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Q + A: Advancing Academic Study of Buddhism in Nepal

 

Leonard van der Kuijp introduces a speaker at the program’s conference in Nepal.

 

 

Last year, The Mittal Institute launched the Nepal Studies Program, with generous support from Jeffrey M. Smith, who is a Principal Shareholder with the international law firm of Greenberg Traurig, LLP. The three-year program focuses on a different faculty-led topic of interest each year and engages with scholars and practitioners both on the ground in Nepal and in Cambridge.

The Buddhism in Nepal, Past and Present Conference was held on January 5, 2018, and was led by Leonard W.J. van der Kuijp, Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies. The conference explored the spread and development of Buddhism in the India-Nepal-Tibet corridor, based on medieval documents and modern practice. The program will also hold a conference at Harvard on Monday, May 7. Before the event, The Mittal Institute asked van der Kuijp about the event and the Nepal Studies Program. 

 

How did you become involved in the Nepal Studies Program?

It all came together with the generosity of donor Jeffrey M. Smith. He asked me if I wanted to get involved with the Nepal Studies Program because I teach Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist Studies. Furthermore, Nepal is a very important place to me, since I have lived and worked there in the past.  

 

Can you talk about the importance of Harvard having something like the Nepal Studies Program?

Academia has historically marginalized Nepal. Before this program, there has never been Nepal Studies Program at Harvard despite the fascinating social history of Buddhism in Nepal, especially esoteric Buddhism.

The Kathmandu Valley houses both public and private libraries, as well as countless Buddhist manuscripts that are no longer available in India because they were destroyed or fell into disuse and disappeared. In that sense, Nepalese Buddhism played a very important role in the preservation and the continued development of late Indian Buddhism. Nepal also functioned as an important conduit of Buddhism to the Tibetan area, China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. Nepal is important in the study of Buddhism – despite being overshadowed by interest in the Indian subcontinent, China or Tibet.

 

Can you tell me about the Nepal Conference?

The Buddhism in Nepal, Past and Present Conference was organized by the local people at a private conference center Yalamaya, Kathmandu. The funding from the Mittal Institute made it possible for us to travel to Nepal, to rent the space, and pay for miscellaneous expenses.

The first conference was geared towards a Nepalese audience, whereas the upcoming one is geared towards a wider audience with a mix of both Americans, Nepalese and others. There is a very vibrant Nepalese community here in the Boston area.

 

How do you choose the speakers and subject matter? 

The overarching themes are Buddhism in Nepal based on how the Newar community perceived it and the Tibetan-Nepal interface. At the conference, there were three academics from the United States and three Nepalese scholars. Nirmal Man Tuladhar spoke about the linguistic interfaces between Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhists.

Sidhartha Tuladhar, a senior researcher from the Newar community of traders in Nepal shared his archival work. His family has traded with Tibet for 250 years and he has a very large archive of documents and photographs. The final speaker was Naresh Man Bajracharya, a well-known Buddhist priest, who discussed the foundation of Lumbini University and the Buddhist monastery in Ngubeni.  

One speaker was my former student, Kurtis R. Schaeffer, who is now the Chairman of the University of Virginia’s Religion Department. He spoke about the 18th century itinerant yogi in Northern Nepal who wondered whether he was really Tibetan or Nepalese. It became a very interesting project where he was constantly wondering about his own ethnicity because his feet were firmly planted in Tibetan Buddhism, but he was from the Northern Himalayas.

My other colleague from the College of the Holy Cross, Todd T. Lewis, is an anthropologist that specializes in religion. He spoke about the religious life of one area in Kathmandu where he lived and did field work for five years.

 

What is the importance of the conference?

The conference was important because it made it clear that Harvard is paying attention to what is happening around Buddhism in Nepal. There were not only Nepalese there but there were also foreigners there; there was a lot of enthusiasm in the room. Additionally, these types of programs help establish academic and research partnerships between Harvard and local scholars in Nepal.