When Tashi Rabgey first stepped into the dusty streets of Lhasa in 1987, she was struck by the familiarity of the unfamiliar world she encountered. Though Rabgey was born in India and raised in Canada, her parents were Tibetan and she grew up speaking only Tibetan at home. Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, buzzed with the native tongue during her visit.
But she also observed the pervasiveness of the Chinese language in commerce and administration, a consequence of the Tibetan plateau’s forced annexation by China in the 1950s. Rabgey realized that Tibet’s future would somehow be informed by both cultures.
“I recognized that unless you understood both languages, you would not fully understand the conditions under which people live in contemporary Tibet—and their hopes and fears,” she says.
Those feelings triggered a process of exploration and discovery that has taken her down a long path of studying Tibet as a scholar and spending years doing fieldwork and grassroots community service in rural Tibet.
Tashi Rabgey Photo by Luca DiCecco
Now fluent in Chinese as well as her native Tibetan, Rabgey is expanding her work at the University of Virginia. In August, she became co-director of the new U.Va. Tibet Center. She shares that post with David Germano, an associate professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies in the religious studies department who joined the faculty in 1992.
The center has evolved from their interests, both academic and personal. Germano holds a doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin in Tibetan and Buddhist studies. He has spent a good portion of his adult life in Tibet in Buddhist monasteries, including with Khenpo Dorje Tashi, a leading religious figure and former U.Va. professor devoted to the education of underprivileged Tibetan children.
Rabgey, a Rhodes scholar, studied international law at Oxford and Cambridge before focusing on comparative Chinese law at the University of British Columbia and Tibetan studies and anthropology at Harvard University. She and Germano hope the center will provide new ways of addressing Tibetan issues and offer an innovative model for the University’s role in social concerns.
“In the past, people have tended to see Tibet in a vacuum. We want to show it’s embedded in complex economic, social and political frameworks,” Rabgey says.
David Germano Photob y Luca DiCecco
The center’s aim is to blend traditional Tibetan and Buddhist studies with contemporary scholarship. It will engage a range of academic disciplines and connect scholars with people outside academia—tourists, residents, entrepreneurs and community volunteers.
“The University of Virginia is a global nexus for Tibetan studies,” Germano says. “The center will expand U.Va.’s profile by moving into public policy, law and the contemporary arena to create a continuum of teaching, research, community services and dialogue. We see it as a meeting place for people from many perspectives.”
The center opens at a time of growing interest in Tibet, worldwide as well as on Grounds. Students fill special programs, and classes on Tibetan Buddhism attract people from diverse courses like engineering, premed and prelaw.
“People are drawn to Tibet because of the Himalayan Mountains,” Germano says. “Also, we have been fascinated by Buddhism since the 1960s, and Tibet is one of the great strongholds of Buddhist culture. This interest has expanded with the emergence of the Dalai Lama as a global figure of spirituality and peace.”
Popular culture also influences public perceptions. Tibet has been the centerpiece of films such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, and a motif in scores of other films. Beyond movies, information about Tibet enters the American consciousness through articles, documentaries, books and even bumper stickers. Also, the Beijing Olympic Games have sparked controversy and coverage of the region.
While much of this public fascination has developed over the past two decades, U.Va.’s Tibetan connection dates to the 1960s. Richard B. Martin, a bibliographer at Alderman Library, began what has grown into one of the finest collections of Tibetan-language books in the world.
“We think of this library as a profoundly social institution—just like the library in the Rotunda in U.Va.’s early history.”
The U.Va.-Tibet bond strengthened when Jeffrey Hopkins joined the religious studies program in 1973 as a professor of Tibetan Buddhism. Now retired, he built a renowned graduate program in the field and wrote 40 books, including 12 books co-authored, translated or edited with the Dalai Lama. He organized the Nobel Peace Laureates Conference at U.Va. in 1998 and served as the Dalai Lama’s interpreter on lecture tours from 1979 to 1989.
From this foundation, U.Va. has developed a rich offering of studies on Tibet, particularly with the creation last year of the Department of East Asian Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Courses during the academic year are augmented through the Summer Language Institute, a “linguistic boot camp.” Study-abroad courses give people the chance to visit Tibet, meet its residents and learn about the culture by immersion. Students also can sign up for field work in eastern Tibet and at Tibet University in Lhasa. U.Va. is the only Western institution to have such a study program with Tibet University and the only U.S. institution holding a collaborative research agreement with the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences.
Online studies open the window on Tibet even wider. In 2000, U.Va.’s library launched what is now the Tibetan and Himalayan Library in conjunction with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. The project redefines conventional notions about what a library can be in the digital age, Germano says.
“We think of this library not as just a repository of books, images, maps, audio-video and other forms of knowledge, but as a profoundly social institution—just like the library in the Rotunda in U.Va.’s early history,” Germano says.
Proud Past, Uncertain Future
Tibet, the “roof of the world,” is a plateau the size of Western Europe between China and India, bounded by the Himalayan Mountains to the south. Earlier cultures date to the Iron Age, but its history begins with one of the ancient world’s great empires, which created the Tibetan language and converted Tibet to Buddhism in the 7th and 8th centuries. Tibet later emerged as a center of Buddhist scholarship and mysticism for much of Asia. In the 17th century, the fifth Dalai Lama established a government in Lhasa that was ruled successively by his reincarnations, each understood to be the emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. In 1950, armed Chinese forces entered Tibet; the current Dalai Lama fled in 1959 after a failed uprising.
Governed by China, Tibet has undergone rapid transformation amid recurrent political unrest. A Tibetan government in exile, headed by the Dalai Lama, is based in Dharamsala, India. There are approximately 5 million Tibetans in Tibet and more than 100,000 around the world, including a community in Charlottesville.
China claims the Himalayan region has been part of its territory for centuries. Many Tibetans say their homeland was independent for most of that time. The Dalai Lama says he seeks a form of autonomy that would sustain Tibetan culture, but Chinese officials say he is intent on seizing independence. Protests flared in Tibet in March 2008, and a government crackdown followed. The situation is at an impasse.
The site, thlib.org, features collections that cover Tibet from many perspectives—you can listen to a Buddhist monk lecture on philosophy, hear a doctor discuss traditional medicine or explore a 360-degree view of Mount Everest.
Tibet is not alone in this digital landscape. In July, Bhutan’s minister of education, Thakur Singh Powdel, visited U.Va., which had partnered with the Himalayan government in 2006 to create a national digital library. “He was extremely impressed with the Jefferson legacy and U.Va.’s digital prowess,” Germano says.
The new Tibet Center plans not only to reinforce the connection between Tibetan communities and U.Va. but also to weave a larger fabric from traditional academic endeavors. Germano and Rabgey foresee the center hosting workshops, discussions and symposia, and supporting instruction, research and policy studies. It also will strive to engage people from diverse walks of life in helping Tibet while respecting its culture. For example, executives might start commercial ventures; engineers could build roads and bridges; physicians could help with medical care.
One physician already has taken steps in a different direction. Lodro Puntsok, a doctor in Dzongsar and a participant in a 2007 program co-sponsored by U.Va., pioneered a project using a local monastery as the umbrella organization to rejuvenate local artisan traditions—pottery, painting, metalwork and more.
The desire to bring together a range of people and their talents comes from Germano’s belief that the center should involve academics and nonacademics alike in research, teaching and learning.
“The idea is to create a continuum of knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t just involve scholars but includes videographers, tourists, local residents and children,” he says. “U.Va. thus becomes a base enabling a broad spectrum of people to contribute to global knowledge about Tibet.”
This participatory approach is at the heart of U.Va.’s partnership with Machik, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that supports work in education, conservation and social entrepreneurship in Tibet (machik.org).
Rabgey and her sister, Losang Rabgey (a visiting professor at U.Va.) co-founded Machik, and one of its signature projects received substantial seed money from their father, Pencho. A former bodyguard for the Dalai Lama and a retired factory worker in Canada, he cashed in his retirement savings to help start Chungba Primary School in his homeland in Lithang. “Although the Chungba kids had never gone to school before, they led the county test scores in their very first year,” Germano says.
In April, U.Va. and Machik teamed with the National Geographic Society and others to host the Tibetan Geotourism Institute (geotourism is sustainable tourism that engages and empowers local communities while protecting the integrity of their environment and cultural traditions). More than a dozen Tibetan community leaders came to the U.S. to speak with tourism officials, meet with experts at the University and visit with Native American cultural leaders in the Southwest to see how natural and cultural resources could be catalogued and preserved.
“As partners in this effort, I think we all realize the tremendous opportunities this geotourism training offers for Tibetan communities, as well as for our own institutions and organizations,” says Rebecca Martin, director of the Expeditions Council at National Geographic.
In Tibet, a Sherpa training program in 2006 funded by the U.S. State Department grew out of the geotourism initiative. Three Sherpa professionals from Nepal, aided by a U.Va.-Machik team, trained 40 local Tibetans in facets of mountaineering, from guiding to cooking. “The Sherpa trainers were thrilled to revisit their roots,” says Germano. “The word ‘Sherpa’ means ‘from the east,’ signifying their original roots in eastern Tibet.”
In another example of teamwork, U.Va. and Machik participated in the Kham Film Project, a series of films conceived and shot by local people to document community knowledge. Chungba, for example, tells the story of efforts to revitalize the small rural community of Chungba. Students at a local school planned the movie, shot it and participated in the editing. The Columbia University Film School and the Maysles Institute in New York were partners in the project.
One Tibetan student among the filmmakers, Tsering Lhamo, had faced a future herding livestock as a subsistence farmer. Thanks to construction of the Chungba Primary School, she has learned to read and write and is working with the team on a new film about ethical choices facing Tibetan young adults.
Tashi Rabgey hopes that U.Va.’s Tibet Center also will become a global public forum where contemporary Tibet is viewed and discussed from many viewpoints.
A student conference in Newcomb Hall, on “Understanding the Current Conflict in Tibet,” in April provides a model for achieving such goals, she says. The meeting, spawned by the recent unrest in Tibet, featured presentations by Chinese and Tibetan scholars and students at U.Va.
Despite some emotional moments, the conference allowed for a respectful exchange, in contrast to more polarized clashes elsewhere.
One Chinese student, for example, said that the Chinese government had failed Tibetans and needed to rethink its own policies and practices. In turn, a Tibetan participant said he was impressed with the open-mindedness and candor of the U.Va. students from China who participated.
Rabgey says addressing Tibet’s challenges will require more than sound bites and slogans. She sees both as the downside of mass media coverage, which has heightened awareness of Tibet but also tends to oversimplify its situation.
Helping Tibet and its people, she says, requires a full appreciation for their complexities, especially when it comes to relations with China. And U.Va.’s center can be a key to building appreciation for the challenges, needs and realities of the Tibetan people.
“We hope to create a new kind of space in the Tibetan world,” Rabgey says. “We want to have an institution where all kinds of different stakeholders can come together without antagonism but in a spirit of cooperation and reconciliation.”
Want to learn more about Tibet, past, present and future? Here are some readings and films recommended by Tashi Rabgey and David Germano:
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium. A presentation of a universal ethics for the contemporary world with frequent references to Buddhist philosophy.
Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2008). An engaging set of reflections on the life and vision of the current Dalai Lama.
Diki Tsering, Dalai Lama, My Son: A Mother’s Autobiography (2000). A spare but illuminating account of the life of a peasant woman who became the mother of the 14th Dalai Lama.
Tashi Rabgey and Tseten Wangchuk Sharlho, Sino-Tibetan Dialogue in the Post-Mao Era: Lessons and Prospects (2004). An overview of the China-Tibet dispute and an analysis of the prospects for dialogue.
Donald Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (1998). An account of the misunderstandings and imaginative distortions that have characterized the cultural encounter between Tibetan Buddhism and the West.
Kundun (director Martin Scorsese, 1997). The story of the Dalai Lama’s life.
Mountain Patrol: Kekexili (director Lu Chuan, 2004). The story of Tibetans who sought to protect rare antelopes against poachers in the harsh mountains of Kekexili.
Tibet Photos by David Germano and Tashi Rabgey