A Passion for Pramāṇa

An Interview with Jo Donovan

How did you find RYI originally?

I found it on the internet after I had heard people talking about a University in Nepal where you could study Buddhism. It was at a place in my life where I was looking for something and I stumbled across it while doing an internet search.

Where were you living at that time?

I had just finished a degree in my home country of the UK and had plans to return to Nepal. I had been coming to Nepal for several years to volunteer and was quite familiar with Nepal. I had set up an internship but at the last moment, my intuition told me it wasn’t the right path.

When I found RYI, I knew it was the right thing. Two weeks after I found RYI, I was on a plane and had begun taking classes.

Which program did you enroll in at RYI?

I already had two BAs at that point (ha ha!), so I was interested in the MA program.

My Tibetan was not very strong and I am not the fastest learner of languages, so took it some time to get all my prerequisites in. I did the MA Preparatory Program for a year, taught English at a monastery, and was a writing coach for RYI. Then the large earthquake of 2015 happened which slowed things down further. It ended up taking me 6 or 7 years before I was ready to start the MA program.

Things often take longer than you expect. One day I woke up and thought, “Wow, I planned to be here (in Nepal) for two years and now it’s been ten!”

Do you consider yourself a Buddhist? Is that what brought you to Nepal before?

That is a difficult question – yes and no. To be honest, at this point, I am not really sure what a Buddhist is exactly or what it means to be a Buddhist. I know that sounds kind of crazy!

On a simple level, I do identify as a Buddhist because yes, I’ve been studying Buddhism for ten years and I do try to implement these practices. However, on a more philosophical level, I am not sure anymore…..

It seems like quite a few people come into our programs through Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and through their practice. Was that the reason you came to RYI?

I had taken refuge at the time that I came to RYI but I wasn’t connected to Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. I was really just really interested in finding out more about Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy.

Through my work as a writing coach and English teacher in both monasteries and educational institutions, I have seen the difference between people who practice primarily with a scholar hat and people who practice primarily with a Buddhist hat. Sometimes it is good to show the people wearing the Buddhist hat how to take it off sometimes and put on the scholar hat on. Conversely, the people with the scholar hats benefit from putting the Buddhist hat on. But, as for me, I think I primarily think of myself as a scholar.

What do you think is a scholar-practitioner? What is the difference between a scholar-practitioner and a practitioner? What is the benefit to the world of a scholar-practitioner?

I think this is one of the main benefits of RYI. It provides an environment that invites these sorts of questions and examines, “where are the boundaries?”, “where are the tensions?” It is an interesting inquiry.

What has been your experience taking online classes in the past two years?

I have had a good experience with the online classes. It was a little bit harder with the Khenpo classes because it is easier for me to get distracted. But, in the language classes where there is more active participation, it seemed to really work.

I also saw new faces of people I hadn’t encountered before. It’s great that people have the opportunity to take courses at RYI without uprooting their lives.

Do you have plans to continue your academic study?

Yes, I am starting a PhD program at Harvard in the Fall of 2022. I am teaching Beginner Classical Tibetan at RYI this summer and then I will be moving back to the West for some time. That should be an interesting adjustment!

Personally, I love academia and it gives me an opportunity to study and teach the things I love. I love being in an environment with other people who love learning. That is my idea of paradise.

What is your primary area of study?

I am really interested in Pramāṇa, which is the epistemology⁠— Dharmakīrti and Dignāga school of thought. It is also the basis for the Tibetan-Indian debate. That’s what I am really passionate about and love learning about. So, I will continue learning that which is very exciting.

What are the greatest benefits you received from studying at RYI?

I feel very lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to be part of the monastery’s Shedra. I received the Tsadra scholarship which gives students the chance to do two years in the MA program and a year in the monk’s Shedra. It was an amazing experience to be in the monks’ classes every day, to debate with them and struggle with them. It was extremely hard but an amazing opportunity that I will be grateful for forever.

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