2 rue Jargonnant
1211 Geneva 6, Switzerland
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75006 Paris, France
Here is a summary of the experiences that have led me to apply formally for the Loeb Fellowship Program for which you have so kindly nominated me. I think it could be an important means with which to further our vision of a new kind of foundation. But of course, the whole thing really came about as an accident, a conspiracy of fate.
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Last summer, a group of friends and I decided to go to Tibet. Our destination was a sacred mountain called Kailash – considered by ancient Buddhist sages to be the ‘center of the world’.
The way to the sacred mountain passed through a wild valley in Nepal, where we hoped to dodge Maoist insurgents and acclimatise ourselves before reaching the Tibetan plateau. All of us were approaching some sort of crisis – either a career change, the loss of a spouse or simply the existential despair of approaching middle-life. During this walkabout, we strangely began to experience our personal losses as liberation.
On the pilgrim’s trail our pre-occupations quickly dissolved into thin air. We were impressed by the warmth and bravery of our Tibetan companions, who put their lives in danger to save ours during a terrible ordeal in a mountain blizzard. Having lost the main trail, we crossed into Tibet using an ancient salt-trading route, where we were promptly arrested by the Chinese police for having entered the ‘Motherland using a ‘bandit’s trail’.
We were confined to a squalid garrison town - an eyesore in an otherwise pristine Tibetan environment. While we waited to pay the inevitable fine, we contemplated the destruction of an entire Tibetan aesthetic by means of concrete and plastic. Long rows of karaoke brothels and shops covered in white glazed tiles and blue-tinted windows had now replaced the intricate wooden architecture of this traditional Tibetan village, giving one the impression of sitting in a gigantic bathroom.
During our brief detention, my companions and I came to realize the vital relationship that exists between unhealthy living environment and the lack of human dignity - true in Tibet as it is in many ghettos across the United States and Europe.
With a sense of relief, we were finally allowed to continue our pilgrimage to the sacred mountain. During our circumambulation, we looked back onto our experience and pondered the uncertain future of Tibet and other pristine environments. As the pace of the consumer revolution and globalisation accelerates throughout the world, many traditional cultures and their diverse ways of life, interpretations of existence, history and knowledge of natural world, are fast disappearing. People are being forced out of their native homelands and their pristine habitats destroyed in the name of economic development. Was there a way in which we could contribute to a more just and sustainable world?
To give substance to our vision, a businessman travelling in our group put down some seed money to create a foundation in Switzerland – which we named the Axis Mundi Foundation - in honour of the sacred mountain.
Outwardly, we decided that the foundation’s mission would be to preserve the wisdom of indigenous cultures and to make them accessible and meaningful to the modern world. Inwardly, it was to create a network of effective intercultural leaders; a fleet of enlightened cross-cultural warriors, who could slip quietly back into the grid of society, across borders, professions and cultures, to bring awareness where it often lacks.
The vision and seed money was the easy part. Neither of us had any real experience running a foundation or raising funds. I, for one, was a doctoral graduate of Sanskrit and Tibetan studies, who had turned into an explorer and ethnographic film maker.
Born into a family of power and influence in Iran under the Shah, I was pushed into exile in Europe at the age of 12, where I grew up as a teenager – educated by Catholic nuns at Marymount, I had then obtained an International Baccalaureate at the Ecole Bilingue in Paris.
I went to Tufts University to earn a Bachelor’s degree in history, where I developed a keen extra-curricular interest in the martial arts and Zen Buddhism. During this period, I had a series of vivid dreams, in which I encountered an old Tibetan warrior riding a horse, who pointed to a snow-mountain saying, “Go!”
These dreams always arrived at dawn and were so powerful that, for weeks after, I could immediately transport myself back into the dreamscape by closing my eyes. Heeding their message, I enrolled in a semester of study abroad to go live with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India. There, I was fortunate to meet the Dalai Lama and study with the first generation of Tibetan masters who escaped after the Chinese occupation.
Among them was an old lama, the tutor to the last Tibetan regent (the one who discovered the 14th Dalai Lama). He recognized me as a reincarnation of a past Tibetan master - although I had no recollection of any past lives - and initiated me into many esoteric teachings. It was at his mountain retreat that I shed my first cool tears and tasted the nectar of compassion and crazy-wisdom. Under his tutelage, I travelled to many sacred caves, where I lived for months in the company of leopards and deer, sometimes leaving solid food and nourishing myself on the essence of plants and flowers.
In 1990, to formalize my study of Eastern philosophy, I went to Harvard to gain a Master’s and then a Ph.D. degree in Sanskrit and Tibetan studies. During the following decade, I would often return to Nepal and Tibet in the summer, making money as a mountain guide, completing my graduate fieldwork while continuing to digest the vast wisdom and compassion of my root master and many others.
Upon completion of my Ph.D, I started working as an Academic Director for the School for International Training (SIT), in Brattleboro, Vermont. They sent me to Nepal to run their study abroad program in Kathmandu. The SIT program was originally founded in 1932, under the name of the U.S. Experiment in International Living. The visionary brainchild of Donald Watt, it was the first American institution to advocate the value of study abroad programs. Wars happened, it was believed, due to the lack of empathy and compassion for the other. What better remedy, than to send a bunch of naïve American college students across the planet to live in cow sheds, to learn strange languages and to taste strange foods. Between the two wars, the U.S. Experiment sent the first batch of American students to study in Switzerland, Germany and France. In 1961, John F. Kennedy contracted the U.S. Experiment to train the first Peace Corps volunteers.
In 1999, I came full circle, now working as the Director of the very program which had changed my life when I enrolled in it twelve years earlier. In 2000, after running the program in Nepal, I was asked to go and pioneer the program in Outer Mongolia - a task not without its peculiar challenges.
Whilst others came to Mongolia to build roads, mines and civil societies, I had the dubious mission of making nomads out of American students and to facilitate their apprenticeship to shamans and horse whisperers. The requirements to participate in this program were basically two: to write well and the willingness to ride long distances on horses, camels and reindeers - and if necessary to eat them.
By riding these three species of animals I led my students into the heart of Mongolia’s rugged interior to experience a different facet of Mongolia’s nomadic culture, challenging them to understand the difficulties this isolated nation faces as it balances economic development with the protection of its indigenous cultures and natural resources. Development is as mysterious as inevitable. In the process some people lose their souls, while others, strangely, seem to find theirs. Many of my students, enriched by this rigorous integration of academic study and field experience, ended up returning to Mongolia after obtaining various grants and fellowships in order to continue working with the nomad communities.
In 2003, I took a sabbatical leave, during which I ended up on the sacred mountain in Tibet, the outcome of which was an entirely new vision, that of creating a kind of foundation that has never existed before. One that is inspired by the wisdom and compassion of my Tibetan masters and my career in cross-cultural education - the art of transforming adversity into friendship, of using unconventional and maverick approaches to convert the guilt and apathy of governments and corporations into support for environmental conservation, social justice and sustainable development – basically, to generate compassion among the unconverted and those who don’t give a damn.
In our first year, the Axis Mundi Foundation created a scheme with which we convinced the association of Nepalese tour operators, that it would be in their own long term interests to provide an extra days salary to all porters, so they would clean up the trash left at holy mountain. To combat deforestation, we donated more than 500 fuel-efficient wood burning stoves to the monks and inhabitants of a Tibetan monastery on a deforested slope near Mount Everest, with the condition that they plant ten trees for every stove.
Recently, I returned to Mongolia, to produce a documentary film that brought attention to the plight of a small group of Tsaatan reindeer herding nomads being pushed out of their ancestral forest.
Unlike other reindeer breeding cultures, the Tsaatan do not traditionally kill their reindeer for meat. They depend on reindeer for milk products and to ride to hunt for food and furs. But today their forest is becoming increasingly empty as commercial hunters enter the taiga to supply the traditional Chinese medicine market with bear paws, deer tails and musk pods. With the decreasing game many Tsaatan have now reluctantly started to kill and eat their reindeer. To make things worst, the cash-starved Mongol government has now started to sell the mining and hunting concessions to the Tsaatan’s ancestral forest.
Wildlife conservationists, however, do not consider this forest to be a primary concern because it is devoid of rare and exotic species. It is home to moose, elk and brown bear, of which there are plenty of running around in North America. The point, which everyone seems to miss here, is that the conservation of mundane species is closely related to the survival of an exotic and endangered culture.
The plight of the Tsaatan, for example, is just one area where the foundation wants to develop a unique approach to solving problems; of creating a trust fund to buy off the mining and hunting concessions and turning them back to the indigenous people, and thus turning the greed of developing nations into an ally of conservation and cultural preservation.
Spending a year in East Coast as a Loeb fellow, I want to take stock of the lessons learned over these years and to explore their applications for education in the United States. I want to use the faculties and resources at Harvard, MIT and in Washington D.C. to develop my skills in running a foundation, and to learn to raise the money necessary to fuel its vision. Most importantly, I welcome the opportunity to contribute my experience and knowledge to a group of exceptional colleagues working in the field of environmental conservation and cross-cultural education. To turn this vision into experience, I want to devise unique study abroad programs that can go beyond the traditional college semester abroad vacation and the Peace Corps experience – a type of program that is ready to take certain risks within the context of experiential education. Risks that can create the kind of compassion and vision necessary for students in the United States to start playing a role in promoting peace and sustainable growth in our increasingly complex world.
May it be auspicious!
PS. You may wish to have a look at a recent article of mine that appeared in National Geographic covering some of my recent work with the "Reindeer People" in Mongolia
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/. I hope that you find some interest in the photos as well (I think the story they tell is probably more important than my text.)