The History of Tibetan Studies and Engagement at UVa

The Rise of the Indo-Tibetan Studies Program (1973-1991)

When Jeffrey Hopkins arrived at the University of Virginia in 1973, few on its hallowed Grounds knew of the richness of Tibetan religious and cultural heritage. That was about to change. In large part through Hopkins’ prodigious and magnanimous scholarship, teaching, advising, and political advocacy,  Tibetan Studies has not only become a vital part of the University’s local mission to promote globally aware students, but Tibetan Studies has blossomed into a discipline with a significant place in the American academy.

The Dalai Lama w/Jeffrey Hopkins at UVa, Nov. 1979. Prof. Hopkins was the Dalai Lama's official interpreter from 1976 to 1996. Photo by Edwin Roseberry

The Dalai Lama w/Jeffrey Hopkins at UVa, Nov. 1979. Prof. Hopkins was the Dalai Lama’s official interpreter from 1976 to 1996. Photo by Edwin Roseberry

Hopkins came to the University of Virginia with a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from the University of Wisconsin. The foundational research and translation efforts for his dissertation, later published as Meditation on Emptiness, entailed a thorough-going exploration of key Tibetan writings on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and brought him into close contact with leading Tibetan and Kalmyk-Mongolian monastic scholars of the day. He thus brought with him both direct experience of Tibetan Buddhist scholarly life and a passionate spirit of intellectual investigation that became the hallmark of his academic career.

One of the factors which drew Hopkins to UVa was the largely unknown and untapped but steadily growing library of Tibetan texts, tucked away in the depths of Alderman Library. South Asian Bibliographer Richard (Skip) Martin had been tending to this collection since the 1960s. Through Martin, and due to the foresight of Gene Smith, a consultant and later field director for the Library of Congress in New Delhi, the University of Virginia became a beneficiary of the Public Law 480 program, which allowed U.S. research institutions to acquire Tibetan library materials as a means for India to reduce debt owed to the U.S. government. Beginning with the founding of the Buddhist Studies and Tibetan Studies program, and over the next three decades, Hopkins and his graduate students brought these texts and others to life by using them as the basis for masters and dissertation research and making them accessible to non-specialists and scholars alike through their translation efforts.

Given that Hopkins personally directed eighteen doctorates and thirty-one masters theses, it is not surprising that many of today’s leading American Tibetologists trace their academic roots back to the UVa program. Students of this program were and continue to be engaged in the dual task of developing intimate knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist culture and facility with American academic discourse. While rooted in Religious Studies methodologies, the program entailed a careful and systematic study of Tibetan intellectual systems in their own terms, coupled with in-depth language mastery. Hopkins structured the program based upon the curricula found within larger Tibetan monastic universities such that students’ education would be well-grounded in the basic categories of Buddhist thought and knowledge. In addition to his own scholarly output, Hopkins’ efforts to assist graduate student research led to numerous publications on key topics of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, previously unavailable in English, including: Buddhist epistemology, Perfection of Wisdom Studies, Mind Only philosophy, Middle Way philosophy, Stages of the Path doctrines and literature, Tantra, Buddhist meditative states, and procedures of monastic debate.

Hopkins also created a space for Tibetan Studies through his tenure as Director of the Center for South Asian Studies. With the assistance of Cindy Benton-Groner, he established a public lecture series on Tibetan topics, opened up the study of Tibetan language to undergraduates and budding graduate students through UVa’s summer intensive language course, and garnered fellowship funds, such as Foreign Language Area Studies grants, which benefited many graduate students. With support from the Center, he also invited many renowned Tibetan Scholars to UVa to teach in the Tibetan Studies program, including Khetsun Sangbo Rinbochay, Lati Rinbochay, Denma Lochö Rinbochay, Geshe Gedün Lodrö, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Kensur Jambel Shenpen, Kensur Yeshay Tupden, Geshe Belden Drakba, Geshe Könchok Tsering, Geshe Yeshay Tapkay, Geshe Jampel Thardo, Geshe Thupden Jinpa, Pema Losang Chögyen, Geshe Tenzin Dhargyey, and Khenpo Palden Sherab. By the 1990s, UVa’s reputation as America’s leading institution in Tibetan Studies had been well-established.

Disciplinary Diversification, the Digital Era, & Tibetan Fieldwork and Engagement (1992-2007)
A new era began at UVa when Jeffrey Hopkins succeeded in establishing a second tenure-track appointment in Tibetan Buddhist Studies, and David Germano was hired in 1992 (with the tenure-track appointment beginning in 1993). Germano led the diversification of the program in Tibetan Studies to focus on literary, historical, and social issues as a complement to the earlier philosophical and doctrinal focus of the program. In addition, graduate students were increasingly encouraged to study Chinese as a second primary language and also to do fieldwork in Tibet itself rather than only in India or Nepal. Thus a new program in “Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Studies” was created alongside with the older “Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies” program.  Students also diversified in their interests and range, so that philosophically-inclined students were joined by students focused more on history, ethnography, ritual, literature, Buddhism and science, and more. During this period, Hopkins and Germano also worked at creating a broader infrastructure for Tibetan Studies at UVa, which culminated in the fall of 1998 with the creation of the multidisciplinary “Committee for Tibetan Studies.” A highlight of this period was the Nobel Peace Laureates Conference organized by Hopkins at UVa on November 5-6, 1998. The Conference involved nine Nobel Peace Laureates.

Against this background,  Germano in particular began to lead the building of a different infrastructure for Tibetan Studies and Tibetan engagement through reliance upon a creative use of new technologies. In partnership with the University of Virginia Library and UVa’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, UVa founded the Tibetan and Himalayan Library (THL). This work quickly grew into one of the jewels of UVa’s world-famous digital humanities and digital library programs, and has become the world’s largest online collaborative framework for the publishing of academic knowledge about Tibet. THL has developed impressive collections of maps, dictionaries, audio-video, images, scholarly essays, immersive objects, and much more, with UVa Tibetan Studies alumnus Steven Weinberger managing a complex array of initiatives. In addition, through THL, UVa became a vital nexus for collaborative relationships around the world as researchers and students from many of the major research universities in North America and Europe increasingly worked on research projects in THL, and participated in study and research programs in Tibet facilitated by UVa. UVa also became a prominent institute in China with regards to Tibet, as it fashioned unique relationships with Tibet University and the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences for academic research, study, teaching, and exchange.

An important event in the program’s diversification was the hiring of Nicolas Sihlé in 2002 in Anthropology with a mandate to develop a program on Tibetan culture and society based in anthropological approaches. Jeffrey Hopkins subsequently retired in 2005, bringing to an end a remarkable period of over three decades of leadership in Tibetan Buddhist Studies. Hopkins was replaced by Kurtis Schaeffer in 2005, who brought expertise in Tibetan literature and history to the religion program, and thus opened entirely new vistas for UVa students. Sihlé and Schaeffer have also played important roles in the digital work as well, contributing valuable work in digital ethnography and literature/history respectively, including Schaeffer’s work on the Fifth Dalai Lama. In 2007, the University hired Tsetan Chonjore to lead the Tibetan language program, thereby creating a full-time Tibetan language teaching position for the first time. Professor Chonjore brought three decades of experience and superb skills in teaching Tibetan language and developing curricular materials for the study of Tibetan.