Conducted near the monastery of Lamo Dechen in Amdo, 19th of August 1999.
Born in 1932 in Northeastern Tibet. Studied in Drepung Monastery (Gomang College) between 1949 and 1955. That was the time, when he briefly met GC. His mother's relatives and GC had become friends in Lhasa. For some time they were taking care of GC after his release from prison. Tibetan, not in the film.
What is your name?
My name is Lobsang Samten. I am 68 years old. I went to Lhasa on 30th of July 1949. I returned home to Amdo in 1955. Till then, I lived at Gomang khangtsen [college] of the Drepung Monastery.
When did you first hear of GC?
When I first came to Lhasa, my mother's relative and GC were friends. He was staying there. At that time, I came to know GC. I was 18 but I don't know how old he was.
What sort of person was GC, when you first saw him?
After visiting the holy places in Lhasa, I went to my mother's relative. GC came there the next day. In the past, the Tibetan army's drill commands were in English. I was told that GC was translating them into Tibetan. GC was lying on a bed and talking to some friends. He said the drill commands in Tibetan would go like Gong, Toed, Tson, Dralak Tson, etc. 'Isn't this good', GC jokingly asked them. I didn't know him well, then.
How did your family come to know GC?
My family and GC had known each other since long time back. My teacher in Lhasa, he is now in India, he and GC had known each other, since their time in the monastery [of Drepung]. I came to know GC through him. Around 1950, during the time of the Losar festivities [Tibetan New Year], GC came to Drepung. On his way back, I was told to lead GC's horse. You know what that means. When we were below the Drepung monastery, GC said that he wanted to ride the horse now. He asked me to push down the stirrup. I thought he wanted me to push down the stirrup on the other side. So I went towards the other side. But GC said I should hold down the stirrup on his side. He scolded me, saying, 'what kind of a man are you?!' We then continued to Lhasa.
What sorts of conversation did you have with GC?
I was very young then. That's why I did not have many conversations with him. My teacher and GC frequently had conversations on ordinary subjects. My teacher knows a lot about him. He is now in India. Champa [Amdo Champa] of Lhasa would also know a lot about him. Being young, I didn't discuss spiritual matters with him. I did not even talk about normal things with him. But we knew each other. I don't remember how many times I met him. He used to come to my teacher's place. When he came, I had to serve him tea and food. Other than that, I did not have any particular conversations with him.
Tell us about prison?
GC had already been released from prison, when I reached Lhasa. The person who got him released was the Senior Lubhum, Ghen Palden Ludrub. My mother's relative, who is now in India, assisted him. To secure his release, they took some money and eatables to the aristocrats [government officials]. The person who paid up for all this was Gendun Zoepa [a friend from East-Tibet]. But the person, who actually went and spoke to the aristocrats, was Palden Ludrub. It was said that GC was released on the condition that he would not leave Lhasa. Xining Abo from Kumbum [famous monastery in East-Tibet] stood surety for him. It was said that GC was free to move about in Lhasa. But he was not to go out of Lhasa, to places like Amdo [East-Tibet] or India. He was released on this condition. He was in Lhasa at that time.
Did you talk with Gendun Choephel when you met him?
As I said earlier, GC came to Drepung and spent time there during Losar, three or four days. At that time, GC said there was nothing special about photography. He brought an Indian hat, the ones with three eyelets in it. He closed two eyelets and left only one open. Then he put one of his hands inside the hat and covered his head with a shawl, so that others could not see it. He said if there was a house, one could see the house through the eyelet, and if there was a man walking, one could also see this man. Photography, he continued, didn't have much to it. It was just like that, he said. Ghen showed us this. He also said that he would make something with soap. But this is a more scientific matter. I did not get to experiment with this. Then there were also lots of normal talks. I did not interact directly with him. The elders talked among themselves. They were elders and scholars. I was young. I did not get to ask him about scriptures etc. I did not even have ordinary talks with him. I used to see him every day, though. Amdo Champa in
Lhasa should be able to tell you more. He was a thangka painter.
You said that Gendun Choephel had a photo taken of him before his death?
Before GC's death, Palden Ludrub, the senior monk of our khangtsen [college], went to him one night to ask after his health. Palden Ludrub saw a lot of write-ups at GC's place. He had asked Palden Ludrub to take the write-ups with him to his khangsten [in Drepung]. My teacher saw that GC had brought a man to his house. GC wrapped a blanket around the lower part of his body. His upper body was naked. He had his photos taken in that state. Palden Ludrub asked him, why he was having his photo taken. GC said that in India, a person, who has his photo taken before death, would be considered famous. 'That's why I am having my photo taken.' This is, what Palden Ludrup said GC had told him. He promised GC to take the write-ups on the following day. So he left the write-ups that night at GC's place. GC died the following day. But the write-ups had disappeared. The aristocrats, he had many students among them... [Thinks] They had taken the write-ups. My teacher said he did not get the write-ups.
Where are those photos now?
That I wouldn't know. I only heard that such photos had been taken. They probably don't exist now. If Amdo Champa doesn't have them, the photos may not exist now. Champa and GC were friends. They talked a lot to each other.
When you were in Drepung, what did the older monks say about GC?
There used to be a huge geshe [title in Buddhist philosophy] examination sessions during the Drepung congregation. The monks from Loseling and Gomang [different colleges within Drepung] had to go to each other for these geshe examinations. So, two Gomang monks went to Loseling for these exams and the monks of Loseling had to debate with them. At that time, there was a famous monk called Minyak Kyorpon. He is not alive now. [See interviews: Amdo Champa, Alak Chongsay, and Alak Yongtsin]. When I was in Drepung, Minyak Kyorpon was the abbot of Gyutoe College. He asked a question, to which GC pretended not to have any answer. He thought GC really did not know the answer. He then said, 'You wouldn't know this, but you can answer the question, I will give you this chabri.' A chabri is the rectangular thing that the monks wear on their lap. Now there was a bet. GC actually knew the answer. He said that the answer to his question was in such and such book and in such and such lines. Then GC insisted on having the chabri. He took the chabri. This story was going around.
There were many other such stories. But I can't remember them properly now. In those days, there were 7,700 monks in Drepung. GC caused Minyak Kyorpon to lose face in front of the whole congregation. This story was going around. But it didn't happen during my time in Drepung [the story goes back to GC time in Drepung between 1928-34]. GC was a spectacular debater. He was also a spectacular writer. But again, this debate incident took place, before I joined Drepung. I am just telling you one or two things that I heard from other people. I wasn't there at that time.
What other things did the monks of Drepung say about GC?
It was said that GC followed the Nyingma doctrine [old translation school]. He wrote a book, entitled 'Ludrub Gong-gyen'. It was said that he had written a lot of [bad] things in that book, that he had refuted Je Tsongkhapa [the founder of the Gelugpa doctrine], etc. I have seen the book myself, but I can't say anything about this. GC was said to be a Nyingma follower [GC actually had a Nyingma family background, but got his formal education in Gelugpa monasteries]. He was said to have refuted Je Tsongkhapa. Tsangpa Geshe Choejor of Gaden Jangtse wrote a refutation of GC's contention. But GC was dead by the time the refutation was completed... GC died a day or so before the wood blocks of his work was completed. I have neither seen GC original text, nor this refutation. I only heard about this...
Have you read some of GC's works?
[Lobsang Samten starts reciting, without any further explanation]
The eastern land of Tibet,
Where the knowledge is greatly sought after,
Is the place I see the Vajra-like mother
And the spiritual father of the adept practitioners.
From there, I, as wayfarer, come to this place.
As a sign of the Karmic wind of previous lives,
I now know not which path to tread.
Though I, as Tibetan, am born in Tibet
My life was spent in this Land called India
This son of A-long-'khor, for twelve long years,
Have not seen the beautiful fatherland [1934-46].
Not able to see my kind old mother
Anger rages to consume my heart,
And more when I reflect on our separation.
The northern road of mind is long
And the southern ocean is vast.
The path treaded by the courageous beings
Is the root cause of all weariness and frustrations.
Though, I see no reason here to utter harsh words
Which are like stones covered in gold,
The despair that filled my mind
Spilled, beyond control, to this mutable friend.
Being a man from the farthest end of this world
The yearn to see my land is greater than before.
With my friends' love at my heart's core
I long to return home, as early as can be.
Have you read the White Annals?
Yes, I did. The Tibetan government arrested GC, when the writing of the 'White Annals' was still in progress. After releasing him, the Tibetan government told him that he must complete the 'White Annals'. As a fee, the government gave him 80 khel of barley. GC and I were from the same khangtsen [college in Drepung]. The younger monks of our khangtsen went to transport the barley. It was later said that GC had died the night before the 'White Annals' was due for completion. Whether this is true or not, I don't know.
You arrived in Lhasa in 1949. The Chinese came there in 1950 and 1951?
They came in 1951. In the beginning, about 500 Chinese came. Then followed, as they said, 1,000, 2,000. Many came. You ask others about this... [Hesitates] As I said, about 500 came. They were received in Lhasa. There was a military camp in Lubhuk [outside of Lhasa]. After that, now what should I say. Some said there were 2,000, 3,000. There were many Chinese in Lhasa, when the Panchen Lama came. It was said that there were 20'000 Chinese. After that I did not hear anything...
Were you surprised or scared?
No. No. It was not that scary. They [the Chinese] came as a part of a joint initiative with the Tibetans. They did not indulge in atrocities. They did not fire at people. They came to help the people. They were not scary.
Did you hear of GC's death?
Yes. I was in Lhasa at that time. His body was taken to the Sera cremation ground [north of Lhasa]. He was given a sky burial according to the Tibetan tradition [actually GC was cremated]. Palden Lhundrub, my teacher, told me. We all were from the same khangtsen. He [Palden Lhundrub] had lived in the same room. GC drank and his body had swelled this much [See interview: Amdo Champa].
Were you sad when he died?
Yes. On the one hand, the Tibetan [Central Tibet] and Amdo [East-Tibet] people were fond of him. He was a great scholar. He was from the same khangtsen as me. If he had lived, he would have benefited the khangtsen and the Tibetan people. This is, why I was sad. Anyone, who would not feel sad at the death of such a great scholar, would be a strange person. That's it. He wrote the 'White Annals'. You read it, and you will find that he had feelings for his people [for Tibet]. I will not say more now.
Was GC significant or not?
Well, he is no more. But his works represent him. All his works serve as his representative. I have not been able to study his works thoroughly. In one way, what GC really was... [Thinks] ...are his works. The things he said for the benefit of his people... He said beneficial things. Since I am not learned, I can't really describe GC in just a few words...
But if you were to describe GC, how would you do this?
I don't know. If I were to describe him... He was born in Amdo, in the village of Zhoepang. At a young age, he went to Ditsa monastery and studied Buddhist scriptures there. Then he studied scriptures in Labrang. Then he came to the monastery of Drepung [in Lhasa] and studied scriptures there. Then he stopped the scriptural studies [in 1934] and went to India on pilgrimage for 12 years. Then he went to England or France and learned foreign languages [here Lobsang Samten is wrong]. Then he came back to Lhasa . On reaching Lhasa, the Tibetan government soon arrested him. Later he was released. That's all I can say. The fruits of his life are really his works. More I don't know.
Why was GC imprisoned?
What could have been the reason? Even if I had heard it, I don't remember now. There must have been some reason for his imprisonment. When I reached Lhasa [in 1949], he had already been released. And I was young then. Even if I had heard, I don't remember.
Do you think that your meeting with GC helped you in your life?
I can't say. I went to Lhasa in 1949. GC died in 1951. I did not go to his house. He came to our house – every day.
How did your teacher meet Gendun Choephel?
They were at the same monastery [Drepung, between 1928-34]. They were in Lhubum khangtsen. I don't know, where they came to know each other. My teacher said that he met GC on the Barkhor in Lhasa, after GC's return from India [in 1946]. My teacher saw GC on the Barkhor with a friend. GC asked my teacher if he had a house and my teacher replied in the affirmative and brought him to our house. He spent a day at our house. Later, he had many students in Lhasa. Many aristocrats were his students. They arranged a house for him.
Did Gendun Choephel have a wife in Lhasa?
Yes, he had a wife in Lhasa. I know, who his wife was, but I never met her. I heard that his wife did not serve him well... [Thinks] Palden Ludrub was a senior monk of our khangtsen. Since GC belonged to our khangsten, we would look after him. The monks of Rebkong [in general, monks from East-Tibet] belonged to Lhubum khangtsen. Palden Ludrub was a senior monk of Lhubum khangtsen. He was the head of our khangtsen. When he heard that GC's wife did not treat him well, he went to GC's house and scolded the wife. That is what Palden Ludrup told me. He told her that if she was interested in serving GC well, she should really do it. Otherwise, she should leave. That's how, as Palden Ludrub told us, he had scolded GC's wife. That's how I came to know.
What was GC's physical appearance, when you first saw him?
He was not at all that thin [anymore]. He must have been very thin earlier. He had a nickname to that effect [Ditsa gambo, the skinny guy from Ditsa monastery]. The people of Rebkong brought a photo of GC, in which he looked very thin. I don't know when that photo had been taken. When I met him [in 1949], he was about 50 years old [actually 46].
GC smoked and drank after his release from the prison. Did you see him do this?
I saw him drink. He was very strange, when he drank. I saw him drunk many times. Although he looked drunk, some people said, he was not drunk from their perspective. But I did not see him remain sober after drinking, although he drank regularly. He really drank a lot.
What did the monks say about his drinking and smoking problems?
Earlier, he had been a Gelugpa follower. At that time, he neither had a wife, nor did he drink, nor did he smoke. Later, he took a wife, drank and smoked. He defrocked. Then he went abroad and returned [Lobsang Samten's order of events are a bit mixed up]. The monks criticized him from a sectarian point of view. But they did not criticize him over his works, which showed that he had feelings for the Tibetan people. There were people, who said that he was a proselyte [Christian]. Whether he was really a proselyte or not is something that could be understood only if one went into his mind. That's something we can't judge from the external appearance. I don't know whether he was a proselyte or not.
Why did he drink?
I don't know. I did drink, too. I wouldn't know. It has been many years since then. I don't remember what he said. He did not talk much. He slept most of the time in a state of drunkenness.
Was GC sad or happy?
I can't be sure. We are ordinary people. I did not find him any different from other people...