First of all could you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to come to UVa and pursue the type of degree that you did?
Well, I did my MA at the University of Helsinki, and we don’t have an actual Tibetan Studies department there, so I was just in the department of Asian and African Studies doing Indology, but anyway focusing on Tibetan Buddhism. I didn’t have an adviser that knew that much about TibetanStudies—so he encouraged me to go do a Ph.D. somewhere else. Then, we hosted a Sanskrit conference in Helsinki in 2003 and I asked many scholars there where should I go, and almost everybody told me to go to UVa!
Why is that?
Apparently UVa has got a good reputation of having a really good department, and it is the biggest department for Tibetan Studies. Eventually I applied especially because I was interested in David Germano’s research, since I was also interested in Tantra and Dzokchen. I didn’t even apply anywhere else!
Once you were admitted, are there any particular memories that stand out from your time here?
Yes. When I first arrived, I was looking at the course offerings, and thought, “There are more seminars than I can actually take! This is incredible!” During all my studies before that at the University of Helsinki, they didn’t offer almost any courses apart from elementary language courses, Introduction to Asian religions, and maybe Introduction to Asian history, if you’re lucky. Most of my studies, I had to do by myself, just reading books and writing essays. I was really excited to be here and actually participate in advanced spoken and literary Tibetan courses, and Sanskrit translation. They make everybody work like crazy, but somehow it was really worth it for me, because at the time of finishing my MA, I worked in Finland for one year as I was finishing and one year after I finished. I worked as a school teacher, teaching ten and eleven year old kids, and forgetting my languages. I kind of loved it but, I thought “This is not really what I was trained to do!” (laughs) And I was working really hard! So I was really excited to come here and continue my studies, and be paid to do that! (laughs) The quality of education was really what stood out here. Everybody was so hard working and the quality of the language instruction and the seminars was really impressive to me.
I know you’ve attended local conferences, such as the regional American Academy of Religion conference in Nashville. Tell us a bit about your experiences presenting at conferences. Has it helped to shape your path and if so, how?
The first conference I participated in was IATS, 2013.
International Association of Tibetan Studies. It’s the major conference every four years in the field of Tibetan Studies. That was in Mongolia. It was great to attend, and I had no idea there’d be about 700 speakers!
Wow! And how many attendees?
Well, 700 attendees, and almost everybody gave a presentation, simultaneous sessions going on, all day for a week. I’d been to some conferences before that but I’d never presented. I guess I felt like I didn’t have anything original to say before that, but at that point, I’d been working on my dissertation for years, and was already writing it, so it was really exciting to have something new to offer. So, my presentation was about my dissertation topic, and it was really well received. Hardly surprising, because I’d been working for years and years already up until that point, so I was well prepared! (laughs) It was really helpful to give that presentation. It helped me to understand what is essential in my work, what’s interesting to people, and how to present things like this, and how to narrow your focus into what’s relevant. So it’s really useful especially at the time when you’re writing your dissertation. That’s a good time to do conference presentations. I highly recommend it!
If my memory serves, your dissertation is about a Tibetan scholastic figure not unlike Longchenpa, but more accessible? Is that a fair characterization?
Rindzin Gödem. He’s not really a scholastic figure, more of a wandering visionary yogi. He’s a treasure revealer, a tertön. He did not write for intellectuals, like Longchenpa. He did not write to a sophisticated, educated audience. He wrote for practitioners, people heavily steeped in ritual and contemplative practice. I argue that in the centuries after Gödem’s revelation, he was more influential because those in the Nyingma audience were more into practice and ritual. They were not very into scholasticism, especially in the 14th century. Nyingma scholasticism only really took fire after Mipham, in the premodern period. And then, Longchenpa became more popular, and is now more famous and widely read. In the centuries after these two Dzokchen authors flourished, Rindzin Gödem was more popular and more widely read.
You and I have talked in the past a bit about the importance of respect in practice environments—receiving traditional textual transmissions from Lamas, and preliminary practices (Ngöndro) in order to do field work. Do you have any practical advice for new scholars in Tibetan Buddhism concerning this issue?
It’s a really important issue. It’s a curious time these days, because all the secrets are out already. Not every transmission has been published, but as far as topics go, somebody has already written and published about all types of secret tantric practice. There are already books on most aspects of tantra and Dzokchen. But people should definitely be aware, if you are a scholar and want to go out in the field and research some esoteric topic, people will not help you unless you, first of all, have the empowerment. Nobody will help you translate a text if you don’t have the empowerment. And if it’s some kind of higher and more secret text, you will also have to have completed the preliminary practices. You have to basically be a practitioner of that particular system, or people won’t help you read those texts. I mean, you might be able to find somebody who will, but that person will definitely not be some kind of prominent figure in the tradition that you’d want to study with. This is a really serious issue. We are often not told this in academia. We are just kind of sent off into the field with the plan to study a tantra or some esoteric practice system, and then the person will find out the hard way that nobody you’d actually want to work with will help you! Unless you already have connections, unless you are already a practitioner, and you already have a Lama. My advice would be, if you’re not a Buddhist, if you’re not already connected to a Lama and practice tradition, if you haven’t already done a little practice and don’t know that side of the tradition, it might not be the best idea to choose a really esoteric topic. I mean, you’re just going to make your life really difficult. I didn’t really know I was going to have to do Ngöndro, and wait for the empowerment for two years (laughs), things like that! I kind of knew it, but not really. But it’s all OK, because I was not in a hurry, and I wanted to do Ngöndro and practice the tradition. But if you’re not willing to go through all this or don’t already have the necessary background, then maybe focus on a philosophical text, or a topic that does not have all these types of complications.