It has been many years, more than sixty, since I met Gendun Chopel la, so I don’t remember very much. I met him just a few times and had only several polite conversations with him. He was my brother Sonam Tomjor’s close friend and intellectual companion. My brother liked and admired Gendun Chopel la tremendously and would tell me about him, especially after one of their many discussions. So in a sense, Gendun Chopel la’s presence was constant in our house, in family conversations and such. My brother was a very sensitive person, bookish, and gentle, with a sharp, inquiring mind. He was not only well read in Tibetan but in Chinese and English, as well. He may have met Gendun Chopel la through our cousin Horkhang Sonam Pembar, who was the patron of the Mongol geshe, Chodrak la, who lived at the Horkhang mansion and who was a friend of Gendun Chopel’s. Sonam Pembar was also of an intellectual bent and a good companion to both Gendun Chopel la and my brother.
I first met Gendun Chopel la before he left for India. He came to our house to see my brother. He was not in monk’s robes, so he had probably disrobed by then. He was wearing a plain dark blue woolen chuba (robe) tied somewhat loosely (jon-jon). His hair was very short but not shaved. He had a thin, somewhat sad, face, which was not unpleasant and showed his gentle and good nature. He was of medium height. In conversation he was soft-spoken and unassuming.
My brother would spend whole evenings with Gendun Chopel la in scholarly discussions or just long, and always interesting, conversations, and would later tell me about them. He did not come to our house often, but my brother constantly went to meet him and converse with him. So I heard a lot about him from my brother. Since my brother spoke so highly of him, I had great respect for him.
I clearly remember my brother telling me that Gendun Chopel la’s father was a powerful ngakpa (lay tantric practitioner), someone who could openly manifest evidence of his spiritual power, in a matter of fact way. I also heard that Gendun Chopel left Amdo to join Drepung monastery in Lhasa after he had some strange recurring dreams of being chased by a horned animal and being pushed toward central Tibet. He identified the horned animal as Damchen Chogyal, a protective deity of the Gelukpa sect, and interpreted this dreams as a sign that he should leave Amdo for Lhasa and become a Gelukpa scholar. So Gendun Chopel la, whose family tradition was strongly Ningmapa, now became a Gelukpa.
Gendun Chopel la also told my brother that when he was a monk, Kyapche Phabonka, was very fond of him. Sometimes Gendun Chopel la would go to the Phabonka’s hermitage to pay his respect to the great lama. Phabonka would embrace him affectionately and give him his blessings. He would also jokingly scratch Gendun Chopel’s back, saying that scholar monks (pechawa) were so engrossed in their studies and negligent of their personal welfare that they were probably verminous. Phabonka Rinpoche would also give him presents of money and supplies to support him. Gendun Chopel la also said that Kyapche Trichang Rinpoche (the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s tutor) was very kind to him and had helped support him.
My brother sometimes remarked that in this day and age there was only one real lotsawa (scholar/translator), like someone from the old days, and that was Gendun Chopel la. After he returned from his travels to India, he completed a Tibetan translation of the Dhamapadda, the collection of Buddhist aphorisms, from the Pali original. Our family decided to sponsor the publication of this translation. We had it printed in the old way from xylographs and especially commissioned the preparation and engraving of the many wooden blocks. We printed a number of copies for wide distribution to lamas, scholars, and institutions. Gendun Chopel’s translation was very poetic, moving, and I am sure, true to the original Pali. I read it a number of times, and I still remember this one verse:
Nyeme pa la tsenmo ring,
nyewar ghyur la shue ta ring,
dampae choe ni mishay pae,
chiba nam la khorwa ring.
Without sleep the night is long,
Without rest the journey is long,
Without knowledge of the best dharma,
For those children, existence is long.
Our family had commissioned the publication of other works such as Dudjom Rinpoche’s Dhagyig pecha, (an elementary guide to better writing), and an unusual biography of the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsanyang Gyatso. Tashi Tsering la, the scholar, told me that the biography of Tsanyang has been reprinted recently in Tibet, but I don’t think that any copies of our edition of the Dhamapadda translation exists anymore. Another edition (printed with metal type) was published in Kalimpong by Tharchin Babu la, and another by the Mahabodhi Society.
We stored the xylographs in our household Kangyur Lhakang (scripture temple) in our Lhasa mansion. This temple was about four pillars in dimension (about 40×40 square feet). We stored the wooden blocks on racks along one wall. We would sometimes lend them to people who wanted to print a few copies of those texts. Once, on returning to Lhasa, I discovered that all the xylographs, including those for the Dhamapadda, had disappeared. I contacted my Uncle Khenchung who was supposed to be looking after things while I was away, and he claimed that he had lent them to a printer but he couldn’t remember the fellow’s name off hand. So that was the end of that.
One day in Lhasa when I was alone and my brother had departed for some official business, I heard that Gendun Chopel had been arrested by the Lhasa magistrates and was incarcerated at Nangtseshak (snang rtse shag), the city court of Lhasa and the central jail, which was adjacent to (just north of) the main Jokhang Temple.
I immediately sent a couple of trustworthy servants to make inquiries as to his condition and to provide him some bedding and a meal. The servants came back and told me that, right then, the situation wasn’t too bad and that the constables had put Gendun Chopel la in a room on the top floor of the building, which had sufficient windows, and the living conditions were tolerable. Most prisoners were housed on the ground floor. The Nangtseshag was a three-story building. It looked like an old monastery or labrang, and was probably one, too, originally.
I sent Gendun Chopel la a brand new cotton quilt, which I had bought from India, with a clean new cover and a ceramic mug (with lid). I also sent him a vacuum flask full of tea and meals regularly. I got our cook to prepare him some nice dishes: momos and other things. I also made sure everything we sent him was clean and decent. I sent these things to him through servants who were absolutely trustworthy. I think one of them was Thondup, our maid (meme) Sona’s husband, and the other was Dawa Tsering, the husband of your old nanny, Pema Tsewang.
Gendun Chopel la sent me back notes scribbled on the blank inside surface of cigarette packets. He would also send verses he had written, many of religious nature. One note described how one day he dropped a cigarette butt from his upstairs window to the inner courtyard of the jail below and that the prisoners pushed and shoved one another to claim it. He wrote that he felt this great surge of compassion for those wretched inmates. After four or five days, I can’t be sure, he sent me a final note in English, with just these words, “Need not send.” He probably thought that the Tethong family would come under suspicion of the authorities if we appeared too close to him. So I stopped sending food to the prison, but I saved his notes.
At that time I had to handle this affair as my brother Sonam Tomjor, the head of the household, was away north in Nagtsang, where he had been appointed the district magistrate. When I heard that Gendun Chopel la was being charged with being an agent of the Guomindang government of China, I was very worried that my brother could possibly face charges because of his close friendship with Gendun Chopel la, and even be arrested if he came to Lhasa.
I immediately dispatched Nima, our household steward (nyerpa dongen) north to Nagtsang. This old retainer, also the father of my maid Dawa Bhuti, was absolutely loyal to our family. After the death of my parents, he looked out for myself and my siblings like an older relative. He rode urgently to Nagtsang to tell my brother not to come down to Lhasa. My brother was in fact on his way to the capital and had arrived at the nomad encampment of Yangbachen, which is about half way to the city from Nagtsang. But our steward managed to meet him there and make sure he didn’t continue on to Lhasa.
Around that time I had to go to the Minister Kapshopa’s house for some other business. While waiting for the minister in his living room, the minister’s wife came in and asked me where my brother was. At once I became suspicious, and I realized that she knew I had sent my steward to warn my brother. Then the minister himself came in to talk to me. He spoke politely and with a false show of concern. He also asked me where my brother was and I told him, as I did his wife, that he was up north at Nagtsang. He then said, “His young lordship (sekusho) should be careful with the company he keeps, or it may come to pass like the saying, ‘The father a noble sandal wood tree, the son a marsh reed'” (Pha tsenden dongpo la bhu chushing yunbu soro jay yong). I realized that they suspected my brother, but I did not say anything.
My brother had been approached by his friend Rapga Pangdatsang, a Khampa intellectual to join their secret revolutionary organization, the Tibet Improvement Party (which was Guomindang inspired and sponsored)—but my brother did not join. My brother had no confidence in the Guomindang, and besides, he was not into such things. A high-ranking Guomindang official even requested my brother to start a Chinese school in Lhasa, which he assured him the Guomindang government would finance. My brother politely refused. This official had earlier come to Lhasa as a monk and had rented rooms on the ground floor of our mansion. We knew him by his monk name, Besung. After some years of study he had made a trip to the sacred hills of Tsari, which are located in one of the most wild and remote parts of southern Tibet. On his return to China he wrote a book about his explorations, for which he was honored by the Chinese President Chiang Kaishek and granted an official rank.
Then the charges against Gendun Chopel la were made public. They were not only political but also very personal and ugly. I did not believe any of those charges then and do not now. My brother regarded Gendun Chopel as a genuinely great Buddhist scholar—like someone from the great days of our historical past when Buddhism was first brought to Tibet by saints and scholars. I completely believe that Gendun Chopel la was such a person.
After we made sure there were no charges against my brother, he finally came back to Lhasa. I showed him the notes Gendun Chopel la had sent me. My brother became nervous and asked me to burn them. I can understand his reasons but I regret doing so, even now.
Some years after that, I left for our estate in Shigatse and then traveled to India, to enroll my youngest brother and two sisters in English schools. After I returned from India, Gendun Chopel la was released from prison. One day, quite unexpectedly, he appeared at the front door of our house. He seemed to be somewhat inebriated and he wore his chubs untidily. My brother rushed down the stairs to greet him. As soon as he saw my brother he stumbled forward and embraced him clumsily. My brother quickly ushered him inside our house and into an inner chamber.
So once again my brother resumed his intellectual evenings with his mentor and friend. By that time my brother was not the magistrate of Nagtsang anymore and his official duties were light. He only had to spend a couple of hours every day at a government office in Lhasa, after which his time was his own. He would go over to the Gomang Khangsar building in the northern end of the Barkhor area, where Gendun Chopel la had a small apartment. The building itself was probably owned by Drepung Gomang College. The two of them (and sometimes other friends) would order a kettle of chang (costing five silver sangs, ngosang nga) and some boxes of American army field rations, which they would have as snacks. Then they would sit back and talk about all sorts of things. For at least a year they did this.
After the Second World War, there was a great deal of military surplus articles being sold all over Tibet by enterprising Tibetan merchants. One of the most popular items was the American army field rations packs, which were regarded as an excellent snack item by many Tibetans. Each pack had one small can of meat: corned beef or pork mixed with carrots peas or other vegetables. This was accompanied by three thick unsweetened biscuits. There was also one sachet of instant coffee, four sugar cubes, one small pack of (five) cigarettes (Lucky Strikes, Camels, or Old Golds), and a book of matches. For sweets there would be one thick slab of chocolate and a few sticks of chewing gum, usually cinnamon flavored. There were also some sheets of toilet paper. This all came in a small cardboard box encased in wax.
Gendun Chopel la told my brother many stories of his journey to the many Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India and Nepal. He mentioned that the night before seeing the great Buddha image at Lahaul (Garsha Phagpa) he had actually dreamed of the statue. He also claimed that when he saw the statue he heard a great roaring sound. I think Gendun Chopel la may have mentioned this incident in his Guide to Buddhist Holy Sites in India. I mention this, as some ill-informed people these days seem to have no hesitation about claiming that Gendun Chopel was an atheist or that he had no faith in the Dharma. In fact he was a genuinely spiritual person. He also advised my brother not to make derogatory remarks about trülkus and lamas. He said that whenever he would meet a lama, he would invariably have a dream of Chenresig the night before.
By that time my second youngest brother, Rakra Rinpoche, was also friendly with Gendun Chopel la and sometimes studied under him. One day Rakra Rinpoche had a request for me from Gendun Chopel la. He asked me to paint him a picture of Arya Tara. Rinpoche most probably told Gendun Chopel la that I painted in my spare time and Gendun Chopel la assumed that I could do a thankga for him. I said that I could not, and that I might get the proportions or iconography wrong, which as you know is a big sin. But Gendun Chopel la had insisted to my brother that I paint him a picture of Tara. He wanted one done by a woman, as he felt that females had special powers that could benefit spiritual practices. So I agreed to do the picture, and on its completion, I sent it to him. Soon afterward he came to our house and thanked me for my work. He offered me a khatag and a Chinese silver dollar, the kind issued in Sichuan with the image of the emperor (or whoever) wearing a tung motse cap with long pheasant feathers. I kept the coin as a souvenir and a precious item in my mendel offering, and I have it to this day.
I travelled to India in 1948 and then returned to Lhasa in the summer of 1949 to make arrangements for my younger sister Tashi’s marriage. It was around then that I heard that Gendun Chopel la was living with a woman. I used to go to see my uncle Tesur, who was an official at the Lhasa Telephone and Telegraph Office (Tarkhang) in the area of the Tengyeling monastery. Overlooking my uncle’s house was an old dilapidated park (probably belonging to the former Tengyeling monastery) that had been neglected for some years. From his window, my uncle pointed out two people sitting on a patch of lawn under a willow tree. It was Gendun Chopel la with a khampa woman, sharing a kettle of chang. My uncle told me that he would come quite regularly to that park and drink chang.
That was the last time I last saw him. You (J.N.) were then about then one year old. It was just after the Chinese invaded Kham and captured Chamdo. We left Lhasa soon after that.
Since Lotsawa Richen Sangpo (twelfth-century) Tibet has probably never really had such a great lotsawa as Gendun Chopel la. It was deeply sad what happened to him, and such a tremendous loss for our country and people.