The life, the literature and the revolution of Amdo Gendun Chophel
Thursday 27 December 2007, by
“All the people who are born in this world are given, through their past actions, the work that is appropriate for them. This is the work set for me. Thus, I have wandered through the realm, expending my human life on learning.”
Gendun Chophel, The Golden Surface, the story of a Cosmopolitan’s Pilgrimage
A watercolor illustration by Gedun Choephel in the Pema Byams Collection. A rare drawing that survives from Gendun Chophel’s collection of sketches.
Apart from his occasional dabbling in poetry, Gendun Chophel wrote little in Tibet. By the time he returned from India twelve years later, he had authored a staggering number of works: a travelogue, an unfinished history book, an erotica literature, a pilgrimage guidebook; also an English translation of a Tibetan tome on history of Buddhism, Tibetan translations of Indian classics like Shakuntala, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, and the Pali Theravadin cannon, Dhammapada; numerous Tibetan newspaper articles and essays in English for one Mahabodhi Society Journal. His muse, in short, hit him bad when he was on the road.
It could be that in the cosmopolitan Rahul Sankrityayan, who looked to India’s tradition as a source for the revitalization of Indian national consciousness, Gendun Chophel had found a brethren; and in the new country he set foot in, with its classical tradition which had newly attracted a Western scholastic attention and which had become a subject of robust reinvention by local nationalists, GC found the creative grounds which had eluded him thus far. As Tsering Shakya writes, “(Gendun Chophel’s) own growing interest in the sources of Tibetan Buddhist tradition and history would have led him to find the India of that period exciting and inspiring.”
In coming from Tibet to India in 1937, which the Tibetans looked to as Aryabhumi, land of the Buddha, Gendun Chophel had exchanged one milieu for another, both tied together by a history of spiritual and cultural intercourse, but one that had little bearing on real contemporary terms. And so midway into learning Sanskrit in Lhasa thinking it to be the spoken language in India, GC had to quickly switch to struggling with English when told by Rahul that Sanskrit had long ago disappeared from regular conversations.
Gendun Chophel’s most important work by his own estimation is his travel journal, The Golden Surface, the story of a Cosmopolitan’s Pilgrimage, his longest too, which in the course of some 611 pages, only half of them now surviving, dwells upon such subjects as geographical description of India; the origin of its name; customs of its peoples; identification of flowers and trees and how to recognize them; the edicts of King Ashoka as found on stone inscriptions; a general history of India with emphasis on the Gupta and the Pala dynasties; as well as history of Sri Lanka and the religions of non-Buddhists: Hindu, Muslim Islam and Theosophy.
In India, Gendun Chophel took up with Maha Bodhi Society, an international Buddhist missionary organization, which made it possible for him to later visit Ceylon, to learn there about Theravada monks and their philosophy, to write for their journal in English, and to author a Guide to Holy Places in India, which many describe as the first example of modern Tibetan literature and which the society first helped publish. As could be expected, this book, both in style and in content, diverged sharply from the traditional pilgrimage guides: Lamyig, a genre in itself in Tibetan literature associated mostly with reincarnated lamas.
If anything, GC’s book, sprinkled with findings by British archeologists, its narrative more conversational than didactic, dispelled much of the erroneous facts that had shaped the Tibetan view of India and its many pilgrimage sites; In the Portrait of the Dalai lama, Charles Bell, then British Political officer who became a close friend of the Great Thirteenth, remembers: “The most striking admission of ignorance came when he asked me, ‘Where is Bengal? We read this and other such names in our books but we do not know where these countries are’.”
While earlier chroniclers had made their guide books a stage for displays of miraculous sightings and fantastical stories, Gendun Chophel kept it simple and practical: the book, while being a truthful account of a curious mind, carries such useful details as railway network, train connection points, breakdown of costs; complete with instructions on procuring maps and deciding on what to eat and where to sleep.
The Earth is Round
GC also wrote articles and essays for The Tibet Mirror, the only newspaper for Tibetan-speaking world produced from Kalimpong by Tharchin Babu, another Tibetan exposed to Western values and knowledge. He wrote about events that were unfolding in the greater world, about Hitler and the rise of Nazis, about Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle, about airplanes, steam engine and modern science.
And when in 1938, as Lopez writes, “Hitler annexed Austria; Otto Hahn produced the first nuclear fission of uranium; Howard Hughes, flying a twin-engine Lockheed, set a new record for the circumvention of the globe; color television was first demonstrated; the first Xerox image was produced,” when the first Superman episode appeared in Action Comics, in that same year, GC was attempting to prove to his countrymen that the world was not flat.
He wrote detailed articles to that effect, complete with globe illustrations, latitude and longitude and all. Once, GC’s former teacher Geshe Sherab Gyatso passed through Calcutta on his way to China, and found himself exposed to his former student’s critical questioning: “Is the earth flat or round?” When the Geshe defended traditional cosmology according to Buddhist scriptures, GC dismissed him with these words: “Not even a dog, let alone a man will visit you in China if you talk like that!” On this score at least, GC was wrong: the Geshe later went on to assume important positions in Chinese-occupied Tibet.
In one of his articles, GC put forth an argument that U med, or cursive Tibetan script, had evolved from U chen, or block script, challenging a widely-held belief that the two systems had been founded separately on another ancient Indian script and Sanskrit respectively. And so he lived out a role that, as Tsering Shayka notes, was also a burden assumed by modern literary innovations in most societies, “whether the new form has emerged as the organic product of changes in a society or as a result of the impact of colonial rule.” In one poem, GC writes:
I have written facts
Unheard of in the Land of Snows.
Because of my poor and ragged appearance
No one is there to heed my words.
By 1938, much had happened inside Tibet. The 13 th Dalai Lama, who had ushered in a period of de facto independence having wrested it from the inept Qing dynasty and which triggered off events that while placing his country on the cusp of modernity rendered it vulnerable to internal intrigues and open struggles at the highest echelon, had passed away. In his place had been enthroned a 14 th Dalai Lama, now three years old, who was sitting over a nation that was drawing further back into its insularity, making it little prepared for the coming Communist Chinese onslaught. Around that time, in his travel book and his articles, GC was to forewarn about the horrors of colonialism:
“It is generally the case that in every kind of worldly custom, the intelligence of Europeans is superior to ours in a thousand ways. They could easily spin the heads of the peoples of the East and the South, who, honest but naïve, had no experience of anything other than their own countries. And thus they came to many lands, large and small, accompanied by their armies. Their hearts were filled with only self-interest. The timid peoples……were caught like sheep and taken to the (foreigners’) own countries. With feet and hands shackled in irons and given only enough food to wet their mouths, they were made to perform the most difficult work until they died. …… From Africa alone the people thus captured numbered more than one million, and uncountable numbers of the unusable were put in huge boats and abandoned at sea.”
An Unfinished History
GC’s most famous work is probably his White Annals, an unfinished history of Tibet that for once relied more on documented evidences culled from archival chambers than on half-myths and half-truths of the Tibetan Buddhist version that all but blurred the real picture of the country’s past. As Hugh Richardson, British India’s political officer during the 14 th Dalai Lama’s time, notes, the book “was the direct result of his discovery during travels abroad that Western scholars possessed evidence about the early history of Tibet which was unknown to his contemporaries.”
GC’s White Annals was, in that sense, a more accomplished history book than the later History of Tibet by Shakabpa, which in its predictable discourse, in the rigidity of its worldview, differed little from biographies of earlier important lamas. And it formed the impetus for the modern sensibility which contemporary exile scholars like Dawa Norbu, Tsering Shakya and Jamyang Norbu employ in reconstructing our past, in defining our present. So much so that in GC’s use of Tibetan manuscripts salvaged from Dunhuang caves in China some twenty years earlier, which described the might of Tibet’s imperial dynasties, one can see the seeds for the excellent doctorate thesis Dawa Norbu wrote and which he reproduced toward the end of his book Tibet: The Road Ahead.
In the poem that opens his historical work, GC wrote:
Through compiling the available ancient writings
That set forth dates in a manner certain and clear
I have generated a small degree of courage
To measure the dominion and power of the first Tibetan
The Tibetan army of red-faced bloodthirsty demons,
Who pledged their lives with growing courage to
The command of the wrathful Hayagriva
Are said to have conquered two thirds of the circle of the
Around that time GC struck a friendship with Russian Tibetologist, George Roerich, the son of famed artist and poet, Nicholas Roerich, who had taken up residence in Manali in India; and with him the Tibetan monk collaborated on an English translation of the monumental history on Buddhism in Tibet, written some five centuries earlier, called the Blue Annals. It is also likely that around then GC came into contact with modern styles and tempo in paintings, which he incorporated into the skilled strokes of his own paintbrush, thus stretching the expanse of his genius, making him as much of an artist as a scholar and a poet.
The poet in GC had been at work from very early days. But while his poetry written in the Labrang followed formalistic conventions and exaggerated tones, his later works were to reflect a sentiment more personalized than practiced, a way of expressing both subtle and sophisticated, its narrative venturing so far as to incorporate the use of colloquial language. He also wrote poems in English; Heather Stoddard in her biography comments that in “his English poems the influence of nineteenth century English Romantics is noticeable in the vocabulary and style”. In his essays and his poetry, GC championed social reforms and criticized his people’s blind superstition, as evident in a poem widely quoted even today:
All that is old is proclaimed as the work of gods
All that is new conjured by the devil
Wonders are thought to be bad omens
This is the tradition of the land of the Dharma.
Like in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly his Love in the Time of Cholera and Memories of My Melancholic Whores, in which his protagonists straddle the deceptive grounds of lust and love, seeking a life with which to reflect their art, the sex more often than not paid for, so too it seems GC spent his Calcutta days in utter lasciviousness, a part of him looking for that experience with which to flesh out his Treatise on Passion, a book inspired by Kamasutra.
In lyrical prose, his erotic manual, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins into English as Tibetan Arts of Love: Sex, Orgasm and Spiritual Healings, details the subtle nuances and multifarious aspects of kissing, biting, touching, scratching, penetrating, the types of foreplays and after, with such knowingness that it would have left bewildered even the most notorious layman out on his nightly expedition of climbing onto a rooftop and slipping into an unsuspecting woman’s sheepskin blanket, missionary style. As GC writes:
With small shame for myself and great faith in women
I am the kind who chooses evil and abandons good.
For some time I have not had the vows in my head
But recently I stopped the pretense in my bowels.
The book’s instructions on heightened sexual pleasure finds its subtext in the spiritual aspirations of Tantric Buddhism’s sixty-four arts of love, which seek to generate through orgasm a more subtle and powerful level of consciousness; in the mad rush of orgasm, in its finality, one is revealed, subconsciously, the dynamism of spiritual path. Treatise was the only second such manual to appear in the history of Tibetan literature, the first having been composed by the famous Nyingma scholar, MiPham. Making a point of difference between the two works, GC continues:
The venerable Mipham wrote from what he studied
The promiscuous Chophel wrote from what he experienced
The difference in the power of their blessings
Will be understood when a passionate man and woman put
Them into practice.
Going Back to the Roots
Gendun Chophel’s writings, as most commentators observe, are marked by two recurring elements: bitterness and poignancy. In describing the land of Aryans to his audience back home, much of his breath was wasted in undoing misconceptions bordering on fanaticism; in talking about the roundness of the earth, he was charged with rebelling against Buddha’s words; in reclaiming the militaristic glory of his nation’s past, before Tibetan Buddhism mind-shepherded an entire populace to eschew its defense instincts, he risked humiliating his very history. For a writer, he was in a worst place possible. For the community of his readers, disapproval came more naturally than praise, ridicule than respect.
But then paradoxically, as Tsering Shakya says, “What is noteworthy about Gendun Chophel’s work is that his interests were primarily confined to the examination and exploration of his own cultural tradition. Despite the fact that he had acquired a good knowledge of English and was able to compose poems and write articles in that language, there is no evidence that he showed much interest in Western literature. Gendun Chophel’s interest lay in the sources of his own tradition rather than in a search for new fields, just as his studies of Sanskrit and Pali were a part of his research into the original sources of the Tibetan canon. His focus on authenticity and on the roots of Tibetan culture to some degree shows an element of nationalist thought, of an effort to construct a new understanding of the past.”
And so it is fitting that his last known work, also most explosive, was his most elemental, a journey to the very beginning: a treatise about that most authoritative tenet of Tibetan Buddhism, Nagarjuna’s philosophy of Middle Way. It is said Gendun Chophel wrote a core part of this text and the rest he dictated to one of his disciples, a Nyingma monk, which added another dimension to the resulting controversy. Some accounts say GC dictated parts of this book in a series of drunken slur; one anecdote has it that GC, while completely inebriated once, laid out with incredible lucidity the interpretation of Madhyamaka.
The Adornment was written either before Gendun Chophel was put in prison in 1946, or after he was released three years later in 1949. It immediately sparked a controversy that is yet to subside even to this day, provoking refutations from the best minds of Gelug scholasticism, among them a close Geshe colleague of Trijang Rinpoche: their attacks targeting not only GC’s philosophy, but his intelligence, his integrity even.
The man, if anything, was a true man of the letters. When he returned to Tibet, after his twelve years abroad, a bulk of his belongings comprised of several boxes of notes, some scribbled on cigarette wrappers. As GC’s monk companion remarks in the film, Angry Monk, “he would always be writing something. Even at a train station, surrounded by the bustle and chaos of all that went by, he would be looking at things, people, and then jotting something down on a paper.” The boxes had disappeared from his house when Gendun Chophel was released; some say the Lhasa government had handed them over to the British counterpart, perhaps as a token of thanks for turning in a man suspected of involvement with Russian Communist expansionists.
Note: The final and concluding part to be posted shortly.
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