Himalayan Passages - Introduction

Tibetan and Newar Studies in Honor of Hubert Decleer

“The best new scholarship on the Himalayas.”
—Kurtis R. Schaeffer, chair, Religious Studies Department, University of Virginia



384 pages, 6x9 inches


ISBN 9781614290735

Add to Cart »


eBook Bundle (PDF, epub, mobi)


ISBN 9781614290926

Add to Cart »

This publication recognizes and celebrates the contributions of Hubert Decleer to the study of Tibet and the Himalaya. Hubert’s work is expansive, covering the religious, literary, and cultural histories of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and India. Perhaps more importantly, for nearly twenty-five years he has directed and advised the School for International Training’s program for Tibetan Studies, an undergraduate studyabroad program that has served as a starting point for many young scholars working in the field today. Hubert has maintained close relationships with many of the field’s senior voices while actively supporting its new generation of researchers. And in this way, his activities as both scholar and mentor have had a lasting impact on the study of Tibet and its neighboring regions.

Hubert François Kamiel Decleer was born on August 22, 1940, in Ostend, Belgium. In 1946, he spent nine months in Switzerland with a group of sixty children whose parents served in the Résistance. He completed his Latin-Greek Humaniora at the Royal Atheneum in Ostend in 1958, when he was awarded the Jacques Kets National Prize for biology by the Royal Zoo Society of Antwerp. He developed a keen interest in the arts, and during this period he also held his first exhibition of oil paintings and gouaches. In 1959 he finished his B.A. in History and Dutch Literature at the Regent School in Ghent. Between 1960 and 1963 he taught Dutch and History at the Hotel and Technical School in Ostend, punctuated by a period of military service near Köln, Germany, in 1961–62. The highlight of his military career was the founding of a musical group (for which he played drums) that entertained officers’ balls with covers of Ray Charles and other hits of the day.

In 1963 Hubert made the first of his many trips to Asia, hitchhiking for thirteen months from Europe to India and through to Ceylon. Returning to Belgium in 1964, he then worked at the artists’ café La Chèvre Folle in Ostend, where he organized fortnightly exhibitions and occasional cultural events. For the following few years he worked fall and winter for a Belgian travel agency in Manchester and Liverpool, England, while spending summers as a tour guide in Italy, Central Europe, and Turkey. In 1967 he began working as a guide, lecturer, and interpreter for Penn Overland Tours, based in Hereford, England. In these roles he accompanied groups of British, American, Australian, and New Zealand tourists on luxury overland trips from London to Bombay, and later London to Calcutta—excursions that took two and a half months to complete. He made twenty-six overland journeys in the course of fourteen years, during which time he also organized and introduced local musical concerts in Turkey, Pakistan, India, and later Nepal. He likewise accompanied two month-long trips through Iran with specialized international groups as well as a number of overland trips through the USSR and Central Europe. In between his travels, Hubert wrote and presented radio scenarios for Belgian Radio and Television (including work on a prize-winning documentary on Nepal) and for the cultural program Woord.

With the birth of his daughter in 1972, Hubert’s travels paused for several years as he took a position tutoring at the Royal Atheneum in Ostend. He also worked as an art critic with a coastal weekly and lectured with concert tours of Nepalese classical musicians, cārya dancers, and the musicologist and performer Michel Dumont.

In 1975, during extended layovers between India journeys, Hubert began a two-year period of training in Buddhist Chinese at the University of Louvain with pioneering Indologist and scholar of Buddhist Studies Étienne Lamotte. He also worked as a bronze-caster apprentice and assistant to sculptor—and student of Lamotte—Roland Monteyne. He then resumed his overland journeying full time, leading trips from London to Kathmandu. These included annual three-month layovers in Nepal, where he began studying Tibetan and Sanskrit with local tutors. He was a participant in the first conference of the Seminar of Young Tibetologists held in Zürich in 1977. In 1980 he settled permanently in Kathmandu, where he continued his private studies for seven years. During this period he also taught French at the Alliance Française and briefly served as secretary to the Consul at the French Embassy in Kathmandu.

It was during the mid-1980s that Hubert began teaching American college students as a lecturer and fieldwork consultant for the Nepal Studies program of the School for International Training (then known as the Experiment in International Living) based in Kathmandu. In 1987 he was tasked with organizing SIT’s inaugural Tibetan Studies program, which ran in the fall of that year. Hubert served as the program’s academic director, a position he would hold for more than a decade. Under his direction, the Tibetan Studies program famously became SIT’s most nomadic college semester abroad, regularly traveling through India, Nepal, Bhutan, as well as western, central, and eastern Tibet. It was also during this period that Hubert produced some of his most memorable writings in the form of academic primers, assignments, and examinations (about which see below). Three contributors to this volume (Bogin, Mansingh Heimsath, and Quintman) worked alongside Hubert at various times as the program’s codirector. In 1999 Hubert stepped down as academic director to become the program’s senior faculty advisor, a position he continues to hold.

Hubert has taught and lectured across Europe and the United States; his positions have included visiting lecturer at Middlebury College and Numata visiting faculty member at the University of Vienna.

Informal Publications

A bibliography of Hubert’s publications appears below. His writing covers broad swaths of geographical and historical territory, although he has paid particular attention to the relationships between Tibetan and Newar Buddhism as well as religious traditions in the Kathmandu Valley more broadly. One of his preferred mediums is the long-form book review, which are far more than simple considerations of the text at hand but rather extended commentaries that contribute original research and translation. The fact that many of Hubert’s publications have appeared in relatively obscure journals from India and Nepal reflects his utter disregard for advancing his own career or reputation. The work has been a ceaseless labor of love, fragments of which appear intermittently through the requests of editors and Hubert’s commitment to supporting the endeavors of Tibetan, Nepali, and Indian scholars as well as the work of his students and colleagues. Within the fields of Tibetan, Newar, and Himalayan Studies, these hard-to-find articles have been eagerly collected and shared through photocopies and now digital scans and are widely regarded as essential contributions. Plans for a collected volume of Hubert’s writing are underway, but in the meantime, we hope the attached bibliography will make the work accessible to a wider readership.

In addition to Hubert’s printed work, some of his most endearing and enduring writing has appeared informally, in the guise of photocopied packets intended for his students. Each new semester of the SIT Tibetan Studies program would traditionally begin with what is technically called “The Academic Director’s Introduction and Welcome Letter.” These documents would be mailed out to students several weeks prior to the program, and for most other programs they were intended to inform incoming participants of the basic travel itinerary, required readings, and how many pairs of socks to pack. The Tibetan Studies welcome letter began humbly enough, consisting of a one-page handwritten note, impeccably penned in Hubert’s unmistakable hand.

Hubert’s welcome letters evolved over the years, and they eventually morphed into collections of three or four original essays covering all manner of subjects related to Tibetan Studies, initial hints at how to approach cultural field studies, original research, and experiential education, as well as anecdotes from the previous semester illustrating major triumphs and minor disasters. The welcome letters became increasingly elaborate and in later years came to include titles, autonomous chapters, tables of contents, bibliographies, and of course many illustrations. They regularly reached fifty pages in length or more. The welcome letter for fall 1991, for example, included chapters titled “Scholarly Fever” and “The Field and the Armchair, and not ‘Stage-Struck’ in either.” By spring 1997, the welcome letter included original pieces of scholarship and translation, with a chapter on “The Case of the Royal Testaments” that presented innovative readings of the Maṇi bka’ ’bum. Only one element was missing from the welcome letter, a lacuna corrected in that same text of spring 1997, as noted by its title: Tibetan Studies Tales: An Academic Director’s Welcome Letter—With Many Footnotes.

Of course, much of this content proved difficult for the nineteen- or twenty-year-old American student who had never been to Asia and never seen the Tibetan script. Their real value often only became clear later on. The letters themselves seemed to acknowledge this. Fall 1996 came with the following warning:

A few good reasons why you should read this now: This Welcome Letter, much as it may appear as mere rambling about various, semi-foreign topics (with surprisingly little about what you probably see as your sole immediate concern, the Practical Hints socalled in the last chapter), in fact deals with the kind of stuff that requires the more difficult preparation. What is it really about? What have you let yourself in for? The SIT catalogue cannot offer you much more than a bare outline, a sketchy indication of the parameters in between which it all happens. We’re talking experiential philosophy, without buzzwords.

With flashbacks from previous semesters, this letter, in between the lines, further functions as a first treatise on methods and techniques of field study, with elements of demonstration, and proof. It will require some time before you can even conceive of the mood in which we operate. Better start with this realistic introduction, even if much in it will only acquire full meaning much later on.

From the beginning, Hubert was adamant that even college students on a study-abroad program could undertake original and creative research, either for assignments in Dharamsala, in Kathmandu or the hilly regions of Nepal, or during independent-study projects themselves, which became the capstone of the semester. Expectations were high, sometimes seemingly impossibly high, but with just the right amount of background information and encouragement, the results were more often triumphs than disasters.

And Hubert would regularly spend the months between semesters, or during the summer, producing another kind of SIT literature: the “assignment text.” These nearly always included extensive original translations of Tibetan materials and often extended background essays as well. They would usually end with a series of questions that would serve as the basis for a team research project. For fall 1994 there was “Cultural Neo-Colonialism in the Himalayas: The Politics of Enforced Religious Conversion”; later there was the assignment on the famous translator Rwa Lotsāwa called “The Melodious Drumsound All-Pervading: The Life and Complete Liberation of Majestic Lord Rwa Lotsāwa, the Yogin-Translator of Rwa, Mighty Lord in Magic Intervention.” There were extended translations of traditional pilgrimage guides for the Kathmandu Valley, including texts by the Fourth Khamtrul and the Sixth Zhamar hierarchs, for assignments where teams of students would race around the valley rim looking for an elusive footprint in stone or a guesthouse long in ruins that marked the turnoff of an old pilgrim’s trail.

One semester there was a project titled “The Mystery of the IV Brother Images, ’Phags pa mched bzhi” focused on the famous set of statues in Tibet and Nepal and based on new Tibetan materials that had only just come to light. Another examined the “The Tibetan World ‘Translated’ in Western Comics.” Finally, there was a classic of the genre that examined the creative nonconformity of the Bhutanese mad yogin Drugpa Kunleg in light of the American iconoclast Frank Zappa: “A Dose of Drugpa Kunleg for the post—1984 Era: Prolegomena to a Review Article of the Real Frank Zappa Book.”

For those of us who were students on the programs, these topics and sources remained with us. Hubert included the following thought in his piece on Zappa: “If there’s one thing I do admire in FZ, it is precisely these ‘highest standards’ and utmost professional thoroughness that does not allow for any sloppiness (in the name of artistic freedom or spontaneous freedom). . . .At the same time, each concert is really different, [and] . . . appears as a completely spontaneous event.” Hubert’s writing and teaching are consummate illustrations of this highest ideal.

Contributions to the Volume

The contributions to this volume are divided into four broad categories: Places and Pilgrimage, Texts and Manuscripts, Ritual and Visual Traditions, and Histories and Transmissions.

The section on Places and Pilgrimage begins with Franz-Karl Ehrhard’s “Lowo Khenchen (1456–1532) and the Buddhist Pilgrimage to the Ārya Wati Zangpo.” This work presents several early pilgrimage guidebooks to the acclaimed site of the Kyirong Jowo statue in southern Tibet. Lowo Khenchen was actively engaged in the production of literature dedicated to the famous Ārya Wati Zangpo temple. These texts provide new insights into the history of religious activity in the Kyirong Valley as well as the narrative construction of its most sacred sites.

Alexander von Rospatt’s “The Mural Paintings of the Svayambhūpurāṇa at the Shrine of Śāntipur, and Their Origins with Pratāpa Malla” provides an initial appraisal of the seventeenth-century narrative paintings at the Svayambhū mahācaitya in Kathmandu. These murals closely follow episodes from the Svayambhūpurāṇa, a text that has profoundly influenced the history and practice of Newar Buddhists in Nepal.

Andrew Quintman’s “Redacting Sacred Landscape in Nepal: The Vicissitudes of Yolmo’s Tiger Cave Lion Fortress” considers the process of literary redaction as a means for creating new forms of sacred geography. Focusing on one of Milarepa’s best-known retreat places in Nepal, the study underscores the composite nature of many Himalayan sites while illustrating the close relationship between literary production and the formation of sacred space.

In “When Vehicles Collide: A Tibetan in Sri Lanka, 1941,” Donald S. Lopez Jr. describes the meeting of two distinct Buddhist cultures—Tibetan and Sri Lankan—by drawing upon the extended travel journal of Gendun Chopel, Tibet’s first modernist. In doing so, Lopez highlights the competition between cultural and religious identity, as well as the problems of Buddhist self-imagination, and the recognition, and misrecognition, of the Buddhist other.

The section Texts and Manuscripts begins with Leonard van der Kuijp’s “Some Text-Historical Issues with the Bodhicittavivaraṇa by a Nāgārjuna and the Tibetan Commentarial Literature.” He offers a careful examination its transmission.

Ernst Steinkellner’s brief study “Lha luṅ dPal rdor’s ‘Soul Stone’ at Yer pa—in Full View” presents a series of early Tibetan inscriptions carved in a stone base discovered in the Central-Tibetan hermitage at Drak Yerpa associated with the monk Lhalung Palkyi Dorjé. The illustrations and transcribed inscriptions document a rare set of materials from Tibet’s imperial past and augment previous studies of the tablet.

Jacob Dalton’s “Preliminary Remarks on a Newly Discovered Biography of Nupchen Sangyé Yeshé” presents a reassessment of the acclaimed early tenth-century master’s place in Tibetan history and historiography. Based on his reading of a newly published source purporting to be Nupchen’s autobiography, but perhaps produced between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, Dalton argues that this figure’s life story was largely concerned with the legitimation of extracanonical works on ritual practice.

In “The Excellent Path of Devotion: An Annotated Translation of Sera Khandro’s Short Autobiography,” Sarah Jacoby introduces and translates a brief but poetic memoir of Tibet’s most acclaimed female Buddhist teacher of the early twentieth century. Sera Khandro was a highly prolific author, although her writings remain in obscurity. Jacoby’s essay highlights the importance Sera Khandro herself placed on the recording of her inner visionary experiences as an expression of her religious life.

The Ritual and Visual Traditions section begins with Iain Sinclair’s “Envisioning Durjayacandra’s Saptākṣarasādhana: On the Sources and Sponsors of a Twelfth-Century Painting of Seven-Syllabled Saṃvara.” Sinclair describes the relationship between a set of tantric manuals and the iconography of a painted mandala executed in the Newar Buddhist tradition. Sinclair argues that the noncelibate conduct implied in the textual sources is represented visually through the depiction of the painting’s donors in the form of a married couple. He also includes new Sanskrit and Tibetan editions of the text together with an annotated translation.

Anne Vergati’s “Representing Mahācaitya Svayaṃbhu in Painting” examines an extraordinary illustrated record of the Kathmandu Valley’s most important Newar Buddhist monument. Vergati demonstrates that the painting, dated to the second half of the seventeenth century, documents the site’s architecture and surroundings in exacting and luxurious detail. More importantly, she describes how this representation also records a consecration ceremony sponsored by King Pratāpa Malla and conducted during the installation of the large gilded vajra in 1668.

In his essay “Gods and Superheroes: Some Thoughts on Contemporary Tibetan Art,” Kabir Mansingh Heimsath examines the debut of contemporary Tibetan art in the global context of two international exhibitions. He questions the process of international acceptance, arguing that it has long hinged on the paradox of requiring a link to Tibetan Buddhist tradition on the one hand while also demonstrating individuation and originality on the other. In doing so, he rethinks the ways in which Tibetan art has traditionally been viewed, exhibited, and interpreted.

The Histories and Transmissions section begins with Punya Prasad Parajuli’s “Vanaratna and His Activities in Fifteenth-Century Nepal,” which examines the life of Vanaratna—acclaimed as the so-called “last paṇḍita”—and his legacy in Nepal. Parajuli reviews the extant literature on Vanaratna’s travels in Tibet but draws largely upon previously unstudied Tibetan sources to describe the master’s activities in the Kathmandu Valley.

In her essay “Epistles of Interdependence: Preliminary Reflections on the Fifth Dalai Lama’s Letters to Terdak Lingpa,” Dominique Townsend reads the written correspondence between two of Tibet’s most influential early modern figures illuminating a set of “interdependent relationships.” Her analysis of the letters offers a new perspective on each of these authors as well as the complex relationship between them. Townsend demonstrates that epistolary writing deserves far greater attention as the primary genre through which interpersonal connections are forged, understood, and represented.

Benjamin Bogin’s “The Red and Yellow War: Dispatches from the Field” offers a panoramic view of allegiance, political power, and prophecy in early seventeenth-century Tibet as seen through the eyes of an important witness: the acclaimed treasure revealer and third Yolmo Tulku Tenzin Norbu. Bogin argues that details of the Yolmo Tulku’s political life—including his relationships with the rulers of Tsang and the Fifth Dalai Lama—help complicate received narratives about this period in Tibetan history by illustrating how institutional lines of lineage and allegiance are frequently blurred.


1978. “The Working of Sādhana: Vajrabhairava.” In Tibetan Studies: Presented at the Seminar of Young Tibetologists, June 26–July 1, 1977, edited by Martin Brauen and Per Kvaerne, 113–23. Zürich: Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich.

1992. “The Melodious Drumsound All-Pervading, Sacred Biography of Rwa-Lotsāwa: About Early Lotsāwa rnam thar and chos byung.” In Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 5th IATS Seminar, edited by Shoren Ihara and Yamaguchi Zuiho, 13–28. Narita: Naritasan Shinshoji.

1994–95. “Bajracharya Transmission in XIth Century Chobar: Bharo ‘Maimed Hand’s Main Disciple Vajra-kirti, the Translator from Rwa.” Buddhist Himalaya: Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods 6 (1–2): 1–17.

1995. “Atiśa’s Journey to Sumatra.” In Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 532–40. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

1995. “The Sacred Biography of Bharo ‘Maimed Hand,’ a Tenth-Century Bajracharya from Patan.” In Oku Bahal Commemorative Volume, edited by Ratna Jyoti, 95–104. Lalitpur: 2538th Buddha Jayanti Organising Committee.

1995. “An Awkward Guide to Enlightenment.” In The Tibetan Review [New Delhi] 30 (11): 16–17. [Pseudonymous review of T. D. Bhutia’s Beyond Eternity to Mysticism.]

1996. “Master Atiśa in Nepal: The Tham Bahīl and Five Stūpas’ Foundations According to the ’Brom ston Ininerary.” Journal of the Nepal Research Center 10: 27–54.

1996. “Tibetan ‘Musical Offerings’ (Mchod-rol): The Indispensable Guide.” Review of Mchod-rol. Les instruments de la musique tibétaine by Mireille Helffer. Studies in Central and East Asian Religions—Journal of The Seminar for Buddhist Studies 9: 75–88.

1997. “Atisha’s Arrival in Nepal.” Buddhist Himalaya: Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods 8 (1–2): 1–15.

1997. “Atiśa’s Journey in Tibet.” In Religions of Tibet in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 157–77. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

1997. “The Monk and the Philosopher: Buddhism Today.” Review of Le moine et le philosophe – le bouddhisme aujourd’hui by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard. The Tibet Journal 32 (4): 100–112.

1997. With Benjamin Bogin. “Who Was ‘This Evil Friend’ (‘the Dog,’ ‘the Fool,’ ‘the Tyrant’) in Gedun Chophel’s Sad Song?” The Tibet Journal 22 (3): 67–78.

1997. “A Thousand Years of Tholing.” Review of Commemorative Volume of 1000 Years of the Tholing Temple, Containing a Number of Documents Significant to the History and Culture of Ngari, West Tibet, edited by Tashi Tsering and Lobsang Shastri. The Tibetan Review 32 (8): 22–24 [part 1]; The Tibet Review 32 (9): 22–24 [part 2].

1998. “Death of the Translator Virya Siṃha.” Buddhist Himalaya: Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods 9 (1–2): 1–19.

1998. Review of Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, Essays in Honor of Geshe Lhundup Sopa edited by José Cabezón and Roger Jackson. The Tibet Journal 23 (1): 67–106.

1998. “The Vajra Bhairava Tantras.” Review of The Vajrabhairava Tantras, Tibetan and Mongolian Versions, English Translation and Annotations by Bulcsu Siklós. Indo-Iranian Journal 41: 290–301.

1999. Review of Sudhana’s Miraculous Journey in the Temple of Ta pho: The Inscriptional Text of the Tibetan Gaṇḍavyūhasūtra by Ernst Steinkellner. The Tibet Journal 24 (2): 75–83.

1999. With Kabir Mansingh Heimsath. Review of Mandala and Landscape edited by A. W. Macdonald. The Tibet Journal 24 (1): 101–30.

1999. “Two Topics of the Svayaṃbhū Purāṇa: Who was Dharma-śrī-mitra? Who was Śāntikara cārya?” Paper presented at a conference on the Buddhist Heritage of Nepal Mandal, Kathmandu. Published in Newari in Nepalmandalaya bauddha samskrti sammelana 1199: Chagu prativedana, edited by Vajraraja Sakya, 65–90. Patan, Nepal: Lotus Research Centre. English version at http://www.lrcnepal.org/cbhnm2/hubert.pdf.

2000. “The Caityas of the Kathmandu Valley: The Grand Art-Historical Inquiry.” Review of The Nepalese Caitya: 1500 Years of Buddhist Votive Architecture in the Kathmandu Valley by Niels Gutschow. Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods 10 (1–2): 32–65.

2000. “Si tu Paṇ chen’s Translation of the Svayambhū Purāṇa and his Role in the Development of the Kathmandu Valley Pilgrimage Guide (gnas yig) Literature.” Lungta 13: 33–64.

2003. “Ajanta the Ancestor.” Review of Ajanta: Handbuch der Malereien by Dieter Schlingloff. The Tibet Journal 28 (1–2): 173–200.

2004. “Another Newar Link with Surata-Bajra and White Crystal Cave? Zhigpo Lingpa’s Meditation Scenario on the Five Ārya Brother Images.” In The Great Compassion [Kathmandu] 1: 53–58.

2005. Review of Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet by Steven M. Kossak and Jane Casey Singer. The Tibet Journal 30 (1): 73–114.

2006. “The Sacred Ārya Wati Image and Temple in Kyirong: Franz-Karl Ehrhard’s Magisterial Magnum Opus.” Review of Die Statue und der Tempel des Ārya Va-ti Bzang-po: Ein Beitrag zu Geschichte und Geographie des Tibetischen Buddhismus by Franz-Karl Ehrhard. The Tibet Journal 49 (3): 77–116.

2006. “Marpa the Translator.” In Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 5715–16. New York: Macmillan Reference.

2011. “The Tibetan Name of Svayambhu, ’Phags pa shing kun (‘Sacred All Trees’): What Does It Really Mean?” In Light of the Valley: Renewing the Sacred Art and Traditions of Svayambhu edited by Tsering Palmo Gellek and Padma Dorje Maitland, 241–72. Cazadero, CA: Dharma Publishing.


How to cite this document:
© Benjamin Bogin and Andrew Quintman, Himalayan Passages (Wisdom Publications, 2014)

Creative Commons License
This selection from Himalayan Passages edited by Benjamin Bogin and Andrew Quintman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/himalayan-passages.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.wisdompubs.org/terms-use.