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Read Classical Tibetan

Individualized Language
Learning via Skype


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   | Craig Preston | cpreston@giganticom.com | (607) 351-8744 | Skype Name: craig.preston4
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Biographical Information


University of Virginia, BA, 1982, Religious Studies; Advisor: Jeffrey Hopkins; Degree with High Distinction, Phi Beta Kappa, 1982.

University of Virginia School of Law, JD, 1985

Teaching Experience

Visiting Professor, Asian Studies, University at Buffalo, 2007-Present; First and Second Year Classical Tibetan, Advanced Reading in Classical Tibetan, Tibetan Buddhist Thought.

Founder, Nagarjuna Language Institute, 1993-present; Annual Summer Classical Tibetan Language Institute (2000-2009)

Adjunct Professor, Namgyal Institute of Buddhist Studies, Ithaca, NY 1993-present


2009       How To Read Classical Tibetan, Volume Two. Buddhist Tenets (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications).

2003       How To Read Classical Tibetan, Volume One. Summary of the General Path (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications).

2003       Buddhist Philosophy: Losang Gönchok’s Short Commentary to Jamyang Shayba’s Root Text on Tenets, with Daniel Cozort.  (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications).

Narrative History

I'd like to share with you some of my personal history as a student and teacher. I have had the good fortune to have had excellent education opportunities. I have taught translating Buddhist texts from Tibetan for the past 17 years. My teaching experience includes nine years of summer intensives, college undergraduate and graduate courses, and extensive individual tutoring. In addition to teaching classes, I've had many long time students reading texts with me individually over a period of months or years.

My approach to teaching developed from three major influences. The first is the New England boarding school (Williston Academy) I started attending in 8th grade. Although of course I didn't’t realize it at the time, I was quite fortunate to grow up intellectually in such an demanding and nurturing environment, where delight in learning was palpable. The small student to teacher ratio promoted close mentoring which, as you say, balanced encouragement and maintenance of academic standards. At my core, this is what I think school is.

Tibetan Study at the University of Virginia with Jeffrey Hopkins

The second influence is the years I spent studying with Jeffrey Hopkins, Elizabeth Napper, and Joe Wilson at the University of Virginia. In his youth, Hopkins had also attended a New England boarding school. I think the similarity of our secondary school backgrounds contributed to my ability to absorb so much from him. He was the very embodiment of encouragement and high academic standards.

I also had the privilege of studying with eminently well-qualified Tibetan scholars while at UVa: Denma Lochö Rinpoche, abbot emeritus of the Namgyal College and ge-shay in the Lo-sel-ling College of Dre-bung; Geshe Gedün Lodrö in the Go-mang College of Dre-bung; Kensur Jampel Shenpen, Throne-Holder of Gan-den (head of the Ge-luk-pa order), abbot emeritus of the Tantric College of Lower Lhasa, and ge-shay in the Jang-dzay College of Gan-den; and Kensur Yeshi Thupten, abbot emeritus of and ge-shay in the Lo-sel-ling College of Dre-bung. Every Tibetan I have studied with at some point told me some variant on the same story. All told me that In their youth they had the opportunity to study with great teachers. In hindsight, they regretted not applying themselves harder. I think I now know how they feel.

Cease All Nonessential Activity

It might me helpful to expand a bit on how Hopkins structured his Tibetan program. First year Tibetan (taught by Joe Wilson) met five days a week. After an initial presentation of Tibetan grammar, we studied Collected Topics on Valid Cognition using Pur-bu-jok's Small Path of Reasoning. Throughout the four years of Hopkins' Tibetan program, in addition to the main focus of the course, we always continued with Collected Topics. In addition, we had debate sessions three days a week. The seminars Hopkins taught may well have been Tibetan classes with the amount of Tibetan that we learned along the way.

Elizabeth Napper (for many years The force behind Dolma Ling Nunnery, where over 300 Tibetan nuns reside) was my Tibetan teacher for second through fourth years. Her kindness knew no bounds. And she was tough, very tough. Starting second year, my class also attended the Tibetan classes of the level above us. This made six Tibetan language classes a week, plus whatever seminar or Tibetan class Hopkins was teaching. Although the ensuing 30 years have dulled my memory, it did seem that I was always either preparing for or attending Tibetan classes. Hopkins also must have felt the usual UVa summer session was a bit lax because he had his own calendar for our summer Tibetan classes. My guess is that since we didn't have to take other classes in the summer, he felt we could really concentrate on our Tibetan education.

Following this intensive four year experience, I had three years in the comparatively relaxing atmosphere of the UVa Law School. Outwardly, I was learning to think like a lawyer. Inwardly, I was processing all the Buddhist philosophy I had memorized and explored.

From Litigator to Teacher

The third influence on my approach to teaching Tibetan came from the years I practiced law. The skills I learned as a litigator definitely have influenced my teaching style. In 1993, I thought I was taking a much needed vacation after a year of defending a death penalty case when I went to visit my friend Bill Magee at the newly formed Namgyal Institute in Ithaca, NY. I found myself almost instantly teaching Tibetan and never went back to practicing law. As a litigator, I operated within the rule-based legal system. I was accustomed to grounding everything I said within articulated principles of law. When I returned to teaching Tibetan, I was not content merely saying this “Tibetan sentence is translated this way into English.” I needed a rule-based articulable system of translation grounded in recognition of the recurring patterns of Tibetan syntax. This is the approach I have followed in my How To Read Classical Tibetan series. While this is but one of many approaches to learning how to translate classical Tibetan accurately, many have found my methods helpful.

How I Approach Teaching Classical Tibetan

In terms of how I actually go about teaching classical Tibetan, with beginning students I use the first thirteen chapters from Wilson’s Translating Buddhism From Tibetan, supplemented with my own materials. I then go through the paradigm sentences in the appendices on verbs, the eight cases, and syntactic particles. I use these paradigm sentences to teach how to learn how classical Tibetan signifies meaning. For students with prior experience in reading Tibetan, I start with the paradigm sentences in the appendices so we will have a common analytical language for describing classical Tibetan syntax.

I have been fortunate to have students interested in learning to read a range of Buddhist philosophical and practice literature. Students who study with me for a number of years usually fall into one of two groups: those interested in philosophy, and those interested in practice texts. For students on the philosophy tract, I usually begin with a few chapters from Pur-bu-jok’s Small Path of Reasoning. I then teach a short Minds and Awareness text, translated as Mind in Tibetan Buddhism by Lati Rinpoche and Elizabeth Napper. Then, depending on the interests of the students I am working with, I might teach tenets or grounds and paths. While I am known for my published books, I have many more Tibetan texts translated by Hopkins in dual language format that I have created for teaching purposes. I put together all of these dual language texts because I was teaching the material to someone at the time.

An alternative to the emphasis on philosophical texts is what I call sadhana route. These students want to be able to understand their prayers to facilitate practice. I haven’t had as many of these students, but I do enjoy them quite a bit.



Get the help you need to systematically learn how Tibetan signifies meaning.

Get the help you need to make your translation be as good as it can be.

Get the help you need to make your prayers and practice texts come alive.