I myself have not closely researched Gendun Chopel. It is primarily Kirti Rinpoche, Pema la, Tashi Tsering, and Hortsang Jigme who have done this. Also, there are Western scholars, such as Heather Stoddard here. They have all researched Gendun Chopel. I myself have not done any research directly about Gendun Chopel per se. However, I am interested in modern history, Tibetan society, the political situation, etc. Thus, I think it is necessary to look at who has written about the history of Gendun Chopel.
And Melvyn Goldstein has spoken on this, right? If we were to ask whether Gendun Chopel had any direct connection with the Tibetan Ganden Phodrang Government, its administration or politics, we cannot find anything in the histories to support this. However, it is widely known that he was involved in politics and his name appears in this context. What type of person was Gendun Chopel? I think we need to recognize him as a scholar uncommon for the twentieth century and as a pioneer. However, many people think that he was a modern pioneer (gsar gtod pa).
We have heard this term “pioneer” a great deal yesterday and today. There are various ways to understand this. Out of interest in Gendun Chopel, I have dug through his writings. On the one hand, Gendun Chopel can be seen as a traditional scholar. Why do I say that? First, his upbringing and education accorded with that of a traditional intellectual. He was raised in a religious monastic environment, a monastery. Second, Gendun Chopel’s subject of interest was no different than that of traditional scholars. He was interested in history, philosophy, grammar, poetry—the same topics that interested traditional monk-scholars. Gendun Chopel’s main sources were in Hindi and Sanskrit. His interests were focused on Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. And, India, the home of the Buddha, is generally recognized as the most influential source of Tibetan culture. For this reason, I think we cannot deny Gendun Chopel’s status as a traditional scholar.
However, why are we interested in him? What was innovative about him? From 1930 to 1950, it was not only Tibetans but many scholars in non-Western countries (China, India, etc.) who had the same idea: “Western countries have undergone a great transformation, but our country is still backwards.” Such thinking could be found in India, in China, in Africa. Second, intellectuals in these countries also wanted to determine where the roots of their respective countries lay. I think that Gendun Chopel turned to history in order to look for the roots of our country. He saw the need to pay attention to not simply religious history but also to the history of human accomplishment. Thus, I think that Gendun Chopel was not a radical innovator who directly opposed tradition.
For example, at that time, Gendun Chopel protested against traditional culture. But did he argue that traditional culture should be destroyed and thrown in the rubbish bin? I think it was nothing like that. As I have just mentioned, we see the areas that he was interested in. At that time—whether it was Marxism, or socialism, or capitalism, many people felt there was a need for change. In many countries, there were people who voiced the opinion that their own culture was old and should be tossed like rubbish. I do not think that Gendun Chopel held that sort of a view. In some of Gendun Chopel’s poems, he belittled certain aspects of our traditional culture and customs that smelled of waste. But is this criticism a disparagement of all Tibetan religion and customs? Not at all, it seems to me. Whether it is certain lamas in the monasteries, or certain individuals in lay society, Tibetan sayings belittle religious fakes. And then some people are surprised to find out that Gendun Chopel criticized our tradition. But this disparaging of our old customs can also be found in traditional Tibetan sayings. Right? For example, “Good lamas are born in rich homes.” What he said is not in conflict with our tradition. I think we could find many such people in our history.
And so we might ask: How was this Gendun Chopel? I think he was a person that valued our Tibetan culture because if we look at other countries at that time—Gendun Chopel knew English well; his translations are good. Why didn’t Gendun Chopel translate any modern books from English? He translated those works that had been neglected by our traditional translators. Why didn’t Gendun Chopel translate works on Marxism or Scientism? Hadn’t he heard of them? Hadn’t he been introduced to them? Of course he had. But where did his interest lie? I think he valued his own religion and history. This is my estimation of Gendun Chopel.
I would like to share a couple of other thoughts. Yesterday, Hortsang Jigme spoke about [the modern Tibetan writer] Dondrup Gyal (1953–1985). While I was reading some of Gendun Chopel’s works, I began to think: In his essay “Narrow Footpath” and poem “Waterfall of Youth,” I thought all we want to do is walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, rather than add to the work of our ancestors. Gendun Chopel went to India and wrote his Guide to India some sixty years ago. Since then, tens of thousands of us have been to India. Not one person has added to his guide. We know the situation in India better than Gendun Chopel. So, why haven’t we had even a single person write a supplement or expand his work? Isn’t this the shame of our generation? Gendun Chopel went only to India. Our generation has been to New York and all over the world. For sixty years, there hasn’t been a single person who could write a work like Gtam rgyud gser gyi thang ma (Grains of Gold). We should not just be praising Gendun Chopel; we need a person who can take him as a model and do as he did. That is all.
Translated by Lauran Hartley.