in Buddhism; thus are their needs met.

Another important factor that draws many seekers is a Buddhist lineage that is unbroken from the Buddha’s time until now; Tibet has perfectly preserved its teaching lineages. We are not allowed to teach any scriptural doctrines without direct transmissions. I am almost certain that such a complete lineage is only this well preserved in Tibet and thus, I feel that I can safely say that there is nowhere else where such an intact lineage can be found.

Regarding those intellectuals who, in more recent times, have traveled to study in Tibet, including those who are now studying at Larung Gar, some of whom have already earned a Ph.D. degree in the US or elsewhere before coming to Larung Gar, some have chosen to be ordained and some have remained as lay practitioners. Regardless, the same basic feature has attracted all of them, a complete theoretical system of study. In addition, the uncommon Vajrayana practice taught there also attracts many outside visitors. Of course, among the different groups of people who travel to Tibet are those that are simply fond of the blue skies and white clouds or travel to Tibet for the pleasure of travel, to draw, take photos and so forth.

The Movement Towards Vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhism

Professor Tuttle: With the next question I want to take a different direction and talk about an encounter I had on a train in China, probably 15 years ago. I met a Chinese follower of a Tibetan lama in Qinghai Province who told me that he was really happy to be studying Tibetan Buddhism. One of the main reasons that he was so happy with Tibetan Buddhism was because he had found a tradition that gave him permission to be a Buddhist and yet eat meat at the same time. He thought that this was what really set Tibetan Buddhism apart from Han Buddhism. He was an average guy and worked as a bank teller in the south of Beijing. He told me that his teacher had taught him a mantra that would liberate the animal that he was eating.

As a vegetarian now for some 20 years, I wonder what is the role of vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhism, how important this issue of not eating meat is, and how does this specifically relate to Chinese Buddhists who are interested in Tibetan Buddhism?

I myself, first met Chinese who were practicing Tibetan Buddhism at Wu Tai Shan, where there were Han Chinese living in temples but practicing Tibetan Buddhism and practicing vegetarianism. That was my first encounter with Tibetan Buddhists who were vegetarian. Of course, in Tibetan Buddhist history there were great figures like Shabkar, a famous Amdo lama who was a vegetarian, as well as many others. But it’s mostly an exception in Tibetan Buddhism to be vegetarian. Larung Gar seems to have started something of a movement in that direction. Was it the influence of Tibet’s own history or from an encounter with the Chinese, or some kind of meeting in the middle of those two ideas? Is there a deliberate influence from China?

Khenpo Sodargye: This is quite a good question, and later I may reprimand my Chinese students with this story. But speaking of such phenomena, it sounds as though the Han Chinese guy that you met had been greatly influenced by a certain lama’s words. Presently, this phenomenon does exist, although these days most of monks and nuns in Tibetan monasteries are primarily vegetarian, though some of them probably also eat meat.

As for myself, I have been emphasizing the importance of vegetarianism for more than 10 years. The reason for this is that when I had previously learned about the tradition of Han Buddhism, I considered it as an extreme practice from the view of the Mahayana. Later, when we again went back to the words and teachings of Mahayana lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, we found that, in the past, vegetables were almost impossible to bring in to Tibet because of difficulties in transportation and other poor conditions. This could be one of the reasons why vegetarianism never gained popularity in Tibet.

A more likely reason is that traditionally, in Theravada Buddhism, it is allowable to eat meat that is pure in three ways. However, my feeling is that the ultimate teachings of Buddha are revealed in the Mahayana rather than in the Theravada, as is illustrated by the circumstance of the Buddha nearing parinirvana, when he said that permission to eat meat as described in the Theravada was actually provisional and expedient, and that in the ultimate teachings of the Buddha, he would never permit disciples to eat any sentient being’s flesh.

Therefore, if we had found that such a tradition in Han Buddhism did not correspond with the Buddha’s teaching, we would not have accepted it. But, in fact, this is not the case. If a large number of Buddhists were to abstain from eating meat, this would directly benefit the lives of many sentient beings. If 100 people want to eat meat, the killing of one pig or one yak may not be enough to serve them all, for even one meal. Conversely, if the same number of people were to instead eat vegetables, this would reduce the killing of any sentient beings. Therefore, in our academy we highly emphasize vegetarianism and, together with Han monks, we stress that everyone should stop eating meat.

In the beginning, I didn’t allow meat eaters to receive my teachings; this is how I initially promoted vegetarianism. In fact, almost everyone connected to our Academy has now become vegetarian. I think that as genuine Mahayana practitioners, we should make a sincere effort to promote this tradition because it corresponds with the Buddha’s teachings. Moreover, it directly benefits the lives of sentient beings, and is, as such, a very meaningful practice.

Whether in the Tibetan or Han Chinese regions, or in any other country, it is unrealistic to solely rely on monastics to spread the Dharma teachings. Therefore, we’ve recently encouraged intellectuals, as well as lay practitioners who are favorable to the community, and who are also comprehensively familiar with the concepts of the Dharma, to take on religious responsibilities and teach the Dharma.

Are Lay Practitioners Able to Be Dharma Teachers in the Future?

Are Lay Practitioners Able to Be Dharma Teachers in the Future?

Professor Tuttle: I want to consider the future role of lay people in Tibetan Buddhism. When Fazun was involved with the Hanzang Xue in the time of the Tibetan Buddhist Academy in Chongqing, lay people, holding Ph.D.s and so forth, also held the role of teachers. Also, in the Nyingma tradition, especially in a place like Mindroling, there were lay teachers and married lamas who were crucial for the lineage, such as Terdak Lingpa and so forth.

So I’m wondering, in terms of the future leadership of the Tibetan Buddhist community, how important will the role of monastic vows and other ethical rules, like not eating meat and so forth, be? Could there be people who were ngakpas or ngakmas, lay men or lay women, who will take a role in leading the Buddhist community in the future?

Khenpo Sodargye: In fact, as the Buddha said, both ordained and lay people can take the responsibility of either, practicing and realizing the Dharma by oneself or by giving the Dharma teaching to others. This is recorded in the sutras as well as in tantras such as the Kalachakra. In the course of the history of Tibetan Buddhism, some of those who spread the Dharma teachings, including some great siddhas, were still considered great practitioners even though they did not abandon lives of worldly comfort.

Of course, there were a great many monastic people who also made great and important contributions. Speaking with regard to communities, these days, laypersons account for a majority of followers and purely monastic groups are decreasing. This is in part because of the current situation, in which the external material world has created so many attractions that it is much more difficult for people to make the choice to become ordained and to hold pure precepts within monastic life.

Nevertheless, everyone can equally study the Dharma; the Buddha said that everyone can follow his teachings. On the other hand, for lay practitioners to give teachings and to propagate the Dharma, there are rather strict requirements described in the sutras, which relate to the ways that laypeople differ from those that are ordained and may, therefore have more selfish thoughts concerning their families and careers.

So if one intends to give Dharma teachings, first, one’s own behaviors should meet certain qualifications that are in accord with the nature of virtue. Secondly, one has to receive systematic Buddhist training. Without systematic training it is not permissible for someone to give Dharma teachings. Just like any university professor, who needs certain qualifications before supervising students, so too, should those teaching the Dharma. Whether in the Tibetan or Han Chinese regions, or in any other country, it is unrealistic to solely rely on monastics to spread the Dharma teachings. Therefore, we’ve recently encouraged intellectuals, as well as lay practitioners who are favorable to the community, and who are also comprehensively familiar with the concepts of the Dharma, to take on religious responsibilities and teach the Dharma.

Recently, I’ve also recommended that a layperson could first become a tutor leading a small Dharma study group, and then gradually, become senior enough to lead a discussion of the more profound Dharma. These days we have a large community of lay practitioners, and we encourage the most intelligent ones to pass their wisdom and positive energy on to the others. This is quite necessary for their communities as well as for society as a whole. Therefore, we always encourage lay practitioners to spread Dharma truths in a proper and reasonable way. In fact, everyone should take on this responsibility.

A Unique Perspective on Tibetan History

Khenpo Sodargye: As a historian, you are very interested in Tibetan Buddhism and culture. I noticed yesterday that many other professors at Columbia University are also very interested in Tibetan culture. So my first question is, how is research on Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism progressing at Columbia University and my second question is, why have you been paying such close attention to Tibetan culture for so many years?

Professor Tuttle: As for your question about Columbia University, it’s very different, not only from Chinese institutions that do research, but also from a German or a European model from which large-scale research projects might be undertaken. In America, it is much more in keeping with an approach, in which we all pursue our own interests. So the main thing that is different about Columbia is the widespread interest in Modern Tibet, an interest that can be found in many quarters across the university.

We have eight people teaching something about Tibetan culture right now at Columbia. On the religious side, Dr. Robert Thurman and his students tend to study Tibetan Buddhism across time, and they do a lot of translating, for example, they are translating the complete Tibetan canon into English, which you can imagine, is a monumental task. I, personally have great admiration for this pursuit. On the modern side, we are really interested in the last 300 or 400 years of Tibetan history and the changes and developments that have taken place during that time. That is something that, I believe, is truly unique about Columbia University.

As for my own interest, it is likely very similar to your description of students of yours who initially had an intellectual or a personal interest. I have had the very good fortune to develop my understanding during a time when there has been a lot of exchange and debates about the Tibetan situation. It was maybe unusual that I studied Chinese first, unlike many of the scholars in America who had gone to Tibet first or met the Tibetan lamas in Nepal or in India. In my own case, I began by studying Chinese, and then later began to learn about Tibetan Buddhism.

I was of the opinion that the debate over Tibet that was being waged in the media and that the campaign that was going on in America was clearly one-sided. As I traveled to China and made my way to Tibet, I realized that there was a different narrative there, and so, quite aside from my own personal interest, I became interested in the history of the negative relationship between China and Tibet that was in place during that time. Later, as I was exploring the history of that relationship in the early 20th century, I realized that the Chinese and Tibetans had been able to work together, indicating that there could be positive outcomes. So I wanted to tell that narrative and bring to light that past history of successful encounters. Now I’m looking back at the Qing Dynasty and seeing that the connection goes even farther back in time, and I guess that I found myself looking to the past as a way of finding hope for the future.

Whether in the Tibetan or Han Chinese regions, or in any other country, it is unrealistic to solely rely on monastics to spread the Dharma teachings. Therefore, we’ve recently encouraged intellectuals, as well as lay practitioners who are favorable to the community, and who are also comprehensively familiar with the concepts of the Dharma, to take on religious responsibilities and teach the Dharma.

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