2007 Student-Faculty Fellows: Naropa University

Joint Project: “An Exploration of Pilgrimage to Mount Kailash within Three Distinct Religious Traditions”

Faculty Mentor: Nataraja Kallio
Student Fellows: Kyra Coates, Thiago Leao, Tiffani Parrish, Benjamin Pitcher, Christopher Whitson

Project Abstract

I am delighted about the success of our research and travel to Mt. Kailash, Tibet. We immersed ourselves in the extraordinary life and spiritual practice that occurs around this central pilgrimage place for both the Tibetans and Hindus. We successfully interviewed many pilgrims and spiritual teachers, documenting their stories and insights regarding pilgrimage. We also obtained some extraordinary footage of Mt. Kailash, which the students are working to transform into a short film. There were a number of health concerns, namely altitude sickness and dysentery. Almost all of these concerns seemed to come true, as most of the students had to battle through intestinal sickness. We also helped pilgrims (especially those from India) deal with severe altitude sickness as we climbed up to nearly 19,000 feet. However, the students. motivation and strength to overcome these obstacles was simply inspiring, and we were able to experience much of what we hoped for. In response to this trip, I am proposing a study abroad program for Naropa University based upon the structure of our trip. It was meaningful to be able to witness and participate in a religious practice that has been central to the spiritual traditions upon which Naropa was founded. I know this experience will add to the depth and feeling with which I am able to teach Eastern Contemplative Practice and Philosophy. We are all grateful to the Freeman Foundation and to ASIANetwork for having made this endeavor possible.

Kyra Coates

Going on this research trip to Mt. Kailash not only expanded my view of the Tibetan culture, but also brought to light the importance of holding a more global view, especially as an American. China, being the largest country in Asia, has now effectively and thoroughly colonized Tibet. American imports produced by China have funded this effort. I now have a deeper sense of my responsibility as an American consumer. Academically, I feel I must focus less on cultural ritual, which was an integral part of my religious studies persuits, and more on the global impact of my own society.

Thiago Leao

This trip has been life changing in more ways than words can express. In trekking through the mountains of Nepal and Tibet, sleeping on the shores of the holy and mysterious Lake Manasarovar, visiting endless temples and monasteries, and finally coming to the foot of Mt. Kailash, I was humbled, saddened, and inspired. Interacting with pilgrims and experiencing first hand the socio-economic and religious context in which these cultures thrive has been invaluable. The journey has undoubtedly shaped my professional and academic path. This trip has opened up my passion for videography and filmmaking while also solidifying my interest in cultural diplomacy and conflict resolution.

Tiffani Parrish

Having come from a poor and unstable family, this trip showed me a depth of poverty and despair that I, as an American woman, will never know. In the midst of this poverty, I encountered the deepest kindness and generosity that I have ever experienced. Many of the Tibetan pilgrims that I encountered have a simple and profound relationship with spirituality that is in bold opposition to much of what I see in America. There is no spiritual practice with ritual paraphernalia and special mantras; there is just their commitment to spend part of their life circumambulating a holy mountain that is encompassed in the history, culture and religion of this people. While my educational and professional path is a work-in-progress, the effect of this trip on my view of the world is unmistakable. I look at the excess in the world around me, and I seek to better understand the larger currents in the world that create such disparity. I thank the Freeman Foundation and ASIANetwork for making this possible, and I urge them to commit themselves to endeavors that have a direct impact on the cultures that are being observed and studied in this program.

Benjamin Pitcher

This trip was the culmination of almost a decade of work experience and study in higher education. It provided me with a chance to do something totally new and foreign and experience feelings of terror, awe, and amazement. Flying to the other side of the world and then trekking through the mountains of Nepal and Tibet while gathering video interviews, still photos, and sound recordings, coupled with my own experience of being violently ill, made for a dramatic four week experience. The challenge was invigorating and sobering. Researching the spiritual practices of others is a delicate matter, but the people we studied were generous an engaged. It is one thing to study Traditional Eastern Arts and practice Yoga and meditation, but another to visit and experience the cultures that gave rise to these practices and have sustained them for millennia. I express deep gratitude to the Freeman Foundation and the ASIANetwork for giving me the opportunity to discover a quite different world.

Christopher Whitson

The expedition and pilgrimage to Mount Kailash was transformational for me. The journey clarified some goals I have in my undergraduate education and helped me determine that I wish to be a writer. Witnessing pilgrims prostrating themselves and kow-towing provided a window into the most intimate dreams and aspirations of others. This experience transcended “study abroad” or “summer research” in that it influenced my outlook on life and on the world in a way that I know my life will have greater purpose.