Archive for the ‘University Programs’ Category

The symposium held this past weekend at the University of San Francisco was a gathering of scholars from around the world who presented papers focused on the “Tulku” (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་ , sprul sku) institution of Tibetan Buddhism. Organized by professor Tsering Wangchuk and Jake Nagasawa, the conference was the second recent meeting focused on the reincarnation system of Tibetan Buddhism. There were four main panels at the conference, allowing for thirteen seasoned scholars to present their research:

1) Tulkus in Transnational Buddhism: Authentication and Contestation of Hybridity in the Cross-Cultural Reincarnation System
2) Tulkus in Historical Context: Power, Knowledge, and Politics in the Innovation of the Reincarnation Institution
3) Tulkus as a Model of Ideal Beings: Embodying the Enlightened Characteristics
4) Envisioning and Retelling Birth-Stories: Tulku Lineage Narratives and the Quest for Legitimation.

Representatives speaking at the conference ran the gamut of scholars and although some papers seemed farther from the theme than others, the threads tying them together were questions about the history, place and function of the unique system of dynasties of reincarnated Buddhist masters solidified in Tibetan culture as the “Tulku System.” I’m not sure what general readers imagine Tibetan history may have been like, but perhaps imagining a Tibetan version of Game of Thrones with the houses as monastic institutions continuing not through a lord’s blood relations but via recognition and enthronement of child prodigies destined to take the place of previous throne holders is a useful “imaginary.” The reasons for a gathering focused on discussing the Tulku Institution are many: it is an essential and unique part of Tibetan culture and history, it is a useful entry point for discussions about the transmission of Buddhism or about the philosophical and religious beliefs of historical Tibetan peoples and of modern Buddhist practitioners, and it is a controversial topic, both inside and outside of the tradition. In recent years we have seen young tulkus rebelling against their traditions and revealing improprieties, movie stars becoming tulkus, and reports of general distrust of the tulku system in modern Tibetan peoples. Despite any of this, tulkus are often some of the most powerful and popular Tibetan Buddhist teachers. But these controversies were less the focus of the conference as it was about presenting research on various historical figures and creating a more nuanced and detailed thick description of the phenomenon of Tulkus in Tibetan society.

Dr. Donald Lopez gives the first Keynote speech

Fascinating, but utterly different keynote speeches were delivered at the symposium by professors Donald Lopez and Jeffrey Hopkins. The difference in their presentations is of course partly due to personal style, but the tension between the two approaches is illustrative of some of the tensions observable throughout the symposium. Some presenters discussed the idealized tulku as a prodigy motivated by the will to help all sentient beings, while others focused on children forced into servitude of an institution motivated by greed and power. Some discussed the history of the tulku institution or the particulars of the development of tulku lineages in particular monastic institutions, and others focused on various responses to the question of its continuation in the modern world. Dr. Lopez’s presentation was expertly delivered and fascinating in that it revealed that a 20th century gathering of the most powerful exiled Tibetan leaders ended with a moratorium on the recognition of tulkus, which lasted a decade before some unnamed group broke it, ushering in open season on tulku recognition. This is interesting because it appears that the Tibetan leaders, many of whom are recognized tulkus, found reason to suspend their own system. However, it appears no one has studied the meeting in depth and we don’t know whether this was motivated by an attempt to end the tulku system for good because of corruption, or if it was an issue of expediency brought on by exile, or some other reason. Lopez weaved together reports from the earliest Western accounts of encounters with young tulkus (they must be demons!), Central Asian and European history, and modern accounts. His talk was called, “Four Possibilities,” referring to a logical relationship between the term “lama” and “tulku,” argued by the Dalai Lama in a talk attended by Dr. Lopez to be “mushi“. Namely, there are people who are neither lamas nor tulkus, people who are both lamas and tulkus, people who are lamas but are not tulkus, and people who are tulkus who are not lamas. It is this last one that gives people pause, as it is generally assumed that tulkus are not merely lamas, but are the representatives of the highest level of realized masters.

While Lopez’s approach was historical and text-based, on day two Dr. Hopkins gave his usual hilarious, rambling, and intensely personal account of study with Tibetan masters such as the Dalai Lama. He mixed his narrative with great jokes as well as with translations from specific philosophical texts providing traditional definitions of Tibetan Buddhist concepts such as the various kayas and the meaning of “tulku.” This is perhaps not the place to mention the significance of some of his other comments about reincarnation, and as Hopkins himself said during his speech, perhaps there are things that should remain private. Hopkins first emphasized the technical definitions, taken from the Gomang Curriculum material he is currently translating, that require tulkus to be dharmakayas and not merely bodhisattvas of some high level. However, he also placed emphasis on his own doubt about most tulkus’ knowledge and he insisted that what a teacher says, and the knowledge he or she thereby displays, is more important than any official stamp of recognition as a tulku. That he felt it necessary to admonish the audience, as though they were making the mistake of believing all tulkus to be genuinely capable teachers, is interesting in and of itself.

The Beginning of the Tulku Institution?

Sometimes people like to spice things up a bit by debating when some historical institution, philosophical school, or religious practice started or ended. In the case of the Tulku institution, the topic of this short symposium, some speakers talked about the earliest texts describing concatenated reincarnates (an unbroken line of dharma teachers) or the earliest reported recognition of Tibetan people as emanations of deities. But the statement found in a text that so and so is the emanation of so and so is not the same as the cultural phenomenon of the recognition of a person as an emanation who then comes to take the power and wealth of the deceased leader, subsequently taking on the wealth and followers of that leader. Perhaps an interesting question would be, who was the first Tibetan student who, upon the death of his teacher, having spent a lifetime studying with him as the executive of a monastery, found himself bowing down to a child believed to be the reincarnation of his teacher? That is, when and how did the social event of the installment of a Tulku first occur? How meaningful was it for that society? After the conference I am still wondering about the answers to these questions.

Some students of Tibetan Buddhism may believe that the earliest members of a lineage of reincarnated teachers held the same kind of status as the later members of the lineage. In fact, many lineages would be applied or recognized later in history, once the institution of the lineage holder became relevant. For instance, while surely the first Karmapa’s students revered him in his time, they may not have thought of him as a special reincarnation while he was alive. It was not until later Karmapas that the lineage was written down and traced backwards. So one of the questions is, when did this way of thinking about teachers come about?

Daniel Hirshberg’s paper at the conference, “A Post-Incarnate Usurper? Guru Chöwang’s Claim to the Patrilineal Inheritance of Nyang” indicates that a 13th century figure may have worked rather hard to become recognized as a reincarnation. Guru Chowang appears to have inserted himself in Nyangral’s lineage line and Nyangral himself used various strategies to claim a lineage stretching back to the great Tibetan King Tri Song Detsen. These are stories of people convincing themselves and others of holding the connection of an unbroken lineage and claiming to be “tulku” – emanations, not merely of a Buddha or deity in general, but of specific historical people. Although the basic logic is much older, it doesn’t seem to be until the 12th century that we are seeing the tulku logic instantiated in texts listing specific historical names, as indicated in José Cabezón’s paper at the conference.

Although it is often said that the life of the second Karmapa, squarely in the 13th century (1204/06-1283), marks the start of the Tulku institution, José Cabezón mused that the textual evidence is in fact representative of reports of what the second Karmapa said about his previous lives and could have been the work of a later writer, such as the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorjé. Leonard van der Kuijp has shown evidence that there were people recognized as reincarnations of earlier figures in the 1100s. But here we are not talking about a fully formed Tulku institution. There were, of course, earlier written accounts of people being recognized as emanations of deities and Buddhas and so forth, but what of the earliest accounts of the Tulku institution being present and functioning in a Tibetan society? Would this be the third Karmapa? The Fourth? Another lineage? Who was first called “tulku” by Tibetan peoples?

While most scholars at the conference presented information about historical figures, a few scholars focused on current living tulkus, both Western and Asian. Elijah Ary, a recognized tulku, a Canadian, and a scholar trained at Harvard, spoke of the small group of “Western Tulkus,” many recognized by traditional Tibetan leaders but rarely teaching to ethnic Tibetan peoples. Dr. Ary questioned the use of the term “Western Tulku” and talked about the unique challenges of young people recognized and expected to fulfill their duty in a traditional religious culture. The clash of cultures represented by the term seems to me to be a fascinating starting place for discussions about the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the modern Western world. Will any Western teacher ever create a lineage of tulkus? Would any want to? I’m sure we can look forward to seeing more discussion of this kind in the future as Tibetan Buddhism gains more and more adherents in the West.

 

The Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages will be offering 7-week language programs in both Sanskrit and
Tibetan this summer with Dr. Ligeia Lugli (SOAS) and Dr. Alberto Todeschini (UVa) respectively.

Applications for both these programs are due by May 1, and applicants will
be notified by May 15. For further information, see www.mangalamresearch.org

Update on Buddhist Studies resources on the web:

There are some new additions to Marcus Bingenheimer’s excellent resource “Glossaries for Buddhist Studies.”

 

Poster from the ICTB in Atlanta, Georgia

The second International Conference on Tibetan Buddhism began today, October 19th, at Emory University. Several hundred scholars and writers, venerable nuns and monks, lamas and tulkus, and representatives from sangha’s around the world converged on the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta, Georgia for a meeting of influential minds. The attendance list reads like a who’s who of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Although a certain bias can be noted, it appears that the organizers made an effort to include representatives from many traditions. There are certainly a few key figures missing and it’s too bad because one of the key points that His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama stressed in his opening speech was the importance of nonsectarian collaboration among Tibetan Buddhist groups.

To formally open the conference, HHDL gave a moving speech about the importance of remembering the shared root of all types of Tibetan Buddhism and he implored the conference attendees to discuss the problems of degeneration and corruption of Tibetan Buddhism. He did not leave the sense of the “root” of Tibetan Buddhism abstract, but instead specifically pointed to the traditions of Nalanda and particularly to the writings of the masters of Nalanda. He said that it was necessary to study their writings directly and that too many Tibetan Buddhists focus on their individual lineage master’s writings or their college’s yig cha, to the detriment of the tradition. His Holiness seemed to really want to emphasize that it was important that the different schools needed to work together more and that it was essential that we deal with ‘corruption’ in Tibetan Buddhism. He did not elaborate on specifics, but it seemed to me that he was saying more than just the usual “we’re in a degenerate age, be careful with the quality of dharma you teach…” kind of talk. He said that Tibetan Buddhism has become empty ritual in some instances and that deep and proper understanding needs to be cultivated.

The opening session included introductions and remarks from Geshe Lobsang Negi, Dr. Gary  Hauk, Lobsang Nyandak, Greg Kruglak and a performance by the Drepung Loseling Monks of the Mystical Arts of Tibet Tour. After the address by His Holiness, Khamba Lama gave a report on the First International Conference on Mongolian Buddhism, which concluded in September in Ulan Batar. Following the departure of His Holiness, the first panel sessions began. Session 1A was on Tibetan Buddhism’s Encounter with Modern Science and Session 1B was on Tibetan Buddhism and Social Engagement.

Panel Session 1B: Tibetan Buddhism and Social Engagement.

As you can see, many distinguished guests were present.

The “Engaged Buddhism” Panel was chaired by Dr. John Makransky and the keynote speakers were Dr. Jan Willis and Lama Pema Wangdak. Responding panelists Acharya Fleet Maul, Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Diana Rose, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche were each given a very short time to present a few thoughts on engaged Buddhism. This format was somewhat interesting but led to each person giving a short spiel that was very informative but didn’t seem to lead to real dialog. “Questions” from the audience were similar in that they were not in fact questions at all, but statements made by very interesting people doing very interesting things, which sometimes included general questions for all present to take home and consider. David Germano seemed to have prepared a particular three-point speech (a condensed version of a speech he gave at IATS this year), which he provided to the whole room and seemed, by the observed reaction of the crowd, to be the most interesting and thought provoking of all. He charged academic institutions with not being truly ethical in their actions regarding Tibet and called on everyone to consider how their actions and chosen focus in regard to Tibetan Buddhism effects Tibet and Tibetans. Unfortunately time was up at the end of his speech and no one was prepared to respond. The panel really was very interesting, and some of the most important statements probably came from Ven. Lekshe Tsomo, who rightly mentioned the inequality in Tibetan Buddhist institutions and the plight of Buddhist women the world over; however, there was no time for real dialog about anything. It appears that there will be a “business meeting” tomorrow that will allow for “resolutions” to be drawn up―which sounds delightful and absurd―but perhaps at that time actual dialog among the panelists and attendees can occur.

Before moving on to the next panel I wanted to summarize here a few of the points made at the panel on engaged Buddhism:

Dr. Jan Willis noted that while “engaged Buddhism” might be a new term, Buddhism has been engaged since it’s inception. From the very moment that Buddha stood up from his Kusha grass seat and began to teach, Buddhism has been “engaged” in the world. The rest of her comments then were about the foundation of Buddhism as an engaged religion and about an ethics in which she linked compassion and interdependence with love in the Bible and Dr. Martin Luther King’s ideas. She said that we should feel our responsibility for others when we feel love and that we should then act in the world for others benefit.

Lama Pema Wangdak of the Sakya tradition, creator of Tibetan Braille, spoke a little about his personal experience with social engagement and stressed that education and the founding of schools for children who would otherwise not receive quality schooling was essential for the preservation of Tibetan culture. He spoke about the importance of investing in the brain trust of Tibetan people.

Acharya Fleet Maul, creator of the Prison Dharma Network and author of Dharma in Hell, spoke about some of the challenges Tibetan Buddhism faces in terms of “engaged Buddhism.” He said that “Tibetan Buddhism is not the leader in engaged Buddhism” and that compared with the developed modern Buddhisms from China and Japan we are lagging behind and there is a lot of work to do. However, he stressed that he feels that the Vajrayana path gives us a particular strength in the area of service. He said that it provides the fortitude for going into the modern charnel grounds and working with injustice directly.

The Very Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo gave a talk about her experience on sabbatical from the University of San Diego when she traveled to 14 Buddhist countries around the world. Her report focused on the tragedies that beset Buddhist women around the world and I must commend her again for being the only person on the panel to really mention how little support and how little power women have in Tibetan Buddhist institutions the world over. One of the key points she brought up was about the power of other religious groups who are working to convert traditionally Buddhist peoples. This was also touched on by several other people at the conference and from the various reports I have heard it sounds like certain areas are getting to a point of crises in which Buddhism may be overtaken by Christian and Muslim proselytizers who provide basic needs to Buddhist peoples, who then convert because they need food and clothing (more on this later).

Diana Rose, President of Garrison Institute and the Lostand Foundation, spoke about the Garrison Institute and her work creating a training program for care-givers and people who work in shelters.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche, teacher and author of Carefree Dignity and Fearless Simplicity, was very well spoken and succinct. He said that there were two principles that are key for the Buddhist tradition that connect with the sense of “engaged Buddhism”:
1) Nonviolence and 2) Contentment. He said a few things about nonviolence, but chose to spend more time describing the importance of the middle way of being content with what one has and what one’s body needs, not with what one’s mind wants to have. Basically he said, with many examples, that overconsumption is really NOT OK and that right livelihood includes paying attention to how we live in relation to Mother Earth.

The Society for Tantric Studies met in September this year at the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The site of the STS Conference, Flagstaff, Arizona

Last week the Tsadra Scouts were sent to observe “academic Tantrikas” in their natural environment, The Society for Tantric Studies Conference. Composed of a relatively small group of scholars, the Society of Tantric Studies includes professors and independent scholars from several areas, mostly specialists in what we might calll “Hindu” Tantra and Buddhist Tantra. The attendees of the conference were quite diverse in terms of chosen topic, professional standing, and expertise. Although in previous years Tibetan studies was better represented, this year’s conference saw mostly Sanskrit specialists focused on Indology, Kaśmir Śaivism, Sāṃkhya, modern representations of Tantra, and comparative religions. The small numbers (perhaps 30 people) and the setting contributed to a comfortable and intimate feeling even though the topics people focused on were rather disparate. One presenter launched into a discussion of the concept of “core disgust” from a modern psychological perspective (very interesting in fact) while another discussed Satanism and modern Western esoteric traditions, and a third discussed early Śaivite divination manuals from a philological perspective. A master’s student gave a fascinating talk on the meaning and role of intellectuals using Seventeenth-century Sanskrit intellectuals as an example and established scholars David White and Gavin Flood both presented on the Netra-tantra. All of this variety contributed to a truly fascinating, if somewhat disjointed, academic conference. The variety also allowed us to observe the many behaviors and activities of academic Tantrikas in the wilds of Arizona.

One of the most fascinating presentations was on Abhinavagupta‘s ideas about aesthetics and it’s relationship to ethics. Professor Loriliai Biernacki proposed that through understanding Abhinavagupta we can see how ethics may be born out of the state of aesthetic wonder. She described the fascinating idea of rasa in Abhinavagupta’s aesthetics- an “undifferentiated dense mass of wonder.” The idea being, roughly, that through developing proper aesthetic sensibilities by connecting with this experience of wonder, ethical sensibility is also developed. Emphasizing the ethical element of aesthetic experience seemed a fascinating direction to me and the excellent discussion lit a fire of interest in Abhinavagupta’s ideas. I hope to read Dr. Biernacki’s paper as soon as it is available.

In “Erotic Forms of Ganeśa” professor Bühnemann showed surprising and fascinating images of the elephant-headed god in many different artistic contexts (Buddhist and Hindu sculpture and painting) in several countries (India, Nepal, Tibet, Korea, Japan). I had never seen nor heard that the Nyingma tradition had Thankas with Ganeśa in them, but the images themselves were even more interesting than that revelation. In one Thanka Ganeśa appears to be standing on the hands of a cat-woman who is either performing fellatio or drinking excretions from his linga while she menstruates into skull cups held by servants upon which she is standing. Apparently this tantric alchemical process allows for the practitioner to collect jewels from the skull cups, representing the attainment of the desired wealth, for which one would be propitiating Ganeśa in the first place.

Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona

Netra-Tanra at the crossroads of the demonological cosmopolis.”

The keynote speaker, Professor David Gordon White, gave an engaging paper on the Netra-tantra spanning most of the evening on the opening day of the conference. The Netra-tantra is a text from Kashmir datable to the early 9th century CE. The Netra-tantra was referenced by Abhanavagupta several times and there is an extant detailed commentary on the text by his student Kshemaraja. The 19th and longest chapter is on demonology and this was the focus of Professor White’s talk. He stated that, “Like the Svacchanda Tantra and probably most tantras, the Netra is a composite work with at least two highly visible layers of redaction, the first of these is a demonological layer which comprises unadorned descriptions of demons, symptoms of demonological possession, and techniques for countering the same. This stratum of the text comprises a pragmatic technical guide to certain types of tantric ritual… the second layer of redaction which structures the text, for better or for worse, into a coherent and unified thesis is devoted to the deity Amritesha and more importantly to his all powerful conqueror of death mantra, which controls, routes, and slays demons with total accuracy…” Dr. White’s contention seems to be that the first layer is really the core of the text and that later layers, as well as commentarial traditions, manipulate the demonological data so as to further their own purposes. White’s analysis was of course considerably more complex than anything I’ll mention here but suffice it to say that demonology appears to have played an important role in the formation of tantric texts and tantra itself and that scholars will probably be spending more time on demonology in the future. To get a sense of how different Dr. White’s well-researched academic discussion of the Netra-tantra is, take a look at what is presented here: http://www.dhyansanjivani.org/tantra_mantra_yantra/the_netra_tantra.asp

The Academic Tantrikas’ Society for Tantric Studies

At a breakfast at an AAR in the late 1980s Glen Hayes, Charlie Orzeck and Jim Sanford decided to start a conference for Tantric studies. Alex Wayman was in attendance at the first conference held at the University of North Carolina retreat center. Since then the Society for Tantric Studies has steadily held conferences every three years or so, but due to the formation of a section at the AAR annual conference it appears they will meet less often. Hopefully, despite the small size of the conference, the next meeting will include more presentations from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective.

Before closing this little note on the conference and hopefully returning to blogging some of the very interesting papers at the IATS conference, I would like to note that the organizers of the conference, Glen Hayes and Paul Donnelly, were very friendly and open and I thank them heartily for their hospitality.

Summer Program: Words of Wisdom: Toward a Western Terminology for
Buddhist Texts Berkeley, CA, USA. June 14-July 2, 2010

Presented by the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages,
Berkeley, and co-sponsored by the Center for Buddhist Studies,
University of California at Berkeley and the Ho Center for Buddhist
Studies, Stanford University.

Core Faculty: Luis Gomez, Michael Hahn

Associate Faculty: Alex von Rospatt, Paul Harrison, Carmen Dragonetti,
Fernando Tola

Putting the Dharma into the words of a new culture is a task that has
traditionally unfolded over several generations. In the West, where
the languages of educated discourse are sophisticated and rich with
layers of meaning, the challenges of being able to convey the Buddhist
teachings as faithfully as possible are especially daunting.

This intensive three-week program, intended primarily for graduate
students in Buddhism, Indology, or allied fields, is a small step
toward a clear and consistent terminology or (more modestly)
developing skills and strategies for finding the best translation
equivalents in contemporary English. The text for the program is the
_Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra_. We will read the Sanskrit together with the
Tibetan and Chinese translations. This close reading will address
problems of interpretation, as well as the technical and stylistic
challenges faced by the translator of classical Buddhist
texts. Students should have facility in Sanskrit; knowledge of Tibetan
or Chinese will be helpful.

Format and Facilities

Guided by distinguished faculty, students will meet 5 hours a day, five days
a week to work with the challenges posed by the text. Sessions will be held
9:30 am – 12:30 pm and 3:30 pm – 5:30 pm. Meals are provided, and housing
is
an easy walk. Students will have access to the libraries of the Mangalam
Research Center and the University of California (a 15-minute walk). Rapid
Transit to San Francisco is half-a-block away.

Focus

The focus will be on key terms of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa in the context of
the profound Mahāyāna vision it sets forth. We will examine vocabulary
choices in both source and target languages, sensitive to subtle shifts in
meaning between languages with different philosophical underpinnings. Among
the topics to be explored and skills to be honed:

• Sanskrit roots, etymology, and the relation of Buddhist Sanskrit to other
forms of Sanskrit

• issues of context and intertexuality.

• comparison with the Tibetan and Chinese, with reference to commentaries.

• stylistic choices and terminology in existing translations in both
canonical and modern languages

• general issues in the theory and practice of translation as they arise in
rendering a classic Buddhist text into a modern idiom.

Costs

Tuition: $1,200 (includes lunch daily). Food and lodging: $1,350. Total
cost: $2,550.

Applications

The program is intended for advanced graduate students, but applications
from all qualified candidates will be considered. Please submit an
application by March 15, 2010 to summerprograms@mangalamresearch.org.
Include a short statement of purpose, a description of language skills and
how acquired, and a 1–2 paragraph letter of endorsement from your principal
adviser. Students completing the program will receive a certificate from the
University of California Buddhist Studies program indicating that this
program carries the equivalent of 8 semester units. Maximum number of
participants is 15. Applicants will be notified by April 10, 2010.

Every Friday afternoon at the University of Washington a group of scholars and students gather their laptops, electronic tablets, projectors, and infrared images of ancient birch bark scrolls and hike up to a windowless room on the mezzanine floor of Gowen Hall for some not so old-fashioned detective work. The objective of their sleuthing is to coax a little meaning from the most ancient Buddhist manuscripts known to still exist. An image of one piece of one side of a birch bark scroll (the original buried in the vaults of the British Library) is projected on the wall and the group attempts to decipher the small scribblings of an ancient scribe.

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