First of all, I would like to address how I came to translate Gendun Chopel’s book The Tibetan Arts of Love.One might think that I chose it in order to make some money. But, actually from 1963–1968 I was living, or “confined” one might say, in the then-called Lamaist-Buddhist Monastery of America in Freewood Acres, New Jersey. Around 1966, Mrs. Dorji Yuthok came to visit the monastery, as everyone did. (During this period any Tibetan who visited the States ended up in the middle of New Jersey to visit the monastery.) She originally asked me to translate her own story, which was eventually published as The House of the Turquoise Roof and quite different from what we translated way back then. We sat together talking about her life so that I could translate her text into English.
Then, one day Mrs. Yuthok arrived at the monastery with a new printing of Gendun Chopel’s text in her hand: “There’s been a publication of the ‘Dod pa’i bstan bcos!” she announced. This is the kamaśastra, a title chosen by Gendun Chopel to indicate its development from the famed Indian sex book, the kamasutra. She announced, “I think this would be very helpful to Americans.” And she asked, “Would you care to translate it?”
I was shocked, “Oh, oh. I am staying in a monastery. I didn’t come here to do that.” Since I had absolutely no interest in it at all, I was pondering, “How can I get out of this?” I so much did not want to do this, but I wanted to be nice to her; so I thought a really tricky response would be to say “Let’s ask the abbot!”—asking if he wanted me to translate a book on sex, assuming he would refuse. And so we asked him, but he said, “Oh, yes!” I was suddenly outfoxed!
Geshe Wangyal was from the same Gomang College at Drepung where Gendun Chopel did a great deal of his study of Buddhist philosophy. They were fellow students and fellow monks at that time. I have no idea why he assented to my doing this, but in any case, I was stuck. Mrs. Yuthok and I, probably every week or so, would gather at a home down the street. We went through Gendun Chopel’s text painstakingly in 1966 and 1967, and it was a lot of work. She was trying to explain postures to me, guessing at the meaning of some of the archaic language. I must say, I remained totally disinterested. But, I did not shirk the task. This was a task I had to do, so I did it!
I sent that translation off to one publisher under the pseudonym Mark Griswold. The publisher was totally uninterested. So it just sat for decades. The only use I made of it was when I finally went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I used it as proof that I was not solely interested in Buddhist doctrine. My professors were delighted! (You cannot imagine what a relief it gives to people to know that you are interested in something other than Buddhist doctrine.)
In 1973, I began teaching at the University of Virginia, and some fifteen years later I had a student who was interested in sex manuals and so forth. I told him, “I have translated something like that from Tibet,” and he put it into the computer. Finally, in 1991, I had a chance to retranslate the text from the very beginning. And I began to find it quite interesting! I also did a lot of research into sex manuals from the—shall we say?—“Old World” and found they were largely written with a view to men deceiving women so that they could keep women for their pleasure. It is most interesting that in Gendun Chopel’s book, which arises from his study of at least eight sex manuals in India (he mentions that there are some thirty, but he certainly looked at eight; and I was able to locate most of them), he removed all of those parts. He held tremendous respect for women, but also respect for the experience of women in sex. Much of his book is written from the woman’s point of view with an aim to increasing a woman’s pleasure. That is at the heart of its fascination and is probably the reason why Mrs. Yuthok in 1966 said that this would be helpful to Americans. Indeed, some women have told me that they appreciate the book for that reason.
The English translation was published in 1992, and the English version has been retranslated into nine other languages: Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Polish, Korean, Portuguese, Chinese, and two Russian editions. The Chinese translation happened to come out while I was in Taipei last year, generating a tremendous amount of controversy because there is an awful lot of interest in Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan nowadays. And here was a Tibetan lama writing about sex, as if it were okay! As you know, in a Chinese environment, we shouldn’t talk about these things! But Gendun Chopel’s book was even discussed on a television talk show for forty minutes.
As I was polishing the translation in 1991, and having myself come out and announced to the world that I am gay, I could see that reframing the material as a text on homosexual sex might be helpful, again because of the caring attitude toward one’s partner. Thus I published a separate version about gay sex under my own name while acknowledging that it grew from Gendun Chopel’s book.
The motivation for my making this second book using some of his material is like his motivation in writing his book for Tibetans. I was writing my version of it for people in the States, where some gay people even commit suicide out of sexual repression and conflicts with their own orientation in terms of how they express love. It seemed to me that as a gay person with a small level of positive notoriety, it was my duty to affirm my gay sexual identity by publishing such a book. Otherwise, people could think that I was hiding under the straight version, pretending I am straight. Such suspicions of duplicity make the situation even more complicated for those who are conflicted. Already knowing I am gay, they would think, “Even this guy is ashamed!” So, I thought maybe it would help a few people if I brought out a gay version. And, indeed, a few people have told me, “You’ve made my life easier.” I imagine that Gendun Chopel’s book, the straight version, also made some Tibetan families a little happier! It is clear that this was his motivation in writing it, as well as Mrs. Dorji Yuthok’s motivation in seeking to have it translated.
This most stimulating conference has left me with several questions:
If Gendun Chopel was ostensibly arrested for counterfeiting, was any evidence to this effect ever brought forward? Did he ever make a copy of Tibetan money?
Was Gendun Chopel ever formally charged? Tried?
What was the real reason why he was arrested? Who were the chief advocates for his arrest?
What was Gendun Chopel’s wife told happened to him after he was taken away?
Was Gendun Chopel released in the Dalai Lama’s general amnesty? Was he released after an initial release of others? If so, does this indicate that he was in a particularly onerous category?
If Gendun Chopel was arrested and imprisoned for two years and four months (as an enemy of the State?), what is the meaning of Mel Goldstein’s indicating that Gendun Chopel had such an insignificant impact on Tibetan politics through 1950 that he does not warrant a sentence in his political history? Was his arrest mostly unnoticed at the time, or did it have considerable impact on his contemporaries?
Has the Tibetan government, either in Tibet or in exile, ever issued an apology for Gendun Chopel’s arrest? If not, is this, like an undisclosed sin, festering and growing day by day?
What does it mean that the seal on Gendun Chopel’s cell was broken when he was released? Does this mean that his cell was sealed closed, and he was never allowed out to exercise? If food and so forth were taken to him in jail and he passed out notes on cigarette wrappers, did people actually meet him in jail (in his cell?), or were these accomplished through guards?
Did someone at the conference say that the famous stanza scratched on his cell wall was actually not there?
Did Gendun Chopel become addicted to opium while in jail? Who supplied it? Why was it supplied?
Is there any mention of his supposed collaborative translation into English of (parts of?) Dharmakirti’s Commentary on (Dignaga’s) “Compilation of Prime Cognition” (tshad ma rnam ’grel)? If so, who was the collaborator?
Did Gendun Chopel have a life-size female doll for sexual outlet? If so, what happened to it after his arrest?
What was Gendun Chopel’s relationship with Pabongkha? It seems odd that such a partisan Geluk as Pabongkha would favor Gendun Chopel who so forcefully objected to many of Tsongkhapa’s views? (Not to say that some Geluks do not appreciate the views of others, such as Nyingmas, and vice versa, but Pabongkha does not seem to be such a person.)
What is the relevance of Tsering Shakya’s pointing out that Gendun Chopel’s not having created a new literary genre? For instance, is the creation of a new literary genre a criterion for the seminal importance of a founder of an intellectual movement?
Is the picture of a box with a black top that was shown to the audience the famous black box containing his manuscripts?
What did Gendun Chopel do in Sri Lanka?
What was Gendun Chopel’s status at Gomang before leaving for India?
What in Gendun Chopel’s prose and poetry breaks the mold?
Transcribed by Lauran Hartley; transcript edited by Jeffrey Hopkins.