If the task of protecting and preserving all traditions of Buddhist study and practice for generations to come rested on your shoulders, what would you do? What methods would you use and in which areas would you invest your time, energy, and resources?
As one of its initial five prioritized projects, Khyentse Foundation has been investing in academic studies at universities around the world for over a decade. KF has now fostered working relationships with top institutions through a number of highly targeted grants and partnerships. KF Awards for Excellence are awarded to students at 10 universities, from the University of Pennsylvania to the University of Hong Kong to Sydney University, and a new dissertation award has just been announced. We are also supporting the next generation of translators through sponsorship programs in both Asia and Europe.
The most outstanding and ambitious undertaking to date has been the establishment of positions for professors of Buddhism at major universities in the United States, Europe, and Asia. When inaugurating the Khyentse Chair of Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley, Rinpoche said that with this advancement, he felt that he was building the equivalent to one hundred monasteries. KF’s support of the university was a turning point for the department, which has continued to flourish. According to UC Berkeley Professor Robert Sharf, “These endowments create stability in the transmission of knowledge across generations.”
However, according to KF advisor Professor Peter Skilling, “There is a crisis in academia, especially in the humanities.”
Professor Skilling is the foundation’s advisor on academic issues. Rinpoche introduced him at the Bodhgaya board of directors meeting in 2012 by saying, “For centuries, there are many who have worked hard, silently, quietly, without any decorations or titles, wholeheartedly, giving everything to the Buddhadharma. And it is because of them that the Buddhadharma has survived. Peter Skilling is one such man. This man has done amazing work in single-handedly collecting and preserving endangered Pali sutras.”
Professor Skilling is the founder and president of the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation; a professor with the French School of Asian Studies, based in Bangkok; an honorary associate of the Department of Indian Sub-Continental Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia; and special lecturer at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
After Rinpoche’s introduction, Professor Skilling gave a pointed talk about the state of academia today. “The academic environment is a realm of discourse, different than the realm of practice. There is a crisis in academia, especially in the humanities. Administrators do not value the humanities as they once did. These disciplines are seen as less relevant. This leads to an impoverishment of the humanities programs in universities. It is immensely important that there be opportunities for people to train in the academic methodologies for the study of Buddhism, the use of primary sources, the tools to do research. This is essential for preserving and making available the authentic teachings of the Buddha for the benefit of future generations.”
In response to the comment that academic study of Buddhism may only benefit a small number of people, Professor Skilling gave an example: Not everyone has to understand rocket science, but we need highly trained physicists and scientists who study and do research, so that the knowledge can be applied in practical ways that benefit humanity in the form of jet engines and airplanes.
Professor Skilling was the first to suggest that the foundation set up academic awards, visiting professorships, and lectureships. The benefit is mutual, he says. Students learn from the experts, and experts learn from students who bring new queries into ancient study. He stated that it is important to have this circulation of knowledge among students and teachers. There is an intangible aspect of intellectual exchange — for example, the value of sending someone to a conference.