“Residing in Asia reinforced knowledge, updated research, and developed teaching during health epidemics, political struggles, and religious reformations,” said Ivette Vargas-O’Bryan. In 2009-2011, Ivette began as a Fulbright recipient in Hong Kong, engaged in research and writing throughout Asia during her sabbatical, and taught at two Chinese universities. One is the only free-standing liberal arts college in Mainland China.
The two-year adventure began during the H1N1 epidemic in Hong Kong when the public wore masks and entrance signs in buildings reassured “sterilisation hourly,”—something Ivette saw as a perfect foreshadowing for her sabbatical work on the intersection of religion, illness, and medicine. About a week after arrival, Ivette presented at ICTAM VII: “International Congress on Traditional Asian Medicine,”an international Asian medicine conference in Thimphu, Bhutan, on the topic of klu (spirit) disease in Tibetan culture at a panel she co-organized with Dr. Alex McKay from New Zealand. She also had the opportunity to explore the corpus of Tibetan medical knowledge there.
As a Fulbrighter in 2009, Ivette’s time was very productive. She taught in the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong and was nominated as co-head (with Dr. Zhou Xun from HKU) of the “Health in Asia” research cluster for the newly established Centre for the Humanities and Medicine (CHM), a partnership between the University of Hong Kong and Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine. She also served as consultant and lecturer for the Fulbright General Education program, was interviewed on Radio Television Hong Kong in a program called The Morning Brew on her work on spirit demons, appeared in a couple of educational videos in Guangdong and Hong Kong, presented several lectures—including one at the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou, China, and organized conferences and symposia.
Fulbright also awarded Ivette a trip to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia, where she was hosted by the U.S. Embassy and the America Center for Mongolian Studies (thanks to former Austin College faculty member Charles Krusekopf) in order to familiarize herself to the archival treasures of Buddhist manuscripts and Buddhist reformation, as well as to discuss study abroad opportunities for Austin College.
“Ulan Bataar is a city of Russian architecture, traditional nomadic and shamanic cultures, and Tibetan Buddhism with an overlay of long-term Qing dynasty influences also evident in the architecture and the Khan’s palace. To witness the flourishing of Buddhism since democracy was reestablished there in the early 1990s was exciting. Never have I encountered a sacrifice being offered in a Buddhist temple with Mongolian practitioners intoxicated from drinking spiked mare’s milk (airaq) while chanting prayers,” Ivette said.
“This was a lifetime of work condensed into two years,” Ivette said, adding that the Austin College Richardson funds available for faculty during sabbatical work and appointments led to several opportunities. She was appointed as affiliate researcher at the Institut Français de Pondichéry in the Sociétés et Médecines Programme, part of the centre national de la recherche scientifique. This former French colony in Tamil-Nadu, India, has incredible 17th-century French architecture by the sea.
After flying back to Hong Kong to organize an international conference on religion, illness, and medicine at CHM, Ivette was asked to be scholar-in-residence at the Dharmacakra Academic Center in Patan, Nepal. While Maoist rebel groups shut down the country, Ivette updated previous work on an 11th-century leper nun, Nun Palmo, and the connection with Buddhist conceptions of illness and medicine through interviews, archival work, translations, participant observation in rituals, and stays in nunneries.
“I traced the mythical-historical traditions of Nun Palmo from India, Nepal, Tibet, China, and Bhutan to Mongolia. It was humbling to see leper caves where Nun Palmo sought refuge from her illness and bathed in the river below,” Ivette said.
Ivette and her husband stayed in historic Patan in Nepal (a center of her research for so many years) and walked the medieval streets past Buddhist and Hindu shrines and temples in continuous succession. “It was so exciting to be there and I would have stayed longer had there not been a national strike which might have closed the airport for an extended period. Once, we had to stay in the house for two weeks and stocked up on cans of food and water without a fridge. I just stayed in and wrote on the gelongma and all the research I had made to date,” she said. Ivette also expanded her second project on spirit illnesses; Tibetans have strong animistic beliefs and perform rituals connected with the environment.
Her work led her to Tibetan areas of Shangri-La (Gyalthang) and Lhasa, sometimes climbing high mountains to reach that special monastery known to house Nun Palmo’s image or where an old Rinpoche knew her story, and other times on horseback or walking among army vehicles, or viewing the recesses of the Dalai Lama chambers at the Potala Palace and retrieving texts inaccessible in the West.
Ivette noted, “I will never forget sitting in a nomadicTibetan structure above Gyalthang where Tibetans offered us some salty butter tea with fermented cheese, or when a Tibetan restaurant owner and patron of several temples told me about the careful way he had to remove the naga (snake-like) spirits in the form of stones from his yard in order to prevent illness.”
Tibetan physicians at the Mentsikhang (Tibetan Hospital and medical school) in Tibet and later in India also offered their assistance in the interpretation of medical terminology and ritual contexts. Ivette also was confronted with stark evidence of the commodification of Tibetan medicine throughout China and how this medicine is undergoing clinical trials and standardization. A return to Mongolia the second year led to further discoveries about her nun’s fasting ritual as a major aspect of religious reform in the country.
Ivette’s research finally culminated in discoveries in Dharamsala, India, the base of H.H. the Dalai Lama; the Tibetan government-in-exile maintains an excellent research library for specialists of Tibetan culture. She remembers fondly, “One morning ,the Dalai Lama’s cavalcade was driving through town and the next day an elephant was brought up to 7,000 feet elevation and paraded on a Hindu holy day.” She was even able to take part in a ritual for the removal of naga illness in a Rinpoche’s home; a clay effigy in a basin was believed to be the scapegoat.
A meeting with a Tibetan teacher whose efforts to reform renunciant women’s status in Tibetan Buddhism was directly linked with her nun’s tradition further reinforced her mission to update previous work on the subject. One thing became clear: sometimes waiting before embarking on a full-fledged book project is worthwhile. After many years of publishing articles, the time was ripe to renew her research.
Teaching at two Chinese educational institutions provided insights into Chinese-style liberal arts, outcome-based education, and internationalization initiatives. During the final year, Ivette taught Asian philosophy at a liberal arts college in Zhuhai called United International College, a part of a consortium between Hong Kong Baptist University and Beijing Normal University. Her experience and the previous one in Hong Kong gave her insights about the new Chinese-style liberal arts and general education initiatives and the growth toward internationalization. “My students in China hungered for knowledge about their own culture, but also wanted to learn about the traditions of India, Japan, and the U.S.,” Ivette said. Oddly, her mainland students at UIC had excelled further in English than her Hong Kong students had.
“It was touching to see students tearfully grateful for their learning experiences at the semesters’ end,” she said. Undertaking workshops on outcome-based education at Hong Kong Baptist University and applying the procedures in her syllabi exposed her to a structure of pedagogy and assessment in a rapidly expanding educational system.
As a result of this two-year period, Ivette now is publishing her first edited volume with Hong Kong University Press (along with Dr. Zhou Xun) based on work on religion and medicine in Hong Kong, and is completing two more book projects. Altogether during the two-year period, Ivette had seven publications and will have four forthcoming publications in books (two associated with Fulbright). She also was nominated by Fulbright to serve on the Fulbright Peer Review Committee for Religious Studies for a three-year term.
“This was the most productive time of my life and I am grateful for having had these opportunities. In retrospect,” Ivette notes, “all that we are is the result of what we have experienced. We are what we do.”
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