Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

SOME MEMORIES OF THE GREAT LOTSAWA, GEDUN CHOPHEL

December 6, 2007

by Jamyang Norbu
(as told to me by my mother, Lodi Lhawang, née Tethong)


It has been many years, more than sixty, since I met Gedun Chophel la,
so I don’t remember very much. I just meet 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 Ningmapa, 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 Dhamapadda, 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, Tsanyang
Gyatso. Tashi Tsering la, the scholar, told me that this biography of
Tsanyang Gyatso had been reprinted recently in Tibet, but I don’t think
that any copies of our edition of the Dhamapadda 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 40x40 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
Dhamapadda, 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 was 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 (J.N) were then about then
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.

Notes:
(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.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank