Constance Kassor

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Constance Kassor, an assistant professor of religious studies at Lawrence University, is the recipient of a substantial National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Award, allowing her to spend the next year collaborating with a Tibetan monk in the translation of an important 15th-century Tibetan Buddhist text.

It’s a project Kassor and Ven. Dr. Ngawang Jorden, principal of the International Buddhist Academy in Kathmandu, Nepal, have been working on off and on for six years. The prestigious NEH grant, valued at nearly $100,000, will allow Kassor to focus full-time on the project, with expectations it’ll be finished and prepped for publication by fall 2021.

“Without this grant, I don’t think I’d really be able to finish this translation,” Kassor said. “It’s at a point where if it’s going to get done, I really need to be working on it full time.”

The highly competitive NEH awards are not easy to come by. Kassor had applied for this grant for three years before getting approval.

The COVID-19 pandemic means adjustments will be made in Kassor’s work. In a pandemic-free world, she would have opted to spend the better part of the year in Kathmandu, working directly with Jorden.

“My plan, my hope, is that if things change with COVID, I’ll try to get myself to Kathmandu eventually,” Kassor said. “A big part of this grant is trying to facilitate collaboration with my co-translator. Obviously, I can’t get to Kathmandu right now, but I’m hoping by the spring I’ll be able to get over there to work with him to finish up the project.”

Kassor will spend the first few months of the academic year working solo in Appleton, getting done what she can on her own. Then she and Jorden will resume working together, if not in person then via Skype or Zoom.

“He’s a native Tibetan speaker who is fluent in English,” Kassor said. “I’m a native English speaker who is fluent in Tibetan. So, the two of us are working on it together to make sure we get an accurate and readable translation.”

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The text, which was the focus of Kassor’s doctoral dissertation while studying at Emory University, is known as Synopsis of the Middle Way. She first read it with Jorden in 2009 and has been working on the English translation since 2014.

It is an encyclopedic, 459-page treatise, composed by the influential philosopher Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429-89), considered the most significant philosopher in a minority sect of Tibetan Buddhism known as Sakya. Gorampa is renowned for arguing against his philosophical rival, Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), founder of what later came to be known as the Gelug sect.

The text is written in classical Tibetan, which is different from modern spoken Tibetan.

In 2018, Kassor received a $6,000 NEH grant that allowed her to spend that summer in Kathmandu working on the translation. That provided a major boost for the project, but this new grant, which covers Kassor’s salary and related expenses, will allow for the sustained focus the project needs to get to the finish line.

Established in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities promotes excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history by awarding grants for top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers.

NEH grants typically go to cultural institutions as well as to individual scholars. The grants are designed to strengthen teaching and learning in schools and colleges; facilitate research and original scholarship; provide opportunities for lifelong learning; preserve and provide access to cultural and educational resources; and strengthen the institutional base of the humanities.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu