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The Story of a Monk Wanderer: Part I

The life, the literature and the revolution of Amdo Gendun Chophel

Thursday 27 December 2007, by Topden Tsering

Recently, there has been a spate of articles on Gendun Chophel: two of them reviews of a Swiss filmmaker Luc Schaedler’s documentary on his life, cursory like blurbs on DVD jackets. The third a much longer piece, nostalgic and wistful, did much to retrace his steps but little to discuss a man it professed to “rediscover”. Broken into two parts, this article seeks to do better justice to the story of a genius that was Gendun Chophel’s life. The writer is indebted to Luc Schaedler , the maker of Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet; Donad S. Lopez, the author of The Madman’s Middle Way and Tsering Shakya, noted Tibetan historian, for their invaluable resources. Note : Where Gendun Chophel appears more than once in a paragraph, he is simply GC.

“All the people who are born in this world are given, through their past actions, the work that is appropriate for them. This is the work set for me. Thus, I have wandered through the realm, expending my human life on learning.”
Gendun Chophel, The Golden Surface, the Story of a Cosmopolitan’s Pilgrimage

Gendhun ChophelGendun Chophel was a 43-year-old mess of a man when the Chinese soldiers entered Lhasa in September 1951. His long imprisonment under the Tibetan government had left him despondent, sickly and interminably given to alcoholism; he shunned the world outside his house as if it comprised of nothing but lepers and crooks. But that autumn day when the grounds of the Tibetan capital shook with marching boots under thousands of fluttering red banners, guns pointing in the air, Mao Zedong beaming from life-sized portraits, he asked his wife to be carried to the rooftop for a better view. There, held straight by her from one side and a Mongolian neighbor monk from the other, he watched the spectacle and uttered these words: “Now we are f**ked!”

That outburst, credible or not but attributed by a certain account as many such stories that shroud him, doesn’t quite make it to Swiss filmmaker, Luc Schaedler’s Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet. Instead the film retraces Gendun Chophel’s journey, from a small boy in Amdo to a young monk in Lhasa to a seeker in India and Ceylon, and back into Tibet, taking along its viewers into the disparate worlds he straddled and which fueled the catharsis of his multi-faceted genius: as a philosopher, a poet, a painter, a researcher, a translator and a writer. It resurrects the wanderer in GC whose destiny it was to stray into the far beyond while never once taking his eyes off the precarious state of his nation’s being; a man who had made it his one mission to put up a mirror to his society in which to behold the real from the fantastic, the true from the false, and the humane from the godliness, or ghostliness, of it all.

Gendun Chophel was a monk who was a sensualist. He smoked, he drank and he fornicated. He was a man of the world who, disguised as a mendicant, slipped into Hindu temples, drew maps of his alien surroundings, sketched architectural impressions, deciphered strange customs and reported on events and innovations that his own country had not a whiff of. To recreate such a life, a universe unto itself, would have been a difficult task in the hands of any lesser filmmaker. Luc pulls it off admirably.

All that with the help of one or two photographs that survive; accounts by people who remembered him, among them a fellow monk traveler; commentaries by historians, poets and authors; and for the most part a camera that energetically, jerkily, trains on dirt roads and railway tracks as scenes change hands from a desolate village to monasteries to vast steppes to bustling Indian cities, shoring up a distinct nostalgia that springs from the commingling of such conflicting milieus. One is left privately experiencing the dizzying swirl around the monk’s tramping of all that was strange, new and confusing. And the rapture with which he relished it all. Right down to the many brothels he visited only to boast to his monk-friend of the three, four, five women that he had had sex with and how they all differed in the softness of their lips, the ferocity of their touch, the earnestness of their sighs.

The film, however, touches only too breezily Gendun Chophel’s literary genius, his astounding oeuvres in poetry, philosophy, history, travel writing, reportages; his translations of classics: from Sanskrit and Pali into Tibetan, from Tibetan into English, and from English into Tibetan; his investigation into Dunhuang documents salvaged from Chinese caves in order to write an authentic Tibetan history; and finally, if that were not enough, his much controversial Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thoughts which literally stacked against his single person the hostility of entire Gelugpa scholasticism, outraged at his perceived attack on the teachings of Je Tsonkhapa, that very epicenter of the mainstream Tibetan Buddhist civilization.

But that might be not so much the film’s failing, as it might be because of the constraints of a formatting that is documentary-making. And that is where Donald S. Lopez’s The Madman’s Middle Way comes in, which was published only this year.

Donald S. Lopez’s The Madman digs deep into Gendun Chophel’s literature, especially, as the title suggests, into the originality, the criticisms, the controversies, surrounding the monk-wanderer’s tectonic effort to reconcile the two ends of the continuum of consciousness, sentient beings on the one hand and the Buddha on the other, and to wrest away the elaborations of the Gelug scholastics back into the hands of the Buddha, to “proclaim a kind of populist Madkhyamaka (Middle Way), in which the simple declarations of existence and nonexistence are to be taken quite literally – without the mediation of interpretation of those learned in logic – and their implications felt with their full force.”

In a way, this book answers a challenge David Seyfort Ruegg put forth to Gendun Chophel aficionados in general and scholars of the Middle Way in particular when he wrote in his Journal of the Royal Asiatic Studies review of Heather Stoddard’s 1985 biography, Le Mendiant de l’Amdo:

“A judgement as to whether Gendun Chophel was a powerful and penetrating thinker or simply a gifted scholastic will have to await a detailed study of his controversial study on the Madhyamaka…..An assessment of this work will be no easy undertaking because it will be necessary to determine what belongs in this text to GC himself and what might have been added by his disciple and author (the compiler Laba Sangpo), because of the inherent difficulty of such a work that exploits the resources of Tibetan Madhyamaka dialectics, because of the extensive Indo-Tibetan philosophical background that it presupposes, and because of the critical responses and refutations it has already called forth. An evaluation of this work will no doubt be of some importance to our understanding of the role of Middle Way philosophy in modern times.”

It is not in the scope of this article, nor within this writer’s expertise, to comment on Gendun Chophel’s position on “ Middle Way”, or to comprehend fully the refutations it engendered and the debates that surround it. But the book is valuable in the insightful details, outside its philosophical core, it provides about GC’s life; his literature; his experiences and encounters: while in Tibet, in India and Ceylon; and finally, his imprisonment by the Lhasa government, after his revolution for social reforms was nipped at its bud, so that he would languish like a common criminal until the day he would be released into the glare of alcoholism and dejection and early death.

Lopez says about Gendun Chophel, “As a writer on the page, he was a master of genre. As an actor in the world, he excelled at playing the part. Yet he longed for recognition for who he truly was.”

That recognition was not to be his while he lived, but some half a century after his death Gendun Chophel is the name that renders possible the idea of a modern Tibetan identity, that most portent weapon, for those inside Tibet as well as outside, with which to preserve whatever remains of our tradition, our heritage, our identity, and make of these a living force to help us navigate our individual and collective destinies, past the genocide, past the occupation, past the exile, into a future that awaits and that is as much ours.

And hence the plethora of creative writings from Tibet since early 1980s, a cultural resistance of its own that turns outwardly the sword of Chinese assimilation; and hence the Gendun Chophel Artists’ Guild in Lhasa which counts as its members some of the best Tibetan modern artists; and hence the late exile writer K. Dhondup’s tribute in his 1970 Tibetan Review article: “he shone on the Tibetan literary scene like a solitary star, (and) his luminosity revealed the mediocrity of his society”; and hence the resurrection of the monk-wanderer-poet and more which the noted historian Tsering Shakya terms as his “Valorization.”

His Early Life

Gendun Chophel was born in 1903 in Sholphang in Rebkong, Amdo. At the age of fourteen, after having learnt to read and write from his father, he entered the local Drisha Monastery. Three years later, he enrolled into the 2,500 monk-strong Labrang Tashi Kyil Monastery. Since a small child, GC had proven himself to be something of a prodigy, reciting long and complex liturgical texts after hearing them only once.

By the time Gendun Chophel was in Labrang he had earned for himself the reputation of a master debater; his specialty was in defending positions that in traditional parlance would have resulted in sure and ruinous defeat: once he took up the Jain position, rejected by Buddhists, that plants have consciousness and not one monk in the courtyard could prove him wrong. In the film, his friend recounts how GC unfailingly beat his opponents through such tradition-bending eloquence and wit that his every religious battle inevitably ended with the witnessing monks erupting in rambunctious laughter: “Ho, ho, ho!”

Gendun Chophel’s unorthodoxy was revealed early on even in such benign act as reading from a scripture. Once, during a routine recitation in the monastery’s chamber where some hundreds of monks were reading from portions of the Buddha’s 108-volume cannon, their individual incantations riding, crashing and disappearing in the over-arching deafening boom, GC was to be observed in a corner reading his text silently, intently.

If he was known for his brilliance, he stood out also for his searing criticisms of the time-honored monastic curriculum. And so in 1926, GC was forced to leave the Labrang Monastery; in one version Lopez cites the reason to be GC’s fondness for making mechanical toys. Of his expulsion, he writes bitterly in one poem:

Alas! After I had gone elsewhere
Some lamas who can explain nothing
Said that Nechung, king of deeds
Did not permit me to stay due to my excessive pride

Rather than expelling to distant mountain passes, valleys,
And towns
One who takes pride in studying the textbooks of Rva and Bse
Would it not be better to expel to another place
Those who take pride in selling meat, beer, and smoke?

In 1927, after a four month-long journey across vast steppes and salt lakes in the company of a large caravan, Gendun Chophel arrived in Lhasa. There he joined Drepung Monastery’s Gomang College and was put under the charge of Geshe Sherab Gyatso, a leading Gelug scholar of the day. The teacher-disciple relation was to soon become strained; as he had done before, GC showed little restraint in shredding the doctrines inherent in the monastic texts and he was not the one to shy away from arguing with his teacher even. Frequently the two were interlocked in shouting matches; exasperated, Sherab Gyatso refused to address his student by name, calling him instead “the madman.” (The title of Lopez’s book derives its cue from this exchange)

GC soon dropped out from the classes. But he was frequently to be seen in the debating courtyard, confounding his opponents, challenging the best minds, sometimes in disguises, like for instance that of an illiterate Dobdob, that subgroup of burly monks who in the Western Hip Hop culture would have translated into club bouncers: big of biceps, sparse of words, generous with jabs. It is incredible for a wiry man whose nickname it was Drisha Skinny, while at his fist monastery, that he could take on such a formidable appearance; a testament to his chameleon streak indeed.

Around that time, Gendun Chophel pursued his another interest: painting. Not long after, he was making a comfortable living drawing thankgas, boasting of, among his patrons, such stellar names as Phabonga, a leading Gelug lama. Among few of his illustrations that survive today are portraitures of photographic realism, a far cry from the conventional painting style, which capture in black and white shades this aristocrat and that lama, a selected few who could afford to be immortalized on paper by the brushstrokes of this most unique monk-artist.

Just months shy from obtaining his Geshe Lharampa degree, GC left Drepung.

Gendun Chophel’s wanderlust had been fueled early on during his encounters at Labrang with an American missionary, Marion Griebenow, and his family, from whom he may have learnt some English, and about steam engines and airplanes. But it was in 1934, after he had met Rahula Sankrityanan, a forty year-old Indian scholar and freedom fighter, that GC was finally to realize his dreams of journeys into distant India and Ceylon, where he was to remain for the next twelve years. While in Tibet, the two worked on an ambitious project to salvage rare Sanskrit scriptures from monasteries of southern Tibet, an experience that led GC to lament the disastrous face of Tibetan superstition as observed in the ways in which local believers pocketed away such text leafs to stuff their amulets and adorn their altars.

Tibetan Buddhism’s traditional school curriculums made of its students wonderful debaters of copious memory, at times good investigators into truths adept at Samadhi, but it instilled in them little inspiration to write, to contribute in a literary sense. That impetus, lacking in the certainty of his traditional setting, GC was to find in the shifting sea of his physical wandering; his being equally seized by languages, words, letters, native as well as foreign, as by what his eyes saw and his mind perceived: about self as well as about others.

The Story of a Monk Wanderer: Part II

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