Some Memories of Great Lotsawa Gedun Chophel

Memories of the great translator, scholar, and poet Gedun Chophel, by Lodey Lhawang, mother of Jamyang Norbu:

It has been many years, more than sixty, since I met Gedun Chophel la, so I don’t remember very much. I just met him a few times and only had some polite conversation with him. He was my brother Sonam Tomjor’s close friend and intellectual companion. My brother liked and admired Gedun Chophel la tremendously and would tell me about him, especially after one of their many discussions. So, in a sense, Gedun Chophel la’s presence was constantly in our house, in family conversations and such. My brother was a very sensitive person, bookish, gentle and with a sharp, inquiring mind. He was not only well-read in Tibetan, but in Chinese and English as well. He may have met Gedun Chophel 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 Gedun Chophel’s. Sonam Pembar was also of intellectual bent and a good companion to both Gedun Chophel la and my brother.

I first met Gedun Chophel 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 Gedun Chophel la in scholarly discussions or just long, and always interesting, conversations, and would later tell me about it. He did not come often to our house, 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 Gedun Chophel 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 Gedun Chophel 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 towards 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 Gedun Chophel la, whose family tradition was strongly Nyingmapa, now became a Gelukpa.

Gedun Chophel la also told my brother that when he was a monk, Kyapche Phabonka was very fond of him. Sometimes Gedun Chophel 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 Gedun Chophel’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 Rimpoche would also give him presents of money and supplies to support him. Gedun Chophel la also said that Kyapche Trichang Rimpoche (the 14th 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 Gedun Chophel la. After he returned from his travels to India, he completed a Tibetan translation of the Dhammapada, 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. Gedun Chophel’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 Rimpoche’s Dhagyig pecha, (an elementary guide to better writing), and an unusual biography of the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso. Tashi Tsering la, the scholar, told me that this biography of Tsangyang Gyatso had been reprinted recently in Tibet, but I don’t think that any copies of our edition of the Dhammapada translation exists anymore. Another edition (printed in 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 ft square). 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 for their own use. Once on returning to Lhasa I discovered that all the xylographs, including those for the Dhammapada, 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 that 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 Gedun Chophel la 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 Gedun Chophel la in a room on the top floor of the building, which had sufficient windows and living conditions were tolerable. Most prisoners were housed in 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 Gedun Chophel la a brand new cotton quilt I had bought from India, with a clean new cover. I also sent him a vacuum flask full of tea and a ceramic mug (with lid), and made sure the servants took him meals regularly. I got our cook to prepare him some tasty 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.

Gedun Chophel la sent me back notes scribbled on the blank inside surface of cigarette packets. He would also send verses he had written, many of a 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 each other 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 to send”. He probably thought that the Tethong family would come under suspicion from 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 Gedun Chophel la was being charged as 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 Gedun Chophel 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 did not 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 realised 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 realised 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. [1] A high-ranking Guomindang official even requested my brother to start a Chinese school in Lhasa which he assured him the Nationalist government would finance. My brother politely refused. This official had earlier come to Lhasa as a monk (and studied at Drepung) 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 made a trip to the sacred hills of Tsari, which is 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 honoured by the Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek, and granted an official rank.

Then the charges against Gedun Chophel 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, even now. My brother regarded Gedun Chophel 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 Gedun Chophel 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 Gedun Chophel 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 Lhasa for our estate in Shigatse. From there I traveled to India to enroll my youngest brother and two sisters in English schools. When I returned from India, Gedun Chophel 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 chuba 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 Barkor area, where Gedun Chophel la had a small apartment. [2] 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 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. They did this for a year or so.

After the Second World War there was a great deal of military surplus stuff 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-flavoured. There were also some sheets of toilet paper. This all came in a small cardboard box encased in wax.

Gedun Chophel la told my brother 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 Gedun Chophel 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 Gedun Chophel 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 trulkus 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 Rimpoche, was also friendly with Gedun Chophel la and sometimes studied under him. One day Rakra Rimpoche approached me with a request from Gedun Chophel la. He asked me to paint him a picture of Jetsun Dolma (Arya Tara). Rimpoche had most probably told Gedun Chophel la that I painted in my spare time, and Gedun Chophel la had assumed that I could do a thangka 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 Gedun Chophel la insisted 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 painting, and on its completion I sent it to him. Soon afterwards 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 province 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 have it to this day.

I traveled to India in 1948 and then returned to Lhasa in the summer of 1949 to make arrangements for my younger sister Tashi’s marriage (to Changoepa Dorje la). It was around then that I heard that Gedun Chophel la was living with a woman. I would sometimes go to visit my uncle Tesur (Palden Gyaltsen), 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 delapidated park (probably belonging to the former Tengyeling monastery) which 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 Gedun Chophel la with a khampa woman, sharing a kettle of chang. My uncle told me that the two of them would come quite regularly to that park and drink chang.

That was the last time I last saw him. You [JN] were then about one year old. It was just after the Chinese invaded Kham and captured Chamdo. We left Lhasa soon after that.

Since lotsawa Rinchen Sangpo (12th century), Tibet has probably never really had such a great lotsawa as Gedun Chophel la. It was deeply sad what happened to him, and such a tremendous loss for our country and people.


  • [1] One of the few deeply-read progressives in Tibetan society, Sonam Tomjor was as much opposed to Fascism as he was to Communism. He greatly admired the Fabian Society and would advise myself (JN) and other young Tibetans in Dharamshala (in the sixties and seventies) to work at modernizing Tibetan society in a gradual and evolutionary manner.
  • [2] My uncle Tsewang Chogyal (TC), who was about fourteen or fifteen at the time, remembers accompanying his older brother Tomjor to Gedun Chophel’s apartment at the Gomang Khangsar building. TC remembers Gedun Chophel reading aloud from a book by Lin Yutang, The Wisdom Of India (an anthology of Indian philosophical and religious writings) that Tomjor had ordered from India. Alternately reading in English and translating into Tibetan, TC recalled Gedun Chophel reading this line from a Buddhist text: “All matter comes from a cause … chos nam thamchey gyu lay jung …“. TC’s impression of the room was that it was rather dark and only had one small window. It was also sparsely furnished. In this somewhat dreary setting, TC remembers Gedun Chophel finding an occasional moment to express his romantic nature. Once, as if he were in a theatrical play set in the Imperial Age, he commenced to act the role of the Minister Gar. “This is what Lonpo Gar would have said …” Gedun Chophel remarked, then loudly declaimed some heroic dialogue lines he made up right there.” Of course then Songtsen Gampo would have replied …” and so on.


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