Teaching Tibet: Compassion and Mortality in a College Classroom

Dalai Lama 1994

Dalai Lama, 1994 (Photo by Vic Mansfield)

“I’ll teach this Tibet class as long as I can,” Vic said after meeting his enthusiastic students for the first class of the semester in 2007. “I love teaching these kids.”

Although Vic was a physic’s professor, he’d also taught a popular class on Tibet for twenty-five years. That fall, while Vic went through cancer treatment, the class met for three hours once a week. We’d moved full time to our land in the Finger Lakes, two hours from Colgate University. Keeping this class going involved commuting, but Vic was confident he could pull it off.

For three weeks in September, Vic drove to Colgate weekly and returned late with joyful stories. He had felt well all summer, but hadn’t been this happy since his cancer diagnosis a year before.

The fourth week, he arrived home with a blotchy red rash on his thighs. Within days, there were worse symptoms, including heart arrhythmia. One night I took him to the hospital where he suffered twelve cardiac arrests. Yes, twelve. Doctors couldn’t explain what was going on, but one thing was clear. Cancer had returned.

While Vic was on life support, the Dalai Lama visited Ithaca. This had been planned for months and Vic had arranged for his class to see His Holiness at Ithaca College. Our friend Steve offered to shepherd Vic’s class through the events. Every student showed up.

DSC04756The next week, Vic was off life support but still in the hospital, so I canceled the Tibet class. When Vic hadn’t been released the third week, he asked me to teach the class. I couldn’t say no. I was too drained to have stage fright, and there was little time to read the assigned reading from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Fortunately, I’d studied the book years before. I’d also learned something about the topic in our last year in Cancerland.

“How is Professor Mansfield?” the students asked when I showed up. “How is Vic? We’re worried about him.” They gathered around me with eager faces.

“It’s a miracle he’s alive,” I said, “but I think he’ll survive. Doctors don’t understand what happened.” Then we talked about living and dying all afternoon.

Colgate University (wikipedia)

Colgate University (wikipedia)

Vic was released from the hospital, frail and feverish, but determined to finish his class. Friends drove him to Colgate two weeks in a row, but when they brought him home, he was too exhausted to get out of the car.

“You can’t do this, Vic,” I said. “Cancel the class.”

“I can’t, E. I need your help.”

Each week, I put a mattress in the back of our station wagon so he could rest during the drive. Each week, I parked in handicapped parking and slowly walked him to class, carrying his briefcase. While the students watched wide-eyed, I helped Vic remove his winter boots and slipped his swollen feet into slippers. I took his coat off and draped it over his hunched shoulders.

Vic after crisis

Vic in his last year

Each week, students gave half-hour presentations based on their research topic. The rest of the afternoon, I led them through the readings and discussions.

Vic was quiet, but when he joined the conversation, the students soaked in his raspy words. He talked about cancer and the lessons of suffering. He talked about mortality, his and theirs. He somehow read and graded student papers between weekly classes.

“This is the most transforming class I’ve ever taken,” the students said repeatedly during the last class of the semester. “My life is changed forever,” one young man said in tears.

Vic and I had taught them the Dalai Lama’s central teachings: we all suffer and the best medicine is kindness. We believed in what we taught. Vic was living proof.


Have you had to push beyond your comfort zone to help a dying person fulfill their last wish? The Dalai Lama was one of our spiritual teachers after we met him in 1979 and he wrote the introduction to Vic’s last book, Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics: Toward A Union of Love and Knowledge. If you’d like to know more about our relationship with him, you’ll like Permeated with Peace (1989) and Zapped by the Dalai Lama.

  1. I did not know Vic was a Physics teacher–and an expert on Tibet. Wow! The story was riveting, especially how you and Vic demonstrated true love as you collaborated on delivering the lecture. You have no idea how far the ripples of these lessons on love and mortality have traveled over the years. Both of you have left a profound legacy to these students. Unforgettable!

    • Thank you, Marian. Yes, he was an astrophysicist, but his books were interdisciplinary works on physics and philosophy/religion/psychology. His Tibet class was the most popular class in the university for many years, and he didn’t give the students a gut class. He worked them. In this last class, they stepped up and so did I. I’m glad the story is unforgettable. I can never judge which posts will resonate.

  2. Tears are lingering long in my eyes on this one, Elaine. What a wodnerful accounting of a beautiful and real experience for the students and incredible evidence of Vic’s fervor and YOURS! Thanks and love, Myra

    • Thank you, Myra. Vic couldn’t let his students down. We all learned so much. It was an unconventional class, but the immediacy of Vic’s illness made it work. These same students were invited to attend the 80 person Science and Buddhism colloquium the following spring when the Dalai Lama came to Colgate. The students saw the Big Guy twice in one year. Lucky students.

  3. How extraordinary, both the tale and the telling.
    Such devoted teachers, both of you.

    • It was extraordinary, and I’m glad it came through in the telling. Vic was devoted to his students. I was devoted to making the end of his life rewarding. We were all rewarded for our efforts. As I said to Myra, the students saw the Dalai Lama in Ithaca when Vic was in the hospital and again at Colgate the following spring when His Holiness visited campus for two days. And they saw Vic teach one last time at a Buddhism and Science colloquium with the Dalai Lama. Powerful and sad days.

  4. What you two taught your students (by example) was as powerful as any words that were spoken in that classroom, Elaine. Amazing . . . ♥

    • It was unforgettable, Marty. Vic rallied to teach with the Dalai Lama a few months later and then the university gave Vic a teaching award. This award made Vic happier than anything. It was my privilege to help him finish his work.

  5. The Dalai Lama has been my teacher too, Elizabeth, and I know how powerful his presence is. Surely the students and you will always treasure Tibet and the Dalai Lama because of Vic’s courageous action. Sometimes just being there says more than anything else.

    One step at a time. You were a “mudder” in the race against death and now you will tell your bereavement story with the same compassion and wisdom.


    • On his first visit to the United States in 1979, the Dalai Lama stayed at our meditation center for four days. After that we saw him frequently. When our teacher died in 1984, the Dalai Lama became the spiritual head of our loosely knit spiritual group. Interesting thing is the group wasn’t Buddhist. Our teacher loved the wisdom of all traditions. We studied Hinduism, Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Christianity, and the psychology of Carl Jung. The Dalai Lama’s main monastery in the United States is only 25 miles away. but there was no pressure to become Buddhist. The Dalai Lama advised us as he advises everyone to stay in our own spiritual tradition. He is truly an open-minded and open-hearted human being.

      The Dalai Lama asked Vic to write a book about Buddhism and physics. Just three months before Vic’s death, ‘Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge’ was released with an intro by the Dalai Lama.

      Thanks for visiting and taking time to respond, Shirley.
      Blessings back your way,

  6. Wow, Elaine, what a gift you and Vic gave those students–and yourselves. And me by sharing it.

    • In the last year of Vic’s life while there was much suffering, there were all these blessings. The students experienced lessons to live by, and they still did all the usual readings and research papers. Thank you, Lynne.

  7. Dear E.
    This one left me in tears too and bolstered and gave me more perspective on my own circumstance. Thanks as always.

    • Lovely to hear from you, Dennis. Suffering grinds us down, and it was no different for Vic. In the midst of a lousy experience, there were meaningful, transcendent moments. We did the best we could the rest of the time, and that’s all any of us can do.
      Sending you love and peace.

  8. Exquisite remembrances and exquisitely told! Those were some very fortunate students. Do you ever wonder what they might have gone on to do in life, after being so blessed? I like to think of the ripples of blessedness that you and Vic cast on the waters! xoxo love you!

    • When Vic taught with the Dalai Lama about 5 months after the class ended, many of these students clustered around Vic to say hello. Or was it goodbye? I heard from a few of them afterwards as well as Vic’s students from earlier years. I had one correspondence on LinkedIn with a student recently. The blessings permeated all of us. Thanks for your loving comments. Blessings of spring to you, dear Liz.

  9. Well, this couldn’t leave any one dry eyed, Elaine. What commitment the both of you showed those students. What love and kindness. Do you do any teaching now? You are a natural! Thanks for this sad and beautiful story.

    • Kirsten, I lead bereavement groups for hospice now. After my book comes out this fall, I’ll lead workshops at a few conferences. Jill encouraged me to sign up to do a TEDx lecture in Corning in November. Eighteen minutes without notes sounds scary, but I applied. We’ll see what happens next. Thanks for encouraging me in that direction. I’m grateful I don’t weep with grief as I did a few years back. We get used to carrying our losses.

  10. Dear Elaine,
    An amazing story, a wonderful example of kindness and love — by you, him, and reciprocally by the students.

    • Thank you for reading and responding, Peggy. Kindness was Vic’s spiritual practice in his last two years. This class was one a fruit of his effort.

  11. How amazing that you got to be there, got to help Vic do what was so important to him. I loved this piece. I missed these parts about the Dalai Lama in the writers’ group. What a story you have. Can’t wait to have the book.

    • When helping Vic survive his last two years, I sometimes felt like a drowning woman. I valued teaching Tibet, but it’s easier to praise the experience with distance from the fatigue and Vic’s suffering. Blessings don’t always feel like blessings at the time.
      You have a powerful book coming, Robin. I look forward to reading it front to back.

  12. How inspiring Elaine. What a gift your life together with Vic was. You are truly a rock and for stories like this and all of your writing, you have so much to offer with life experience. I have to tell you once again, you are so inspirational! 🙂


    • Thank you, Debby. If I had a choice, I would skipped this and quite a few other experiences the last two years of my marriage. But when I look back, some of these moments in the midst of suffering stand out as gifts. So, I feel sad as I write, but also grateful. I hope your husband is doing OK and you are, too. Warmly, Elaine

  13. Lovely piece about Vic’s dedication to his students, and their admiration for him. Those must be very bittersweet memories, but I can only imagine how proud you were of Vic for his commitment to and passion for teaching…


    • I was proud of Vic. His commitment to his students and his work was impressive. I also learned that I can teach without getting obsessed about it. Just show up with a good text and an open heart and everything will be OK. That’s come in handy in the last few years running bereavement groups and now as I apply to give workshops and talks about my book. I imagine you’re an Ace.

  14. Hi Elaine,
    I came here via Jeanie Raffa’s blog and I am so glad I stumbled upon this post. This story was incredible. I had goosebumps from the very beginning and felt the energy of Vic’s passion and your love for him moving through me. Imagining a mattress in the back of the station wagon was an incredible image of dedication.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story.


    • Hi Amanda. I love the title Amanda Sees Dreams. Dreams have been a huge guide for me since I was in college, but even more since my husband’s death. My “bereavement” therapist is a Jungian dream worker. You might enjoy https://elainemansfield.com/2013/finding-balance-during-grief-healing-dreams-and-creativity/ and https://elainemansfield.com/2013/roadblocks-and-new-beginnings/. Both short pieces focus on dreams.

      My husband’s last year was a time of illness and opening of the heart. Vic’s doctors were nearly two hours in one direction and his university two hours in the other. The mattress (and many other tricks) helped him preserve energy, but it was also a constant reminder of his weakness and swelling after he’d been one of the fittest men you could imagine. He wanted to complete that last class and we did.

      Thank you for finding your way to my blog. I’ll look up yours.
      May the dreams keep coming,

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