On the invitation of Geshe Konchok, I stayed for about two weeks at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies in Choglamsar. During this time, I visited high school, undergraduate, and graduate level classes, interviewed faculty and students, and guest taught all three levels of these classes. I also met with Geshe Konchok twice every day and we discussed the challenges facing Bhoti language and traditional Buddhist education within Ladakh, the central issues the university strives to address.
The charge of the university is particularly great when considering the cultural heritage it is responsible for preserving. What many historians consider the world’s first international university, Nalanda, was located in the present state of Bihar, in eastern India. Between the fifth and twelfth centuries, monks and scholars from as far West as Persia and Greece and as far East as China and Korea traveled here to study the vast corpus of Buddhist scriptures and commentaries by great Indian philosophers. However, when the Moguls invaded India in 1200 CE, they destroyed the university and burnt the six-story library to the ground, decimating centuries of accumulated knowledge from this classical period of Indian culture.
Fortunately for our shared cultural heritage, this voluminous literature was already preserved in another classical Asian language: Tibetan. Outside of the world of Tibetan and Buddhist studies, it is an understated fact that beginning in the eighth century, the emperor of Tibet sponsored the largest translation project in history, commissioning hundreds of Indian and Tibetan scholars to translate the vast corpus of Indian Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Therefore, as the present Dalai Lama frequently states, if one wants to study the complete Nalanda Buddhist tradition, Tibetan is only language in which to do so.
Recognizing that this literature is an important and otherwise lost aspect of Indian culture, the university is directly sponsored by the Indian government’s Ministry of Culture, who have tasked CIBS with preserving and perpetuating this Buddhist literature as well as the traditional Buddhist arts and culture of the Himalayas. To this end, the government pays for all tuition, fees, and book expenses. Students even receive a monthly stipend that covers all accommodation and living expenses so that all their studies are fully funded. Due to the fully subsidized nature of this university education, many of the students come from Ladakh’s most marginalized socio-economic backgrounds; the institute, therefore, provides a college education to students who would likely otherwise never access such opportunities.
A majority of the students come from Changthang, the largely nomadic grasslands on the border with Tibet, and Zanskar, a remote region separated from the rest of Ladakh by the Great Himalayan Mountain Range. Many are the first generation to receive any formal education, with most of their parents being illiterate farmers or nomads. The students are, therefore, not only first generation college students but also often the first to become literate in their own language, not to mention the mandatory languages of Hindi and English. Of the six majors offered at the university, generally the monastics major in Buddhist philosophy and either return to their home monasteries or go to a Buddhist institute of their particular Tibetan Buddhist sect for further training on graduation. Most of the lay students select their concentration in Bhoti language and literature and return to their villages to become Bhoti teachers after completing their studies; the overwhelming majority of Bhoti teachers across Ladakh are all graduates of CIBS. Tellingly, in one third-year college class I taught, 18 out of 22 students wanted to be Bhoti teachers.
When I asked an unusually intrepid undergraduate woman from Nubra why she majored in Bhoti language and literature, she explained to me, “It’s our language and literature and culture. Who are we if we don’t know these things? How are we Ladakhi if we don’t know our own language well?” She later added, “It’s totally free to study here. Were I to study someplace else, there would be big fees that maybe my parents could not afford them. Here, I get to study our language, but I also don’t have to pay for it.”
Her perspective seems representative of that of many of the undergraduate students. While they may be interested in their chosen subject matter, there are undeniable social and economic advantages in studying at CIBS. Without this fully subsidized opportunity offered by the Indian government, it is unlikely many of these students would be able to pursue a college education. I found myself wondering if a similar opportunity were available at a secular institution teaching modern subjects, how many students would remain studying Bhoti and Buddhist philosophy at CIBS.
Perhaps to be expected, the graduate students generally expressed a much deeper engagement with their subject matter. I had extended conversations in graduate classes about the true purpose of education, and why an institute like CIBS is important. One second-year master’s student from Changthang told me, in true Buddhist fashion, “These days in Ladakh, so many people are just focused on making money, on living like Westerners or Indians in the big cities. And yet I don’t think this is making people happy. Material development alone isn’t enough to make people happy. Actually, in Ladakh, I feel like sometimes more suffering comes with development. That’s why I think Buddhism and the study of the mind are so important. This is ultimately the only way we can really guarantee happiness.”
While at the university, I found myself again marveling at the irony that the majority of Tibetan language translators are Westerners who begin learning the language decades Ladakhi students such as those at CIBS. It is strange to me that the task of translating such a massive corpus of literature largely falls into the hands of people who learn Tibetan so many years after these students who begin learning it as children. However, I have hope that as the institute continues inviting visiting lecturers from other countries and expanding their ties with international Tibetan, Himalayan and Buddhist studies organizations, the students at CIBS will take a larger stake in the important work of studying and translating this Nalanda Buddhist heritage.