During a five-week study abroad trip in Himachal Pradesh, India, 21 students from SUNY Purchase College were able to meet and listen to the teachings of the Dalai Lama.
The summer semester trip went from May 27 to June 2, where students stayed in the Norbulingka Institute, an institution that works to preserve Tibetan culture and serves as the Dalai Lama’s summer home in Dharamsala, the capital of Himachal Pradesh.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader for the Tibetan people.
While at the institution, the students learned about the social and cultural studies of food in India, a class taught by Dr. Lisa Jean Moore, a sociology and gender studies professor at SUNY Purchase, and Tibetan art taught by Dr. Suzanne Ironbiter, a lecturer emerita in liberal studies at Purchase.
Carly Sorenson, a sophomore and creative writing major, said she wanted to go on the trip because “I just find Tibetan Buddhism fascinating.”
Brian Peterkin, a senior and new media major, said he’s “always been big on expanding consciousness and learning, and [am] curious if there is such a thing as enlightenment.”
His research in Buddhist philosophy led him to realize that it had ties to India, prompting his interest in the trip.
The meeting with the Dalai Lama was set up by Ironbiter, who has a professional relationship with Philippa Russell, whose husband, Jeremy Russell, is an English translator for the Dalai Lama. This relationship has made meetings with the Dalai Lama possible on two other study abroad trips.
“It was amazing,” Sorenson said. “I’m lucky I got to meet [the Dalai Lama].”
Sorenson said after she shook hands with the Dalai Lama, the two discussed the connection between quantum mechanics and how it connected to Buddhism.
“[The meeting was] very overwhelming,” she said.
Peterkin explained he was nervous prior to meeting with the Dalai Lama, but came away from the encounter with a new perspective.
He described the Dalai Lama as “so humble and appreciative, despite being aware of his standing amongst his people and in the world.”
Peterkin explained that this meeting has left him with a lot of respect for the Dalai Lama.
Beyond the initial meeting, the students attended three days of teachings taught by the Dalai Lama during Saga Dawa, a Tibetan Buddhist holiday that honors the birth, wisdom and death of Buddha.
“The talks were directed towards the younger scholastic audience but there were broad enough topics that they were able to appeal to everyone present,” Peterkin said.
Beyond the teachings, the students were also able to learn from the locals who lived in Dharamsala.
“A lot of the students were able to see what it’s like to have a refugee population and how they’re integrated and accepted [into a new society],” Moore said.
This included experiencing firsthand the ways in which the Tibetan people have integrated into Dharamsala after being exiled from China in the 1960s.
“The whole struggle of the conflict between China and Tibet [is] very interesting,” Sorenson said.
According to OfficeOfTibet.com, India is currently home to more than 10,000 exiled Tibetan people.
“It’s really good for our students to be able to see the ways in which cultures can be integrated into homes that aren’t their home and [how they’re] able to thrive and continue their religious practices,” Moore said.
Both Sorenson and Peterkin expressed how welcoming the locals were to the group of students. These connections helped the students form a better understanding of the culture.
“Spiritually was at the heart of everyday life and improving balancing oneself,” Peterkin said. “This took precedence to attaining financial security and I found this quite refreshing.”
Peterkin explained that one of the fascinating parts of the trip was learning the way in which the lives of people in Dharamsala differed from American culture.
“I think the study abroad trip provides students with the opportunity to get a global perspective that’s a very different culture from what they experience in New York City,” Moore said.