High in the mountains of the Himalaya, students explore Buddhism and environmental issues thanks to support from The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies.
Family trips to British Columbia and California didn’t quite prepare Pavitra Giritharan for the grueling eight-day trek through the Himalaya that was part of her undergraduate summer research course on Buddhism.
The course, taught by Frances Garrett, a professor in the Department for the Study of Religion, and history lecturer Matthew Price, took four students to the Sikkim region of northern India to study religious, cultural, environmental and travel practices.
The area is home to the Sherpa, Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali communities. The Khangchendzonga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located here. Buddhist monasteries dot the region, including the Kagyu Buddhist headquarters of the 17th Karmapa Lama, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who delivered an address on environmental issues at the University of Toronto this past May.
Bringing in-class research to life in advance of the trip to Sikkim, the students each submitted a research paper on a local issue. One paper focused on traditional medicines and plants; others explored creation stories, ecotourism and development.
Damien Boltauzer, a third-year major in religion and anthropology, was interested in sacred geography in Sikkim in the Buddhist and Lepcha cultures. “I looked at sacred spaces in general, as well as the reasons that spaces were sacred there, including links to royal or political boundaries or to kinship and ancestry,” he said.
During the three-week trip, the group stayed in monasteries and homes; homestays are the region’s preferred way to house tourists in this environmentally sensitive area.
“Families treated us like royalty,” Giritharan said. “We ate dinner communally, and we had traditional home-cooked meals native to the different groups. At the monasteries, we saw how the monks lived, witnessed rituals and taught English classes to young monks.”
Garrett, the director of The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies, which co-funded the course along with the Arts & Science Dean’s International Initiatives Fund, was eager to bring the study of religion to life for the students.
“Living among monks is much different than studying Buddhism in the classroom, because you can see what they are doing at all times of the day,” she said.
It was different for the professors as well. “We were with the students around the clock, so it really was full-time teaching,” said Garrett. “It was very gratifying.”
Garrett and Price are strong proponents of experiential outdoor education, and the mountain hike in Khangchendzonga National Park, a sacred site to both Buddhist and Indigenous people, provided the perfect opportunity.
“The physical challenge was necessary to have an expansive learning experience,” Boltauzer said. “It forced us to come out of our comfort zones and ordinary routines.” The trip also affirmed for him that studying religion is the right path. “I am more inspired to keep studying, so that I can understand what I saw,” he said.
For Giritharan, the experience shifted her career focus from becoming a marketing professional to “doing something more globally engaged.” Since returning, she and a friend have raised enough money to send 10 girls from Dharavi, India to school, crowdfunding through their registered not-for-profit Love Pangea.
“I learned a lot about different people and belief systems, but I learned most about myself,” she said.
Story by Elaine Smith
ABOUT THE ROBERT H. N. HO FAMILY FOUNDATION
The Foundation aspires to create a global network of outstanding scholarship that raises awareness and deepens understanding of Buddhism and its relevance to contemporary society. In 2016 U of T’s Department for the Study of Religion launched The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies, thanks to an endowment originally from Tung Lin Kok Yuen, the Hong-Kong based charitable organization established by Robert H. N. Ho’s grandmother, Lady Clara Ho Tung.
(top) Team treks through the mountains of the Himalaya. (middle) Frances Garrett and her team. Photos courtesy of Francis Garrett