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Opportunities in Tibet open doors for novel doctoral seminar
Religion professor Stephen F. Teiser (right) and Li Sichun, a scholar working on the preservation of Tibetan cultural artifacts, visited Potala Palace in Lhasa during a summer 2005 trip to identify teaching sites for the Tibet seminar. (photo courtesy of Stephen F. Teiser)
Princeton NJ — The recent opening of Tibet, long inaccessible to scholars, offers unprecedented opportunities for researchers to explore its treasures and expand the study of Buddhism and Tibetan culture. To pursue these possibilities, a Princeton faculty member is leading an effort to create a novel on-site seminar for doctoral candidates in Tibet for the summer of 2007.
“In the past few years foreigners have begun to be welcomed back to Tibet [the Tibetan Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China] for study and research,” said Stephen F. Teiser, the D.T. Suzuki Professor in Buddhist Studies in the religion department and a driving force behind the initiative. “We hope to take advantage of this window of opportunity to help train the next generation of Tibet specialists.”
The monthlong seminar is the key component of a four-year project being supported by a $150,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, with further backing from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and the Silkroad Foundation, as well as funding from the Program in East Asian Studies, the Tang Center for East Asian Art and the Department of Religion. The effort also will involve a public conference planned for 2008.
Teiser, whose scholarship focuses on Buddhism and Chinese religions, said that the seminar will take an innovative approach by combining methods in religious studies and art history.
“In my subfield of Buddhist studies, most people pay attention only to texts and don’t look at images or architecture — the visual material,” said Teiser. “We’re joining a broader movement in the field to see what new kinds of models we can use.”
Teiser explained the value of intertwining the study of images and texts to explore the history of Buddhist thought. “So much of the literature of Buddhism is narrative: recounting the Buddha’s life, the drama of enlightenment and the incarnations of gods over many lifetimes,” he said. “Art parallels many of the key texts.”
Such an approach calls for interdisciplinary collaboration, so the seminar will include six core faculty and three administrators from around the world whose fields span art history, architecture, Buddhist studies and Tibetan history. Early next year, 12 doctoral students in the United States will be selected as seminar participants.
“Graduate students who focus on one particular aspect or site or subject in depth still need a broader perspective and background,” said Rob Linrothe, the field director of the project and an art historian at Skidmore College. “This seminar will provide them with exposure to key episodes in Tibetan religious and art history, which may help put their particular subjects in a more vivid context.”
Off the beaten track
Last summer, Teiser and other seminar organizers traveled throughout central and western Tibet to identify teaching sites. They selected 14 Buddhist temples, which range in age from the seventh to the 17th centuries. According to Teiser, the temples are little known to scholars since until now, attention has focused on easily accessible sites in central Tibet. Off the beaten track, the temples are located on the rugged terrain of Tibet’s high desert, where the air is thin and four-wheel drive vehicles are needed to traverse the dirt roads. Western Tibet borders India and Nepal and other parts of China; at one of the sites, Mount Everest looms less than 100 miles away.
The temples also are in different states of repair. Some are functioning monasteries inhabited by monks and visited by pilgrims; others are ruins crumbling on the sides of cliffs. All of the sites provide a wealth of teaching material, said Teiser.
He described three elements that constitute a good educational site. “First, it needs to be a site that has an important history,” he said. “Second, it should have enough images, such as wall paintings, statues and architectural interest. And third, it should have something that connects religious studies and art history. Our linking concept will be rituals because images are used for activities such as meditation, worship and chanting.”
The cultural artifacts housed in the temples — some of which include libraries filled with handwritten manuscripts — are of interest not just to scholars. Teiser said that increased access to temples in western Tibet is drawing art collectors to the region intent on buying what they find, even before there is a chance to make a record of what the temples contain.
Numerous 12th- and 13th-century manuscripts — yet to be documented and cataloged — are collected and stored in a cave-temple in Phiyang, western Tibet. (photo courtesy of Stephen F. Teiser)
“In some cases, leaders from local villages are just starting to take care of the temples and catalog what’s there,” said Teiser. “They are only recently bringing into safekeeping statues, paintings and monastic libraries from decrepit sites. Without people taking responsibility, collectors just come in and buy what they have no right to.”
In the future, Teiser hopes that Tibetan studies scholars increasingly will work with local scholars and officials to protect and catalog the artifacts.
Inherent to the study of Tibetan Buddhism is the complex question of patronage. “To understand the place of these temples in Tibet’s cultural history, we will also look at patronage, political history and the interaction between monastic institutions and lay communities,” said Teiser. “In the past as in the present, religion and politics can only be separated artificially.”
Teiser said he had a “conversion” to the method of the site seminar during a monthlong program taught at Ajanta in western India in 1998 by Walter Spink, a prominent Indian art specialist at the University of Michigan.
“By bringing together students and scholars from diverse disciplines, that seminar, held at India’s greatest repository of Buddhist wall paintings and statuary, showed us first hand how to look at Buddhist temples and begin to understand the ritual life they inspired,” said Teiser.
The trial run into Tibet last summer enabled Teiser and his colleagues to address several logistical challenges, most notably learning how far west they could travel, and what red tape they would need to contend with. For example, before leaving Tibet’s largest city, Lhasa, the group’s driver and guide were required to obtain written approval for overnight stays in all of the towns on the itinerary.
“You really put all your trust in the drivers,” said Teiser, “not least because they are navigating one-lane dirt roads on mountainsides in the highest parts of the world.” Teiser added that the drivers are a great asset since many are bilingual in Chinese and Tibetan.
Also last summer, Teiser and his colleagues laid the groundwork for visiting the temples next year by asking permission of the monks, who control access to working monasteries, and governmental officials, who oversee visits to archaeological sites.
This month, Teiser will host a meeting at Princeton of the core faculty members to further plan the pedagogy of the seminar.
Other Tibet offerings
Teiser earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1986. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1988, after teaching at Middlebury College and the University of Southern California.
Teiser’s work for the Tibet seminar meshes well with his research interests. This year, he will publish “Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples,” which examines pictures of the afterlife in India, central Asia, Tibet, China and Japan. The work directly combines the study of texts and images — the same approach that is central to the seminar.
While the University does not currently offer continuing courses in Tibetan studies, Teiser noted that next year the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies will sponsor an undergraduate class on modern Tibetan history. He also said that one of the newly appointed postdoctoral fellows in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, Andrew Quintman, will offer courses in the area of Tibet and the cultural history of Buddhist texts during his three-year appointment from 2006 through 2009.
After the seminar in 2007, Teiser expects that the program will continue under the sponsorship of other universities. Teiser pointed out, “Senior scholars in this field received their training among Tibetan communities in exile in India, Nepal or the West. Until now, art history has focused on temples outside of Tibet or on paintings and sculptures in Western collections.” With Princeton’s sponsorship of the Tibet seminar, he said, “the next generation will have new opportunities for interdisciplinary study at previously inaccessible sites.”
More information about the Tibet seminar is available at www.princeton.edu/TibetSem.