Report by Zack Beer, July 2019

The 15th IATS seminar in Paris July 2019 was a fun-filled weeklong reunion of several hundred scholars involved in studies of all things Tibetan, impeccably timed during a comfortable gap between two record-breaking French heatwaves. Housed at INALCO, in Paris’ 13th district just a few blocks from the Seine, the event created a vibrant forum for talks on topics ranging from art to education, and every aspect of Tibetan religion, past and modern.

Zack and colleagues outside the 15th IATS conference.

Aside from the lecture panels—and a special evening with the brilliant contemporary Tibetan film director Pema Tseden—many of us attending equally looked forward to the coffee breaks and shared meals around the event. This was where we could catch up with our friends and colleagues at distant universities and forge new friendships. It was an expansive event, with 10 different talks going on at any given time.

We did our best considering, and the hallways between the venues were filled with lecture-surfers hopping from one talk that piqued their interest to another. A memorable panel for me surveyed the topic of Tibetan songs of realization, including talks by Andrew Quintman, Carl Yamamoto, and Stefan Larsson. Andrew Quintman’s talk “Notes on the Performance and Programmatics of Mgur” introduced us to a genre of beautifully crafted texts that encode a uniquely Tibetan style of musical notation for chanting religious songs. It is a bit of a mystery how these manuscripts have been used over the centuries, and Prof. Quintman’s talk, like many of the best ones, opened up as many questions as it answered. One reason international conferences like this—which take years to organize—are so valuable is that they bring us out of our scholarly caves and expose us to new parts of the mind-blowingly rich Tibetan literary heritage.

I gave a talk on a panel on Mahāyoga in Tibet, a tradition that was in vogue in India during the late 8th century when Tibetans were making their first major foray into Buddhism. My paper, like several others on the panel, touched on the Nyingma School’s most important scripture, the Guhyagarbha Tantra. This text was the subject of a great deal of controversy, and it took the Nyingmapas several centuries to settle the case that their central text indeed originated in India and was not made up by themselves.

Zack presenting at the 15th IATS conference

I made the case in my talk that an important early commentary on the tantra, which was itself also controversial, may have been written much earlier than even many Tibetans believed. I had the pleasure of sharing my panel with my advisor from Berkeley, Jake Dalton, and Dorji Wangchuk from Hamburg, whom I admire but never met before. Another surprise gem on my panel was a talk by Deji Zhuoma, who presented on the history of Kālī worship in Tibet. She was one of several dozen Tibetan scholars working in China who delivered their talks at the conference entirely in Tibetan. While these talks shamed many of us who claim to study Tibetan but struggle understanding when someone speaks, it was inspiring to see the role the IATS organizers took on themselves in promoting a new generation of Tibetan scholars.