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Teaching the arts of Tibet

UAF helps preserve a threatened culture.


DORJEE: Helped form the Tibetan Cultural Institute of Arkansas.
  • DORJEE: Helped form the Tibetan Cultural Institute of Arkansas.

"Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate kindness and compassion." — The Dalai Lama

In Tibetan Buddhism, the title "geshe" suggests mastery. In many eastern monasteries, which also serve as universities, it is the equivalent of a doctorate. The Dalai Lama is a geshe.

Dr. Sidney Burris earned his Ph.D. here in the United States. He is largely responsible for bringing the Dalai Lama to the University of Arkansas campus this week. As director of Honors Studies at the school's Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, he also helped establish another geshe on the Fayetteville campus.

Burris says that, as far as he knows, his friend, Geshe Thupten Dorjee, a Tibetan trained as a monk in India, "is the only geshe who holds a faculty position at an American university." Together, Burris and Geshe Dorjee founded the Tibetan Cultural Institute of Arkansas to provide information about Tibet "in an academic, educational way," Burris says, "so people can draw their own conclusions about what's been going on there since 1959."

They also created an oral history project called Tibetans in Exile Today (TEXT). Participating students study Tibetan culture, then travel to India to preserve, via video interviews, the stories of the oldest refugees in India who remember life in Tibet before 1959.

That was the year that the Dalai Lama, along with thousands of other Tibetans, fled to India to escape the Communist Party of China. Burris relates that when Geshe was a child, his mother, who was pregnant at the time, led him across the Himalayas on foot.

Geshe himself recalls that he entered a Geluk monastery in India when he was "12 or 13." Buddhism's Geluk tradition is known for its strong academic style, based on largely on debate, and its preservation of sacred art, music and dance.

The Drepung Loseling monastery in India where Geshe studied was an offshoot of a famous 500-year-old university in Lhasa, Tibet, that was famous throughout central Asia. It was destroyed, and many of its monks were killed, during the Communist invasion.

In the 1990s, Geshe came to the U.S. as part of a group of monks hoping to introduce Americans to Tibetan culture by performing sacred music and creating sand mandalas at public venues. As a result of what they called the Mystical Arts of Tibet tours, the monks were invited to establish a seat in North America.

Today, the Loseling Institute in Atlanta, Ga., is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In 1998 Drepung Loseling forged academic ties with Emory University with the objective of promoting transcultural understanding and scholarly interchange.

The Dalai Lama inaugurated this historic affiliation in 1998. Academic ties between Asia and the west were further strengthened when Geshe became part of the UA faculty.

Like any serious academic, Geshe emphasizes the need to understand the subject he teaches — Tibetan culture — to its roots. "Buddhism come to the Western world is one thing," he says. "But accuracy is the most important part."

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