A new agreement formalizes ties between
Emory and the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics
We waited, in stillness and silence, for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to enter the room.
The Emory delegation, headed by Emory College Dean Robert A. Paul, had traveled three thousand miles to Dharamsala, India, for this very moment, to sign an agreement with the Dalai Lama that would formalize ties between the university and the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics (IBD).
Now we were seated in the Dalai Lama's comfortable reception room, feeling oddly at home. Perhaps not so surprising, considering that the seven-member delegation had spent the past week meeting with Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leaders, visiting monasteries and joining the exiled Tibetan community in their week-long celebration of the new year (Losar).
It felt good to be quiet. Five, ten minutes passed, enough time for me to muse over the paths that brought our diverse group together at the Dalai Lama's residence.
About thirty people had gathered for the private audience with His Holiness. Several of the eleven American students present (including four from Emory) undoubtedly were silently rehearsing their questions for the Dalai Lama.
This occasion was not a routine one for the monks either. Clad in the saffron and maroon robes of the Drepung Loseling Monastery, they anticipated the honor of being in the presence of their supreme spiritual teacher and leader.
For delegation member Albert Anderson 62C 77L, the audience presented an opportunity to report in-person to the Dalai Lama on the academic progress of Tsondue Samphel, the first Tibetan student to enroll at Emory. Albert is sponsoring Tsondue's pursuit of an undergraduate degree in physics. Just as importantly, he has become Tsondue's friend and mentor, helping him to adjust to living in Atlanta.
As I scan the room, I can pretty much figure out what's on the minds of my companions with two exceptions: I cannot imagine what it must be like to be Bobby Paul or Geshe Lobsang Negi Tenzin '99G.
For Bobby and Lobsang, this trip represents a journey in time. They had conceived of—dreamed of—the Emory-Tibetan Partnership nearly fifteen years ago over a cheeseburger at Jagger's.
But in a sense, they both had spent their entire professional careers working toward this day. Bobby's PhD dissertation was on the Buddhist symbolic world. A cultural anthropologist with a focus on comparative religion, myth and ritual, Bobby last visited this region about 30 years ago when he did research in Nepal.
It was about that time that Lobsang began his academic career. He attended IBD and was awarded the degree of Geshe Lharampa, the highest degree of learning in Tibetan Buddhism from the Drepung Loseling Monastery.
In 1991 Lobsang was sent by His Holiness to Atlanta to establish and direct the Drepung Loseling Institute, the North American seat of the monastery. He received a PhD from Emory's Graduate Institute for Liberal Arts where Bobby became his advisor and mentor. Now Lobsang is a lecturer in Emory's religion department.
So that's how our paths converged. Every person in the room was a student, teacher and mentor. Our personal stories symbolized what I had found is inherent in so many of the Tibetan rituals, traditions and even casual conversation—the deep, life-long bonds among teacher, mentor and student.
We were jarred out of our reverie as His Holiness entered the room, which was filled immediately with his energy, humor and warmth.
We stood while the monks did prostrations before His Holiness. The elderly director of the IBD, Geshe Damchoe Gyaltsen, was visibly moved, prostrating himself several times before the Dalai Lama was able to grasp his hands and gently pull him to his feet.
As we settled in again, the Dalai Lama sat in an armchair next to Bobby and listened intently as the dean thanked him for receiving us and talked about the progress of the Emory-Tibet Partnership.
To the Dalai Lama's amusement, Bobby reminded him that we had indeed taken his advice to "start small" in developing our relationship.
Our first formal affiliation with the Dalai Lama was initiated in 1998 when he was at Emory to deliver the commencement address. The agreement, between Emory and the Drepung Loseling Monastery, involved a culture and scholar exchange which soon expanded to include the IBD and other Tibetan institutions.
On this trip we would sign an agreement with IBD that strengthens and formalizes our ongoing student exchange and visiting scholar programs. The IBD awards up to the level of PhD in Buddhist philosophy and its affiliate college teaches religion, Tibetan language and literature, as well as public administration and in-service/teachers training.
But before we got down to business, His Holiness initiated an extraordinary hour-long conversation that made us feel like we were personal friends chatting in his living room. Our discussion topics, however, were anything but light.
Throughout the fast-moving conversation, His Holiness emphasized the need for dialogue across religions and traditions. In response to a question from Emory undergraduate Megan McElwee, the Dalai Lama said that in his view the great problems the world is facing over the next 50 years are: the environment, including the impact of world population; the gap between rich and poor; and the need for countries to rise above individual interests to find common interests in order to develop a sustainable global community
With his characteristic chortle, the Dalai Lama used humor and anecdotes to reinforce his statements, but became serious in a heartbeat, honing in precisely on the significance of his guests' comments. It was fascinating to watch the expression change on that very familiar face as his mood shifted from gleeful, to somber and introspective, then back to joyous. Perhaps this is what the Buddhists mean by living in the moment.
Appearing rather reluctant to end our conversation, the Dalai Lama joined the dean and Geshe Damchoe Gyaltsen in signing the agreement.
What I knew about the Dalai Lama before this trip was pretty much limited to world politics. The 1959 occupation of Tibet by China forced the Dalai Lama to flee his country to take exile in India, where he serves as the political and spiritual leader of six million Tibetans worldwide, including the Tibetan community and government-in-exile based in Dharmasala. The Dalai Lama, who received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, has devoted his life to the non-violent resolution of the Tibetan-Chinese conflict and to the preservation of the Tibetan history, education, culture and traditions.
The latter goal is how Emory and the Tibetan community intersect.
Our collaboration was inspired by the Dalai Lama's aspiration for bringing the science of the inner world and the science of the outer world together; and the fairly recent and unprecedented interest in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, psychology, medicine and meditative practice expressed by Western scientists and scholars.
What's exciting and different about our academic approach, according to Bobby, is that, "We're exploring and blending the best of eastern and western traditions to create a new culture, new knowledge, that contributes to positive transformation in the world."
Lobsang, who possesses a unique perspective having earned degrees from prestigious institutions grounded in either an Eastern or Western philosophy, notes that we are, "Two different cultures, with two different ways of seeing reality. If we remain separate, we'll never see what we have in common."
There are a host of collaborative initiatives underway including a study on the impact of Tibetan Buddhist meditation on health, research on childhood trauma and recovery among refugee families, and numerous projects in the performing arts, education and intellectual traditions. These initiatives cut across the university, involving Emory researchers, scholars, graduate and undergraduate students.
Emory's Asian Studies program has about two dozen core and affiliated faculty, which recently was augmented by two internationally known Tibetan studies scholars. The Tibetan Studies program is strong, and the study-abroad semester enrolls undergraduates from top national colleges in addition to Emory.
The Emory-Tibet Partnership brings Tibetan scholars to campus every year to teach classes and to participate in special programs, such as the November 2004 symposium at Emory on "Mind-Body Medicine at the Interface of Mood and Health: Tibetan Buddhist and Western Perspectives on Depression in the Medically Ill." The four-hour session, which drew more than 200 attendees from the university and the community, was led by noted Tibetan physician Pema Dorjee, Charles Raison, MD, from the Emory School of Medicine, and Geshe Lobsang.
In exchange, Emory faculty have traveled to Dharamsala to offer programs, including presentations on modern physics for the monks of Drepung Loseling Monastary and a semester-long course on Western philosophical thought at the IBD.
When the Dalai Lama was given a copy of the Emory-Tibet Partnership brochure during our February visit, he reviewed it intently, giving an exclamation of delight when he saw a photo of Tsondue Samphel studying physics in an Emory classroom.
Bobby said, "The look of wonder and pleasure on his face was very moving. He saw that his dream was being realized."
Whether experienced through an Eastern or a Western perspective, having dreams realized is a concept that translates very well no matter what your culture.
Assistant Vice President for Public Affairs Nancy Seideman traveled to Dharamsala with the Emory delegation in February.