For some, the word “Tibet” conjures visions of elaborate monasteries, steep promontories, and, perhaps, political turmoil. For others, Tibet begins and ends with “Free Tibet!” and brief flirtations with Buddhism. Luckily, Dr. Stacey Van Vleet, assistant professor in the Hamilton Lugar School’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS), is ready to take us all to school.
Van Vleet is a well-established scholar within Central Eurasian studies, but she describes her journey as a “long, gradual process”—a slow burn of sorts. With a career emblematic of the Hamilton Lugar School’s mission and values, her research encapsulates the attributes that makes the school and CEUS so exemplary.
As an undergraduate, Van Vleet had an early interest in global nonprofit work, drawn to policy conversations surrounding global development and the challenges faced by developmental agencies and institutions. But things changed when she studied abroad in Nepal, a formative experience that introduced her to the Tibetan cultural region and the intellectual frameworks of Tibetan Buddhism. As she began to learn Nepali, this once simmering cauldron of intellectual curiosity came to a full, roiling boil. It was then she understood the profound ways in which learning a language encourages us not only to think more deeply about meaning and life but also the comparative contexts of organizing societies, cultures, and economies.
“Learning Tibetan really opened up a whole new world of intellectual terms and concepts, ways of thinking about the world that were really interesting to me and I thought very valuable for comparison.”
Shortly after beginning her master’s in Anthropology, Van Vleet began learning what would soon become her signature research language: Tibetan. During this time, she presented at her first academic conference which fittingly was hosted by the Department of Central Eurasian Studies. It was here that she received transformative advice from the late Dr. Elliot Sperling, the former department chair, a MacArthur Fellow, and one of the world’s foremost historians of Tibet. Van Vleet was considering pursuing research grounded mostly in policy until Sperling told her that if she was serious about studying Tibetan, she needed to go to Tibet. “Stay for a full year, stay for 2 years if you can, which is best. Concentrate, focus, and make a commitment to learning the language,” he said. And she did—again and again. Soon, an intellectual historian was born.
Learning Tibetan didn’t just augment her research. It profoundly shaped the ways in which she made sense of the world. Take, for example her favorite Tibetan word, ten ‘drel: interdependence. As the world becomes rapidly connected and more global, it is increasingly important to think through and with this concept of interdependence. More and more, we experience this interdependence on individual and collective levels, across regional and national boundaries. Ultimately, ten ‘drel, as a concept, functioned as a doorway into an entirely new conceptual vocabulary and philosophy that deeply enriched her intellectual life, and created a new dimensional space to think through the pressing questions she wrestles with in her work.
“Global engagement means paying attention to particularities while at the same time understanding the reality of interconnectedness on a global scale,” she says.
While previous generations of Tibetan scholars—influenced by waves of exiles fleeing persecution in the 1960s—focused primarily on Buddhist studies and the diplomatic and historic relationship between China and Tibet, Van Vleet’s research cracks that open.
She and other intellectual historians of Tibet think about that relationship not only in terms of modern international law, but outside contexts specific to western intellectual traditions as well. They are interested in situating the particular social and cultural history of Tibet alongside how Tibetan society and politics were organized according to frameworks particular to Tibetan Buddhism. She notes that Tibetan Buddhism should not be narrowly thought of as a religion, but as an organizing school of thought that informed the landscape of governance in Tibet. More importantly, however, such operative frameworks are not understood as static, and, though altered by the rise of secular governance in China, continue to frame politics and culture today.
“As an intellectual historian of Tibet, the concept of impermanence, I think about all the time. I think about it when I’m frustrated… when things aren’t going my way. It gives me a real perspective to know that the things I’m excited about I can’t hold on to and the things that irritate me also won’t be around forever.”
Perhaps it is this acceptance of the impermanence of things that got her through the trying aspects of conducting research in Tibet such as the altitude and remoteness. The former is not to be taken lightly. Altitude exposure impacts everyone differently and can be dangerous. Remoteness, however, is a bit of a misdirection. While most Tibetans live outside of urban areas, the Tibetan sphere of influence is about the size of Western Europe and comprises northern India, Bhutan, five Chinese provinces, and parts of Mongolia and Siberia. Tibet’s remoteness highlights its vastness—a constant reminder of its singular, regional significance.
These experiences have taught Van Vleet the importance of curiosity, compassion, and patience in a fast-changing world. She encourages students and scholars alike to observe, ask questions, and—above all—listen and learn.
“Learn deeply if you can but also just learn some if you can,” she says. “Don’t be intimidated… It opens doors you don’t even know are closed to you.”
Dr. Van Vleet’s upcoming book project, Plagues and Precious Pills: Medicine, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Politics of Learning in Qing China (working title), looks at medical institutions within networks of monasteries across Tibet, Mongolia, and China during the Qing dynasty. The book asks what it means for medicine to be taught within the framework of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as how this relationship between medical practice and Tibetan Buddhism was important in legitimizing governance on local, regional, and imperial levels before the rise of the modern Chinese state.