CU’s expertise in Tibetan studies is unusually deep

Holly Gayley, above, assistant professor of religious studies at CU-Boulder, takes in the view near the Amne Machen Range in Tibet. Photo courtesy of Holly Gayley.

‘We have three tenure-track, full-time specialists in Tibet, and that’s three more faculty specializing in Tibet than you find at most universities. It’s not a huge group … but it’s an incredible opportunity (for research) and also for students.’


By Clay Evans

Belly up to a bar, drop by a café, or sit down at a bus stop and mention Tibet in most any American city, from Baltimore to Boise, Phoenix to Philadelphia, and the ensuing conversation will be short.

“I would say that in general Americans who pay attention to global events will know something about Tibet, but they might not know much,” says Holly Gayley, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“They know something bad happened there that might involve China, and that’s where the Dalai Lama comes from,” says Carole McGranahan, associate professor of Anthropology, who specializes in contemporary Tibet. (See YouTube interview, at right, about her research on the CIA and Tibet.)

But that isn’t the case in Boulder, a small island of Tibetan and Buddhist culture and home to a thriving community of immigrants and exiles from the Himalayan nation that was invaded by China in 1950.

Tattered, fading Tibetan-style prayer flags flutter from eaves throughout the city and many a Subaru, Volvo or SUV sports a “Save Tibet” bumper sticker. Buddhism, considered exotic and mysterious in much of America, is just another belief system in Boulder.

The city also has become a center of academic research into Tibetan religion, culture and the environment. Naropa University, started by the late Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1974, was the first Buddhist-focused university in the United States.

What many people may not know is that Trungpa first taught in Boulder at CU, and today the university shares with Columbia University the distinction of having three faculty members who specialize in modern Tibetan studies: McGranahan, Gayley and Associate Professor of Geography Emily Yeh, whose research focuses on environmental issues on the Tibetan Plateau and the Tibetan diaspora. All three women have traveled extensively in Tibet.

“I usually say we have three tenure-track, full-time specialists in Tibet, and that’s three more faculty specializing in Tibet than you find at most universities,” McGranahan says. “It’s not a huge group … but it’s an incredible opportunity (for research) and also for students.”

McGranahan in recent years has been researching Tibetan guerillas who fought against the Chinese occupation in the 1960s and were trained by the CIA at Camp Hale, a U.S. Army facility near Leadville, Colo.

The combined academic heft of CU’s Tibetan studies trio, Naropa and a new Boulder research branch of the New York-based Tsadra Foundation, which funds the translation of Tibetan Buddhist texts, have attracted attention and new opportunities to Boulder and Colorado.

Emily Yeh, associate professor of geography, interviews members of a grassroots environmental protection group about their traditional environmental practices on a sacred mountain in Chamdo, Tibet Autonomous Region, China. July 2005. Photo by Kunga Lama (Center for Asian Studies)

A joint lecture series between CU and Naropa, named in honor of Chogyam Trungpa, kicked off in 2013 with Janet Gyatso of Harvard University. John Makransky, professor of Buddhism and Comparative Theology at Boston University and a meditation teacher, will speak in September on compassion, the theme at Naropa’s 40th-anniversary year.

“This is a step forward in the collaboration between the universities,” Gayley says. “There is the perfect nexus for Buddhist studies in Boulder and (collaborations of this kind) will strengthen both programs.”

The lecture series was started with a seed grant from the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies, founded by the late Mahinder Uberoi, former chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at CU-Boulder.

In October, the Tibetan Translation and Transmission Conference, sponsored by the Tsadra Foundation, will bring some 200 Tibetan studies scholars and translators to Keystone. Andrew Quintman, assistant professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, will speak in Boulder as a lead up to the conference.

“Boulder is definitely a lightning rod for Buddhist and Tibetan studies,” Gayley says. “I always have a wait list for my Buddhism classes, and I get 120 to 150 for the Foundation of Buddhism class. … It would be hard to garner that kind of interest anywhere else.”

Of course, Tibet is a real place, not just a subject of academic research and study. The nation continues to struggle under Chinese occupation. The 14th Dalai Lama, who escaped from his homeland to become a global leader for peace, is now 78, and China has signaled its intention to choose his successor. It’s doubtful many Tibetans in exile would accept such a choice: Some 130 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the last five years in acts of protest against China.

All that sounds dire. But, says McGranahan, the exile community refuses to give up.

“The one thing the Tibetan refugee community is most defined by is the politics of hope,” she says. “They hold a real belief that Tibet will be Tibetan again. … No state or empire … has existed in a consistent shape or form without end. … But I think change needs to come in part through change in China, the Chinese making demands on their government.”

March 2014


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