Note: The following is Du Yongbin’s original paper in English that he presented at the conference, not a transcription.

The Role Played by Gendun Chopel in Modern Tibetan History

It is our sacred duty to commemorate Gendun Chopel with a meeting such as this centennial. On October 24, 2003, the China Tibetology Research Center (Beijing) sponsored a similar commemorative conference on the centennial of Gendun Chopel. Both Chinese and Tibetan scholars, including three living Buddhas, participated in the event. My own presentation was titled “Gendun Chopel: A Contemporary Perspective” and introduced recent advances in the study of Gendun Chopel.

Today, the subject of my presentation is Gendun Chopel’s position in modern Tibetan history. It is based on my research, materials, and documents of four types: 1)Writings by Gendun Chopel; 2) books on Gendun Chopel in Tibetan, Chinese, French, and English; 3) fieldwork in Tibetan areas; and 4) interviews with persons related to Gendun Chopel. My presentation consists of three sections, which I shall summarize here:

I. Gendun Chopel is a great scholar in the modern cultural and academic history of Tibet. First, Gendun Chopel left a treasured academic and intellectual heritage for later generations. Second, Gendun Chopel transformed traditional Tibetan studies into modern Tibetan studies through his writings and academic practice. Third, Gendun Chopel’s writings and Tibetan research have distinctive styles. Fourth, Gendun Chopel made a great contribution in terms of cultural exchange between Tibet and India. He helped translate Tibetan books into English and classical Indic texts into Tibetan, such as the Ramayana and the Dhammapada. Finally, Gendun Chopel created a new paradigm for Tibetan Studies.

II. Gendun Chopel is a great thinker in the modern intellectual history of Tibet. First, Gendun Chopel founded a humanist conception of history in Tibetan studies. Second, Gendun Chopel made great contributions to the enlightenment and liberation of thought in modern Tibet.

III. The third section addresses the question, “Why did Gendun Chopel become a great scholar and a great thinker?” First, Gendun Chopel lived in the context of a unique family, a distinctive culture, a special society, exceptional political conditions, and an unusual era. Second, Gendun Chopel had special and broad interpersonal relations in his short life. Third, Gendun Chopel’s personality was unique.

Gendun Chopel (Dge-dun-chos-’phel, 1903–1951) was a great Tibetan lama, academic master, and enlightened thinker. He was also a humanist pioneer in modern Tibet. His bumpy and short lifetime was imbued with legendary color and he had a distinctive and fascinating disposition; his thought radiated with wisdom and his words and conduct departed from the classics. He rebelled against orthodoxy, and to this day people delight in speaking about such episodes. His exquisite academic achievements, which remained unmatched for decades, served to benefit later generations. His brilliant academic thought and research methods, which became new common practice and thus forged a link between the preceding (traditional) era and the subsequent (modern) era, have had epoch-making significance in the academic history of Tibet. Gendun Chopel may be rated as a master of great learning in modern Tibetan studies. His humanist and enlightened thought represents a transformation from a Buddhist theological conception of history to a humanist conception of history, shifting the focus from god to the people and enlightening the benighted of Tibetan feudal society in the first half of the twentieth century. Gendun Chopel alone was awake in the closed, conservative, and confined Tibetan society of that time. He manifested extraordinary courage and insight, as well as exceptional boldness. His coming into the world is a miracle of Tibetan history in the twentieth century.

I. Gendun Chopel is a great scholar in modern Tibet.

First, Gendun Chopel left a treasured academic and intellectual heritage for later generations. The Tibetan scholar Chapel Tseten Puntsok (Chab spel Tshe brtan phun tshogs) has observed: “Even a Buddhist chant of Gendun Chopel has an enlightening effect on us, let alone his entire opus.” Gendun Chopel’s works “expressed his thought, like a lamp in the dark, for our research on Tibetan society and history…. His academic achievements deserve to be a source of pride for the people of the twentieth century.” Gendun Chopel deserves to occupy a prominent place in modern academic history and thought history.

Second, Gendun Chopel transformed traditional Tibetan studies into modern Tibetan studies through his writings and academic practice. His academic achievements, study, and conduct all benefited from his deep roots in traditional Tibetan culture. On the basis of furthering traditional Tibetan studies, Gendun Chopel founded modern Tibetan studies. He was the first to adopt a humanist conception of history as a guiding principle in the practice of researching Tibetan history, culture, and religion. Gendun Chopel applied positive linguistic and fieldwork methods to research Tibetan areas and the Tibetan people. By establishing such scientific methodology, he ushered in a new era of Tibetan studies. In short, Gendun Chopel shook the Buddhist theological conception of history that had dominated the Tibetan academy and culture for nearly a thousand years, and established a humanist conception of history.

Third, Gendun Chopel made great contributions to the cultural exchange between Tibet and India. Gendun Chopel wrote and translated many works in his short lifetime—not least, The Blue Annals, for which he received insufficient credit from his collaborator George Roerich. His writings and translations either strengthened the weak link between Tibetan and Indian studies or filled the gaps. His application of a humanist conception of history and scientific methods in the examination and research of societies, history, and culture in Tibet and India led to a breakthrough in the practice of traditional Tibetan studies, which had been previously shrouded by Buddhist theology. He thus initiated modern Tibetan studies with rational and scientific colors. Gendun Chopel’s achievements in learning and enlightenment thought had an epoch-making effect. The manifestations of the flourishing of modern European historiography were the renewal of ideas, exploration of materials, and the development of methods. These are the chief features of modern Tibetan studies initiated by Gendun Chopel, and in essence, comprise the difference between traditional Tibetan studies and modern Tibetan studies.

Fourth, Gendun Chopel’s writings and Tibetan studies are distinct in style from traditional study and writing. His writings and translations emphasize a popularistic approach while embodying a sense of time and history, thus lending an entirely new cast to Tibetan academics and culture. One characteristic of Gendun Chopel’s writings is popularization; as a humanist scholar and enlightenment thinker, Gendun Chopel shifted his focus from the divine altar downward to the land, nearing more closely the general society and populace. He writes: “steaming from nature, if you make clear the problems with plain truth, the ignorant are not unhappy; instead, they would blame you for it. If you tell the plain truth with a profound and difficult method, they would fear and praise you as having a scholarly manner. Most persons adopt a distrusting and despising attitude toward the persons who make clear the problems with plain truth; instead, they respect, trust, and consider profound the persons who deliberately mystify the simple.” Gendun Chopel’s works are interesting and infectious due to his simple style in terms of study and writing. His works not only focus on what could be called “seeking truth” but are also concerned with “conveying the vivid.” This is the charm of Gendun Chopel’s writings. Another characteristic of his writing is a sense of time and history. Gendun Chopel’s academic works are stamped with the brand of his style and reflect the spirit of the time (Zeitgeist). He both reflects on the history, culture, and religion of the Tibetans, and exposes and criticizes malpractices in society. He writes:

I reject subjectivism and assumption. I discard the action which makes up utterly groundless or fantastic stories at will to please the public with claptrap. I dismiss behavior which dares not tell the truth for currying favor with others. I abandon the doing which does not distinguish clearly between right and wrong and seeks a good reputation in order to keep his sack of roasted barley flour. I cast aside boasting words, which make the foolish frightened, the bowing and scraping which make up to the powerful and influential, and the mystical stories which make the followers moan and groan, and instead walk my upright way.

The leading Tibetan scholars of Gendun Chopel’s time—Khyenrab Norbu (Mkhyen rab nor bu, 1883–1962); Sherab Gyatso (Shes rab rgya mtsho, 1884–1968); Xie Guo’an (Rdo rje spyod pa, 1887–1966); Sungrab Gyatso (Sung rab rgya mtsho, 1896–1982); Shakabpa Wangchuk Deden (Zha sgab pa Dbang phyug bde ldan, 1907–1989); Tseten Zhabdrung (Tshe tan zhabs drung, 1910–1985); Mugé Samten (Dmu dge bsam gtan, 1913–1993); Dorjé Gyalpo (Rdo rje rgyal po, 1913–1992); et al.—were masters of “the Five Knowledges” (rig pa gnas lnga). In essence, their writings belong to traditional Tibetan studies. In contrast, Gendun Chopel’s writings, both in their style and method, as well as their academic thought, are different from the former. Gendun Chopel was not only nurtured in Tibetan culture and Buddhism but also influenced by Indian and Western cultures. For this reason, he could link Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Buddhism, access Western culture, and master modern methods. As a result, Gendun Chopel possessed conditions unattainable by other Tibetan scholars of his time. This is the reason why Gendun Chopel could stand alone among the lamas and scholars of his time.

Finally, Gendun Chopel set up the new Paradigm in Tibetan studies. His humanist conception of history and methods of science, as well as his rigorous and simple styles of study and writing, opened a new way and set a new model for later Tibetologists. He remolded traditional Tibetan studies and established the new “paradigm” for Tibetan scholars, which led to the rebirth of Tibetan studies. The “paradigm” had an important impact on Tibetan scholarship in the twentieth century. Gendun Chopel’s conception of history, research method, and styles of study and writing were and continue to be followed by his disciples and later Tibetan scholars. As a consequence of the above mentioned fact, what I would call the “Gendun Chopel School” was formed. Horkhang Sonam Penbar (Hor khang Bsod nams dpal ’bar), a Tibetan scholar and patron of Gendun Chopel, together with Gendun Chopel’s disciples Rakra Thupten Chödar (Ra kra Thub bstan chos dar), Könchok Apo Lachung (Dkon mchog A po bla chung), etc., inherited the mantle of Gendun Chopel’s tradition. Tibetan scholar Chapel Tseten Phuntsok inherited and developed Gendun Chopel’s style of scholarship and his research methods. Chapel Tseten Phuntsok simultaneously utilized ancient Tibetan historical documents from Dunhuang, Chinese historical records, and archaeological materials. His studies on Tibetan history were permeated with humanist thought and rationalist spirit. Professors Dungkar Lozang Trinlé (Dung dkar Blo bzang ’phrin las) Rinpoche, Khyenrab Özer (Mkhyen rab ’od zer), and Shardong (Shar gdong) Rinpoche were all spiritually attracted to be friends with Gendun Chopel and identified with Gendun Chopel’s scholarship. Finally, young Tibetan scholars—such as Dondrup Gyal (Don grub rgyal), Shawo Tsering (Sha bo tshe ring), and Dorje Gyal (Rdo rje rgyal) in Rebkong—were also affected by Gendun Chopel’s scholarship and thought, so much so that they even followed Gendun Chopel’s style of study and writing. In this sense, Gendun Chopel is worthy of being called the originator and master of modern Tibetan studies.

II. Gendun Chopel is a great thinker in modern Tibet.

Until now, publications on Gendun Chopel have seldom discussed his thought. These writers did not regard Gendun Chopel as a Tibetan thinker. Based on my research, Gendun Chopel is not only a legendary Tibetan Buddhist lama and famous academic master, he is also an insightful Tibetan thinker who made an epoch-making contribution to the intellectual history of the Tibetans and deserves to be called a Tibetan humanist pioneer and enlightenment thinker.

First, Gendun Chopel set up a humanist conception of history on Tibetan studies. This is a thesis and guiding principle in Gendun Chopel’s scholarship, practice, and thought. His thought was filled with a strong humanist colors. In Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought (Klu sgrub dgongs rgyan), Gendun Chopel asserted the belief that the final decisive root of all “Right,” “Wrong,” “Have,” “None,” is not Buddha, but ones mind. He thus theoretically shook the supreme position of Buddha and Buddhist doctrine.

Second, Gendun Chopel made great contributions to the enlightenment and liberation of thought in modern Tibet. He believed in wisdom and the capability of people. In his opinion, people were the center of the world and a yardstick for measuring everything. He wished to substitute human-oriented culture for Buddhist-oriented culture. He exposed corrupt practices in Buddhism, challenged traditional Tibetan epistemology, ethical concepts and values, and advocated the rational, thus breaking the confines of thought. Particularly, Gendun Chopel highlighted self-respect and looked down upon persons who worshipped and had blind faith in things foreign or Indian. He wrote: “Some Tibetan scholars take pride in the names of mountains, lands, and flowers in India. When they use metaphors for the body that compare it to the lofty ’Bigs byed ri bo Mountain [Editor’s note: Mount Jambudvipa] and words like the clean water from the Ganges River, they regard the poem as fine or graceful. But if metaphors for the body, such as the lofty Rma rgyal spom ra Snow Mountain [Editor’s note: Amnye Machen] or words like surging water from the Yellow River are used, they look at the poem as bad or inferior.” In writing The White Annals, he tried to restore the features of Tibetan history. In writing Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought, he hoped to restore the true features of Tibetan Buddhism. In writing Treatise on Love (’Dod pa’i bstan bcos), he sought to restore the true features of human nature of the Tibetans. Gendun Chopel devoted himself to enlightening the thought of Tibetans. His attitude toward traditional Tibetan culture was not one of self-glorification but of self-knowledge or knowing one’s place: self-dignity. Toward Tibetan Buddhism he was self-conscious and toward the feudal rulers he was conceited and arrogant, but toward foreign or Indian culture he was respectful. In terms of his scholarship, he was never self-righteous, self-satisfied or self-deceptive. Rather, he was self-confident that he could go his own way.

III. Why did Gendun Chopel become a great scholar and a great thinker?

First, Gendun Chopel lived in the context of a unique family, distinctive culture, special society, exceptional political conditions, and an unusual era. Gendun Chopel could not only act as a “bystander” in both Indian and Tibetan cultures, and traditional and modern cultures, he could also reveal these cultures in their true colors and examine tradition and Buddhism with a modern perspective.

Second, during his short life, Gendun Chopel had special personal relationships with a broad range of people: leading Tibetan lamas and scholars, such as Sherab Gyatso; foreign scholars, such as Rahul Sankrityayan (India), George N. Roerich (Russia), Jacques Bacot (France), H.E. Richardson (Britain), and agent Hisao Kimura (Japan); his disciples, including Dawa Zangpo (Zla ba bzang po); his lovers and female friends, such as Yudrön (G.yu sgron) from Kham, and Gangani and Asali from India. Such special interpersonal relations had an important impact on Gendun Chopel’s experience of life and his course of thought. As a consequence, Gendun Chopel could tower above his contemporaries in scholarship and thought; he was unparalleled for a time.

Third, Gendun Chopel’s personality was unique. He was both a lama and scholar; he was called both a “sage” and a “beggar.” He hoped to see clearly the two civilizations and combine Buddhist culture with secular culture. Gendun Chopel was neither constrained by tradition nor blinded by Buddhist scripts; nor was he controlled by ruler or bound by prejudice due to a dual disposition. Instead, he put forth bravely his real knowledge and deep insight in the context of the Buddhist society. He sought not to be loved but to be credible and true in his academic practice. As a “marginal person,” he departed from the classics and rebelled against the orthodoxy, thus realizing academic and intellectual achievements to which no monk or scholar of his time could hold a candle.

In conclusion, Gendun Chopel lived in a period of transition from traditional to modern society. He jumped boldly out of temples, traveled beyond the circle of Tibetan areas and the Tibetan people, and opened his eyes to see the world. He made two epoch-making contributions to the history of Tibet and became a great scholar, an outstanding humanist pioneer, and an enlightenment-thinker in modern Tibet.

As a pioneer, Gendun Chopel suffered many a setback during his life due to living in a confused world and fighting in isolation. He detested the world and its ways, departed from the classics and rebelled against the orthodoxy; he reflected on and criticized traditional culture and Buddhism, and tried to “reevaluate all values.” He may be called the Nietzsche of Tibet. In fact, Gendun Chopel set himself against the unification of the political and religious system. Unfortunately, he could not get any response or support from Tibetan monks or the general population. As a result, both political and religious groups in Tibet subjected Gendun Chopel to unbridled persecution, leading to his being strangled by Tibetan society. Gendun Chopel’s humanist thought was a progressive perspective in Tibetan society at that time. Like Nietzsche, Gendun Chopel was thus “a premature baby in the new century” and “a premature infant of Zeitgeist.”

Gendun Chopel had a clear conscience for his time, his nation and his motherland. We now confront a new era of transformation in the twenty-first century. Tibetan culture, Tibetan Buddhism, academics, and intellectual thought are confronted with a challenge: How to treat national culture, Tibetan Buddhism, and foreign culture? How to handle the relations between traditional culture and modern culture? How to develop Tibetan scholarship, culture, and thought? How to maintain national cultural traditions while interacting with the trends of world culture? This is the situation facing every Tibetan, Tibetologist, and Tibetophile. Its significance lies in the memory of Gendun Chopel.

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