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Dialogue with Professor Georgios T. Halkias

The following is a conversation between Prof. Georgios T. Halkias (GH), the new Director of the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong, and John Cannon (JC), the President of the Centre of Buddhist Studies Alumni Association (CBSAA) in November 2022.

Prof. Georgios Halkias became the new director of the Centre of Buddhist Studies (CBS) in July 2022. He joined CBS in 2012 as a Visiting Professor before taking on a long-term position. He studied Asian and Western philosophy at the University of Hawaii, and Asian Studies at the University of Oxford where he specialized in Pure Land Buddhism in Tibetan and Himalayan contexts.

JC Why did you choose Tibetan Buddhism as your area of expertise?

GH Considering that I was never exposed to Buddhism in my family setting or while growing up in Greece, perhaps it was karma, connections, and memories from my past lives that had something to do with it (laughs). Seriously, my first real experience with Buddhism as a practice, outside an academic environment, was when l was teaching English in Taiwan. At that time, I was advised to explore the Buddhist heritage in India and Nepal. So, I went and stayed in both countries for quite a long time to experience Buddhism in practice, and not only in theory.

JC In Buddhism, intention and motivation are important. What was your motivation leading you to move from Europe to Hong Kong to pursue your academic career in Buddhism?

GH I was invited to give a presentation on Tibetan translations from Sanskrit Buddhist texts by the organizers of a conference held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. While attending the conference, I was encouraged to meet the director of CBS who at that time was Ven. Hin Hung. After the end of our meeting, I had an offer to join CBS to teach Tibetan Buddhism and classical Tibetan. This was quite unexpected and certainly not a part of my original planning, but I have always had a special connection with Asia .At that time, the causes and conditions came together and ripened, thus leading to my move to Hong Kong.

JC Looking over the past 10 years with regard to academic career, personal life and adjusting to new cultural surroundings, what challenges and successes have you encountered?

GH These years have been a very productive and important period of my academic career. I had the opportunity to flourish, improve my teaching skills and I have hopefully become a better teacher through practice. I also had the academic support to publish extensively and pursue various research directions. CBS and the University of Hong Kong at large is an ideal place for academics given the availability of resources, opportunities for research funding, and administrative support.

Regarding challenges, I had to face a completely new and different environment. Professionally, I was used to a western academic system, and I needed to learn how to best communicate with Asian students and how to interpret their silence and challenge them to participate in class discussions (laughs). Perhaps I am generalizing, but unlike in the West where students often tend to be vocal and critical, students here need to be provided with the space to do so. The process of learning is never easy and has its own unique challenges. Learning something new really means giving up some of your assumptions concerning how people ought to react in certain cultural settings and not use your own background and culture as the measuring stick. I needed to break through these assumptions to embrace a new culture and assess students independently from my own personal history and experience in university settings. You must empty yourself to allow something new to come in, which may not always be a pleasant process.

We learn more about ourselves through our challenges than our successes. Success reinforces parts of who we are or wish to be and so it is important to cultivate a culture of self-reflection and self-criticism that aims towards improvement.

JC You play a dual role as director and lecturer. How do you handle any contradictions between the two roles?

GH As a lecturer my focus and responsibility are on the students and the learning process. I must ensure that I can effectively and accurately communicate a specific body of knowledge and that the students are receptive and able to receive what I teach them.

As the director of CBS my responsibilities obviously are much wider: they include the welfare of all students of the Centre, undergraduates, graduates, research postgraduate students - a much larger student body. At the same time, I am responsible to all the full-time and part-time teachers, visiting speakers, and administration staff. As a lecturer, focusing only on the class is more comfortable, whereas being the Centre’s director is far more challenging. This is the first time for me to be in this position, the learning curve and responsibilities and demands are much higher. There are no contradictions between these two roles, just a lot of extra responsibilities and a substantial load of work.

JC As Director, how do you perceive the future of CBS and maintain the different traditional Buddhist traditions within the course structure, the whole tree of Buddhism and not just one part?

GH Everyone at CBS during its past and present development, has worked together to bring the Centre to the stage it currently is, striking a good balance between the transmission of the two important parts or pillars of Buddhism, wisdom and skillful means. The Master of Buddhist Studies aims at preserving and representing the philosophical view and doctrines of all the major Buddhist traditions, the theoretical foundation of Buddhism which broadly represents the wisdom part. The Master of Buddhist Counselling uses skillful means to bring the Buddhist teachings into the sphere of application, the compassion part. Postgrad Diploma graduates of MBC can register as Buddhist Counsellors after completing 800 hours of practicum and embark on the path of serving their communities.

Both the MBS and MBC uphold the two pillars of the Centre of Buddhist Studies sharing equal value and benefit. While the MBS has a long history, both programs co-exist and develop to their best capacity without one encroaching on the other or compromising the aims of the other. They both serve to translate the immense wealth of the Buddha’s teachings into realization and practice. Our objective is to make sure the two programs continue to become better, more attractive, and internationally benchmarked for their excellence.

JC What is the role of CBSAA (Centre of Buddhist Studies Alumni Association) within your vision?

GH The Centre has always had an important and close relationship with CBSAA. Alumni often have valuable knowledge and experience that they can share with students who are just starting on their academic studies. We hope to continue working together with CBSAA to identify the needs of current students, our graduates, and stakeholders so the Centre can have a clearer picture of future needs and expectations. I am open to receiving feedback from all the alumni and the stakeholders in person or in writing and in holding meetings with the CBSAA team to know what graduates think about the Centre and its future development. I am keen to hear suggestions for collaboration, experimentation and pursuing new initiatives, not always relying on the usual way of doing things.

The support by all members of CBSAA is commendable and the Centre wishes to continue nurturing this relationship especially counting on CBSAA’s help in the areas of fund raising, fund research, scholarships for incoming students, social events, and other important activities that benefit the students, its teachers, and society at large. The Centre’s misison is to provide ongoing learning opportunities for our graduates by offering new courses, lectures, field-trips, and retreats as means of further enhancing one’s growth in the Buddha’s teachings.

JC 2023 is the 20th Anniversary of the Centre of Buddhist Studies. What are your plans?

GH The academic year 2022-2023 marks the 20th academic year since the Centre’s inception. In order to celebrate this, we have planned a series of anniversary events throughout the whole year (a first for CBS) starting from November 2022 and culminating in a Fund-Raising Lunch, which will also be the 2023 Graduation Lunch, scheduled for November 25, 2023. Some of the planned events are academic lectures on a wide range of traditions and topics, meditation workshops, and retreats. The Centre will also launch its new website in addition to some surprises! Interested parties should stay tuned for further announcements.

The anniversary theme is “Empower the Future with Wisdom and Compassion”. What we have done in the past 20 years was accomplished with everyone’s hard work. The question in my mind is how we are going to move into the future reality of the 21st century where Buddhist studies can serve both as a field of contemporary applications as well as the means for theoretical engagement and academic reflection. What is the position that Buddhism should take vis-a-vis our current social problems and how it can respond to gender equality, environmental issues, equal rights, and access to new technologies. We should not stay fixed only in the textual legacy of Buddhism but also go forth into the future with novel and contemporary ideas.

JC Any last words of wisdom?

GH CBS is the outcome of the effort of several people and of many auspicious circumstances coming together. I may be the current director but there is no director without everyone else, the teachers, the students, the alumni, our sponsors, and the hard work of our administrative staff. The Centre’s existence comes through the combination of several seen and unseen causes and conditions and the work of many people working individually and together, including CBSAA. This is the first time for me to see how all the different parts are equally important and come together to contribute to the sustenance and development/growth of the Centre. If I am allowed a metaphor, CBS is like a human body with all its constituent parts working in unison to make a complete whole, healthy and vibrant body. Now, as the director, I can see all those different parts giving me a wider vision and appreciation of each part, witnessing one of the most important concepts of Buddhism, the doctrine of dependent co-arising in practice.

I have come to appreciate the complexity, the intricacy, and the beauty of how all the actions of past directors, teachers, and students in their own way have contributed to what manifests as the present, a present that stretches back in time and will continue to evolve in the future. John, words of wisdom should come for those who are wise. Socrates, the 5th century Athenian philosopher claimed that one ought to cultivate humility and realize that striving towards wisdom is a life-time vocation, a way of life and not something one acquires in the classroom. We must strive to cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around us and do so with a benevolent disposition towards all that arises before us. Consciously or unconsciously, we are all participating in something that is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

JC Thank you for this opportunity to have this conversation with you and I look forward to our next interview!


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