Meet the Fellows: 2016 Newcombe Fellow Natasha Mikles
This is one of a series of posts featuring Fellows from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation network.
The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph. D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2016 class of Fellows includes Natasha Mikles, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia. Ms. Mikles recounts how a trip to Tibet solidified the importance of narrative in her work:
After two full days of driving from the nearest city—including a final three hours on unpaved road with so many bumps that I feared a concussion from the number of times my head hit the roof of the Jeep—I arrived at the small Buddhist temple marking the place of warrior King Gesar’s birth. While many other locales were claimed to be the true birthplace of King Gesar, I wasn’t there to determine historic fact from enthusiastic local fiction. I was there to see firsthand the power of stories.
The power was out—not surprising given the remoteness of the temple—but a young monk led me into the main hall and used his flashlight to illuminate the faces of the statues around me; I was surrounded by ceramic and metal likenesses of King Gesar and his thirty warriors so large they took my breath away. Barely visible in the pale light, each statue had in front of it small piles of offerings—a scarf, a piece of fruit, a bottle of liquor. An old woman walked in behind me, carrying a snow-white offering scarf to place before the statue of the King that stood at the front of the hall. In the courtyard behind me, I heard two young boys throwing rocks at each other, arguing over which one was Gesar and which was the evil demon king. In that moment surrounded by the statues, the offerings, and the children’s play, I realized that stories are so much more than mere entertainment. I could study all the philosophical treatises on Buddhist thought and doctrine I wanted, but if I neglected to study these popular narratives that shape people’s lives and helped them make sense of the world, I risked missing an encounter with the beating heart of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Ms. Mikles’ dissertation title is The Taming of the King: Nyingma Ethical Revitalization and the Gesar Epic in Early Modern Tibet. For more information on the 2016 Newcombe Fellows and to see a list of their dissertation titles, click here.