Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Review: "Grains Of Gold" By Gedun Choephel

Grains of Gold, Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, Gedun Choephel; trans. Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr.; University of Chicago; 2014.

It’s always a pleasure to hear from Gedun Choephel and have an opportunity to gain a better understanding of someone who is often considered a leading Tibetan intellectual of the 20th century. In Grains Of Gold, he talks about his ventures in India and Sri Lanka between 1934 and 1941: Places he visited, works, authors and scholars he came into contact with, and the impact these encounters had on his thought. From his free-spirited account emerges the picture of a multi-faceted and fascinating but also contradictory personality.

Gedun Choephel discovers that Tibetans hold India in such high esteem as the birthplace of the Buddha, but actually have neither an idea of the historical context in which Buddhism originated, nor a notion of its fate after the decline. So he begins his book with a history of India from its classical to the colonial period, specifically elaborating on the Muslim conquest and Islam in general. He also describes in detail the geography of the country, explains the origin of Indian place names and what these places looked like when he visited them, as compared to accounts from earlier travellers.

Among many other topics, he makes an excursion into botany, exploring native Indian flowers and trees and comparing them to the ones in his homeland. One can feel the curiosity of a person who spent all his life behind high mountains, coming out into the world for the first time:  Everything is new and interesting and worth exploring in more depth – even down to the plants that grow in this new world.

As a trained monk from a thoroughly and exclusively Buddhist background, it must have come as a shock to see the Dharma utterly vanished from the land of its origin, with many places of worship often only in ruins. Perhaps that is why he travelled to Sri Lanka to experience another living Buddhist nation besides his own He dedicates a whole chapter to it, concluding noticeably distressed that the Theravada Buddhists actually didn't consider the Tantrayana of the Tibetans as properly Buddhist. But Gedun Choephel was eager to reach a common understanding so both can "live in a state of appreciation and affection for each other from our respective lands so that at least the recognition of our kinship in having the same Teacher and teaching will not be lost," (p. 346-7).

He also discusses the history of Tibet in a new way by using global events as a reference points. Songtsen Gampo was seven years old when the prophet Muhammad passed away, he wrote for example; that Princess Wencheng of the Tang court in China came to Tibet nine years after the death of Muhammad; which would confirm the Tibetan statement that the Tsenpo was sixteen years old when he married the princess. In this way he hoped Tibetan readers at home would be able to place national events into a wider, international context and gain a broader historical awareness.

"Buddhism & Science" only began to become a popular discourse in the 1980s with Tibetan Lamas beginning to exchange knowledge with physicists and these days also with neuroscientists. But it is already an important topic in Gedun Choephel's book written during the first half of the past century. He doesn’t mention any specific scientist or a modern idea that could have had an influence on his thought, such as Einstein for example and theory of relativity. But he came into contact with what he calls "this modern reasoning" earlier than many of his compatriots and also sensed the importance to philosophically reconcile science and religion. He wrote: "Please pray that the two, this modern reasoning of science and the ancient teachings of the Buddha, may abide together for ten thousand years." (p. 407).

Treating a broad range of topics often in a comparative manner perhaps had never taken place before in the Tibetan language. It required the author to do an enormous amount of reading in various languages, meticulous research, translating, comparing, checking and crosschecking. For someone who was notorious for his loose lifestyle, he was surprisingly productive.

A point I would have expected but is not touched upon, is China's relevance for Tibet. Of course, Grains Of Gold is primarily about Gedun Choephel's experience in India and Sri Lanka. But not mentioning China at all other than through the Buddhist pilgrims of old Faxian and Xuanzang, who visited India, is somehow surprising. He saw British India, had access to international media, socialised with Western and Indian scholars and must have been aware of the Second World War raging, the Japanese occupation of China, and the Chinese Communists starting their movement. Not mentioning the bigger picture makes his discussion of the Tibetans' imprecise knowledge of Indian geography almost trivial: Who cares about the geography of India when geopolitics on the other side with China would determine Tibet's fate? Could it be that the intrepid traveller from the Sino-Tibetan frontier acquired the insulated view of the Lhasan élite with whom he was quarrelling all his life?

Also absent is a critical discussion of the Tibetan ruling system. Although Gedun Choephel saw the world, there is no word about the institutionalized religious rule of the Gelugpas which excluded many Tibetans from power in all taken-for-grantedness. What strikes me is that Gedun Choephel - the sharp observer, the born Nyingma Tulku trained in the Gelug system, the one interested in everything under the sun with the inside view and the courage – had nothing to say about the shortcomings of the traditional Tibetan political system. Was he too preoccupied with philosophical issues? Did he simply have enough on his plate already and wasn't keen on letting frictions degenerate into a total war with the establishment? Or did he not develop the awareness because it was the norm?

Generally speaking, Gedun Choephel's relationship with the powerful comes across as ambivalent. His writing style changes in tone from beseeching via dismissive, all the way to incisive. Returning from India, he could have circumvented Lhasa and returned to his native Amdo to set up a modern school and let his ideas speak. Instead, he insisted with people who clearly didn't know how to appreciate his work. It appears Gedun Choephel was more traditional on this point after all, waiting for that slap on the back from the establishment, which never came.

Similar to the earlier translated work by Donald Lopez Jr. "The Madman's Middle Way", it is never quite clear in Grains Of Gold whether Gedun Choephel wrote to enlighten his audience and make them curious about the world or whether he was writing to demonstrate how smart he was. Revealingly, the translators point out that the original Tibetan manuscript was studded with Sanskrit expressions few in Tibet at the time would have understood at all and that he deliberately employed them with the intention to impress readers. In fact, the author's whole Sanskrit discussion is distinctive of the dichotomy between wanting to share his insight and his Ego intervening:

From Khagya to Gengya [two places in Amdo] is far.
The road from Ü to Amdo is very long.
From Magadha to Tibet is most distant.
From actual Sanskrit to Tibetanized Sanskrit is farther than that.

The only Sanskrit likely to ever cross my lips will be a couple of Mantras, names of Tantric deities and funny exclamations like Thrat! and Phat! But also a debutant can follow that as a Tibet(an) scholar you can draw on Sanskrit for a lifetime. There is no doubt about the importance of a good grasp of Sanskrit for the knowledge carriers of Tibetan Buddhism. It is the lifeblood of our religion, the impeccable ideal upon which our written language was modelled. Sanskrit for Tibet is like Latin for Europe. It’s the root of our civilization, classical and eternally beautiful.

Missing in Gedun Choephel's Sanskrit discussion however, is his own ideas on how to improve the low standard. While the author aptly elaborates on the shortcomings he then simply moves on to the next topic without proposing any solutions. Is that the way? He could easily have brought the discussion to a concrete end by proposing to invite Indian Sanskrit scholars to Tibet so the level could be raised - or something to that effect; a man like Gedun Choephel must certainly have had ideas? It's a pity he didn't continue to think big all the way through. This omission makes his Sanskrit discussion – as correct as it may be - appear like of a lot of noise.

Alas, people never got to read his work in real-time. It's not even clear to whom Gedun Choephel sent his manuscript after completion in 1941. It’s not clear either whether Grains Of Gold is the English translation of the Tibetan version published for the first time in Tibet in 1990. The translators mention they had to compile a template from various manuscripts. Also parts of the original manuscript and many of the illustrations were reportedly lost during the political turmoil following the Chinese takeover.

By the time his book was finally published in 1990, Gedun Choephel was long dead and generations of Tibetans had already had their own first-hand experience of India and the world beyond, due to the political circumstances of exile. As for the ones who remained in Tibet, they too, had had access to international materials through Chinese translations with the opening in the 1980s. So one may ask: When the topics presented in Grains Of Gold could no longer be considered a novelty in the Tibetan version of 1990, have they retained any relevance at all in the English translation of 2014, more than half a century after Gedun Choephel wrote them? What insights could readers of our generation derive from Grains Of Gold?

Talk is cheap by people like me who profit from the mercy of late birth. Grown up in a post-modern, post-gender era, with a decent education and convinced that there are no topics too difficult for general discussion, many of Gedun Choephel's radically novel ideas and approaches in Grains Of Gold have become mainstream in our time. Everyone discusses Buddhist ecumenism now, lauds the compatibility of Buddhism with science or supports Tibetan writing reform at least as an idea.

But we could read Grains Of Gold to better understand the times in which Gedun Choephel lived and gain additional insight into the thoughts of this controversial and colourful personality who was persona non grata during his lifetime and through a miraculous, post-humus metamorphosis, became everybody's darling: the much-heralded romantic rebel of the youths, the hero of the socialists. Academics, filmmakers, writers, artists, politicians, people of all walks are enamoured of him for all kinds of reasons.

Only Dharamsala has remained silent. If we can consider the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) the successor of the historical government in Lhasa, should it not finally shoulder the responsibility for wrongly imprisoning Gedun Choephel after his return from India? Wouldn't it suit the government to rehabilitate him and issue an official apology to his relatives? When they were able to find final words of appreciation for famous contemporaries such as Ngapo and Phuntsog Wangyal, what could possibly prevent them from making a similar statement with regard to the man from Amdo and his contribution to modern Tibetan thought?

Gedun Choephel wasn't a political figure who shaped the course of Tibetan history, but if he wasn't important in other ways, why did the government bother to throw a small fish into prison, at a time when the real threat was lurking at the gates preparing to overrun the country?

In their excellent introduction the translators wrote, "the heroes most esteemed in Tibetan history are the lotsawas, the translators, those who made the long journey to India to learn Sanskrit so that they could translate the treasury of Buddhist teachings in the sutras, sastras, and tantras into Tibetan. Gedun Choephel places himself in that lineage…" (p. 8)

Dharamsala could pay its last respects to Gedun Choephel by welcoming him home into the circle of Tibet's great Lotsawas. It's true, he was arrogant and probably also a pain in the neck. But had he not died so early he may well have outlived this Sturm und Drang period, become mellower and who knows what else he would have accomplished. Isn't everyone more antagonistic, radical, and impatient when they are younger? Isn't radicalism the bonus of youth? 

The one characteristic trait of his work that hasn't lost its relevance for today's readers is his ability to question fearlessly at the expense of challenging authority and compromising his reputation when necessary. He didn't mind to be in the minority opinion. Smart cookies are never a majority anyway, he may have told himself. In this sense, Tibetan posterity can still learn a thing or two from Gedun Choephel.

He also tried to continuously incorporate new insights remaining mentally open to reframe his outlook, which is a sign of good scientific work. At the same time, it is also a fundamental characteristic of the Buddhadharma where serious practitioners make an effort to apply "correct view" based on non-attachment and developing a non-dualistic attitude. 

That's my long-winded conclusion!

Gedun Choephel, the specialist in breaking complicated messages down into easily understandable pieces, packed it into the unassuming sentence: "If one has intelligence, one can find great significance anywhere."

Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

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