The Oxford Visitorship

The Visitorship for Traditional Scholars
brings learned monks and nuns to Oxford
to share what they know with the students
and to find out about the global academy.

The Scheme

  1. Who visits?
  2. What happens in preparing for a visit?
  3. What happens during a visit?

The History

  1. Who has come?
  2. What havevisitors, students and others done together?
  3. What has been gained?

The Future

  1. How do you join in?
  2. How do we work together?
  3. What comes out of this?

The Scheme

So-Wide brings traditional scholars to Oxford University to work with teachers and students involved in Buddhist Studies. Typically, at least one scholar will come for a terms each year.

So-Wide runs the scheme in partnership with two sister charities and with interested units of the University of Oxford.

  • The sister charities are :
  • the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (OCBS org),
    which supports and promotes Buddhist Studies at Oxford,
    and
  • the Oxford Buddha Vihara (OBV org.uk),
    which regularly hosts monastics from diverse Buddhist traditions
  • Our key partner in the University is the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, where we work with
  • the Numata Professor of Buddhist Studies and
  • the Tibetan and Himalayan Studies team

Who visits?

Each Visitor comes from a distinguished career in a monastic education system, has good English and communication skills and is interested in broadening his or her horizons. Above all, a successful Visitor will be a self-starter — someone who can relate independently with students and so can develop a programme of activities informally, beyond the basic arrangements for reading groups and so on.

Who visits depends partly on what suitable candidates come forward. It also depends on the priorities of the partners at the Oxford end, above all in the University.

This is how it has happened that all Visitors so far have been from the Tibetan tradition. That has been where the University has so far had a need! 

What happens in preparing for a visit?

When a prospective Visitor is proposed and makes the short list, the first stage is to talk things over. In phone or video-calls, all angles are thoroughly discussed.

This is an opportunity for both sides to check what is involved before committing. It is important to assess, for instance:

  • how easy it will be for a traditional scholar to communicate with students, and
  • how much he or she is likely to gain from the opportunity.

Once a Visitor has been selected, formal letters of invitation are issued. This is will secure a visa.

So-Wide transfers to the Visitor’s bank account enough to cover initial expenses — visa, domestic travel to secure the visa and to get to the airport, and return air flight. On arrival, Visitors are picked up from the airport, brought to Oxford and introduced to the Vihara (OBV), where they get will stay.

Once they are recovered from the flight, our volunteers show them round the town, get them a bus pass and demonstrate how to use it, arrange for the issue of a library card, and so on. At this time, Visitors also get some cash to spend.

The volunteers remain on hand for help and advice throughout the Visitor’s stay. We also nominate one of the students to provide support within the Faculty.

Soon after arrival, the Visitor meets the teacher(s) and students with whom he or she will work. A basic schedule is arranged (reading-group and talks). The Visitor can then start fill out the programme for the visit in consultation with the students

What happens during a visit?

How a Visit works out is up to the Visitor. Within the Faculty, he or she will be asked to give some talks and to take a reading-group through a classical text once a week. These activities are important, but a Visitor is mainly remembered for the way he or she gets on with individual students.

Some students are keener than others to work with a Visitor — and some may become keen. Personal interaction is crucial.

Students can get help on their dissertation topics. Or sometimes they may wish to explore particular areas of Tibetan Buddhist culture they happen to be interested in.

Visitors also connect with people across the university and beyond. They can give talks to the Buddhist Society, and to devotees in the Vihara. They can also link up with people in the UK who follow their tradition or lineage.

Towards the end of term, a Visitor will commonly give a lecture in the OCBS Lecture Series. So-Wide people will help with preparing this presentation. These talks are open to public and a wide range of people will attend. You can see some examples here.

 

The History

So-Wide was set up in 2003. It formed the OCBS in 2006 (and the Oxford Mindfulness Centre in 2008). The OBV was a supportive partner.

Via the OBV, traditional scholars occasionally visited Oxford, and some interacted with members of the University. Then, in 2008, HH the Dalai Lama visited Oxford.

So-Wide arranged the visit. We asked if he had any advice for us. He said to set up a scheme for traditional scholars to visit Oxford.

It was a timely prompt. We resolved to formalise out work in this area. There was scope for this.

Within the University, the Tibetan and Himalayan Studies was particularly responsive. It was clear they could benefit from direct exposure to the culture they were studying.

So, we did some work. A few years later, the Visitorship for Traditional Scholars started.

 

Who has come?

Some visitors have been well-known figures. Some have been relatively junior.

It all started in 2011. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche came for a memorable visit (if slightly shorter than normal).

Then we had some difficulty with funding. So there was a pause. Then:

in 2013,
Arjiya Rinpoche came to us (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/8th_Arjia_Rinpoche).

in 2014
Lama Tenzin Tselek came from the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and

in 2015
Tenzin Damchoe followed from the same institution.
in 2016
Ani Nawang Jinpa visited from the Hemis monastery, Leh,

in 2017
Gakar Rinpoche came to us from Shechen in Kathmandu.

in 2018
Geshe Zopa made a memorable visit from Kopan/Sera (and the FPMT)
in 2019,
we welcomed Yangten Rinpoche from Dharmsala
in 2020,
Lama Konchok Zhiva (Shanta Kumar Negi) came from Dehradun and Leh,
in 2022, (after a pause for the pandemic)
Minyak Rinpoche joined us from Drepung momastery

Thus our Visitors havecovered a fairly wide range of Tibetan lineages. It is hoped to maintain or increase this diversity in the future.

You will find CVs of our visitors on this site, plus some samples of their work. (Unfortunately we are short of photos, but hope to make up this deficiency).

What have visitors, students and others done together?

Students in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford are all post-graduate. Some are on the Masters’ degree programme, some doing doctorates.

Their needs are varied. Much depends on the topic they are working on.

A Visitor who shows willing gets to share widely in the students’ life and work. He or she attends seminars and lectures, and to visit people in their colleges. In this way, a Visitor can become familiar with individual students and their projects — and then may be asked to help, or simply to discuss issues, as each student sees fit.

London is an hour-and-a-half away. They are also great sightseeing opportunities around Oxford.

 

What has been gained?

Over the years, Visitors have made a great contribution to the life and work of the University. They have found the Oxford experience offers them something, too.

That was always the intention. The scheme aims to help Oxford students, who gain intimate contact with insiders and so come to appreciate Bauddha traditions more fully — and it also aims to introduce scholars from the monastic educational system to the academic world, both intellectually and socially.

Visitors find kindred spirits among the Oxford students — people genuinely willing to live what they learn of Bauddha traditions. From these en­counters, Visitors have been able to explore how it may be possible to step onto the Path while at the same time enquiring critically into the social history of Buddhism. They have often come to appreciate, too, how even the most traditional monastic education today reflects much that has come out of academic Buddhist Studies.

 

The Future

       

           So far, the scheme has developed ad hoc. It is now time to see if we can set it on a firmer footing.

It will be good to spread word of what has been happening here in Oxford across the traditional monastic education system. Some will perhaps become interested. A collaboration may develop — networks may form, for instance in the Tibetan diaspora and in the UK, to sustain this project into the future. May it be so!

The intention is:

  • to offer the institutions, from which our Visitors come, a more clearly defined role in the operation of the scheme;
  • to build up a pool of possible Visitors;
  • to extend the scheme to support students from here travelling to Asia; and
  • to invite wider participation at the UK end, too.

As a first step, we have put together a basic website and have written to a range of Tibetan monastic learning institutions. We hope you will find this helpful.

How do you join in?

If you are interested, do write to tell us. Please write in English to tenzin.choephel@so-wide.org.

We will be happy to hear something of your insti­tution, its history and its development programme. How will participation in the Visitorship scheme contribute?

We shall send you a pro forma replay immediately. Then, if and when we have enough support, we shall aim to set up a zoom conference.

Get in touch

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