“It Looked Like Holy Lhasa to Us.”

དགེ་རྒན་ཆེན་མོ་རོན་ སེ་ལ།
Professor Ron Sela

Remarks presented at the event commemorating the 5th anniversary of the passing of Tibetan Studies scholar Elliot Sperling, and launching the Tibetan translation of On the Road.
“It Looked Like Holy Lhasa to Us”: Tibet and the Beat Generation. Indiana University, January 27, 2022.

Five years ago, Elliot Sperling, who used to be a Professor of Tibetan Studies at Indiana University and is probably well known to most of you, passed away unexpectedly in his apartment in New York City.

Elliot Sperling in Tibet, 1985.

Every year since, on the anniversary of his passing, we’ve been celebrating his life with a special event. This year, our event coincides with the publication of the translation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road into Tibetan, and serendipitously, the occasion of Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday.

Originally, we had planned a large, in-person gathering, with jazz musicians, Tibetan food, and all sorts of other surprises. One of our aims was to showcase Indiana University as the only place, perhaps, where such an event could happen in-house, from the Tibetan Studies Program to the Music School, to the IU Lilly Library, where Kerouac’s original scroll of On the Road is preserved.

But there’s a pandemic going on, and you know the rest…

We have titled this event, “It Looked Like Holy Lhasa to Us”: Tibet and the Beat Generation.” The first half of the title – “It looked like holy Lhasa to us” – is a direct quote from Kerouac’s On the Road, in a passage where the travelling companions compare the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo right across the U.S. border on the bank of the Rio Grande to Lhasa. Not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Tibet in the 1940s and 50s, but Kerouac found inspiration in all sorts of quarters.  

The connection between Kerouac and Tibet (or at least, a version of Buddhism that served as a gateway to what some people imagined as Tibet) has been made a long time ago. This connection is clear in some of Kerouac’s vocabulary choices, it’s clear in some of his thought processes, it’s clear in some of his personal associations.

That connection seemed to be one-directional. Those who studied it, academically or intuitively, write about Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism’s influence on the Beat Generation, or about the way members of the Beat Generation influenced Americans’ perception of Buddhism, or religion more generally. But as far as I know, no one has written about Jack Kerouac’s influence on Tibet… To an extent, there’s no reason why anyone would – what influence, they’d ask justly?

But Elliot Sperling thought differently. It was Elliot’s idea to translate Kerouac’s On the Road into Tibetan, and it is Elliot’s friend and colleague, Gen Rabsal-la, also a faculty member at Indiana University, who has translated the book. Now, when we finally have a Tibetan translation of On the Road, Elliot could imagine a host of young Tibetan readers exposed to… well, what would they be exposed to?

Why On the Road? Well, Elliot had his reasons. The book made a strong impression on him, as it did on many young people who read it in the late 1950s and since. The book served as an invitation for a journey to a generation that was experiencing – or, was suddenly allowed to experience – many new things. For Elliot, as he himself said time and again, the Beat Generation and the Counterculture Movement, allowed questioning, allowed the expansion of one’s horizons, political, spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical. Undertaking a journey, as Kerouac and his companions did in On the Road, was an indispensable part of it.

When, in 1969, 18-year-old Elliot hitchhiked to the Woodstock music festival, this act was very much connected to Kerouac. (Elliot used to say that this performance by the Who, was the most memorable one at Woodstock.)

At the end of his freshman year, Elliot and a friend hitchhiked from New York to California, “Just like Kerouac”, as Elliot said in an interview.

Map of the Hippie Trail

And when, two years later, Elliot hitchhiked on land from Istanbul to India, Kerouac’s On the Road was in the background. Elliot’s journey was, of course, a part of that “Hippie trail,” as it was called, undertaken by many young foreigners, all interacting with each other, with little knowledge of the history of the places they visited, or the local cultures or the local languages. In fact, as Elliot himself said in a 2006 interview to [Bloomington, Indiana, community radio station] WFHB, and I quote, “It was a rather ghettoized existence, Western travelers asking other Western travelers what to do and where to go…”  But ultimately, even this ghettoized existence could lead to some life-changing experiences.

Golden Dome of Imam Reza.

So On the Road was Elliot’s silent companion at Woodstock; and it was with him when he gazed at the towering minarets of Istanbul; or at the medieval Seljuk madrasa in Erzurum; or when he walked through the old covered bazaar in Tabriz; or the bustling streets of Tehran; On the Road accompanied Elliot as he explored the Golden Dome of Imam Reza shrine and Goharshad Mosque in Mashhad in northeastern Iran; or the markets and mosques of Herat in Afghanistan; the book’s presence was felt at the sight of the giant Buddhas – recently butchered – in the Valley of Bamiyan; then in Kabul; then Peshawar.

When he finally arrived in Delhi; a fellow traveler took young impressionable Elliot to Delhi’s Tibet House, where Elliot saw for the first time in his life a Tibetan monk. Then it was on to Kathmandu; and ultimately – Dharamsala, the Tibetan capital in exile.

The rest, as they say, is history.

So, Kerouac and his physical and metaphysical journey had some hand in stimulating someone who would become one of the world’s most important historians of Tibet.

McLeod Ganj, 1971. Photo by Elliot.

In his youthful enthusiasm, or perhaps naiveté, Elliot believed that a Tibetan translation of On the Road would inspire young Tibetans as it had inspired him. In his efforts to facilitate such a translation, and in trying to articulate why Tibetans needed this book, Elliot would throw about such terms as liberation, modernity, literacy, freedom, and possibility. Certainly, a lot to expect from any book.

Of course, such inspiration would be multi-faceted and clearly contextualized, and one may wonder whether terms and ideas that had served primarily American younger generations can or should apply to Tibetans, whose circumstances and challenges may be quite dissimilar. But Elliot was also a dreamer, and dreams are important.    


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