Remembering Hubert Decleer

The old-school intellectual, researcher and digger into Buddhist texts who lived and died in Kathmandu

Hubert Decleer with rhesus monkeys in Swyambhunath. Photos: SIERRA GLADFELTER

These past weeks I have been thinking a lot about Hubert Decleer, who died a year ago at age 81.

I vividly remember when he related his cancer diagnosis via video call in early 2021, his remarkable wife, poet Nazneen Zafar, sharing the cramped screen and the awful news.

But Hubert was happily himself when we spoke that day, me in Washington, DC, and Hubert and Nazneen at home in Chhauni in Kathmandu. As I teared up, Hubert was gently pragmatic.

With a wry smile he said that “the end must come to each of us”. He was grateful, grinning, for “the very good life” that he had lived, and expectant, eyes bright, in preparing for the next great journey. At his death on 25 August 2021 at home near the glorious, self-emergent chaitya of Swayambhu, Hubert was still the teacher and consummate connector of people that he had been for decades.

In these times of darkness and separation, half-truths, untruths and ignorance let us refresh our human connections with friends, with idiosyncratic mentors, with poets, musicians, and even neighbours. These connections to unique minds and hearts are what make us human and push us to new, uncharted places — as Hubert Decleer did for so many.

Hubert read widely in Buddhist texts, translating and annotating works that literally traced journeys: of Buddhist pandits, translators and pilgrims, and the transmission lineages and pith instructions they spread.

A traveller himself, he came overland from Belgium to Asia in 1963, continuing for dozens of trips afterward, often at the helm of a tour bus wending through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan before reaching India.

He particularly loved ancient biographies and pilgrimage guides, partly because they showed us what many 11th-century Newars, Biharis and Tibetans already knew — and we often seem to forget at our peril — that the world is awash with artistic and spiritual borrowing, copying, trading. Humans are eminent cross pollinators.

Hubert would trace references, footnotes, oral legends across centuries, as if they were the clues to a completely current mystery: Bengali and Kashmiri pandits who passed through the Valley en route to Tibet, or an eminent Tibetan reincarnate Lama, down from the cold plateau in the mid-18th century, writing praises to the ‘Lord of the Plain’ (our Great Black One of Tundikhel).

Hubert was absolutely an old-school intellectual, researcher and digger into texts. But his feet firmly planted on the ground, and he loved a good yarn being himself a master storyteller. He used that gift as an educator: in print, in formal lectures and in private conversations with students.

As a teacher, and powerfully well-read and reflective individual, Hubert could be intimidating. Formidable. He wanted to hear not only what you thought, but how … what kind of a person are you?

Hubert watched you. He listened. He noticed. I found that unnerving. But there was no pretence, instead a quick readiness to admit the things he knew “nothing about” (though that wasn’t usually true). He expected authenticity and integrity without ever using those exact words — because he lived in that space.

He seemed to ever be bringing his students to questions, goading them to ask, and pursue the unknown. He believed that young people, a priori, could do original research contributing to what we all could learn, something his students at first found hard to believe about themselves.

Most of all, Hubert wanted people to leave their bubbles:  travel, truly observe the world and the people you meet, and treat them with deep respect. He was interested in what the so-called ‘ordinary', working people did. What taxi drivers, porters and dishwashers thought.

We both shared a love of the old Hindu and Buddhist trope of the hidden yogi, a figure who enlivens a good tale and serves as cautionary reminder about the pitfalls of mistaking appearances for truth. The dakini sitting on the bus. The camp cook, or shepherd, or the kid next door,  who is actually a siddha — if you could just see.

Hubert also had a profoundly tender side, and either it grew over the years or he let me notice it more: memories of him feeding huge rhesus mama monkeys, his head slightly turned away, arm extended with a bit of old potato, as the whole troupe surrounded him.

Travelling to Tibet, he was (rightly) often more concerned about whether drivers and local guides had eaten enough and had warm clothing than he was about the American students in tow. When you needed something, he would literally jump up from his seat and set about finding you this book or that manuscript, or recommending a local expert you really should meet.

And I will never forget his great compassion when I brought up a difficult conversation to him on a visit back to Nepal ten years ago, or more now. I had feared his judgment, and found love and openness instead.

He was curious about so much beyond the texts he pored over and translated. His love for music, visual arts and history made his face gleam and the talk flow.

Conversations, especially from 1999–2009 when I lived in the Valley, could range from a new film I must see, his “very limited” (in fact, quite the opposite) experience of learning the sarod, to the things I, as an anthropologist, “must know something about,” for instance the contemporary Native American cultures and experiences in the US, what history did we learn in U.S. schools and had I visited “reservations”? Could I explain American obsessions with the end times and the “rapture”, which led to long digressions on millenarian movements across societies? And, of course, what was happening all around us in the Kathmandu Valley, in Nepal and in the wider Himalayan region? Hubert was a seasoned traveller, but from 1980 until his death, Kathmandu was his only home.

Hubert did not ever seem to complain. He expected challenges, and he expected work. He was one of the greatest exemplars of the cumulative powers of certain daily practices: reading and translation, exercising powers of observation, working with self-doubt, appreciating unexpected small joys.

What was better than Hubert laughing, eyes lit up, over a stupid pun? Or humming along, punctuating the air with mouth-trumpet sounds, as he listened to a Delta blues track he couldn’t believe I didn’t know. And Hubert and Nazneen shared one of the greatest romances and partnerships that I have ever witnessed. Wonderful hosts, constantly bringing different people together at their table, but also a complete universe unto themselves.

Hubert Decleer died as he lived: never wanting to make a fuss, always looking after others, and very aware of his surroundings. That he passed away sitting up, with his body unmarked by any signs of decay for three days after his heart stopped (during Kathmandu’s monsoon season), is both utterly remarkable and, somehow, not.

A man who lived so simply, whose only true possession was a room (or two) of books, his passing was the expression of his life and his daily practices. To teachers, mentors and friends of the heart like Hubert: we keep you with us. We gratefully remember.

Peter Moran was the Executive Director of the binational Fulbright Commission in Nepal 2005-2009 and is currently the Director of the Humphrey Fellowship Program for the Institute of International Education in Washington, DC.