In Memoriam: Hubert Decleer (1940–2021)
With great sadness, we share news that our incomparable teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend Hubert Decleer passed away peacefully on Wednesday, August 25. He was at his home with his wife, the poet Nazneen Zafar, in Kathmandu, Nepal, near the Swayambhū Mahācaitya that had been his constant inspiration for nearly five decades. His health declined rapidly following a diagnosis of advanced-stage lung cancer in May, but he remained lucid and in high spirits and over the past weeks he was surrounded by family members and close friends. Through his final hours, he maintained his love of Himalayan scholarship and black coffee, and his deep and quiet commitment to Buddhist practice.
Hubert’s contributions to the study of Tibetan and Himalayan traditions are expansive, covering the religious, literary, and cultural histories of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and India. For nearly thirty-five years he directed and advised the School for International Training’s program for Tibetan Studies, an undergraduate study-abroad program that has served as a starting point for scholars currently working in fields as diverse as Anthropology, Art History, Education, Conservation, History, Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Public Policy. The countless scholars he inspired are connected by the undercurrent of Hubert's indelible "light touch" and all the subtle and formative lessons he imparted as a mentor and friend.
Hubert embodied a seemingly inexhaustible curiosity that spanned kaleidoscopic interests ranging from Chinese landscapes to Netherlandish still lifes, medieval Tibetan pilgrimage literature to French cinema, 1940s bebop to classical Hindustani vocal performance. With legendary hospitality, his home, informally dubbed “The Institute,” was an oasis for scholars, former students, artists, and musicians, who came to share a simple dinner of daal bhaat or a coffee on the terrace overlooking Swayambhū. The conversations that took place on that terrace often unearthed a text or image or reference that turned out to be the missing link in the visitor's current research project. When not discussing scholarship, Hubert inspired his friends to appreciate the intelligence and charm of animals—monkeys and crows especially—or to enjoy the marvels of a blossoming potted plum tree. His attentiveness to the world around him generated intense sensitivity and compassion. He was an accomplished painter and a captivating storyteller, ever ready with accounts of the artists’ scene in Europe or his numerous overland journeys to Asia. The stories from long ago flowed freely and very often revealed some important insight about the present moment, however discrete.
Hubert François Kamiel Decleer was born on August 22, 1940, in Ostend, Belgium. In 1946, he spent three months in Switzerland with a group of sixty children whose parents served in the Résistance. He completed his Latin-Greek Humaniora at the Royal Atheneum in Ostend in 1958, when he was awarded the Jacques Kets National Prize for biology by the Royal Zoo Society of Antwerp. He developed a keen interest in the arts, and during this period he also held his first exhibition of oil paintings and gouaches. In 1959 he finished his B.A. in History and Dutch Literature at the Regent School in Ghent. Between 1960 and 1963 he taught Dutch and History at the Hotel and Technical School in Ostend, punctuated by a period of military service near Köln, Germany in 1961–62. The highlight of his military career was the founding of a musical group (for which he played drums) that entertained officers’ balls with covers of Ray Charles and other hits of the day.
In 1963 Hubert made the first of his many trips to Asia, hitchhiking for thirteen months from Europe to India and through to Ceylon. Returning to Belgium in 1964, he then worked at the artists’ café La Chèvre Folle in Ostend, where he organized fortnightly exhibitions and occasional cultural events. For the following few years he worked fall and winter for a Belgian travel agency in Manchester and Liverpool, England, while spending summers as a tour guide in Italy, Central Europe, and Turkey. In 1967 he began working as a guide, lecturer, and interpreter for Penn Overland Tours, based in Hereford, England. In these roles he accompanied groups of British, American, Australian, and New Zealand tourists on luxury overland trips from London to Bombay, and later London to Calcutta—excursions that took two and a half months to complete. He made twenty-six overland journeys in the course of fourteen years, during which time he also organized and introduced local musical concerts in Turkey, Pakistan, India, and later Nepal. He likewise accompanied two month-long trips through Iran with specialized international groups as well as a number of overland trips through the USSR and Central Europe. In between his travels, Hubert wrote and presented radio scenarios for Belgian Radio and Television (including work on a prize-winning documentary on Nepal) and for the cultural program Woord. The experiences of hospitality and cultural translation that Hubert accumulated on his many journeys supported his work as a teacher and guide; he was always ready with a hint of how one might better navigate the awkward state of being a stranger in a new place.
With the birth of his daughter Cascia in 1972, Hubert’s travels paused for several years as he took a position tutoring at the Royal Atheneum in Ostend. He also worked as an art critic with a coastal weekly and lectured with concert tours of Nepalese classical musicians, cārya dancers, and the musicologist and performer Michel Dumont.
In 1975, during extended layovers between India journeys, Hubert began a two-year period of training in Buddhist Chinese at the University of Louvain with pioneering Indologist and scholar of Buddhist Studies Étienne Lamotte. He recalled being particularly moved by the Buddhist teachings on impermanence he encountered in his initial studies. He also worked as a bronze-caster apprentice and assistant to sculptor—and student of Lamotte—Roland Monteyne. He then resumed his overland journeying full time, leading trips from London to Kathmandu. These included annual three-month layovers in Nepal, where he began studying Tibetan and Sanskrit with local tutors. He was a participant in the first conference of the Seminar of Young Tibetologists held in Zürich in 1977. In 1980 he settled permanently in Kathmandu, where he continued his private studies for seven years. During this period he also taught French at the Alliance Française and briefly served as secretary to the Consul at the French Embassy in Kathmandu.
It was during the mid 1980s that Hubert began teaching American college students as a lecturer and fieldwork consultant for the Nepal Studies program of the School for International Training (then known as the Experiment in International Living) based in Kathmandu. In 1987 he was tasked with organizing SIT’s inaugural Tibetan Studies program, which ran in the fall of that year. Hubert served as the program’s academic director, a position he would hold for more than a decade. Under his direction, the Tibetan Studies program famously became SIT’s most nomadic college semester abroad, regularly traveling through India, Nepal, Bhutan, as well as western, central, and eastern Tibet. It was also during this period that Hubert produced some of his most memorable writings in the form of academic primers, assignments, and examinations. In 1999 Hubert stepped down as academic director to become the program’s senior faculty advisor, a position he held until his death.
Hubert taught and lectured across Europe and the United States in positions that included visiting lecturer at Middlebury College and Numata visiting faculty member at the University of Vienna.
Hubert’s writing covers broad swaths of geographical and historical territory, although he paid particular attention to the Buddhist traditions of Tibet and Nepal. His research focused on the transmission history of the Vajrabhairava tantras, traditional narrative accounts of the Swayambhū Purāṇa, the sacred geography of the Kathmandu Valley (his 2017 lecture on this topic, “Ambrosia for the Ears of Snowlanders,” is recorded here), and the biographies of the eleventh-century Bengali monk Atiśa. His style of presenting lectures was rooted in his work as a musician and lover of music—he prepared meticulously to be sure his talks were rhythmic, precise, and yet had an element of the spontaneous. One of his preferred mediums was the long-form book review, which incorporated new scholarship and original translations with erudite critiques of subjects ranging from Buddhist philosophy to art history and Tibetan music. His final publication, a forthcoming essay on an episode contained in the correspondence of the seventeenth-century Jesuit António de Andrade (translated by Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling in 2017), uses close readings of Tibetan historical sources and paintings to complicate and contextualize Andrade’s account of his mission to Tibet. This exemplifies the spirit and method of his review essays, which demonstrate his deep admiration of published scholarship through a meticulous consideration of the work and its sources, often leading to new discoveries.
In addition to Hubert’s published work, some of his most endearing and enduring writing has appeared informally, in the guise of photocopied packets intended for his students. Each new semester of the SIT Tibetan Studies program would traditionally begin with what is technically called “The Academic Director’s Introduction and Welcome Letter.” These documents would be mailed out to students several weeks prior to the program, and for most other programs they were intended to inform incoming participants of the basic travel itinerary, required readings, and how many pairs of socks to pack. The Tibetan Studies welcome letter began as a humble, one-page handwritten note, impeccably penned in Hubert’s unmistakable hand.
Hubert’s welcome letters evolved over the years, and they eventually morphed into collections of three or four original essays covering all manner of subjects related to Tibetan Studies, initial hints at how to approach cultural field studies, new research, and experiential education, as well as anecdotes from the previous semester illustrating major triumphs and minor disasters. The welcome letters became increasingly elaborate and in later years regularly reached fifty pages or more in length. The welcome letter for fall 1991, for example, included chapters titled “Scholarly Fever” and “The Field and the Armchair, and not ‘Stage-Struck’ in either.” By spring 1997, the welcome letter included original pieces of scholarship and translation, with a chapter on “The Case of the Royal Testaments” that presented innovative readings of the Maṇi bka’ ’bum. Only one element was missing from the welcome letter, a lacuna corrected in that same text of spring 1997, as noted by its title: Tibetan Studies Tales: An Academic Directors’ Welcome Letter—With Many Footnotes.
Hubert was adamant that even college students on a study-abroad program could undertake original and creative research, either for assignments in Dharamsala, in Kathmandu or the hilly regions of Nepal, or during independent-study projects themselves, which became the capstone of the semester. Expectations were high, sometimes seemingly impossibly high, but with just the right amount of background information and encouragement, the results were often triumphs.
Hubert regularly spent the months between semesters, or during the summer, producing another kind of SIT literature: the “assignment text.” These nearly always included extensive original translations of Tibetan materials and often extended background essays as well. They would usually end with a series of questions that would serve as the basis for a team research project. For fall 1994 there was “Cultural Neo-Colonialism in the Himalayas: The Politics of Enforced Religious Conversion”; later there was the assignment on the famous translator Rwa Lotsāwa called “The Melodious Drumsound All-Pervading: The Life and Complete Liberation of Majestic Lord Rwa Lotsāwa, the Yogin-Translator of Rwa, Mighty Lord in Magic Intervention.” There were extended translations of traditional pilgrimage guides for the Kathmandu Valley, including texts by the Fourth Khamtrul and the Sixth Zhamar hierarchs, for assignments where teams of students would race around the valley rim looking for an elusive footprint in stone or a guesthouse long in ruins that marked the turnoff of an old pilgrim’s trail. For many students these assignments were the first foray into field work methods, and Hubert's careful guidance helped them approach collaborations with local experts ethically and with deep respect for diverse forms of knowledge.
One semester there was a project titled “The Mystery of the IV Brother Images, ’Phags pa mched bzhi” focused on the famous set of statues in Tibet and Nepal and based on new Tibetan materials that had only just come to light. Another examined the “The Tibetan World ‘Translated’ in Western Comics.” Finally, there was a classic of the genre that examined the creative nonconformity of the Bhutanese mad yogin Drugpa Kunleg in light of the American iconoclast composer and musician Frank Zappa: “A Dose of Drugpa Kunleg for the post–1984 Era: Prolegomena to a Review Article of the Real Frank Zappa Book.”
Frank Zappa was, indeed, another of Hubert’s inspirations and his aforementioned review included the following passage: “If there’s one thing I do admire in FZ, it is precisely these ‘highest standards’ and utmost professional thoroughness that does not allow for any sloppiness (in the name of artistic freedom or spontaneous freedom)…. At the same time, each concert is really different, [and]…appears as a completely spontaneous event.” Hubert’s life as a scholar, teacher, and mentor was a consummate illustration of this highest ideal.
Hubert is survived by his wife Nazneen Zafar; his daughter Cascia Decleer, son-in-law Diarmuid Conaty, and grandsons Keanu and Kiran Conaty; his sister Annie Decleer and brother-in-law Patrick van Calenbergh; his brother Misjel Decleer and sister-in-law Martine Thomaere; his stepmother Agnès Decleer, and half-brother Luc Decleer. A traditional cremation ceremony at the Bijeśvarī Vajrayoginī temple near Swayambhū is planned for Friday.
Benjamin Bogin, Andrew Quintman, and Dominique Townsend
Portions of this biographical sketch draw on the introduction to Himalayan Passages: Newar and Tibetan Studies in Honor of Hubert Decleer (Wisdom Publications, 2014)