International Seminar of Young Tibetologists

6th ISYT Conference report

6th ISYT Conference

Meeting report


Jue Liang
Andrew S. Taylor
Eben Yonnetti



Charlottesville, Virginia



The Sixth International Seminar of Young Tibetologists (ISYT), an international gathering of early career scholars was held at the University of Virginia from August 1st to 5th. The seminar is hosted by the UVA Tibet Center and the Department of Religious Studies, with generous support from the Jefferson Trust, the International Association of Tibetan Studies, the Tsadra Foundation, and the Khyentse Foundation.

Graduate students, postdocs, and recently appointed professors presented research from across a wide swath of disciplines and methodologies, from philological histories of Tibetan grammatical particles to ethnographies of contemporary communities to analytic philosophy to musicology, but all centered their research around Tibet in some way. Over 40 papers were presented, suggesting a promising future for Tibetan Studies as a field.

Khenpo Yeshi, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, presenting his paper, titled “The Vima Snying thig and How It Came into Being”
Kati Fitzgerald, Visiting Assistant Professor at Wittenberg University, presenting her paper, “Contemporary Deloks of Kham: The Political Agency of Women’s Death”

The proceedings opened with Ariana Maki, Associate Director of the Tibet Center, and Natasha Mikles, the Secretary General of the ISYT, welcoming all the participants and observers to the seminar and providing an overview of the Tibet Center’s recent work. Professor David Germano, Director of the Tibet Center and the Contemplative Sciences Center, then offered a brief history of Tibetan Studies at UVA, tracing its origins as a repository for copies of manuscripts compiled from Tibetan refugees fleeing across the Himalayas, its rise to prominence under Jeffrey Hopkins through the study of Gelug philosophy and monasticism, and the subsequent embrace of the myriad lived forms of Buddhist experience that have flourished across the Plateau. Professor Germano closed his lecture by emphasizing the responsibility incumbent upon Tibetan Studies as a field to empower contemporary Tibetan communities, a worthy goal for the seminar and the discipline as a whole.

Professor Germano at the opening ceremony.
Andrew S. Taylor, co-convener of the Sixth ISYT and Assistant Professor at the College of St. Scholastica, and Tashi Dekyid, Tibetan oral interpretor for the Sixth ISYT and a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, at the opening ceremony.

Toward that end, one of the main goals of the organizers was to make the seminar fully bilingual. Presenters were able to present their papers in either English or Tibetan, and many made their accompanying slides intelligible to native speakers of both groups. Similarly, two keynotes were offered, one in English by Professor Leonard van der Kuijp of Harvard University, and one in Tibetan by Geshe Ngawang Sonam, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. Professor van der Kuijp provided a detailed overview of the history of Tibetan scholasticism and challenged scholars to query their own motives in undertaking the study of Tibetan religion and culture. Ngawang Sonam drew on his own previous experience as a monastic scholar who had studied for over a decade to receive his geshe degree to reflect on what the international academy and the Tibetan monastic educational system can learn from one another, imagining a synthetic path that could accommodate both groups of scholars.

Geshe Ngawang Sonam during his keynote.

A related goal, and perhaps the most lasting contribution of the seminar, was to increase the representation of Tibetan and Himalayan scholars within academic institutions. Generous funding from the Jefferson Trust, the Tsadra Foundation, and the Khyentse Foundation paid for many Tibetan participants from Asia to attend the seminar and sponsored workshops conducted primarily in Tibetan to help facilitate this increase in representation. Participants in the various workshops learned the unwritten rules of breaking into the international academy—for instance, how to apply to a PhD program, publish research in English, use translation in one’s scholarship, and apply for a job as a professor, all indispensable bodies of knowledge for early career scholars.

Miguel Sawaya leading a workshop on translation and scholarship.
Workshop participants during the Q&A period.

The seminar is also enriched by a field trip to the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts, where conference attendees enjoyed the special exhibit Spirits, by Nepalese-born Tibetan American artist Tsherin Sherpa as well as jazz music.

Conference attendees at the Spirits exhibition.

This joyous and illuminating intellectual gathering concluded with a joyous circle dance in the Rotunda’s Dome Room, a fitting cap on a deeply Jeffersonian exchange of ideas and cultural values. The Tibet Center hopes to continue to facilitate such exchanges in the future.

Dancing in the Rotunda.
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