The Visitorship for Traditional Scholars
In 2008, HH the Dalai Lama visited Oxford. So-Wide arranged the visit.
We asked if he had any advice for us. He said to set up a scheme for traditional scholars to visit Oxford.
There was scope for this. At the time, most of those working on Buddhist topics were in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies. It was clear they could benefit from direct exposure to the culture they were studying.
So, we did some work. A few years later, the Visitorship for Traditional Scholars started.
In association with the Faculty of Oriental Studies, the scheme invites a traditional Tibetan scholar for a University term. This has happened on nine occasions so far.
The scheme would, in principle, be open to traditional scholars from all Bauddha traditions. In Oxford, however, activity in Pali is currently limited, and students of the Mahāyāna, who are often themselves from East Asia, have less need of such support.
Charities play a role in the Oxford environment. So-Wide runs the Visitorship in association with:
- the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (OCBS ocbs.org),
which supports and promotes Buddhist Studies at Oxford,
- the Oxford Buddha Vihara (OBV oxfordbuddhavihara.org.uk),
which regularly hosts monastics from diverse Buddhist traditions
and where our Visitors live.
The Oriental Studies Faculty of the University of Oxford is the academic sponsor (https://www.orinst.ox.ac.uk). Professor Ulrike Roesler heads the Tibetan and Himalayan Studies team there.
Oxford terms are busy. This is particularly true at the beginning and end of the academic year.
That is why Visitors are invited in the middle of the year. They come for the 8 weeks of the spring (or ‘Hilary’) term, from January to March.
When a prospective Visitor is proposed, the first stage is to talk things over. In phone or video-calls, everything is discussed thoroughly.
This is an opportunity for both sides to check what is involved before committing. It is important to assess, for instance:
- how easy it will be for a traditional scholar to communicate with students, and
- how much he or she is likely to gain from the opportunity.
Once a Visitor has been selected, formal letters of invitation are issued. This is normally sufficient to secure a visa.
So-Wide transfers to the Visitor’s bank account enough to cover initial expenses — visa, domestic travel to secure the visa and to get to the airport, and return air flight. On arrival, Visitors are picked up from the airport, brought to Oxford and introduced to the Vihara (OBV), where they get board and lodging.
Once they have recovered from the flight, our volunteers show them round the town, get them a bus pass and demonstrate how to use it, arrange for the issue of a library card, and so on. At this time, Visitors also get some cash to spend.
The volunteers remain on hand for help and advice throughout the Visitor’s stay. We also nominate one of the students to provide support within the Faculty.
Soon after arrival, the Visitor meets the teacher(s) and students with whom he or she will work. A basic schedule is arranged (reading-group and talks). The Visitor can then start fill out the programme for the visit in consultation with the students.
Students in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford are all post-graduate — some on the Masters’ degree programme, some doing doctorates. Their needs are varied — much depends on the topic they are working on.
Visitors are encouraged to share widely in the life and work of the student body — they attend seminars and lectures, and are invited to colleges. In this way, they become familiar with individual students and their projects — and then may asked to help, or simply to discuss issues, as each student sees fit.
London is an hour-and-a-half away. They are also great sightseeing opportunities around Oxford.
How a Visit works out is up to the Visitor. Within the Faculty, he or she will be asked to give some talks and to take a reading-group through a classical text once a week. These activities are important, but a Visitor is mainly remembered for the way he or she gets on with individual students.
Some students are keen to learn from a Visitor, or may become keen. Personal interaction is crucial. Students can get help on their dissertation topics, and also on particular areas of Tibetan Buddhist culture they happen to be interested in.
Visitors also connect with people across the university and beyond. They can give talks to the Buddhist Society, and to devotees in the Vihara. They can also link up with people in the UK who follow their tradition or lineage.
Towards the end of term, a Visitor will commonly give a lecture in the OCBS Lecture Series. So-Wide people will help with preparing this presentation. These talks are open to public and a wide range of people will attend. You can see some examples here.
VISITS TO DATE
Some visitors have been well-known figures. Some have been relatively junior.
- It all started in 2011. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche came for a memorable visit (if slightly shorter than normal).
Then we had some difficulty with funding. So there was a pause, until,
- in 2013, Arjiya Rinpoche came to us
- In 2014 we welcomed Lama Tenzin Tselek from the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharmsala, and
- in 2015 Tenzin Damchoe came from the same institution.
After those three Gelug figures,
- in 2016 we hosted Ani Nawang Jinpa from the Drukpa Kagyü lineage based in Hemis monastery, Leh, and
- in 2017 Gakar Rinpoche came from the Nyingma College of Shechen in Kathmandu.
Then two more Gelug friends came:
- in 2018 Geshe Zopa, from Kopan/Sera and the FPMT, was here for a memorable visit, and
- in 2019, we were pleased to welcome Yangten Rinpoche from Dharmsala.
Finally, in the last year before the pandemic,
- in 2020, we welcomed a fine representative of the Drikung Kagyü lineage — Lama Konchok Zhiva (Shanta Kumar Negi) from Dehradun and Leh.
Thus we have covered a fairly wide range of Tibetan lineages. We intend to maintain or increase the diversity in the future.
You will find CVs of our visitors on this site, plus some samples of their work. (Unfortunately we are short of photos, but hope to make up this deficiency).
A TWO-WAY EXCHANGE
Over the years, Visitors have made a great contribution to the life and work of the University. They have found the Oxford experience offers them something, too.
That was always the intention. The scheme aims to help Oxford students, who gain intimate contact with insiders and so come to appreciate Bauddha traditions more fully — and it also aims to introduce scholars from the monastic educational system to the academic world, both intellectually and socially.
Visitors find kindred spirits among the Oxford students — people genuinely willing to live what they learn of Bauddha traditions. From these encounters, Visitors have been able to explore how it may be possible to step onto the Path while at the same time enquiring critically into the social history of Buddhism. They have often come to appreciate, too, how even the most traditional monastic education today reflects much that has come out of academic Buddhist Studies.
It will be good to build on this. Some relevant reflections will be found here.
So far, the scheme has developed ad hoc. It is now perhaps time to see if we can set it on a firmer footing.
It will be good to spread word of what has been happening here in Oxford across the traditional monastic education system. Some will perhaps become interested. A collaboration may develop —networks may form, in the Tibetan diaspora and in the UK, to sustain this project into the future. May it be so!
The intention is:
- to offer the institutions, from which our Visitors come, a more clearly defined role in the operation of the scheme;
- to build up a pipeline of prospective Visitors;
- to extend the scheme to support UK students travelling to Asia as well as traditional scholars coming to the UK; and
- to invite wider participation at the UK end.