Tuesday, November 15, 2011

‘Wondering’ Souls: Reflections on Gendun Chophel and Dhondup Gyal

By Tenzin Nyinjey

The life of a people lies in its history, culture, literature, religion and the arts. These are taught in Tibetan schools in India. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made as far as Tibetan students’ interest in them is concerned. Part of the blame lies in our inability to teach students in a manner that can stimulate their intellect. Our students, after all, are not encouraged to ask questions.

When I was a young student, I recall falling my eyes on the Dalai Lama's autobiography My Land and My People kept on the altar by my parents along with other sacred idols of worship. In the book, I saw pictures of Mao and the Tibetan leader exchanging khatas as their faces glowed with smiles for each other.

It was in the early 80s when Tibet was slowly emerging from the ravages of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ during which anything that had to do with Tibetan tradition was destroyed.

As a result, my teachers, parents and the whole Tibetan community rightly taught me that Mao was a devil and the Dalai Lama god. This was our way of resisting the Chinese oppression and injustice. However, such narratives had its limitations because, as indicated before, I could not figure out as to how devil and god could meet and exchange loving smiles. I could not muster enough courage to ask this question to my teachers and parents—a sort of subconscious fear, embarrassment or indifference prevented me from doing so!

Similarly religious histories that were part of the school syllabus narrated stories of magic, myth and mysteries, of flying saints who could cross an ocean in the blink of an eye. All these sounded beautiful in the ears of us young students who genuinely loved listening to them—the only problem, however, is that our teachers literally believed and made us believe these stories as accounts of truth rather than fables created to stimulate the imagination of human minds!

Of course in this regard they have failed in convincing most of us.

The consequences have been unfortunate though. Many students, as we grew up, lost interest in Tibetan stories. We could not identify our lives with them, for they did not narrate basic human stories of love, loss and tragedy. This perhaps explains why Tibetan students gave up reading Tibetan texts early and started reading English novels. During official March 10 commemorations in Dharamsala, it is not uncommon to find a Tibetan girl student reading Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, even as Tibetan leaders delivered their political speeches. In fact I remember a leading Tibetan politician admonishing Tibetan students gathered at the commemoration for not paying enough attention to his speech.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is this. Are all Tibetan stories concerned with myth, magic and mysteries? Do we have Tibetan writers who wrote real human stories? Such Tibetan writers that spoke an independent voice and made great impact on Tibetan society are rare—like the proverbial star in a broad daylight (nyimae nang gyi karma). As far as my limited knowledge goes, I can recall only two such individual figures.

The first one is a fellow by the name of Gendun Chophel, who rose to prominence in 1930s in independent Tibet. He was a poet, translator, scholar, historian, sexologist, geographer, philosopher and a political revolutionary. According to the doyen of Tibetan studies, Samten Karmay, he was the first Tibetan who had done his research on Tibet’s history by examining the ancient Tibetan pillars (doring) at Lhasa and the documents found in Tunhuang caves, that is he was the first historian whose research was based on scientific analysis. Most of us are familiar with this personality, although many, I am sure, have not read his works.

The amazing quality of Gendun Chophel is that he was profoundly learned in Tibetan history, culture and tradition, yet he is not stuck in them, caught in a sort of time warp as most of us are. He genuinely respected Tibetan tradition and culture, yet he is critical enough to see its limitations and the need to further improve on them, the necessity of continuity in culture, to make it a living reality concerned about living people, not something that needs to be ‘preserved.’ This is the reason he went out of his way to learn non-Tibetan traditions by visiting distant lands such as India and Sri Lanka, translating foreign works into Tibetan.

To me he is the perfect example of Dalai Lama’s vision of Tibetan education when he first established schools just after coming into exile in India—to produce students well versed in both traditional and modern education. Chophel wrote his poetry in simple prose, easily comprehensible to any ordinary Tibetan. Although a great admirer of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet’s monastic traditions, he was not blind to them. For instance, in one of his satirical poems, he suggests that if all the men had become monks, Buddha would never have been born! His travel account to Buddhist holy lands of India and Sri Lanka is legendary; any person, no matter to which nationality he or she belongs, could benefit from his reflections as scholar/traveler.

The other one emerged in the early 1980s. He was Dhondup Gyal—scholar, poet, translator, thinker, historian and a rebel. His greatest achievement is that he freed Tibetan poetry from the restrictions of traditional poetry composition modeled on Dandi’s kavvya. He introduced what is generally termed in Tibetan as Rang Moe Nyangag, a style of poetry written in free verse. His poem Langtsoe Babchu (Waterfall of the Youth) and essay Kanglam Tramo (the Narrow Path) created sensation among the young Tibetans within the three provinces of Tibet.

These works called for the Tibetan people to free themselves from the shackles of superstitions and walk the highways (zhunglam) of openness, innovation and modernity. For the first time, after Gendun Chophel, Tibet saw the rise of a young poet who struggled to find an authentic Tibetan voice, looking even beyond the ideas of Buddhism and Chinese communism! Sadly, like the self-immolating monks in eastern Tibet, Gyal committed suicide at the young age of 32, according to his close friends, ‘to awaken the consciousness of his fellow Tibetan brothers and sisters.’

It is no co-incidence that Gyal admired the ideas of Gendun Chophel. According to Dorje Rinchen, his colleague and close friend, one book that Gyal revered was the White Annals, a historical account of early Tibetan empire based on Tunhuang documents. While he was not working in the office or taking a casual walk outside, Gyal loved reciting this poem by Gendun Chophel (Donald Lopez’s translation):

Most wonders are simply considered bad omens
The tradition of the Dharma kingdom Tibet,
This is our tradition to the present day.
The wonders [of science] that benefit all,
And the magic of bad omens,
Harmful to everyone;
One sharp edge of the double-edged sword
Is certain to arrive at the other.

Another writer that he looked up to for inspiration was Lu Xun. Like the father of modern Chinese literature, Gyal believed Tibetan people needed cure for their broken souls. And such a cure Gyal felt was available in ideas of Tibet of the Tsanpos, when the Land of Snows was a force to reckon with in Central Asia.

Both these writers are the source of inspiration for young intellectuals and university students in present day Tibet. Their influences could be clearly seen in the works of young poets, scholars and writers who are now at the forefront of intellectual battle against the Chinese colonial onslaught. The ideas of jailed Tibetan writers such as Theurang, Mechey and musicians such as Yudrug can be traced to the influence of Chophel and Gyal. Young modern artists in Tibet have formed guilds named after Gendun Chophel.

In exile, intellectuals both from the clergy and laity could be seen quoting from the words of these two figures in their writings or pasting their pictures on the walls of their houses. It will not be an exaggeration to assert that as long as Tibetan nation remains, the ideas of these two writers will continue to exert their powerful influence on our society.

Despite all these realities, it is unfortunate that many exile Tibetans are not familiar with their works. This is partly due to the fact that they were not taught in schools. As far as I can remember we only studied Gendun Chophel’s White Annals. His overt nationalistic tone in this work could be the reason why it was included as source of historical study. The rest of his work, including his poetry, which speaks a universal language, a work of real artistic and philosophic wisdom that can enrich any person on this earth, are like hidden Terma texts beyond the reach of ordinary students.

Chophel’s genuine successor, Dhondup Gyal, suffers a similar fate. His poetry, short stories, historical works are alien to the Tibetan students. My personal experience is that only when I went to Sarah Tibetan college, years after my graduation from Delhi university, did I come across his works—thanks to many young Tibetan students from Tibet I met there. I could not help but lament that had I read his works in my formative years, my interest and progress in Tibetan literature would have been far more advanced!

Before I end my essay, I wish to recall another question that nagged me during my childhood. When the Tibetan teachers taught us that the first Tibetans were born of a union between a Boddhisatva father monkey (pha treu jangchup sempa) and rock demoness mother (ma drak srinmo), it struck me how a monkey making love to a senseless rock could give birth to six children! Like the one that I narrated in the beginning, I could not force myself to ask this question to my Tibetan teachers given that it was not only blasphemous but contains issues of sexuality. Like other narratives of Tibetan history, I thought this too as a fable created by an imaginative Tibetan scholar.

Only when I grew up as an adult and heard about Darwin’s theory of human evolution, of human beings having been evolved from apes in the last many centuries, does this idea of Boddhisatva monkey struck me as work of genius by a Tibetan mind although the ‘rock demoness’ still puzzled me. My respect and awe for our ancestors’ intelligence grew further when I found through my readings of the works of Khewang Dungkar Lobsang Trinley and Dhondup Gyal that the word drak (rock) in the case of drak srinmo (rock demoness) was mutated from the word tra meaning apes! As these two scholars found in their researches, the ancient Tibetan texts dealing with the origin of Tibetans mention the word tra (ape) instead of drak (rock)!

The idea of first six Tibetans born from the sexual union of a monkey and ape now makes perfect sense. What’s more it is an authentic Tibetan idea developed by our ancestors long before Buddhism was even introduced to Tibet. Only the notion of monkey father as Jangchup Sempa and the mother as a rock demoness (drak srinmo) was the creation of Buddhist historians.

As I personally experienced myself, such works by Tibetan scholars, intellectuals and writers have the real potential to stimulate and awaken the minds of the readers. They help us think and ask interesting questions. They give us a healthy pride in the ability of Tibetan minds to think scientifically and achieve works of genius. Most importantly they help us develop genuine love and interest in studying Tibetan history and literature, in finding ourselves as a distinct people!

No comments:

Post a Comment