Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools And Crazy Saints

I went to pick up my children from a kid’s birthday party the other day when I ran into an acquaintance who had just returned from Lhasa with a pile of books on Gedun Choephel in his luggage. My acquaintance said a group of disciples had finally published his Sungbum and he got the collection “just for entertainment”, which somehow sounded like an apology.

While a dozen kids were running around the house, we then began a conversation about the “Amdo beggar”. - What a welcomed change of subject after the exile-Tibetan election craze and the Dalai Lama’s recent surprise announcement to withdraw from politics!

Cautiously I said: “It’s good to know people are looking after his legacy. Gedun Choephel had an unusual style to say it politely, but he also gave the Tibetans a lot of new impulses in many areas. A lot of people at the time just weren’t able to appreciate, don’t you think?”

My acquaintance replied: “Yes, but you know, his Lobma only mention the positive side in these books and say nothing about his controversial works.”

Yes, it’s one-sided to mention only positive things. But then we’re not talking a work of science, are we? Disciples are encouraged to focus on the positive attributes of their Lama so they can proceed on the path, correct?

Maybe suspecting that I must be a fan of Gedun Choephel’s my acquaintance remarked: “I think he simply went overboard. There is a fine line between genius and mania. You know the saying isn’t there for nothing: "Sherab chälpa pe-la shag, Amdo Gedun Choephel ta bu.”


The “saying” sounds more like a threat if I got it right: “If you need an example for misdirected intelligence, just take a look the Amdowa Gedun Choephel!”

"Tibet Improvement Party"
Logo by Gedun Choephel
I had always thought of Gedun Choephel as a liberal door-opener who failed not because he wasn’t convincing enough, but because he was stopped by jealous people who were not as smart but came in superior numbers. My impression of Gedun Choephel had been heavily coloured by the non-spiritual part of his life: His arts, his travels outside Tibet, his historical research, and his involvement with the Tibet Improvement Party. I never even properly realised he was born a Tulku with a religious following.

If anything, my idea of Gedun Choephel was a reflection of my own wishful thinking: Finally a person in our recent history who saw the hopelessness of the Tibetan system which was fossilised down to the very fundament; finally a person who did something about it!

After I had brought my kids to bed that night, I fetched a couple of books about Gedun Choephel and began rereading them.

Slowly I noticed that my idea of the man was perhaps not so accurate after all. It sure looked too romantic and incomplete: Not only did I miss that he was a Lama, I was ignorant of the hugeness of his fallout with the Buddhist establishment. I didn’t notice his political naïveté in dealing with people in the Lhasa government either nor the wider implications of his works for the Tibet Improvement Party – and who knows what else I am still missing out on.

Politically Gedun Choephel was almost innocent for current standards. Would you send cartographic materials about a sensitive border area by regular mail when spies playing the “Great Game” are lurking everywhere? That’s what he’s said to have done after members of the Tibet Improvement Party based in Indian Kalimpong convinced him to take the long and not so obvious route back to Tibet. He jotted down all the historical border markers on the way for them. Clueless when he crossed into Tibet, he sent all the materials via British mail back to Kalimpong. The content was discovered, the Lhasa government informed and Gedun Choephel along with the leading members of the Tibet Improvement Party became suspect.

Reminds me of a good-natured friend who naively sent me print-outs of downloads from the internet about the kidnapped child-Panchen Lama to my workplace in Tibet. Hell was I scared when I saw what was in the envelope! I burned everything immediately and thought how lucky I was they didn’t open the mail. But a year later when my friend was about to enter Tibet, the police showed up at her hotel room in the middle of the night interrogating her about her motives for sending me “documents” a year earlier. There was no visible trace the envelope had been openend before I got it. They were watching us all along.

As for Gedun Choephoel’s religious involvement, all I had retained were his legendary debates in the Chöra and how he disguised himself as an unsophisticated Dobdob to defeat a learned, arrogant monk in debate and teach him a lesson in humility; and how he successfully argued that plants are also sentient beings like humans and animals; how the others, short of arguments, would beat him up in order to silence him. The guy was unstoppable. How I loved these stories!

But then I stumbled over a reference which made me think. In her biography of Gedun Choephel, Heather Stoddard writes he quit his Buddhist studies after eleven years shortly before completion because he found it meaningless to obtain the Geshe degree when he didn’t practice.

Isn’t that strange?

What’s the point in sticking around a monastery for eleven years, hanging out with people whose views you disagree with; studying stuff you can’t relate to, that you’ve never even intended to apply? Just to ponder on others’ deficiencies? To teach others a lesson how inadequate they are? For your own aggrandisement?

I really had nothing better to do with my spare time, so I dug deeper into Gedun Choephel religious thoughts reading a Buddhist text attributed to him (or at least parts there of). It was translated into English by Donald Lopez as “The Madman’s Middleway: Reflections on Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gedun Chophel”.

I didn’t understand a single argument in the book. It was all mind-boggling, metaphysical hair-splitting from the standpoint of a layperson with a mild interest in the Dharma. As far as I could follow, Gedun Choephel said “absolute reality” was beyond eternalism and nihilism. He said absolute reality could not be placed between existence (eternalism) and non-existence (nihilism) as propagated by some Lamas because it cannot be conceptually explained but only directly experienced in meditation – or something to that effect, I am not sure at all. Anyway, an ugly dispute arose and Gedun Choephel was called a heretic and a madman.

Personally I couldn’t care less. People who never heard about this theological debate reach(ed) enlightenment too, so why get excited about inconsequential differences?

But at the same time, I thought I got a sense of the depth and the sophistication of the points brought forward by Gedun Choephel. So I began to wonder why he went to such lengths to dispute standard views of the time: If you don’t practice, why care at all? Why waste precious time detecting others’ perceived mistakes in interpreting the Buddha’s - or in this case Nagarjuna’s - words? What is someone’s motivation for doing that?

I’ve come to the conclusion that Gedun Choephel must have cared after all: Truly and deeply. He just had a problem with getting his message across because more often than not, he hit the wrong tone - “c’est le ton qui fait la musique”, n’est-ce pas? But of course our whiz-kid had an answer to this as well: Stupid people don’t deserve better treatment - touché!

It sure must have felt good to triumph. But did he do himself a favour?

His goal was for people to take a fresh look at Tibetan Buddhism. For that he needed the buy-in of the opinion-leaders in the establishment. But the reaction he got from them was complete disagreement and personal discredit. There were so many who thought he was misguided, including his own teacher, that it entered the vernacular (”If you want an example for misdirected intelligence, look at the Amdowa Gedun Choephel”).

Yet in my eyes, he was not a blasphemer at all. In my eyes, he remains an innovator with the best of intentions even in the field of Dharma. But after reading “The Madman’s Middleway” I also believe that Gedun Choephel is himself to be blamed for a lot of the criticism he got. He could have written without hubris, mockery and cynicism. He could have written as Lamas are supposed to speak: With kindness, understanding, and tolerance, choosing his words carefully. But he decided not to. Instead he allowed himself to write as he lived: in excess.

As for his unforgiving critics, whose voices are also included in the book: Aren’t they the ones who teach: “Don’t look at the person, look at the Dharma”? And weren’t they the ones who looked at the person instead of the Dharma? Why didn’t they give Gedun Choephel a chance by objectively looking for the silver lining? When he gave them condescendence, mockery and pride, why did they have to give him back more condescendence, more mockery and more pride? If their position is superior, how come it doesn’t reflect in their demeanour? Why wouldn’t they make an effort to find out for themselves, without any prejudice and ignoring the polemics, whether there was some truth to what Gedun Choephel was trying to get at?

How sad there never was a meeting of the minds! How sad both sides didn’t meet to talk it out in goodwill! It looks like Buddhism as dialogue never happened. Instead, they preferred to write “hate mail” to each other from afar, what a waste!

Lhasa-based gallery and artists
organisation using GC's name
Isn’t it ironic that Gedun Choephel has become an officially lauded reformer and innovator post mortem? Both the Chinese side and Dharamsala claim him as a hero. Tibetan intellectuals on both sides love to associate with him using his name for all kinds of projects. But if he were really among us today, my gut feeling is few people on either side would like him. My guess is he would have remained the persona non grata he was back in old Tibet because had he not died so early, he would continue to hold up a mirror to the Tibetans - and to the Chinese, you bet! He would have continued to question and to disagree, and a lot of uneasy truths would have been put on the table. Can anyone seriously imagine Dharamsala being fond of such a person? Remember, this is the place where a harmless Miss Tibet contest prompts the Prime Minister to make a public comment and deem it “un-Tibetan”.

It’s so safe to find Gedun Choephel cool now that he’s dead and conveniently can’t talk back. There, I said it!

Actually Gedun Choephel’s life begs to be filmed. Why hasn’t anyone made a feature film about his life yet? For sure it would be a million times more exciting than the life and times of Milarepa where I expect the only climax to be how Milarepa conjures up a hail storm to kill his enemies - with the whole story placed against the single backdrop of a somniferous, arid Western Tibetan plateau, yaaawn.

Gedun Choephel’s life in contrast, has all the ingredients for a dazzling thriller: Shot on location in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the Himalayas; sharp intellect, sarcasm and humour; adventure, intrigue, hot sex with numerous partners in all kinds of positions; and a tragic ending! And imagine the cast: Over here the radiantly talented Renaissance man without humility; and over there the jealous and mediocre people in the Tibetan government who try everything to make his life miserable, steal his achievements, and keep him small and insignificant; and still a little bit further: a few unforgiving, grim-looking, dry Lamas with no sense of humour who demonise him as a threat to the Dharma not realising that their rigidity is an equal threat.

But a prophet has no honour in his own country.

Maybe Gedun Choephel should have tried his luck in Buthan?

Instead of returning to Lhasa where he was incarcerated to rot in prison before being released again only to die a little while later, I think he should have gone to Bhutan. He may have become a saint by now, just like Drukpa Kunley, the 15th century Tsangpa, who left Tibet and became famous for his crazy methods of enlightenment, blessing women by way of sexual intercourse and giving teachings in exchange for alcohol - “Bhutanese Arts of Love” if you wish!

In one region of Bhutan, drawings of huge male genitals’ are all over the house walls. And not only that, at the monastery, they will bless you with a gigantic wooden replica of the venerable Drukpa Kunley’s “very own”. I was almost knocked out by it. Have you ever been blessed by a phallus? Where in Tibet can you receive a blessing from a phallus? You get blessed by receiving a Khata from a Lama. If you’re lucky, you receive a cha-wang, or as the Gyalwa Karmapa used to do back when he was still in Tsurpu, bless visitors via a 3-metre long arm-extending cord. But blessed by a phallus? That’s only possible in Bhutan. The Bhutanese may have known how to appreciate someone like Gedun Choephel!

Another more recent Lama who would fit the series “crazy saints” is the late and controversial Trungpa Tulku. We find the same pattern of a life-style branded by alcohol and sex which is what we would associate with a rock star but not a Tibetan Lama. Even though he didn’t look nor live like a conventional Lama, he brought Buddhism to many people. Some say he was successful in doing it precisely because he dropped monastic conventions so he was better accessible. These days a film is screened about his life and times. I haven’t seen it yet but I saw that a trailer, “Crazy Wisdom”, is out.

Anyway, maybe it’s not just Lamas like Gedun Choephel, Drukpa Kunley or Choegyam Trungpa who are the misfits. Maybe it’s us. Maybe when they see how we act, talk and think, they can’t help but go nuts to finally produce a meeting of the minds?

Wait a minute!

Are we perhaps in the middle of that Buddhist parable about this king whose subjects all went nuts because they had drunk water from a poisoned well?

The king, who didn’t drink from the well, was the only one who remained mentally intact, but after a while, since he always ended up arguing with his crazy subjects, they accused him of being the one who was mad. To dissolve the impasse, the king then deliberately drank the poisonous water. Now they were all sitting in the same boat rocking in the same waves.

Perhaps that explains what’s going one here?

I am confused. Maybe next time our little ones need to be picked up from a birthday party, I’d better ask my partner to go.

April Fools :--)
Mountain Phoenix

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