Most citizens in the United States are unable to explain the current upheaval in modern Tibet. After traveling to Tibet on sabbatical last year, Philosophy Professor Deane Curtin wanted to shed light on Tibetans’ struggles upon his return to Gustavus. He shared his experiences working for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees with the Gustavus community on Oct. 28, 2013.
“I’m asked all the time, when I talk about these things, ‘why didn’t I hear about this situation . . . that 1.5 million people have been killed in Tibet,’ and so on. There have been 122 people in the last couple of years that have burned themselves to death because they think no one pays attention to them, especially the United States. They think that over-the-top protests are the only thing that will get our attention,” Curtin said.
History, Environmental Studies, and Japanese Studies Professor David Obermiller believes Curtin is uniquely qualified to speak on the issue since he has traveled to Tibet many times and interacted with the community throughout its exile.
“Deane has been traveling and experiencing India for three decades. His long experience traveling has given him philosophical and spiritual insight as well as historical . . . . Very few Westerners have such a length of time to directly see transformations [in another country],” Obermiller said.
Curtin first became interested in Tibet at the age of fifteen and was compelled to learn more by what he had heard about Tibetan culture.
“I really wanted to get to know Tibetan culture and exile well from the inside. I think there is a positive story here that is missed a lot of times when we justifiably hear about what is going on in Tibet. Tibetans have been in exile for 50 years now, but they’ve managed to develop this global democratic culture and keep that culture alive,” Curtin said.
Over the past year, Curtin lived in Dharamshala on a foothill overlooking the Himalayas. During the course of his sabbatical, Curtin had collaborated with the Director of Tibetan Works and Archives Geshe Lhakdor with the goal of contributing to the Tibetan community through what Lhakdor calls the “translation project.”
The Dalai Lama requested the translation project in order to encourage Tibetans to become global citizens. The Dalai Lama believes that learning about the contemporary world is equally important as preserving their own cultural heritage.
“The Dalai Lama is very interested in this issue. How do we keep this culture alive with so many people in exile? To me it is a remarkable thing. He wants people to be global citizens and good Tibetans. It’s a real challenge, how do you retain your sense of being a Tibetan while retaining your sense of a global citizen?” Curtin said.
Curtin had carefully chosen to translate specific works of western philosophical literature that would allow Tibetans to connect with their own culture as well as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito were translated as well as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail were each translated. Each piece had contemporary relevance to the Tibetans struggle with political repression.
Accumulating with the translation project was a teaching experience that Curtin had focused on in Tibet. He worked with B. Tsering, President of the Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education in Bangalore, to design a core course in regard to the Dalai Lama’s book, Beyond Religion.
The course considered how the Dalai Lama views the importance of ethics before religion, as well as many other important life lessons. The Dalai Lama teaches about the art of happiness as if it is something that everyone can have if it is practiced.
“The Dalai Lama is a truly extraordinary person. I think he should be taken seriously and that people should listen to what he has to say. Most people don’t and I think it is a tragedy, because someone like him is such a gift,” Curtin explained.
As the spiritual leader of Tibet, His Holiness is believed to be an enlightened being that postponed his nirvana to be reincarnated and serve humanity. Curtin claims that people speak of the Dalai Lama in the highest regards, even claiming that he will be the next Buddha.
The Dalai Lama, however, wishes to be seen as a human being, because he believes all people are equal. Female equality is a new concept in Tibet, because women were not held to the same standard as men until the Dalai Lama had convinced Tibetans otherwise.
In five years, when a convention is held to decide if the people want His Holiness to reincarnate, the Dalai Lama says he will do so as a woman.
In addition to working for the Dalai Lama, Curtin met many remarkable people, such as His Holiness the Karmapa, Buddhist hermits living in caves, and a nun who was imprisoned and tortured in China for 30 years after refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama. He also met many students in Tibet who were refugees.
“A lot of times these are the most recent refugees that make their way out of China and get shot at by the Chinese military. A lot of them die and most know they won’t ever see their families again, and yet they live together at this university as a family,” Curtin said.
Observing Tibetans at the University connect with one another with love and care was something that Deane Curtin will always have a hard time explaining to those who couldn’t witness the beauty firsthand. Even the Tibetans he saw walking in the streets seemed to have found the key to happiness, despite their trials.
“Being in Nepal for the first time, I saw people walking through the streets and laughing. It made me curious. I have been trying to figure out how these people could have gone through all that they have and still be cheerful,” Curtin said.
“People should be reminded of the importance of maintaining a civic culture. When you have it every day, you take it for granted, so the fact that Tibetans have lost it and are trying to regain it I think is amazing,” Obermiller said.
Tibet will also be the main focus of the MAYDAY! Conference this year, and Curtin will be involved in the some of the organization.
“The planning is just starting, but I’m really hoping part of MAYDAY! is going to be a fundraising event in addition to a conference. I feel uncomfortable about the idea of people educating fortunate folks about Tibet at a college in Minnesota without something happening,” Curtin said.
As the planning process begins, members of the committee are hoping that more students will get involved this year.
“We want more participation by students at the events. We need more students to be involved in order to pull it off. If people want to join the committee, they are welcome to,” Richard Leitch said.
All members of the Gustavus community that are contributing towards this event are very excited to be focusing on Tibet while Curtin is still a staff member on campus. There is hope that students on campus will commit to helping MAYDAY! become a success with Curtin as a positive example leading the way.
“I think there is an opportunity for Gustavus students to have direct experience and learn some humility. I think it fits well with the mission of Gustavus. I’m a firm believer that opportunity is not determined by fate, but is a matter of seeing its unique and making adecision to act upon it in a very intentful way,” Obermiller said.