Recorded on August 21, 1999 in Kumbum monastery, Amdo [Northeast-Tibet].
Jigme Theckchog, born in 1954 in Northeast-Tibet, was a highly regarded Tibetan Buddhist scholar and author of several books on Tibetan Buddhism and history, among them a history of the Rebkong Monastery. He became the tutor of the reincarnation of the late Shar Kalden Gyamtso. He died at a very young age in 2001 in Rebkong [Northeast-Tibet].
Akhu, what is your name?
My name is Jigme Theckchog. I'm forty-five years old. My native land is Rebkong. I am a teacher at the Qinghai Buddhist Institute.
How did you first hear about Gendun Chopel?
I was perhaps seven or eight years old when a small boy, who was said to be the tulku [reincarnation] of Gendun Chopel, stayed at my home. That was the first time I had ever heard Gendun Chopel’s name. At that time, I didn't know what kind of person Gendun Chopel was.
Later, when I reached twenty-four or twenty-five years of age and was studying at the Qinghai Nationalities College [in Xining], there was a scholar named Akhu Sungrab Gyatso. We had very good connection. During our conversations, I learned that Akhu Sungrab Gyatso had been Gendun Chopel's teacher, when the latter was studying in Ditsa monastery. As we talked about Ditsa, he said that Gendun Chopel was a man from my place, Rebkong [not far from Gendun Chopel's home village Zhoepang]. Gendun Chopel was such an intelligent person, he said. That was the first time I heard such things about Gendun Chopel.
According to his teacher Akhu Sungrab, Gendun Chopel could memorize ten pages in a day. And that did not even take him long. He said that one day Gendun Chopel had written a word-by-word commentary to Je Rinpoche's [Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition] “Praise for Dependent Origination,” a valuable, concise text covering all the essential points of the “Middle Way” [Madhyamika] philosophical view, which even great scholars found difficult to comment on [he is referring to Gendun Chopel's controversial work Adornment of Nagarjuna's Thoughts, which Gendun Chopel wrote at the end of his life]. Gendun Chopel had not really studied the text of Tsongkhapa earlier. Nor had he consulted any other books. He knew it spontaneously, as he was gifted by nature. Hence Akhu Sungrab was surprised by that. He said it would be difficult to find anyone like that.
Even after Gendun Chopel moved to Labrang monastery, Akhu Sungrab kept that text intact [here he must be wrong, since Gendun Chopel wrote his text in the late 1940s, whereas he moved to Labrang in 1920]. In 1958 and 1959 [the time of the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese], he lost that original. He explained that if anyone wished to write something like that in the future, they should have a good knowledge in the language.
For him Gendun Chopel did not have any difficulty composing such pieces or in explaining Tibetan grammar. Gendun Chopel did not have any problem learning whatever he was taught. He even learned things that were not taught to him. Even in childhood he was bound to become a scholar. When he joined Labrang monastery, Gendun Chopel stayed with an acquaintance of Akhu Sungrab. Being concerned about Gendun Chopel, Akhu Sungrab said he used to check on Gendun Chopel regularly. During those times there were many scholars at Labrang. Gendun Chopel was young at the time [seventeen years old]. But my teacher told me that hearing that Gendun Chopel had an unparalleled intellect made him very happy. For the first time, I thought that Gendun Chopel might be a very good and a gifted person. I was only about twenty-four then.
Have you ever heard any childhood stories about Gendun Chopel?
I have heard that, when he was staying at Zhoepang [Gendun Chopel's home village] in his childhood, Yama Tashi Kyil was his monastery. Yama Tashi Kyil, where he already practiced Prana Yoga, only taught six or seven young monks. Gendun Chopel was said to have been the first one to accomplish the yoga immediately. He was young [Gendun Chopel entered Yama Tashi Kyil when he was four and stayed there for about three to five years]. At that time some of his companions had already been practicing. I heard, however, that he exhibited a special ability by showing the signs of accomplishment of Prana Yoga quickly during the training. I was told this by one of my teachers who was there at the time. That teacher is nowhere to be seen anymore these days. My teacher was a Nyingmapa practitioner. He was already old. He said that he observed this himself. Generally, we believe that Gendun Chopel's father was a highly realized person [a lay practitioner]. Gendun Chopel's father was one of the three sons of the father [grandfather of Gendun Chopel] who achieved high realization. This was one of the reasons why we in Rebkong regarded Gendun Chopel as having special qualifications.
Have you heard anything unique about Gendun Chopel?
I won't tell you things that everybody knows already, things that can be found in books, things that everyone talks about. I have not heard anything that nobody talks about.
Have you heard any stories about Gendun Chopel's debate with his own teacher or other people?
When Gendun Chopel was studying at Labrang monastery, everyone in his class was said to be bright. His classmates were nicknamed collectively Tha nyad dratsang, “The Conventional Monastery,” because of their peculiar way of talking. They abbreviated their words and expressions, and spoke in riddles, and talked by reversing their words. Because of this, even though they were speaking Tibetan right in front of their fellow students, no one else could understand what they were actually talking about. Such things were said about their brilliance.
It's said that, while debating, they seemed to have had a certain code that they used among themselves if they wanted to help one another [during the debates]. But no one else would be able to tell what kind of help they were actually giving one another, nor what they were saying. This code was actually Gendun Chopel's creation. Likewise, at Labrang monastery, whether it was a normal debate or a “standing debate” in the main hall, it is said that Gendun Chopel was extremely brilliant. [See interview: Alak Yongtsin.] When it came to using only logic, without any recourse to scriptural quotations, it is said that he stunned the monks many times.
When he was at Labrang it may not have been easy for people to answer his questions [to debate with him]. Later on there were some bad stories about him. It wasn't a case of Gendun Chopel being ignorant about the [Buddhist] textbooks or the traditional methods of interpretation. But Gendun Chopel had the power of intellect to go beyond those old conventions. There are so many stories about people being unable to answer his questions. If you go to Labrang yourself, they may tell you. Even today people talk about it. People still talk, too, about his skills in making mechanical toys and machines in Labrang.
Which aspect of Gendun Chopel's life do you think is the most important one?
In my opinion, there are two aspects. First, he was renowned as a great scholar. Why is that so? Unlike other students [fellow monks], Gendun Chopel did not study for a long time in the monastic universities, but his intelligence was almost unmatched in every respect—whether in debate or other fields. With regard to the great treatises [Buddhist texts], he was renowned for his brilliance.
The other aspect is the one of his thoughts and ideas. Whether it was a religious or secular matter, Gendun Chopel was able to think them through to the end. Whatever the work may be, it is important to know how to go about them well. He knew what the conditions and authentic means are in order to spread the Dharma [Buddhist teaching] in the best possible way. Even in terms of worldly activities, he was very clear about all these things himself [Jigme Theckchog does not give us an example]. It was not just the intellectual learning. He had a broad view of secular activities. He was renowned for these two aspects of his life.
Could you explain what you mean by “broad view?”
As far as I'm concerned, Tibet had great sciences [as part of the Buddhist teachings in the monasteries]—really great and profound sciences. I think that at that time, even India, whence Buddhism originally spread to Tibet, didn't have the same intellectual tradition. Tibet was the center of the Buddhist sciences. If these sciences were to make any progress, the old system could not have brought that about. But for this change, we had to find recourse to different and new methods. Gendun Chopel said that this was the case, and that the old system was no good for making progress. Similarly, there were no means of spreading our sciences to other countries but our own.
With regard to these issues, he must have had great aims. Whether it was the language or relations with other countries, he imagined spreading our sciences and religion everywhere in the world. It was not just a thought; he really had the capability to actually translate his ideas into actions, if only he had been allowed to work on them. But the old Tibetan system was not really suited to progress. No one besides Gendun Chopel himself had any idea about what the drawbacks were of that old system, and what the necessary conditions would be, and by what means the progress should be made, taking into account the circumstances of those days. It was not only about thinking, but if they [the old society?] had let him work on all his projects, he would have had the knowledge to effect them. Even if other people had similar ideas, they lacked the required knowledge. He had all the necessary qualifications. He was thinking both ways: looking at the experience of other countries from the viewpoint of both politics and religion, and thinking about progress by looking at the world at large.
In your opinion, what was the mentality of the Tibetan society at that time?
Tibetans on the whole, were very narrow-minded. Tibetan administrators at that time were neither experienced in politics nor learned in the sciences, nor did they have experience with other cultures and people. They were not knowledgeable at all. The country was ruled by power, but not by learned people. Therefore, they were very narrow-minded. They were not able to think for Tibet. I think they were not even able to think for the city of Lhasa. The officials and the aristocrats were not concerned about the Tibetan people. Probably, they weren’t able to think properly about administering Lhasa or the Tibetan areas included in the Trikor Chusum, the thirteen circles of ten thousand people [Jigme Theckchog is referring to Central Tibet].
Do you think that people took interest in his ideas or not?
They may have given thoughts to his ideas, but they could not have put them into action. Why? If we compare them with Gendun Chopel, we know that he was much more knowledgeable, as well as an able person. But under those people Gendun Chopel could not have worked. So because there was too much oppression at that time, Gendun Chopel's knowledge met with too many obstacles. All the officials probably knew that he had good motivations, good knowledge, and good objectives, but nobody supported him. It was imperative for that old system to change and to transform into a new one. However, that would threaten the officials' and aristocrats' power and prestige, they feared. They understood Gendun Chopel's words, but, even if some agreed with him in, they did not want to lose their power. Therefore, they would not have said that his ideas were good. But they would have said something else.
Which of Gendun Chopel's works do you like most?
Out of his writings, I best like his [travel] Guide to the Holy Buddhist Sites in India. No one in Tibet knew about them until Gendun Chopel. Tibetans very much liked to go to India on pilgrimages. But most pilgrims didn't know the sites well. In the whole history of Tibet, there had never been any guide to help people by clearly showing and identifying the places. It is unprecedented in Tibet, and I've heard that it is true also in India.
He thought from all angles for the religious people [monks and scholars], as well as for the ordinary pilgrims. In this way, Gendun Chopel's book is also a symbol of his admiration for the Buddha and the Dharma. The fact that he had thought for those who have faith in the Buddha and the Dharma also indicates something.
The other work is that of The Treasury of Sanskrit. In this work, Gendun Chopel gave much thought to Buddhist terminology, while translating some terms into Tibetan by checking with the original source in Sanskrit. This indicates how much he loved and cared about the Dharma. At that time, there were no great translators [Tib.: lotsawas] like him. Despite his lack of resources, he had thought so much about the Dharma alone. This is not an easy job.
He did not go to India carrying a bunch of scriptures on his back. If he hadn't known the Tibetan scriptures [by heart], it would have been very difficult for him to look at the original Indian sources and check them [with the Tibetan translations], even if he had intended to. But since all the Tibetan translations were in his mind, they were like his witness. So using his knowledge of the texts, he compared the Tibetan translations with the original Indian sources to check them thoroughly. This really shows his great enthusiasm for the Dharma, as well as that Gendun Chopel was familiar with all the different teachings. I think, looking at it from all angles, it was very rare to find such a translator in Tibet, who had experienced so much hardship and had very little financial resources. In the past, all the translators had had patrons who supported them [e.g., the Tibetan kings in the eighth century]. But Gendun Chopel did not have any patrons. He was a lonely wanderer. In such a situation, it would have been very difficult for others to have the same determination to carry out the work he had. They would not have had the capability to work like him either. This is one reason why I like him.
Similarly, with regard to his historical writing The White Annals, previously the old documents of Dunhuang from the Tang dynasty had not been available for reading. But Gendun Chopel searched for them and put them together. Here, too, if he hadn't been thoroughly familiar with Tibetan history, he could not have distinguished between what he needed and what he did not. It is surprising that he was able to decide, whereas previous scholars could not decide regarding this or that matter of Tibetan history. There were no much materials available in Tibet at the time, but he painstakingly searched for them. As opposed to previous Tibetan histories, in his White Annals, he wrote about Tibetan history by using the history of other nations. This makes Gendun Chopel's work outstanding. So, it is not just written by him, it was already there in the histories of other nations. In the past, it was considered good to write from one’s own viewpoint. But the best and most reliable is the information that is already found in another nation's histories because it is a valuable confirmation of the truth for the Tibetan history. Therefore, The White Annals are
Then there are his translations of old texts, such as the Dhammapada [an old Buddhist text]. At the end of his translation, Gendun Chopel wrote several verses in which he claimed to be the reincarnation of former Tibetan translators [lotsawas], who had been to India, had lived there for many years, and then returned to Tibet [with all their Buddhist texts]. For my part, I believe in him.
Gendun Chopel wrote Ludrup Gongyen. What do you think about it?
In my opinion, as far as the Ludrup Gongyen [Adornment of Nagarjuna's Thoughts] is concerned, Gendun Chopel was basically a Nyingmapa [arguing from a viewpoint of the Nyingmapa tradition]. But I don't think that he was a sectarian-minded Nyingmapa at all [one has to know that Gendun Chopel came from a Nyingmapa family, lived in Nyingmapa monasteries, when he was young but got his formal education mainly in Gelugpa monasteries: Ditsa, Labrang, and Drepung]. In his Ludrup Gongye, there may be many philosophical views that stem from Nyingmapa philosophy. But Gendun Chopel mainly studied in the large monastic centers of the Gelugpas, like Labrang and Drepung.
During those times [1920–1934], the great scholars in those institutions did not agree with his many of his viewpoints. Rather than agreeing with him, they tried to repress him. In Ludrup Gongyen he put forth many well-thought-out arguments of his own. I think that they were arguments purposely writte, in order to ask the other scholars to challenge his ideas if they could. This may be because Gendun Chopel wanted to know how good these scholars really were.
He was not the only one to hold the views that he held. There were scholars in Amdo [Northeast-Tibet], as well as other places. No one can tell for sure what his actual ideas and views were. I would rather support the idea that, because Gendun Chopel basically was a Nyingma philosopher, in theory, he claimed the Nyingmapa's views. To “ask” the other scholars to respond, was to show his rationality. There is evidence for this. When he was living, no one could answer him [the text was actually written shortly before his death in 1951]. If the answers had been written while he was still alive, I think that Gendun Chopel would still have had more to say. In The Ludrup Gongyen there are many ideas on which he differs from Tsongkhapa's views [the founder of the Gelugpa tradition]. He was probably objecting to Tsongkhapa's views. Yet we cannot decide whether he liked or respected Tsongkhapa or not. For my part, I cannot say that Gendun Chopel argued against Tsongkhapa because he did not like him. If you ask me, whether he followed a certain religious tradition [Nyingma philosophy] or not, my answers is he did. But it cannot be claimed that, what was said in his Ludrup Gongye is the same as what Gendun Chopel believed. Therefore, in writing The Ludrup Gongyen,it may not have been nice of Gendun Chopel to express his ideas the way he has. As far as I'm concerned, the viewpoints in Gendun Chopel's Ludrup Gongyen are different from Tsongkhapa's. But that may also be because of Gendun Chopel's method of logical analysis. [See interview: Ju Kesang.] I think that by answering the questions Gendun Chopel raised in his text, it would help more than harm the philosophical standpoint of Tsongkhapa.
Why wouldn’t it harm the philosophical view of Tsongkhapa?
I think if one wishes to know the real view of Tsongkhapa, then one has to understand very subtle points that are not easily understood by others. Gendun Chopel tells us about those subtle points that others have not fathomed. In my case, I first thought that what is said in Ludrup Gongyen was right. To really grasp and understand Tsongkhapa's views, one must know that there are pitfalls and critical points, too. An ordinary person cannot apprehend those critical points. By opening the doors to those critical points, in many ways, people would then be able to gain a better insight into the actual view. Those pitfalls and critical points that many people miss [when reading it] are discussed in Gendun Chopel's text.
Gendun Chopel lived from 1903 to 1951. What is your idea of Tibetan society at that time?
In my view, even in terms of religion, Tibet was a society that was declining. Whether in the sciences of learning or in other fields, it was a time of decline. It was not a time, when these fields were making progress. On all accounts, it was a time, when the whole Tibetan society was on the decline.
Do you know anything about the reason behind Gendun Chopel's arrest?
I don't know the actual reason. Judging from his writings, it doesn't look like Gendun Chopel had done any wrong sufficient for the Tibetan government to arrest and imprison him. Of course, he was outspoken. His words were very sharp. Many could not lend their ears to his voice. Although they may have agreed that he was actually right, they could not speak out because they were scared. [See above.] Therefore, I think, he was harmed just because they disliked him. I don't think that he was arrested out of any concern for the Tibetan people at all. How do I know this? There is a piece of writing that Gendun Chopel penned in prison. In it he explained that the Tibetan customs, manners, and legal systems were in accord with the Dharma [Buddhism] and that, because the ancient Tibetan kings had established a system, which was in accordance with the Dharma, the Tibetan prisons could not be worse than the prisons in other countries. In comparison, the Tibetan prisons were very pleasant. If he hadn't been optimistic, he wouldn't have liked it there. [I have never seen this text.]
These days there is a great interest in Gendun Chopel. Do people exaggerate when talking about Gendun Chopel?
So far, I’ve encountered nothing like that. When we say Gendun Chopel is good, we are not saying it just in view of the present time. We are saying it in view of the society at that time. From that perspective, it is okay to say that. In Tibetan history, there were many scholars, but only Gendun Chopel became famous for his knowledge in spoken and written languages, religions, other sciences of learning, politics, customs and traditions of other countries, and for his deep insights even into plants. He is renowned in other countries for his thorough analysis in all fields of learning from all angles [Jigme Theckchog is referring to the many Westerners studying Gendun Chopel's life]. Even today, it is difficult to have someone like him.
In view of this, I don't think it’s an exaggeration to say that Gendun Chopel is a good person. I look at it this way. Generally, when someone is said to be a scholar by others, comparatively, there may be others more learned than that person. So, there cannot be a clear-cut decision, saying that such and such person is the scholar. Even though others may talk about someone being not good, it's not certain that this person lacked any good qualities. It's just a case of looking at that person only from his negative side; he may have his positive side, too. From this vantage point, judging by his style of writing or his expressions of his own views, it is not the case that Gendun Chopel was a person who fixed his mind on just one single issue. He looked at many different matters from many different angles. Other people's concern may cover just a single issue in their writings.
Therefore, it is wrong to criticize Gendun Chopel by saying that he was a troublemaker. We cannot see a “good” or “bad” personality with our eyes. His thoughts and goals are not something we can see with our eyes. Also the ancient scholars and realized masters were not judged by people with their eyes. So someone didn't like somebody from one side and criticized that person, then, everyone had a negative view of him or her. It is just not right to criticize the person by focusing on his negative side only. He must be judged by whether he had the necessary knowledge and qualifications useful to the society at the time. From that vantage point, I find no faults.
What do you personally think about him?
He was previously a monk, but he did not stay a monk, he disrobed [in fact, although Gendun Chopel left the monastery, he never officially disrobed]. At that time, the Tibetan customs were very strict and narrow. Our mentality was very narrow, too. In terms of our behaviors and conduct and all sorts of things, we were very, very narrow-minded. Gendun Chopel had seen the wider world and its diversity. So I think that, since most people in our country did not know about other countries and their customs and traditions, they just called Gendun Chopel “a crazy person.” This can be understood if we think about it from a perspective of today. Suppose, somebody comes to Tibet and does things that are unacceptable or unpleasant in our Tibetan eyes, he would definitely be called “a crazy person.” [See interview: Ju Kesang.] However if there were many of them with the very same behavior, then they wouldn't be called “crazy” anymore. Gendun Chopel had witnessed many different cultures and people. In my opinion, at that time, he must have thought that, from his own viewpoint, there was nothing wrong with him, but due to our ignorance about other people and cultures, the other Tibetans called him crazy. This can be inferred by looking at the present time.
You said that Gendun Chopel was harmed. Why was he harmed?
After he was imprisoned, he was not allowed to go anywhere or meet anybody. On his part, whatever he did, he did not do for his own sake but for the welfare of others. But he did not have any rights; all his rights were taken [by the government]. He had very poor resources. For example, it is said that, when writing The White Annals, Gendun Chopel did not have any ink or paper. He could not see other people, nor could he read other books. Thus, initially, he had so many great ideas, but in the end, all those ideas and thoughts could not bear any fruit. Therefore, he might have been mentally disturbed. This is what I think.
Do you think that Gendun Chopel was important to Tibet?
He was important. He became a historical personality. Due to his brilliance, even when he was still very young, he had a unique life. He was outstanding in all respects of his religious education, in terms of philosophical debate, his studies and memorization of texts, etc. Then he knew many different scripts and languages and he traveled to different places. He was not narrow-minded in his thinking, but he thought broadly from many different angles. He did not do any guesswork, but he actually witnessed many things by himself. In all respect, whether from his legacy, left in the form of the books, or even the stories that people started telling from word of mouth, there was no one like him, during that period. At that time the Tibetan nation was declining very badly. A man like him was extremely rare at the time. In the history of Tibet, if we look at the different periods, he was one of the most outstanding personalities of his time. Why? Because he knew what to say about everything. Although there were others known to be scholars, there was none who left any real traces. But Gendun Chopel has left behind his legacy.
Judging by that, Gendun Chopel was a historic personality. There were other scholars, as well as good people. But if they knew some religious texts, they did not know the others. If they knew the Sutras, then they were ignorant about the Tantra. If they knew the secular sciences, then they did not know the religious teaching. In other words, there was no other person who was as versatile as Gendun Chopel. If the other scholars knew the teachings, which we have in Tibetan translation from Sanskrit, they did not know Sanskrit. He knew the teachings, both in Tibetan and Sanskrit. Other people knew about Buddhism but not politics. But for him, in terms of politics, he knew the old history, the political systems of the present day, and their future development; he knew the systems of other nations but also what the situation of Tibet was like and what, accordingly, we should have done. All this he knew. Some people did not know the Indian language if they knew Tibetan. And even if they knew both of these languages, then they didn't know any English. Even if they knew the languages, they could not reach the place in person. Even if they reached the place, they could not write in English. Even if they could reach it and write in English, they would have nothing to show for it in their own writings . . . So, looking from all these perspectives, this person [Gendun Chopel] was unique.