The Best Places to Study Tibetan in India:
By Erick Tsiknopoulos
Please note: These ratings are mainly for studying Tibetan language, not for higher Tibetan/Buddhist studies. That is a different story, which I will address in a later article. This article is mainly aimed at students who are in their first to second (1st-2nd), and to some extent, third (3rd) years of Tibetan language study in India. Generally, after you have studied Tibetan language for two years or so, you can move on to higher Tibetan and Buddhist studies, and the options are quite different. I have tried to account for this somewhat with the rating categories of “most potential for long-term Tibetan language study” and “most potential for overall long-term study”, but this still does not encapsulate the full range of the issue of “What do I do after I am fairly good in Tibetan?”, which I do hope to address in a later essay.
Here I have refrained from rating the various schools in terms of the overall quality of their Tibetan teaching programs, for many reasons. One reason is that for most of them, I am personally not able to vouch for the quality of their respective classes but can only go on hearsay. I only have significant experience with the programs at Manjushree and Esukhia, some experience with those of Thosam Ling and the Library, and almost no experience with that of Sarah College. The main reason that I choose not to judge the quality of their respective Tibetan language programs, however, is that all of these programs are constantly changing. Teachers change, curricula and syllabuses change, and there are good and bad years, months, and days. There have been success stories that have come out of all of them, and some of them have a slightly better reputation than others. For example, Manjushree has taught a lot of people who have gone on to be some of the best younger translators and scholars today, indeed, many of the currently more well-known translators under the age of 40 went to Manjushree at some point. Sarah College is well-known for producing quite a few people who are scholars in philosophy if they followed the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics program, yet it seems to have produced few accomplished translators in recent years. The long-established Library has historically been the school of some of the most dedicated Tibetan students, translators, and scholars of all time, and even still currently has many people with excellent Tibetan and a deep interest in philosophy. Thosam Ling has produced relatively few notable results linguistically, yet like Sarah has produced many people who are philosophy scholars in their own right. However, we can not base our perception of any one school simply on the students who have gone to it, and we can not proceed merely on hearsay and reputation. Ultimately, all of these schools are what you make of them, and all of their study programs have their respective strong and weak points. Some of their study programs will suit you more than others. The best thing to do is to research how and what they study, as much as you can.
Rather than the quality of their study programs, I have chosen to rate the schools and programs in terms of other important factors, which many people often are unaware of, or do not consider, namely:
- the overall livability of their general locations,
- the overall suitability of their locations for long-term living,
- the price of their programs,
- the average local living costs of their respective areas,
- the availability of Dharma study in or in conjunction with their programs,
- their level of intensiveness,
- their level of immersion,
- their level of potential for overall long-term study in general,
- and their level of potential for long-term Tibetan language study in particular.
I have also refrained from including any of the various “translator training” programs, such as Rangjung Yeshe’s program in Kathmandu, the International Buddhist Academy’s program in Kathmandu, Rigpa’s program in Namdroling in South India, Deer Park’s program in Bir, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s program in Bir, or the Library’s 3 month program in the late summer, mostly because 1) almost all of them happen infrequently and are often difficult to join due to their schedules, 2) many of them are relatively short, 3) some of them are restricted to certain students, 4) many of them are quite expensive and out of financial reach for most people, and 5) in some ways, I disagree in principle with the idea of a translator training program that is less than several years long, and most of them are only 1 or 2 years long, starting with the very basics of the language, which to me does not seem like enough time to learn how to translate. In my own case, I feel that it took me about 3 years of study in India, 4 years of translating, and 6 years of study total until I was able to translate well. I have seen the results of such programs and have often been unimpressed, and in addition, I think it gives people the wrong idea about what is necessary for translation. Many of their graduates end up having an ego about Tibetan study, because they think they “know it already” after a one or two year program. More importantly, these programs mostly aren’t that accessible to most people for the above-mentioned reasons, and in particular, most of them don’t fulfill the requirements for someone looking to study Tibetan language for a few years. However, that is not to say that they are not good or even very good options for some people. I may rate them on their own merits in a separate article later.
Here we will explore the positive and negative sides of five Tibetan language schools, the main ones that are accessible and reasonable for most people: Esukhia, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the Manjushree Center for Tibetan Language and Culture, Thosam Ling Institute, and Sarah College for Higher Tibetan Studies.
In terms of general living places, the order from best to worst (in my opinion and experience) is:
1) Esukhia – McLeod Ganj
2) The Library – Lower Dharamsala/Gangkyi
3) Manjushree – Darjeeling
4) Thosam Ling – Sidhpur/Norbulingka
5) Sarah College – Gaggal
In terms of long-term living*, that is for more than one or two years (note the difference), the order from best to worst (in my opinion and experience) is:
1) Esukhia – McLeod Ganj
2) The Library – Lower Dharamsala/Gangkyi
3) Thosam Ling – Sidhpur/Norbulingka
4) Manjushree – Darjeeling
5) Sarah College – Gaggal
*This may or may not apply to you, depending on how long you want to stay in India, and how willing you are to move. If you are willing to study in a program for short periods of a year or less at a time, and then move elsewhere, then this is not much of an issue.
In terms of the price of the programs, the order from least to most expensive is:
1) Sarah College — least expensive
2) The Library
4) Thosam Ling
5) Esukhia — most expensive
In terms of average local living costs, the order from least to most expensive is:
1) Sarah College – Gaggal (isolated) and all living expenses are included
2) Thosam Ling – Norbulingka/Sidhpur is cheaper than Dharamsala
3) Manjushree – Darjeeling is slightly cheaper than the Dharamsala area
4) The Library – Lower Dharamsala/Gangkyi is slightly cheaper McLeod Ganj
5) Esukhia – McLeod Ganj is the most expensive area
In terms of Dharma study, the order from best to worst is:
1) Library – three Dharma classes a day, 5-6 days a week, and the highest class is advanced like a shedra, with an excellent geshe
2) Thosam Ling – ongoing Dharma program with two or three classes at a time, with an excellent geshe, however, many are only 3 days a week, and often very little information or support is provided to newcomers
3) Sarah College – not including the Institute of Buddhist Dialects program, which is very good but requires fluency in Tibetan and/or two years of previous Tibetan study, but overall all the school is still relatively Dharma-oriented
4) Esukhia – one can potentially study Dharma texts with two or three of the Dharma-educated teachers there, however, most of the teachers are not Dharma-educated, and generally, you have to be fluent in Tibetan first in order to study Dharma
5) Manjushree – no explicit Dharma teachings and the teachers are mostly not Dharma-educated, although sometimes Dharma texts are studied in the classes
In terms of the most intensive programs, the order from most to least intensive is:
1) Esukhia – potentially, you can do up to 8 hours a day, if you can afford it
2) Manjushree – 20+ hours a week with two teachers, small classes, and a personalized classroom setting
3) Sarah College – around 20 hours a week of classes, but with several teachers and large classes
4) The Library – up to 20 hours a week, but with several teachers of varying degrees of teaching ability, various levels, and impersonal classroom settings
5) Thosam Ling – up to 20 hours a week of classes, but teachers change frequently and are often inexperienced, and the class program is unstable
In terms of the most immersive programs, the order from most to least immersive is*:
1) Esukhia – all private classes and in McLeod Ganj which has plenty of speaking opportunities
2) The Library – mostly all Tibetan environment, foreign students speak Tibetan with each other, and in Dharamsala which has good speaking opportunities
3) Manjushree – strong emphasis on speaking Tibetan in class
4) Sarah College – Tibetan environment, but in an isolated place with a disinterested Tibetan student body who mostly want to speak English to the foreign students
5) Thosam Ling – very few people to speak Tibetan with, mostly English-speaking environment
*This has to do with where the school is located, how much Tibetan language conversation is encouraged and available in and around the school, etc.
In terms of the most potential for long-term Tibetan language study*, the order from most to least potential for long-term Tibetan language study is:
1) Esukhia – virtually unlimited since you can continue in private classes indefinitely
2) The Library – technically unlimited, but repeats every year, and even in the highest class the level is often low; however, a very high level of Tibetan study is possible
3) Sarah College – up to roughly 21 months, but you can continue into the college’s regular programs and the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics programs for up to 5+ years
4) Manjushree – only 21 months maximum of study
5) Thosam Ling – generally only 1 year of Tibetan language
*This does not apply to everyone, as above.
In terms of potential for overall long-term study (including post-Tibetan language and Dharma programs)* the order from most to least potential for overall long-term study is:
1) The Library – virtually unlimited, with ongoing classes 9 months a year in both Tibetan and Dharma
2) Thosam Ling – long-term Dharma study program, but somewhat limited due to the main teacher’s poor health and only a few classes a week
3) Esukhia – basically unlimited except for the limitation of the teachers themselves
4) Sarah College – up to 5 years+ is possible if you enter into the regular college programs or the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics program
5) Manjushree – only 21 months maximum of study
*This does not apply to everyone, as above.
- The Library: The main downside of the Library is that its language program may not be so useful for many students beyond one year or so. The main upsides are their Dharma classes, the cheap prices, and the fairly good location.
- Esukhia: Its main downside is the high price of their classes. The main upsides are the fact that it is all private classes and is personalized to your needs. Actually one can study at both Esukhia and the Library simultaneously, because they are fairly close to each other.
- Sarah College: Its main disadvantage is that many find the living situation there difficult for many reasons, such as the isolated location, poor food and housing, and apparently ethnocentric bias at the school. Its main advantages are that it is cheap, a decent program, and can lead into higher studies through the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics and the college’s regular programs.
- Thosam Ling: Its main downside is that the Tibetan language program is limited, being only one year, with teachers changing often, and few Tibetan people to speak with at the school itself. Very few people who have gone to Thosam Ling became truly fluent in Tibetan. Its main upsides are that it does feature conversation partners, which are useful, and it is a good place for Dharma study, overall.
- Manjushree: Its main downside is the location, because even though Darjeeling is lovely, there are are many problems with living there long term, and not much Dharma or Tibetan cultural activity in the area. Its main upsides are that it is very good for 3 to 21 months of study (and probably 3-9 months for most people).
This is a general guide based on several factors, some of which will not be important to everyone.
It is also important to note the following:
- Studying at the Library while taking one or two regular classes at Esukhia is very possible, due to their fairly close proximity (about 2-3 kilometers or so)
- In order to enter into the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics program in McLeod Ganj, a 16 year Buddhist philosophical study program, one must spend the first 3 years at Sarah College, and doing their two year Tibetan language program first would be good, although not necessary
All of these programs are good in their own ways. It just depends on what you are looking for.
Again, this is just a general guide based on various factors, some of which may or may not be important to you. The best thing to do would be to figure out which factors among the ones listed above are the most important to you personally, and then base your decisions on those factors. From there you can proceed towards make a rational and reasonable decision. This will be different for everyone.
Many people have benefited greatly from the programs at Sarah College, Manjushree, and Thosam Ling. I myself benefited greatly from Manjushree, and would not hesitate to recommend it to people, although with the caveat that most people don’t like living there for more than a few months or a year, for various reasons, and thus one should prepare for the possibility of a relatively short stay. In particular, Manjushree has one of the best Tibetan language teachers in India, Gen Dawa. My experience with Thosam Ling was mediocre overall, although I did enjoy it and benefit from it sometimes, and I think it could have been great for me under slightly different cirumstances. And personally, I did not get a very good impression of Sarah College for a few reasons, although others have had good experiences, and it has its nice points. Currently, I study through Esukhia, and sometimes at the Library, although this rating system no longer applies to me because I am long past my initial years of Tibetan language study, and am involved in higher Tibetan and Buddhist studies and focused on translation and philosophical study.
I hope that this essay will help guide people in their Tibetan studies in India, and help them to make informed choices. If you have any suggestions, or if there are other factors that you think I should include, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Erick Tsiknopoulos (b. 1981) is an American translator of Tibetan, a scholar, researcher and postgraduate student in Buddhist Studies, a teacher and tutor of Tibetan language, a writer and editor, a voracious reader in various subjects, and an experienced world traveler. He is the founder and primary Tibetan translator of the Sugatagarbha Translation Group, and the creator of their main website, Tibetan-Translations.com, which currently features English translations of over 400 Tibetan texts. Many of his translations have been published in various forms, including as books.
He has been a student of Buddhism since 1999, a student of Tibetan Buddhism since 2003, and a student of Tibetan language since 2005. He has been translating Tibetan texts into English since 2007, has been based in India and Nepal studying Tibetan language and Buddhism intensively and translating Tibetan texts since 2008, and has been working professionally as a Tibetan-English translator and interpreter since 2009.
He is available for contact via email at: EmptyElephant@yahoo.com and SugatagarbhaTranslations@gmail.com