Greetings from David Newman, Program Director
Having met most of you, I'm becoming increasingly enthusiastic about our upcoming journey. I've already learned quite a bit in our brief encounters, and I have had glimpses into how much more there is to learn. It's exciting to know that you are interested in bringing Tibetan and Himalayan culture into your classrooms.
The desire to investigate inspired me to go to India nearly 20 years ago and to live in Nepal for an extended period of time, often leading experiential education programs for young people coming to Asia. Since 2001, I have been able to work in environments where I can tie together digital technologies, the Himalaya and education. And so the investigation continues, but first some more about me...
I grew up and went to high school in New Jersey. I attended Oberlin College, where I began to learn in a structured way about Asian thought, culture, and religions. During my junior year, I spent a semester abroad in India and Nepal studying Tibetan culture and history and living with Tibetan families. My first thoughts were in many ways those of a Shangrila found, but really, I had never encountered such open heartedness. It is difficult for me to distinguish idealization from a genuine experience of simple and frequent human connection that was previously unknown to me. In addition, I learned a smattering of Tibetan, and, with my fellow students, was able to engage in dialog with prominent members of the Tibetan refugee community. But probably most important to me, we made a wonderful connection with a Tibetan lama and were granted an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
My interest was piqued and something inside me was moved from this encounter with Himalayan culture and people.
I returned to Oberlin disappointed that I couldn't study Tibetan. The logical choice, as I considered Sino-Tibetan relations of past, present and future, was to study Chinese. Fortunately, I had a fantastic teacher and laid a foundation in one year. I spent my final college semester at Yunnan University in Kunming, China on Oberlin's semester-long 2nd year Chinese program.
I had a radically different experience from my Tibetan-oriented semester. I wanted it to be what I had experienced a year and a half before, but it simply wasn't -- no matter how I willed it. It would have been an excellent opportunity to look at how I perceived Tibet and romanticized it, but instead I found myself becoming more cynical about China. I am embarrassed to recall some of my actions, like self-righteously preaching to Chinese friends about how China had colonized Tibet, without considering the complexity of the situation.
I made it through that semester and traveled a bit and saw some wonderful things. Upon my return, I stayed in a dharma center in New Jersey for the summer of 1990 where I was able to study with the lama with whom I made contact in Dharamsala two years before. It was an incredible opportunity, attending nearly daily classes with him. For me, a personal connection with four Tibetan monks was a nurturing experience. (One of the monks was Khen Rinpoche, who we had the good fortune to meet at RMA. We plan to meet him again in Ladakh at Siddhartha School.)
After a few years of work as a paralegal and paying off my student loans, it was finally time to return to Asia. In January 1993, I set out for India with a friend. My intent was to visit India for a month or two and then go to Taiwan to find work. I wound up staying in India for six months and Nepal for five years!\\The odyssey began with a journey to south India, where we met the yoga teacher with whom my friend continues to study. We then went to Sera monastery, where I wound up staying for six weeks. I studied, but I also engaged in the kind of learning that has marked much of my Himalayan education: I talked to people. Following that, on the advice of a young tulku friend (a tulku is a recognized reincarnation of a lama), I went to Sikkim to attend the Kalachakra empowerment conferred by the Dalai Lama. I wound up staying another month or so at Rumtek, the Karmapa's seat outside of Tibet. This was followed by several weeks in northern India -- Dharamsala and Dehra Dun -- and then I set out for Nepal.
Unannounced, I landed at the door of my mentor, the Belgian tibetologist who had directed the Tibetan semester program in 1988. I served as something like his assistant for a few months, editing an anthology of student essays he had compiled and annotated. And I set off for Tibet in the summer of 1993, five years after my first connection with the Tibetan Diaspora. It was an experience that was at times unbelievable, at times overwhelming, always educational.
For the next five years I stayed in Nepal, visiting Tibet whenever possible. I studied Buddhism, collaborated with local and foreign rock, jazz and classical musicians, led cultural immersion programs (which is how I met Brad as we co-led a Mt. Kailash program), took time for exploration and pilgrimage, developed an appreciation for the non-Tibetan parts of Nepal, led treks, and made deep enduring friendships.
From 1994-1999 I spent each summer leading cultural immersion trips. I would organize lectures, set students up with families, and teach classes to groups, primarily American high school students. For a couple of summers, I coordinated all of the school's summer Himalayan programs.
My position as leader and coordinator brought me into contact with a number of interesting and wonderful people from Nepal and Tibet. My work was challenging and fulfilling, and I was continually amazed by the capacity and sensitivity of my American students. It was an honor to be part of an experience where people's lives and their worlds opened up.
Eventually, I knew that I did not want to continue to spend so much time away from home, Kathmandu. I had my many interests, and it occurred to me that if I wanted to reach a wide range of people, having an understanding of media would be important. I went to England to do an MA in Electronic Media. It was inspiring and I studied both media theory and electronic arts. I wrote my master's thesis in 1999 on the use of the internet in human rights work.
Armed with an education and a year of experience in a software company (though I neither was, nor will be a programmer) I returned to the USA. While nearly committed to pursuing a doctorate in History of Religions, I met David Germano at University of Virginia, and found in him someone with a profound commitment to connecting the West and the Himalayas. He struck me as someone with broad vision, engaged in intensive activity.
Instead of pursuing a doctorate, I found rewarding work at the University of Virginia's Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library (THDL – http://www.thdl.org ). I was making tools to aid in learning about the Himalayas, and I worked with Professor Germano to develop the curriculum for a technology-intensive Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Culture course. One of my primary objectives at THDL was to make information about places accessible to a wide audience, developing technologies and creating content. I worked on maps, both print maps, and electronic interactive maps that were connected to textual information about places as well as pictures of them. For an example, see: http://www.thdl.org/collections/cultgeo/mons/sera/map/ or http://www.thdl.org/collections/cultgeo/mons/sera/hermitages/map/ I also did a large amount of work on a database of nearly 40,000 images across Himalayan nations.
With THDL I also documented Tibetan culture of both the past and present. One of the highlights was a summer 2002 research trip to Tibet for conducting video and photographic documentation. I worked with some great scholars, both western and Tibetan. And I took lots of pictures.
Encouraged by my friend Brad Choyt, the Director of RMA's Education department, I moved to New York at the end of 2005. The exposure to new ideas, perspectives, and opportunities has been inspiring, as have the exchanges here with Brad and many others. One of the Education department's valuable contributions to making Himalayan art accessible has been a web-based project called ExploreArt: http://www.exploreart.org.
I'm looking forward to an exchange where we each bring our own experiences, wisdom and questions as we look at Himalayan culture and contexts. I expect that I'll be surfacing and exposing my own preconceptions as we explore the importance of studying Himalayan culture and engage in dialog about how best to reach your students with it.
Yours in exploration,