by Sarah Harding

This year the seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies was held in Mongolia, co-sponsored by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, in association with the National University of Mongolia. It was a fitting place for international scholars of Tibetan studies to convene, given the long, ancient history with Tibet and the resurgence of Buddhist activities in the last twenty years. The University is in central Ulaanbaatar–a booming city with nonstop construction during the few summer months when this is possible. It is only a block from the parliament building with its commanding statue of Chinggis Khan, the great warrior venerated everywhere as the ancestor and symbol of the Mongols.

On the other side of the parliament square is the psychedelic home of the Tyrannosaurus dinosaur found in the Gobi, a close second as a symbol of national pride ever since the smuggled skeleton that had sold for over a million dollars was demanded back by the Mongolians and duly returned by the U.S.


It is tempting to just write about fascinating Mongolia, but the subject here is, of course, the conference. After a late night arrival, the next morning we faced the crushing registration process, took advantage of bus tours to Ganden monastery or the Bogd Kahn palace museum, and later attended the opening plenary session, where many of the greatest scholars in the field could be seen in deep jet-lag sleep. I was honored to join them there.

Over the next six days there were panels and sessions averaging at least ten per time-slot, making choices so hard as to be almost random. I am still stricken with regret over the ones I missed. And all of us missed the scores of Tibetan nationals who were denied exit visas at the last minute, leaving some panels with skeleton crews. Still, there were some six hundred participants and plenty of stimulation. Here is a mere mention of a few sessions that I didn’t miss: There was an interesting panel on kingship with a wide range of papers. I remember subjects such as Kingship Ideology in Sino-Tibetan Diplomacy, The Dalai Lama as the Cakravartin Rāja Manifested by the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, and an interesting discussion by Nathan Hill on the sku-bla rite in Imperial Tibetan religion. To quote from his conclusion: “The evidence of the sku-bla across Old Tibetan literature indicates that the sku-bla is the spiritual counterpart of the Tibetan emperor and has been his companion ever since both resided in the heavens, specifically the realm of Dmu; vassals of the Tibetan Empire (not the imperial government itself) propitiate the sku-bla in ritual observance.” New to me.

A panel called “The Secular in Tibet and Mongolia” had been convened by Colorado locals Holly Gayley of CU (and my travelling companion) and Nicole Willock of DU. Janet Gyatso expertly set the stage by establishing the parameters of secularism and used her current research on Tibetan Medicine (translating the rgyud bzhi) as an example. Holly, Nicole, Tsering Shakya and others followed with excellent papers, bringing us right up to the present time with Holly’s discussion of Buddhist advice to the laity in contemporary Tibet and Emmi Okada’s discussion of the Dalai Lama’s Ethics for a New Millennium. Of all the panels and sessions I attended, this one had the hottest discussion afterwards that left us invigorated.

Another popular and packed panel was called “Hermes in Tibet,” with an entertaining-as-ever presentation by Robert Thurman, as well as John Campbell, Christian Wedemeyer (and sadly not David Gray), all focusing on the Guhyasamāja tantra, capped off by a fascinating paper by Yael Bentor on “Interpreting the body mandala.” It occurred to me that delving into the deep levels of tantra, we are really just scratching the surface, smart as we are.

I found the panel on Nyingma very refreshing, as it was held in a beautiful room with old wood stadium seating, the only time I wasn’t packed into a hot stuffy classroom. There were other good things too. Naropa alum Joel Gruber, now at UCSB, did a great job as convener, especially when a paper on the rNying ma rGyud ‘bum drew some rapid-fire retorts on incredibly important points that I can’t remember. Joel’s own paper on mahāyoga commentaries attributed to Vimalamitra was adorned with beautiful graphs, which that auditorium could actually project on a big screen. I realize that to be a researcher in the field one needs to be expert at math and graphic (literally) art, something Joel certainly didn’t get from me at Naropa.

I wanted to stay in that cool room all day, but felt compelled to abandon the Nyingma for Mahāmudrā in another tiny stuffy room. Such is my karma. Or is it collective? Anyway, the māhamudrā discussions were both familiar and interesting. Klaus-Dieter Mathes headed up a group from Vienna, where many papers focused on specific recurring thematic terms, such as lhan cig skyes pa, bsres ba, gshis, and gdangs. Roger Jackson finished from the outside, as it were, with the fascinating question “Did Tshog kha pa teach mahāmudrā?” and reiterated the many objections to Kagyu mahāmudrā put forth by Gelukpas and Sakyas over the centuries. I love this stuff: ending up both confirmed and disturbed!

Finally I had to miss all kinds of good things in order to be at my own presentation. The loosely grouped catchall session entitled “Tibetan Buddhist Women” consisted of presentations on contemporary living situations and nunneries for women practitioners. Again, unfortunately, the scholars from Tibet were absent, as was even the discussant. We heard from Bhutanese Ani Rinzin on the flourishing state of Pema Choling Nunnery, a place close to my heart that was started by Gangteng Tulku in Bhutan. Karma Lekshe Tsomo delivered a rousing speech on the history and current state of bhiksuni ordination, deftly using the very arguments employed by Tibetan clerics who oppose it to negate them in true madhyamaka style. Then it was my turn to follow up those current and relevant issues with the highly irrelevant and unresolvable question of whether or not Machik Lapdrön really taught gcod some time back in the 11th century. Lucky for me I was in the right place, as the Tibetan scholars who are also apparently interested in ancient dusty pecha poured in. I presented the scant evidence from the early texts that I have translated from the gDams ngag mdzod for Tsadra Foundation. Of course I talked too much and there was no time for discussion, but I later heard some feedback that I had successfully made the case. And at least I could introduce my preference for the Single Mother of Color with my single-photo power point:

So that, in brief, is my experience of the conference. It was a good conference, and only partially eclipsed by the good fun that followed. Holly and I joined Nicole and her resident friend Robin for a few days of adventure out on the steppe and to Chenggis Khan’s ancient capital of Karakaroum (with “k” pronounced as “h” it sounds more like a sneeze). After that, Holly and I and another Naropa alum, Lilly Atlihan, went for a longer horse ride in the countryside west of Ulaanbaatar. Here are some of my photos of the open, or narrow, road:


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