Deane Curtin: Joining Research and Teaching in Service to the Tibetan Community

Posted on December 6th, 2012 by

Professor Deane Curtin (right) receives a gift from former Prime Minister Professor Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche.

During his 34-year teaching career at Gustavus Adolphus College, Professor of Philosophy Deane Curtin has compiled an impressive resume. He has served as the Hanson-Peterson Professor of Liberal Studies, the Raymond and Florence Sponberg Chair of Ethics, and as Chair of the Department of Philosophy. He has been a visiting professor at the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, King’s College, Cambridge University, The Centre for Research on a New International Economic Order in Chennai, India, and at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan. Twenty-five years ago, Curtin helped design the Semester in India program, which Gustavus continues to offer each fall semester. He has led dozens of students on study abroad trips to Japan, India, Spain, Italy, and Morocco and has written two books including Environmental Ethics for a Postcolonial World and Chinnagounder’s Challenge.

While Curtin’s influence can certainly be seen all over the Gustavus campus and beyond, his current project while on sabbatical will undoubtedly be his greatest contribution to society to date. Thanks to a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship and a sabbatical from Gustavus, Curtin is currently stationed in Dharamshala, India and is collaborating with Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Geshe Lhakdor, at the request of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

“Two years ago I was beginning work on a book dealing with cross-cultural ethics and hoped to spend part of a sabbatical talking with experts on Buddhist philosophy,” Curtin explained. “I approached Geshe Lhakdor and asked whether, in return for access to leading Buddhist philosophers, I could also contribute something to the Tibetan community while there. He responded that the Dalai Lama had just asked him to see that Western philosophy is translated into Tibetan and asked me to collaborate with him.”

The History

Since China invaded Tibet in 1950, more than one million Tibetans have died from starvation, execution, and the effects of the Cultural Revolution. Six thousand Buddhist monasteries were destroyed; the Tibetan language is prohibited in Tibetan schools. Those caught possessing even a photo of the Dalai Lama—the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists—are subjected to lengthy prison sentences. Due to incentives for the Chinese to immigrate into Tibet, Tibetans are now a minority in their own homeland.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

“It’s hard to experience the Tibetan community and not want to do something to help,” Curtin said. “For example, last year my students and I met with a family in the Tibetan refugee camp outside of Dharamshala. We heard the story of how the father had literally carried each of his three children separately from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, to freedom in Nepal. He then went back a final time to guide his wife to freedom. Each trip took six weeks of constant walking over the high Himalayas, walking at night to avoid the Chinese military.”

Out of concern for the future of Tibetan culture, the Dalai Lama founded the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) soon after he arrived in India in 1959. The purpose of LTWA is to collect Tibetan written and oral culture and make it available to the world through translations. While stressing the importance of preserving their cultural heritage, the Dalai Lama also encourages Tibetans to be fully involved in the contemporary world. Recently, therefore, he has sponsored two initiatives designed to make Western culture available to Tibetans in their own language.

The first initiative involves collaboration with Emory University, whose science faculty works with LTWA translators to produce Tibetan language science textbooks. The second initiative, which Curtin and Geshe Lhakdor are coordinating, began two years ago when the Dalai Lama requested the translation of the core texts of Western philosophy into Tibetan.

“In addition to facilitating a dialogue between Tibetan Buddhism and Western philosophy, the Dalai Lama also points out that such translations reinvigorate the Tibetan language as new terms and concepts are invented for Western concepts,” Curtin said. “His Holiness strongly encourages young Tibetans to be ‘21st Century Buddhists’ who both value their own traditions, and also see themselves as part of contemporary global culture.”

The Project

Nine translators at the LTWA have volunteered to be part of the translation project. Curtin says that each translator can typically translate two pages of text a day. The Tibetan Library is part of a complex that includes the Central Tibetan Administration­—the government of the Tibetan people in exile. It is half way down the mountain from the small village of McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lives, and up from the city of Dharamshala.

“From Geshe Lhakdor’s office there is a majestic view of the Himalayas looking one direction, and down to the Kangra Valley looking the other direction,” Curtin said.

Curtin at the opening ceremony for the translation project.

Curtin and Geshe Lhakdor have chosen three texts to inaugurate the program: Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Curtin said that these texts were strategically chosen because they honor His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, they are core texts in the Western philosophical tradition, and they also have contemporary relevance to Tibetans as they struggle with political repression.

For example, Plato’s dialogues depict Plato’s teacher, Socrates, as an Athenian jury tries him for impiety. Socrates was unjustly convicted and sentenced to death, but when given a chance to escape he refused and argued, “The good person’s soul cannot be harmed by evil.” The Dalai Lama is often compared to Socrates for his defense of moral integrity in the face of injustice.

The translation of Plato’s dialogues is complete. Curtin, Geshe Lhakdor, and the team of translators are currently working on translating the texts by John Stuart Mill and Martin Luther King. “Mill’s text is one of the greatest defenses of the individual’s freedom of speech and action in Western culture,” Curtin said. “Dr. King’s letter provocatively defends nonviolence after he was jailed for protesting racist violence in Birmingham, Alabama.” Dr. King and His Holiness each were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Curtin says that as the translators become familiar with the material, they will collaborate on future choices.

In addition to the translation project, Curtin is also working with B. Tsering, President of the Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education in Bangalore, to design a core ethics curriculum around the Dalai Lama’s recent book Beyond Religion.

“His Holiness argues that there is an ethic of compassion that is common to all religious and moral perspectives,” Curtin said. “A new five-month course will begin with this text, and then consider how it applies to contemporary moral issues, such as the environment, gender, and the relationships between contemporary science and ethics.”

The Institute was founded by His Holiness’ younger sister, Madame Jetsun Pema. It offers advanced study of both the Tibetan and Chinese languages to encourage dialogue between the two cultures.

The Impact

College professors typically use sabbaticals to complete a large research project, write a book, or to develop new teaching interests. The direction Curtin has chosen for his sabbatical is especially noteworthy because of the large contribution to the Tibetan community and society as a whole that will result from the translation and core curriculum projects.

“What I’m doing is typical of my department’s commitment to public philosophy,” Curtin said. “We believe that our teaching, research, and service to the community should be connected, and serve the good of the community.”

Curtin says that when he returns to the United States, he hopes to share his experiences with the Gustavus community and beyond.

Curtin, Gustavus students, and Geshe Lhakdor during a previous study abroad trip.

“I teach a regular semester course titled “Buddhist Philosophy,” so I look forward to sharing my personal experiences of His Holiness, and my deeper understandings of Tibetan philosophy,” Curtin said. “I also hope there will be the opportunity to share these experiences with the broader community.”

Curtin’s faculty colleagues at Gustavus say that his project is one of the more unique and valuable undertakings they have seen.

“Many people have now heard of the Mind and Life Institute, which sponsors the Mind and Life Dialogues, bringing together scientists, philosophers, and contemplatives to explore the nature of human consciousness. These world-renowned conversations began as small gatherings, hosted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in an effort to bring Tibetan and Western thought into conversation,” Professor of Philosophy Lisa Heldke said. “I think it is entirely conceivable that the work Deane is commencing during his sabbatical is laying the foundation for equally-momentous dialogues, in which philosophy lies at the center.”

“Deane is doing something that has never been done, and that is to facilitate the translations of the canonical texts of Western philosophy into Tibetan. This project creates numerous opportunities for scholars from each tradition to be involved in innovative and productive dialogue with one another,” Professor of Philosophy Peg O’Connor said. “Philosophy has been understood as a dialogue since the time of Socrates. Now many more people can be included in that dialogue. There is no other philosophical project that has this scope – its ramifications are significant for both eastern and western philosophical traditions.”

For Curtin, his yearlong sabbatical will undoubtedly end up being one of the most rewarding experiences of his professional career.

“I feel very fortunate to be able to contribute to a project requested by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama,” Curtin said. “It’s a project that allows me to pursue scholarly interests by engaging in regular conversations with leading Buddhist scholars, but it also allows me to contribute, in a very small way, to the future of Tibetan culture in exile.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


One Comment

  1. Eric Dugdale says:

    This is what Socrates meant when (according to Plutarch) he insisted that one should not identify oneself as an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the cosmos. What a wonderful example of ideas shared across space and time. And thanks to Matt Thomas for another great piece on an academic story connecting to the Gustavus community.