Perhaps the last thing that a student wants to do is write knowing that one’s teacher will not be there to read it. Everyone who has known Elliot Sperling has a reason to mourn and a reason to rejoice: we mourn for his sudden death, and rejoice thinking of his great contributions to the field of Tibetan Studies and his love for Tibet.
I had the pleasure of meeting my beloved teacher Elliot on a rainy day in Dharamshala on the terrace of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in early 2009. Elliot’s long-time friend and colleague Roberto Vitali introduced me to him, and from there I began my long career as a graduate student under him at Indiana University Bloomington. Teachers in Tibetan schools are often individuals of whom you should be fearful, shy, or both; there is a saying in Tibetan that if you do not have any fear, at least be shy (zhe snang med na ‘tsher snang dgos). But with Professor Sperling, things were different: the first time I met him, he jokingly told me he expects me to stand up twice in his classes-once when he enters and once when he leaves – and then he quipped that his American students hardly show such respect. Be it in his lectures or seminar classes, his classes were always animated with his humor and his in-depth knowledge of the field. Elliot made important contributions to the field of Sino-Tibetan relations joining the long list of great Sinologists and Tibetologists like Berthold Laufer (1874-1934), Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), R. A. Stein (1911-1999), Luciano Petech (1914-2010), Herbert Franke (1914-2011), Josef Kolmas (b. 1933) and many others, who use(d) both Tibetan and Chinese sources.
Elliot cared deeply about his students. He never pushed his ideas or research interests onto us; as students, we were given full freedom to pursue our own intellectual paths. Yet, when it came to weighing in, his comments were accompanied by his witty sense of humor that was capable of destroying every little piece of ego we had gathered as graduate students. Most importantly, he believed in his students-no matter how stupid we sounded in front of him, he always entertained our ideas and gave valuable feedback. He always had time for his students; there was never a time when he said no to helping us-no matter whether he was travelling or in the proximity of a deadline. One time, while I was doing an internship at the Latse Library in New York City in the summer of 2010, Elliot came to Latse and took me out for a coffee afterwards. He brought a paper I had written for one of his classes, and he combed every sentence and source until he finished his daily dose of double espressos. Such was the commitment he had for his students, even during summer, which for many U.S. academics is a time to engage in a frenzy of traveling abroad.
Elliot’s love for Tibet and Tibetan culture was not limited to his academic papers and research alone. He cared profoundly about Tibet’s past, present and future. He was one of the few high profile scholars in academia who openly supported Rangzen, or Tibetan Independence. He always showed up for Tibet related activities, walked with the Tibetans no matter how ritualistic the annual March 10th appeared. In one such gathering of Tibetans and his students in Bloomington, Elliot humorously started calling himself ‘The White Tibetan’ and insisted everyone at the dinner call him as such. His knowledge of Tibetan affairs together with his status as an Inji put him in a unique position to express constructive criticism of Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) policy, Tibetan society, leadership, and exile establishment. While he was outspoken and critical of the exile Tibetan government; he was one of the staunchest supporters of Tibet, yet he would always say after everything, “I am just an outsider and Inji.” Even while teaching as a visiting professor in Beijing, he bravely stuck to his principles and openly criticized China’s policy towards Tibet. I remember he once boldly gave a talk via Skype from Beijing to participants of a Students for a Free Tibet workshop! In one Skype video with Elliot, I remember him saying, “Live, from the belly of the beast!” He was fearless, stood up for his beliefs, and continued the legacy of his own teacher Taktser Rinpoche.
Elliot respected and upheld the words and wishes of the Tibetan people until his very last breath; in fact, what Tibetans themselves wrote and their wish to see an independent Tibet became the cornerstone of his research and opinion pieces.
The writer is a Ph.D candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington.
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This was originally published in Phayul.