The Great Deeds of the Buddha: A Seminar on Text, Doctrine, and Image in Tibetan Buddhism

December 18, 2018 | Tsinghua University, Beijing | Seminar Report 1, Seminar Report 2

“Life of the Buddha” Project Overview: Digital Frameworks for Preservation and Analysis”

“Exploring the Life of the Buddha in the Jonang Murals and Texts”

Seminar on Text, Doctrine, and Image in Tibetan Buddhism, Tsinghua Unviersity

19 Ways of Looking at Milarepa

November 19, 2018 | American Academy of Religion, Denver

Translation is a multivalent process. A translation is a reading, an interpretation, an argument about the text, its author, its time and place, and about its reception in the new spaces the translator imagines herself to be placing the text. A close reading of all available translations of a given verse, for instance, reveals, potentially, as many imagined authors, times, places, doctrines, and world systems breathing life into the text as there are translations. This roundtable panel takes its inspiration from the epitome of such work: Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (Asphodel Press, 1987), a slim book that provocatively comments on nineteen translations of four lines of Chinese Buddhist nature poetry. Through a close reading of multiple English renderings, Weinberger and Paz elicit the ways in which, “a translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of a poem. As such, every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life. As no individual reader remains the same, each reading becomes a different—not merely another—reading” (43).

In this roundtable, our task is to similarly reflect on a few lines of verse attributed to Milarepa, Tibet’s earliest and most famous Buddhist poet. We ask, how might an English translation evoke emotional responses, or reflect comparable religious aspirations attributed to the Tibetan source? How do choices about the tone and timbre of a translation—reflected by word order, meter, rhyme scheme—alter a poem’s religious meaning, or transform its efficacy as a vehicle for religious transmission? To what degree can we consider the poems ascribed to a Buddhist teacher, in Tibetan or English, to be Buddhist? If translation is “a reimagining of a poem,” the roundtable participants seek to illuminate how the translation of Tibetan Buddhist poetry entails reimagining the very nature of religious expression itself. This becomes especially acute in literature where environment, feeling, experience, doctrine, and ethics are so concisely bound together in a single discourse. How do we make sense of this synthesis in Tibetan religious poetry, and how does translation work within this process of making sense?

Narrative Paintings from Central Asia to the Himalaya

23 October, 2017 | Musée Cernuschi, Paris | Conference Website |

“Writing the Visual: Translating Buddha Life Narratives from Text into Image”

Accounts of the Buddha’s final life are ubiquitous across Tibet. Among the most extensive and striking are those in the corpus of literary and visual materials produced by the seventeenth-century luminary Tāranātha Kunga Nyingpo (1575–1634) at his monastic seat of Phuntsokling in the Tibetan region of Tsang. This paper examines Tāranātha’s work entitled A Painting Manual for the Hundred Acts of the Teacher, Lord of Śākyas (Ston pa shākya dbang po’i mdzad brgya pa’i bris yig). This text exemplifies the little-studied genre of Tibetan writing known as the painting manual (bris yig). In it, Tāranātha self-consciously bridges two sets of Buddha vitae: his literary narrative in 125 chapters called The Sun of Faith (Dad pa’i nyin byed) and the narrative murals executed in his monastery’s second floor gallery, covering some 150 square meters, referred to as “the Boundless Design” (bkod pa mtha’ yas). The Painting Manual covers the entire arc of the Buddha’s life story as told in The Sun of Faith, and contains scene-by-scene instructions for its visual representation. Tāranātha’s Painting Manual thus inhabits in a middle ground between two media, effectively translating text into image. This paper draws on Tāranātha’s writings and a complete site documentation of his murals to reflect upon the different kinds of stories textual and visual narratives tell, and how the translation from one to the other leads to new forms of storied knowledge.

HH Tai Situpa Visits Yale

October 6, 2016 | Yale University |

His Holiness the 12th Chamgon Kenting Tai Situpa visited Yale, toured the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, met with several student groups, and delivered a public talk “Meditation in the Modern World.”

More information here.

Universities as Agents of Sustainable Conservation

April 12, 2016 | UN Global Colloquium, Yale University | Event Link |

UN Global Colloquium on the Preservation of Cultural Heritage

Sustainable development —the concept of meeting the world’s current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same—is of growing importance in times of rapid social transformations, global climate change, and economic uncertainty. This satellite workshop will address important challenges on the way towards sustainable conservation, in all three dimensions of sustainability: economic, ecologic, and social.

In the presence of already existing UN organizations/platforms, what role might a university consortium serve to provide solutions for sustainability in preservation? How can universities create and maintain interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary networks for addressing issues of sustainability in conservation, mitigating challenges of mitigation and adaptation for creating resilient societies, and forming links to UN sustainable development goals?

The Making of Milarepa

September 10, 2015 | Tibet House |

Public book talk on The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa

7:00 pm | 22 West 15th St, New York, NY

There is a suggested donation but I have requested that all proceeds go toward earthquake relief in Nepal.

Illuminating the Yogin’s Path: Manuscript Illustrations in Tibetan Biography

April 16–17, 2015 | University of Virginia | Conference Link |

Conference on Books and Readers in the Pre-Modern World

The ubiquity of the book in literate societies can blind us to its complex social and cultural functions in particular times and places. The materials out of which books are made, the physical form that they take, the way scripts and images are inscribed on their surfaces, the kinds of texts they preserve, and the means by which they are circulated, consumed, and even performed can illuminate economic and environmental conditions, ideological agendas, and the ways networks function within and between cultures. Studies of book culture have increased exponentially in recent years, and the aim of this conference is to offer an inter-disciplinary, cross-cultural analysis of the status quaestionis in dialogue with one exceptionally influential volume, Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts, which in 2015 will mark its twentieth anniversary.

Visit to Yale by HH the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje

April 6–10, 2015 | Yale University | Event Link |

A four-day visit to Yale University by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Activities include His Holiness’s Chubb Fellowship Lecture “Compassion in Action—Buddhism and the Environment”.

More information about the visit, news reports, and a photo gallery can be found here.

Walking through old campus

The Yogin and the Madman Receives AAR Book Award

November 23, 2014 | American Academy of Religion, San Diego |

The Yogin and the Madman receives the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion.

Remarks from the awards committee:

“It is eminently readable, engagingly written, while displaying impeccable scholarship. I am by no means familiar with Tibetan biographical literature and know next to nothing about Milarepa. But in this book, Mila does indeed come alive! through the author’s cogent analysis of the multiple readings of his biography in differing historical circumstances and of how these readings shaped and reshaped the Buddhist consciousness. This book can be read with interest by all those similarly interested in the place of  biographical literature in other religious traditions (as I am) but also by nonspecialists.

The Yogin and the Madman got me excited to read primary text material about Milarepa, someone I’d never thought about twice previously. I found the author’s argument layered and nuanced in its thought. I thought it was written nicely, with a level of sophistication and maturity not found in a lot of textual studies. The author drew richly from the primary texts, and the primary texts (both in terms of their content, reception, and deployment) are at the heart of his argument. The book also includes original translation work by the author.  Finally, it made me appreciate what texts contribute to the study of religion broadly.”

The Making of Milarepa

October 1, 2014 | University of Colorado, Boulder |

A book talk on The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa

University of Colorado, Boulder
British Studies Room, Norlin Library, 5:00 pm

Free and open to the public

Literature, Art, and Institution: Religious Studies Collaborations in Bhutan

November 12, 2013 | Yale University |

Environment, Livelihood and Culture: A Round Table Discussion on Collaborative Research Partnerships in Bhutan
Yale Himalaya Initiative Seminar, Yale University

Speakers: Edward R. Cook, Timothy Gregoire, Andrew Quintman, Mark Turin and Tshering Yangzom

  • Edward R. Cook, Ewing Research Professor and Director, Tree-Ring Laboratory, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
  • Timothy Gregoire, J. P. Weyerhaeuser, Jr., Professor of Forest Management
  • Andrew Quintman, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
  • Mark Turin, Program Director of the Yale Himalaya Initiative
  • Tshering Yangzom, Program Officer for the Bhutan Foundation