News and Views on Tibet

The Life of Gendun Chophel Re-discovered

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By Yangdon Dhondup

Depuis longtemps, j’ai le désir de faire connaître au monde extérieur le Tibet, ce pays inaccessible .
—Gendun Chophel
Le Mendiant De L’Amdo

To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction.
—Marshall Berman
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

It all started when I was selected, at the age of seven, to go to Switzerland with five other children to live in Trogen, a small village in the German speaking part of Switzerland. Our new life was to live as a big family with foster parents who were also Tibetans. So, we grew up with T.C. Rakra Tethong, our new Pala, his wife and his five children. Trogen was a little village surrounded by farmhouses and green hills. The house we lived in was a larger version of a Swiss chalet and had five floors. Our dining room could easily host about twenty people. On the lower floor were the bathrooms and the classroom and the upper floors were occupied with individual rooms. We four girls were first put in one room and the two boys shared another room. Over the years we all had our own room.

Alongside the normal school curriculum, every day we had an hour of Tibetan lessons. Sometimes, Pala would, instead of teaching us grammar or orthography, tell us stories of his life in Tibet or more excitingly, he would tell us ghost stories like the one of Geshe Bhunko (Donkey), an ambitious monk from Drepung monastery who swore to be reincarnated with the body of a donkey if he ever lost a public debate. As it turned out, he lost a debate and committed suicide. Ever since, he has haunted the monks in the dark corridors of Drepung… Pala was a captivating storyteller and sometimes we would get a treat and he would tell us stories just before we went to bed. After listening to ghost stories, we would not dare sleep alone in our room and would squeeze together in one bed, afraid of Geshe Bhunko coming to see us.

Pala was himself from aristocratic origins and having obtained the Geshe degree from Drepung monastery, we were quite accustomed to hearing names and anecdotes of the Lhasa aristocracy, but it was only many years later that I could place them within Tibetan history. So, the name of Gendun Chophel also came up during his anecdotes. Pala had studied poetry with Gendun Chophel and had also witnessed his arrest in 1946. Years later in Switzerland, Pala had written a book on the life of Gendun Chophel.1 He told us how Gendun Chophel had made a mechanical boat during his years in Labrang, how fluently he spoke English or that he had travelled extensively in India and in Tibet. But at that time, I was not very interested in these anecdotes and was more occupied with my own teenage problems.

It was only when I travelled to Tibet for six months that I started taking an interest in my own history. I moved to London to take a degree in Chinese studies and spent my first year memorising Chinese characters and reading about China. After that year, I spent a year in Beijing trying to brush up my spoken Chinese. It was there where I met Pema, a Tibetan student from Amdo taking his Masters degree at the same university in Beijing as me. We became good friends and he invited me to come to visit his village in Amdo. The winter holiday neared and everybody in the foreign students’ building was making plans to escape the numbing cold of Beijing. Some of my friends went to Vietnam or others went to Hong Kong. I decided to go to Golog and make the circumambulation of Amnye Machen! At that time, I hadn’t realised that nobody was circumambulating the Amnye Machen at that time of the year, but I was determined to see the holy mountain.

My hopes were quickly shattered in Xining when I had problems finding a bus leaving for Machen, the county seat of Golog. After a few detours to Tongde and Zerkog, nowadays already little towns, I finally arrived in Machen in the late afternoon. I associated the name of Machen with a lively town crowded with traders and fierce looking Golog, nomads whose hair is completely shaven on the sides of the head leaving only the middle part, like some of the American-Indian tribes or later appropriated by David Beckham and his fans. I remembered what Joseph Rock had written about the Golog when he came here in 1926:

Although murder was said to be outlawed within the sanctuary of the Am-nye Ma-chhen the Go-log attack anyone approaching the region west of the Yellow River. They acknowledge no one’s authority except that of their chiefs […] They enjoy attacking anyone, especially foreigners who penetrate their mountain fastness. […] Their life is spent on horseback, always ready for battle and even among themselves they squabble to the point of combat. They are a marauding fraternity, going often six hundred strong on robbing expeditions, making the caravan roads west of the Am-nye Ma-chhen unsafe.2

But when the bus drove towards the town, my imagination was quickly damped down by the sight of the real Machen: one big main road, a few houses and some government buildings on each side. The street was deserted; there were a few Hui restaurants alongside the road with nothing more to offer than a bowl of soup and stewed lamb. The nomads in the restaurant looked at me with suspicion, thinking, most probably, that I was a Chinese. After some asking and searching nobody would take me to Amnye Machen. Spending the night in a cold empty room with twelve beds just for me, I decided to head back towards Xining and to pay a visit to Pema.

The address of my friend was quite simple: Shoepang village (Chin. Shuangpeng), Malho prefecture (Chin. Huangnan zhou), Qinghai province. Getting there was not very difficult as Shoepang lies somewhere east between Xining and Rebkong. After passing Lengjia, a well-known Ngagpa (tantric practitioner) village, I arrived in early morning in Shoepang with an empty stomach. The sky was azure blue with no clouds to be seen. People were standing on the road, waiting for a bus or a car to pass by and take them to their destination.

Shoepang was a small traditional Tibetan village divided by the main road going to Gengjia and Labrang. The entrance to the village was marked with a white Chorten (Stupa). On the village square, little boys were playing with a flat football. I asked them to call Pema and tell them that a friend from Beijing has arrived to see him. Within a few minutes I spotted him running down towards the village square. The change in Pema was rather surprising. In Beijing, he was always dressed in what Chinese and Tibetans would call a xizhuang (Western clothes) or what we know as a suit. His shiny black hair was always combed and his black shoes would never show a hint of dirt. But the man I saw coming towards me wore a straw hat, the strong sun had left its mark on his face and his pants were covered with dirt as if he had been working in a ditch. The shiny black shoes I used to see him wearing were replaced by a pair of brown-black cloth shoes which only hinted at the original white colour. I could see that he was surprised and happy to see me that I had taken his invitation so literally. He quickly took my backpack and rushed me towards a small lane up the hill.

The houses in Shoepang were built similar to other Tibetan villages’ houses in the area – a high mud wall with a wooden gate. The roof was flat so that one could dry hay or wood on it. The rooms had wooden door-frames and in most of the courtyards was a solar water heater. In front of some houses were cows or donkeys. The majority of the families in Shoepang were farmers and winter was the only time where they could rest. Pema’s house was at the top of the hill and was a beautiful wooden-carved traditional house with a little courtyard. His father was sitting in the courtyard in an armchair. As soon as I had opened the main gate, he recognised me and waved at me, indicating his welcome and greetings. We had met each other before in Beijing. After meeting the whole family, Pema’s wife started showering me with tea, jianlibao, a popular Chinese orangy fizzy drink, sweets and the delicious Amdo bread. She looked very young but her hands were rough with cracks, a sign that it was she who did all the hard manual work. The small table was quickly filled with delicacies and everybody pressed me to start. It was a sunny warm day and we stayed outside in the courtyard, eating and telling each other our adventures.

Pema knew that I was a student of Pala and he told me that he wanted to introduce me to somebody. At that time, I didn’t know that Shoepang was the place where Gendun Chophel was born. The next morning he took me down the hill, did a left turn and entered a house. I could see that the house was much older than that of my friend; the wooden frames were dark coloured and once inside there was a simple big room with a fireplace. This was the kitchen as well as the living room. The fireplace served both as a cooking place as well as a heater for another small room that was separated by a wooden window frame. It was the same system as a Chinese kang, a bed heated from beneath by a fire, which the Tibetans in Amdo had borrowed from the Chinese. A man with a strong-looking body, square dark glasses and a straw hat was waiting for us with a Khatag. After the greetings and introductions, he asked me to sit down near the fireplace. Again, a low table was filled with chunks of stewed lamb, chilli, bread, yoghurt and tea. Out of politeness, I started tackling a piece of meat which didn’t have too much fat, but Pema pointed to a bigger piece which consisted virtually only of fatty meat. I put back the piece I had chosen, took a bite from the juicy fat and listened to the man.

His name was Yudrung gyal and it turned out he was related to Gendun Chophel. The house he lived in was the house where Gendun Chophel was born and where he lived until he left for Ditsa. Again, the name Gendun Chophel resurfaced in my life. I told Yudrung gyal that I was a student of Rakra Tethong, who, in turn, had been a student of Gendun Chophel. Yudrung gyal had heard of Rakra Tethong and knew that he had published a book on the life of Gendun Chophel. He then started telling me about the life of Gendun Chophel – from his early years in that house, to Yamatashi Kyil, from Labrang to Drepung, and from Lhasa to India. We spent the whole afternoon at Yudrung gyal’s house, listening to him and looking at Gendun Chophel’s belongings he had kept. There was the prayer wheel of Alag Palden, Gendun Chophel’s father, which he had taken on his pilgrimage to Lhasa; a small golden maroon brocade hat which belonged to Gendun Chophel, a recognition of him being the reincarnation of Alag Dodrak, the abbot of Yamatashi Kyil; a book with his handwriting on the cover page, and a lotus flower bud which when twisted from below opened its petals and out came the statue of Padmasambhava. The images and the little I had heard of Gendun Chophel from Pala started to take form.

The next morning, Yudrung Gyal took me to Yamatashi Kyil, the Nyingma monastery on top of the mountain not far from Shoepang. The founder of this little monastery was the first Shabkar Tsogdru Rangdrol (1781-1851), a saint and poet from Amdo and it was also the monastery where Gendun Chophel should have studied since he was recognised as the reincarnation of the abbot of Yamatashi Kyil.?3 However, as Heather Stoddard writes, due to financial restraint and also to acquire first a Gelugpa education, Gendun Chophel was sent to study in Ditsa.4

The holidays were nearing an end and I had to return to Beijing. Yudrung gyal gave me a letter, which he asked to be given to Pala and I promised to come back with the book Pala wrote about the life of Gendun Chophel. Months passed and I returned to London in the summer in preparation for the exams.

About one and half years later, I received a letter from Luc, an old acquaintance of mine. He wanted to make a documentary about the life of Gendun Chophel and asked me if I could accompany him to Tibet! I was thrilled by the idea and immediately agreed, telling him that I already knew a relative of Gendun Chophel. Numerous emails were sent back and forth and we decided to go in summer 1999. Our work would be to find the relevant people and trying to get interviews with them. So, again, our trip involved a visit to Shoepang.

Apart from going to see Yudrung gyal and interviewing him, I had the chance to meet some extraordinary people from Amdo and central Tibet who were connected one way or another with the life of Gendun Chophel. Among them was the well-known poet Ju Kelsang, who wrote a poem about Gendun Chophel; Jigme Tegchog, a scholar monk and historian who was also the teacher of the present Shabkar; Alag Yongtsen, a ninety-something year-old Lama who studied at the same time as Gendun Chophel in Labrang and who could still remember and recite the kashe (a poem in which each line begins in alphabetical order) composed by Gendun Chophel; Lengjia Lama Tsering, a well-known Ngagpa (tantric practitioner) master of the Rebkong Ngagpa community; Gurung Gyaltsen, an incarnate lama who took care of Gendun Chophel’s mother; Amdo Jampa, artist and friend of Gendun Chophel, and Jampa Horkhang, son of Sonam Phelpar Horkhang, who was a friend and patron of Gendun Chophel. Each of them told their own story of how they came to know Gendun Chophel and how his life or his works have influenced their way of thinking. Some of the people mentioned above have since passed away.

The next trip to Tibet with Luc was in summer 2002. This time, Philip, the cameraman was travelling with us. The purpose of our journey was to follow the places where Gendun Chophel had been. We hired a jeep from Xining and made our way to Rebkong. A poem by Gendun Chophel about Rebkong came to my mind:5

My feet are wandering neath alien stars,
My native land, — the road is far and long.
Yet the same light of Venus and Mars
Falls on the small green valley of Rebkong.

Rebkong, — I left thee and my heart behind,
My boyhood’s dusty plays, — in far Tibet.
Karma , that restless stallion made of wind,
In tossing me; where will it land me yet?

In search of the wanderer’s question, our journey began.

It was the beginning of May – the fertile fields in the valley of Rebkong were lush green and the mud hills glowed with a deep red colour reminding me of Shanhuo, the “fire mountain” in East Turkistan where the monkey in The Journey to The West (Chin. Xi youji) had crossed over to go to India. The Machu (The Yellow River) was our constant companion, changing colour from green to dark blue to a tranquil grey, depending on the sky and the gathering of clouds. After settling down in Rebkong, we drove to Shoepang to arrange an interview with Yudrung gyal and to shoot some scenes of Gendun Chophel’s home and birthplace.

Our next stop was Labrang. The first few kilometres of road from Shoepang were newly tarred. Some local Tibetans and Chinese were pushing a chariot filled with thick black liquid tar to fill in some of the holes along the road. The rebuilding of the roads was one of the first projects of the Western Development (Chin. Xibu da kaifa) policy. This will have dramatic consequences for the Tibetans living in the area and for the surrounding environment. Each province was allocated a certain amount of money for road construction and the roads within Qinghai province were almost finished, but as soon as we crossed the border and drove on Gansu province’s roads, money for road construction had obviously stopped and in front of us lay a muddy road with few large stones put randomly to cover the muddy water holes.

The windows of the car were constantly open with Philip sometimes standing outside and leaning on the roof of the car to film the surroundings. I was sitting in front with Ma shifu our driver.6 It took him a long time to understand that while Philip was filming, he should slow down, especially when we were nearing a big turn. Ma shifu was in his thirties and had come from the neighbouring province of Henan. He was a soldier before and was, as I understood from his confiding in me, fleeing from his wife and had settled down in Xining some years ago. I got Ma shifu’s number from another driver I have travelled with a few times and I was told that Ma shifu was a reliable person who didn’t drink while driving. Ma shifu’s life resembles many of the migrant Chinese living nowadays in Qinghai. Although the “minorities” like the Tibetans and the Hui are still the majority in Qinghai, a large number of ethnic Han Chinese had settled down in the Tibetan areas, partly because there were no economic prospects in their own province and partly because a member of their family had already settled down in Qinghai therefore making it easier to find employment and make a living.

The sky was changing its colour and thick snowflakes silently fell. Within minutes, the whole grassland was covered with a white layer of snow. Ma shifu slowed down and in few hours we would reach Labrang, the Gelugpa monastery where Gendun Chophel had studied for about six years. Labrang nowadays is filled with concrete hotels resembling Tibetan houses or monasteries, glittering restaurants, shops and Internet cafés. Nomads and monks on their motorbikes were speeding up and down the main road. Like Lhasa, the town is already divided into two parts. The main entrance arriving from Lanzhou is populated with the Hui and the Chinese. This is the newer part of the town and has all the high buildings with blue window glass and bathroom tiles as wall covering, typical of all Chinese urban architecture in the area. The Tibetan part was around the monastery. Mud houses cramped close together. Chinese and Western tourists with cowboy hats were mingling in the shops and in the cafes, imagining themselves as being parts in a Western movie. Once in while, a group of nomads and farmers were gathered around some Hui traders trying to sell Yaktsa gambu, a root resembling a caterpillar found in the Tibetan highlands and which Tibetan nomads and farmers handpick during the cold spring months from the high mountains. The dried caterpillars are sold in packages with golden letters to the Chinese as medicine to enhance their sexual performance.

At the time when Gendun Chophel was in Labrang, the monastery housed about three thousand monks.7 The fifth Jamyang Zheba (1915-1946) was then the head of Labrang monastery while his elder brother, Apa Alo, was ruling Labrang as one of the most powerful chieftains of the area. In his six years in Labrang, Gendun Chophel had quickly found friends among his study class and even formed a group called Thanye zindra (Class of Designations).8 Gendun Chophel excelled in dialectics and during the daily debating in the courtyard, he left many of his opponents dumbfounded. These were the years when he was gaining confidence and his biting humour and pride were reasons for many other monks to dislike him. Gendun Chophel thought that he had learned enough in the surrounding monasteries of Rebkong and wanted to pursue his studies in Drepung, the great Gelugpa centre in Lhasa. Comparing himself with a cuckoo, he said: “What is the use for a cuckoo to remain among crows!” and with these words, he left.9

The journey to Lhasa at that time took about four months and could be done only with the company of others; in the case of Gendun Chophel, he travelled with a group of merchants and lamas.10 He writes:

There were two hundred of us, well prepared for the hardship that was awaiting us. After five days on horse, we arrived at Lake Kokonor in Mongolia. The lake resembled a large ring with an island that rose like a mountain…In any case, it is a wonderful place… Noble mountainous island of Kokonor. You are always in my mind… 11

Gendun Chophel joined the caravan in Kumbum. While waiting for Luc and Philip to finish their work, I sat with a group of elderly monks and lay people near the entrance of Kumbum monastery. They had finished the evening circumambulation and were taking a rest, chatting and watching the remaining tourists leave the monastery. I asked the old monk sitting next to me whether he had ever been to Lhasa. He told me that he had been there once, before the ‘liberation’, meaning before the arrival of the Chinese. “I was young and wanted to study at Drepung monastery. At that time, it wasn’t so easy to go to Lhasa. Unless you joined a group, you couldn’t do the journey by yourself. So, I joined a caravan leaving from Kumbum. There were camels with heavy luggage on their backs, horses, mules and all kinds of people – monks, merchants and pilgrims. It took us several months to reach Lhasa. I stayed there for a year and returned to Kumbum. Since then, I have never been again to Lhasa.” I told him that nowadays it takes only one and half hours by plane to reach Lhasa and that most probably, he wouldn’t be able to recognise the city again. He smiled, nodded his head and said that he had heard as much.

It took us only few hours by Jeep from Xining to reach Heimahe, the nearest place on the shores of Kokonor. There was little left of the spirituality that Gendun Chophel had felt seventy some years ago. Little yellow concrete huts, to house the tourists, were scattered in a compound near the shore. It was in the middle of May and all the huts were empty. On the little dusty road from the lake to the main street, the large empty restaurants with glittery lights were serving exotic seafood, hoping to attract a lost traveller. Like many of the new Chinese tourist spots in the area, the design of the huts disrupted the local atmosphere. Modernity was luring tradition in the cruellest way. In Labrang, for example, part of the grassland of Sangkhog, were Alag Gungthang had given the Kalachakra initiation in 1994, was transformed into a “Nima ethnic group tourist place”, a grandiose pink hotel with neon lights and fake nomad tents. A friend told us that they would soon transform the other half of the grassland into an airport. Then, tourists will be able to fly in from Lanzhou or from any mainland Chinese airport, stay a night in the “Nima ethnic group tourist place” and go home with an assured feeling of having experienced real Tibetan life…

We stepped outside the car only to be harassed by some Tibetans who wanted us to take pictures with their adorned yaks and horses. “Picture, picture, very cheap, two kwai.” Luckily we spend only one night at Kokonor. Early in the morning we drove towards Tsakha, the salt lake near Golmud. We were again driving slowly up through the mountains. At the pass, we stopped for a rest and in the evening light, Kokonor seemed so calm and peaceful, as if none of what is going on around was disturbing her.

We arrived in Tsakha and went straight to the salt lake. The whole lake was dried out and there was an industrial site near its shore. Salt was taken from the lake, processed, purified and sold to few cities in the mainland and was even exported to Korea and Japan. The sight of the vast dry grey lake, the machines, the little trains topped with grey-white crystallised salt and the huge mountains of refined white salt was impressive. A little open-topped train for tourists took us directly to the middle of the lake. My eyes started to itch, maybe from the salty air and I returned to the car.

At the time when Gendun Chophel had passed by the Tsakha Lake, four days after setting out from Kokonor, they were already taking salt from the lake and exporting it to China and Tibet.12 Thus he writes:

Four days later we arrived at the salt lake of Chamcho. The lake contained so much salt that it remains in a crystal state with only a thin layer of water. Naturally, this has led to much activity. A big town called Chadam has developed here. They transport the salt to the markets of Tibet and China by camels and yaks. Judging from the large number of animals used, this must be a lucrative business.13

Our journey ended here and we drove back to Xining to take an early morning plane for Lhasa.

Gendun Chophel was only forty-seven years old when he passed away in 1951. However, he is vividly remembered by the Tibetan youth, especially among the young Amdowas. Some people in Shoepang have founded the Gendun Chophel Educational Fund and have built a school complete with accommodation facilities to house some hundred students from the area. In Lhasa, well-known Tibetan artists have named their gallery the Gendun Chophel Artists’ Guild and in summer 2003, a poster with an image of the Potala in the background and with Gendun Chophel and Dhondup Gyal on either side was on sale in Xining. All this indicates that Gendun Chophel’s concern for his own people, his scholarly work on the history of Tibet, his courage to challenge any establishment, including the Buddhist canon, and his open-mindedness is finally being appreciated and celebrated. Despised and not recognised for his work during his lifetime, he is now receiving the acknowledgement he deserves.

1 This article was written in 2003 for a special edition of Lungta (Amnye Machen Institute, Dharamsala). I would also like to thank Luc Schädler from Angry Monk Production for having chosen me to accompany him.
Thupten Chodar Rakra Tethong, dGe ‘dun chos phel gyi lo rgyus (The Life of Gendun Chophel), Dharamsala, 1980.
2 J. F. Rock, TheAm-nye Ma-chhen Range and Adjacent Regions. A Monographic Study, Serie Orientale Roma XII, Rome, 1956, p. 126-127.
3 For an account of the life of Shabkar, see Zhabs dkar pa’i rnam thar (The Biography of Shabkar), mtsho sngon mi rig dpe skrun kang, Xining, 1988 or Matthieu Ricard, trans. The Life of Shabkar. The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, 2001.
4 Heather Stoddard, Le Mendiant de L’Amdo (The Beggar from Amdo), Société d’ethnographie, Paris, 1985, p. 138.
5 Gendun Chophel, ‘Rebkong’ in Lungta, Two Thousand Years & More of Tibetan Poetry, Winter 1995, Amnye Machen Institute, Dharamsala, 1995, p. 13.
6Shifu means “Master” and is a neutral Chinese term to address a person doing manual work.
7 Heather Stoddard, Le Mendiant de L’Amdo (The Beggar from Amdo), Société d’ethnographie, Paris, 1985, p. 140.
8 Ibid., p. 141.
9 Ibid., p 145.
10 Ibid., p. 132.
11 Ibid., pp. 145-146.
12 Ibid., p. 146.
13 Ibid., p. 146.

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