Mission StatementHomage to the Lady of Speech This supreme intellect Sarasvati Illuminator of Speech; May you adorn my throat With words to clarify the world.
An ocean bears her, leading followers To the supreme path Of sacred diligence and reflection Upon the auspicious puranas.
The expanse of her intelligence is a sky free of stars. This is no place for a ladder leading to the shining sun.
Gendun Choepel དགེ་འདུན་ཆོས་འཕེལ (1903–1951), from his collection “Teachings of a Master without Disciples,” translated by Donald Jr. Lopez, In the Forest of Faded Wisdom, University of Chicago Press, 2009
On October 19, 1950, the Tibetan and Chinese armies, by the order of Mao Zedong, the founder and then president of the People’s Republic of China, clashed at Chamdo, a city in the western Tibet. Tibetans were decisively defeated, and since then, the systematic political, social, and economic sinification of the former Tibetan kingdom has resulted into, among other things, uprisings, the Dalai Lama’s escape from Lhasa in 1959, and the ongoing diaspora of more than 140,000 Tibetans. Families and individuals have been fleeing since 1959 what has now become the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other People of China’s provinces to neighboring countries, such as India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and more recently to the Western countries (the Tibetan Government-in-Exile: http://www.tibet.net/en/index.php?id=7&rmenuid=8). These days about 8,500 diasporic Tibetans live in the USA. One such community is housed in the Pioneer Valley, where about two hundred Tibetans have made their home since the early 1990s, when Amherst was selected as one of Tibet US Resettlement areas. Just like other such small settlements in Boston, Portland, Calgary, and Vancouver, the Pioneer Valley Tibetan community has thrived in its new home, while also trying to sustain its culture, language, and social and religious legacy for the Tibetans in the diaspora as well as for the North Americans living in this area.
I have come to realize, however, through my active involvement with non-profit local organizations such as the International Shang Shung Institute for Tibetan Studies during the past eight years, that this potential wonderful repository of knowledge of personal, national, and transnational Tibetan history, is often invisible and underexplored by Pioneer Valley residents, in the Five College academic as well as non-academic communities. While many of us are aware of the friendly Tibetan employees at Whole Foods in Hadley, and on occasion remember seeing the yaks that are featured in the yearly Tibetan craft fair held in the Amherst Commons, it is undeniable that we can do much more, as teachers andstudents, to enrich the work that Professor Jay Garfield of the Religion Department at Smith College and Professor Sue Darlington at Hampshire College are doing through the courses they regularly offer on various aspects of traditional Tibetan culture.
Many encouraging and stimulating conversations with students, colleagues such as Professor Garfield, and local Tibetan professionals and teachers, have thus led me to the decision to teach the community-based course Beyond Shangri-La in Spring 2012. I believed it was high time for all of us asscholars, teachers, students, and residents of the Pioneer Valley, to try and integrate academic knowledge of Tibetan culture, religion, and philosophy, with that of the Tibetan people residing in the valley, to encourage Five College students to engage in community-based scholarship. By focusing on the academic angles that help understand, explain, and frame the lives and history of the Pioneer valley Tibetan diaspora, this class’ goal was to interview and record the biographical narratives of the Tibetans who live in the area, either asshort and long term residents, to allow those life-stories to be preserved for future generations of Tibetans, Tibetan Americans, and North American students, teachers, and residents.
The pioneering database that you see here today showcases the oral histories and narratives of Tibetans in the Pioneer Valley with the aim of benefiting the community at all sorts of levels: first of all, many students, through the different iterations of the class, will take an active and personal role in the fight against the loss of identity and voice of the local Tibetan residents. Furthermore, this website will bring these voices, stories, and experiences to the local scholarly and non-scholarly community. Last but not least, and perhaps most importantly, such a website wants to serve as a veritable virtual community for the Tibetans whose life histories will be recorded there, as well as for those Tibetans who reside elsewhere in the USA or even in the West and non-West. Our hope is that this website will become a space of remembrance and shared recollections, learning and conversations that will continue on well beyond the end of thecourse (which I plan to offer on a regular basis). In this sense, Beyond Shangri-la can become a live site of preservation and transmission of past and present narratives, dreams, aspirations, for the future of all Tibetans in exile, as well as for all of us who dwell in North America and who stand to gain so much from learning about this very wonderful, complex, and fragile cultural universe that is “Tibet.”
Paola Zamperini, Amherst College, October 2012