by Charles Taylor, MTS ’23
Editor’s Note: In this post, Charles Taylor reflects on his journey from attending DivEx to completing his final semester at HDS. Charles addresses his preconceived notions about what Buddhist studies might be like at HDS, his experiences of intellectual growth in the classroom, and his favorite places to find quiet amidst the hustle and bustle of all Harvard has to offer.
In 2021, I came to HDS to study Tibetan Buddhism under Dr. Janet Gyatso. However, HDS was far from an obvious choice for me. I had received several offers, many of which were closer to friends and family and in locations cheaper than the Greater Boston area. I was unwilling to choose HDS purely for the name and its associated prestige. And so, when I attended the HDS Diversity and Explorations Program (DivEx), I did so without the expectation of later enrolling as a full-time student.
At DivEx, however, I came to a new understanding of what HDS is. Previously, I had many concerns over attending a program in my chosen field of Buddhist studies. I was worried that HDS’s professors and students might treat the genuinely held religious beliefs of some as merely a field of academic inquiry, not as a lived experience that grounds and guides countless individuals lives.
Fortunately, through my interactions with fellow prospective students, current students, and professors, I came to understand that HDS is an institution which respects and embraces those who are genuinely religious and/or spiritual. This sentiment remained true once I came here – I’ve taken classes alongside prestigious and accomplished monastics from a variety of traditions, and I got the chance to meet the Sakya Trizin, the head of the second largest school of Tibetan Buddhism. Only at HDS would one have such opportunities to meld lived experience of religion with rigorous academic study. Those who I encounter in my studies here at HDS strive to maintain intellectual humility, acknowledging that profound and deep wisdom can be found in the religious traditions of the world.
HDS has also exposed me to a wealth of opportunities available outside of an explicitly Buddhist context. While here, students can study the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, or acquire competency in cutting-edge chaplaincy practices. They can also take classes where you will live as monastics do within a monastery of either the Catholic or Buddhist traditions, or study with the most prestigious and accomplished of figures across a multitude of religious traditions. (I had the opportunity to take classes with and learn from the former president of the Tibetan government in exile, for example).
As I am now leaving HDS, I often reflect on what I’ve learned here. Much of what I’ve learned came from my teachers putting the writings of historical and contemporary religious leaders in conversation with one or more of the most well-known philosophers. For example, in one class, I was guided through the process of parsing out similarities between the teachings of Buddha and the musings of philosopher Albert Camus. Another class taught me how to take the perspectives and insights of Foucault and apply them to the social phenomena related to religiosity, and in doing this I learned the value of applying a critical eye to our chosen subjects of study.
Lastly, I’d like to mention some of the more straightforward and material (though equally relevant and important) benefits of attending HDS. Firstly – if you intend to study Classical South or East Asian languages, Harvard is simply the best environment to do so. Here, you will be able to meet weekly in a formal class setting alongside peers who are deeply invested in bettering themselves and their scholarship through the process of language learning. The value of working with committed peers in your language study cannot be overstated. Personally, I took formal classes in Pali and Classical Tibetan, and I was privileged to learn as much from my fellow students as the instructor.
If you choose to attend HDS, you will most certainly also benefit from the fact that Harvard University (the broader institution) is the most well-funded educational institution in the world. As a student at HDS, you can apply for a vast array of funding opportunities available to Harvard graduate students, and you may take classes at any of Harvard’s other graduate schools.
These are just a few of the many opportunities I received while here but did not anticipate when coming to HDS. Regardless of what you’d like to pursue, I can promise you that you will be academically and intellectually free here. No one will ask you to subvert your spirituality, or lack thereof, and all perspectives are earnestly welcomed in the classroom. No matter how idiosyncratic your intended field of study may feel to you now, while here, you’ll be immersed in a wide array of classes and opportunities that likely speak directly to your academic interests – there is truly something for everyone here at HDS!
Lastly, a few words of personal advice – If you decide to make your home here, you should consider making either the café in Swartz Hall, or one of the nearby libraries, your primary place of study. The café is the hub of communal life at HDS. Every time you go, you are sure to encounter mentors and friends. If you’re looking for somewhere potentially quieter, all Harvard libraries are peaceful and beautiful, and the natural lighting at Fung Library, which is close to the HDS campus, is particularly serene. If you find yourself as enthralled with the Harvard libraries as I am, I encourage you to contact by email the specific libraries you might be interested in working in; many of Harvard’s libraries have student employment opportunities available each year. Library jobs are often will characterized by long periods of downtime monitoring an area, which fortunately afford you plenty of time to study!
With maximal love and best wishes,
Charles J. Taylor