Recorded in Lingya on August 16, 1999 in a Nyingma monastery near Rebkong. Born 1929 in Lingya, Northeastern Tibet (Amdo), Akhu Lama Tsering belonged to a Nyingma monastery. He himself was a famous Nyingma practitioner (ngagpa) in Amdo. He was very close to the mother of Gendun Chopel, who later in life became a nun. He never met Gendun Chopel himself; what he knew of Gendun Chopel was through Gendun Chopel’s mother and relatives and through the texts he read by Gendun Chopel. He died some years back in early 2000.
What is your name?
My name is Lama Tsering. I am seventy-one years old. My native land is Lingya [near Rebkong in Northeast-Tibet].
Tell us about Gendun Chopel. How did you hear about him?
Earlier, our monastery was Yama Tashi Khyil [near the home of Gendun Chopel], the monastery of Kyabgon Shabkarpa. In Yama Tashi Khyil all the tantric practitioners of Rebkong area assembled for a special puja [prayer festival]. In Yama Tashi Khyil, they knew about Gendun Chopel's life.
Gendun Chopel's father's name was Alak Gyalpo. He was actually from Kyagya. Due to some problems, he came to Yama Tashi Khyil and stayed there. The mother, Ani Pema Tso, was from Zhoepang. After taking her as his bride Alak Riglo [Gendun Chopel] was born. Alak Riglo, at a very young age [four years], entered the monastic community of Yama Tashi Khyil and studied under Akhu Tsampa. Akhu Tsampa was both the guru and teacher of Alak Kyabgon. Akhu Tsampa also taught Gendun Chopel Tibetan grammar.
After few years Gendun Chopel went to another local monastery where he took the monk's name Gendun Chopel. There he was trained as a poet and linguist and studied Tibetan grammar thoroughly. At Ditsa monastery he started studying Buddhist scriptures. He was nicknamed “the thin guy from Ditsa” [Ditsa gambo]. The reason why Gendun Chopel was also called Alak Dhodak: the Abbot of Minling Dhodak monastery, Jigme Sonam Namgyal, was once invited to Amdo [Northeast-Tibet] by the second Kyabgon of Yama Tashi Khyil, where he founded the tradition of holding the prayer festival of Yamaraj. He also taught many sacred dances, which were the same as that of Gyud. The tantric practitioners from Rebkong established a spiritual relationship with the abbot [of Minling Dhodak] and many of them still recite his prayers in their daily morning prayer:
The great chariot that spread the new words in Lhadrak,
Son of virtue was Thinley Namgyal.
Purposely taking low birth, he became the holder of tantric teachings
I pray to Jigme Sonam Namgyal.
Alak Riglo [Gendun Chopel] was said to be the reincarnation of the Abbot of Minling Dhodak. That was the reason why Gendun Chopel was later called Dhodak Tulku. So Alak Ditsa [another name for Gendun Chopel] was said to be his reincarnation. He was called thin Alak Dhodak, because he had no flesh on his body. While at Ditsa, Gendun Chopel reached the pinnacle of his understanding of Tibetan language, and this caused others to feel jealous of him. Thus he left for Labrang [saying that Ditsa was to small for him; see interview: Yudrung Gya]. At Labrang [a huge Gelugpa monastery] he studied Buddhist philosophy by way of dialectics. It was said that Gendun Chopel used Sanskrit instead of Tibetan when he shared secrets with his friends. When he was studying The Collected Topics, his class was known as the “terminology class" [for Gendun Chopel's use of Sanskrit, see interview: Alak Yongtsin].
[In Labrang] he built small mechanical planes and mice. His mouse looked so real that even a cat was once deceived and pounced on it. Gendun Chopel flew his mechanical plane to and fro across the Sang River [flowing through Labrang]. These actions resulted in him developing a rift with others, and eventually he left for Lhasa .
He stayed in Lhasa for a long period of time [1927–1934]. Gendun Chopel corrected The Translation Of Buddha's Words [Akhu Lama Tsering is referring to Gendun Chopel’s last text on Buddhist Madhyamika philosophy, which stirred quite a controversy] and made counterfeit notes. While making counterfeit notes, he was arrested by the Tibetan government, because the thread in one of the notes was broken. [See the interview transcript of Tashi Pelra, the magistrate, who arrested Gendun Chopel.]
After completing his prison term, he left for India and there he wrote a traveler's guidebook [Akhu Lama Tsering mixes up the events here]. Gendun Chopel wrote many works.
He was forty-seven when he died in Lhasa after his visit to India. He completed The White Annals [his work on Tibetan history] at forty-seven. Rebkong Kyabgon visited Lhasa when Gendun Chopel was working on his book. Gendun Chopel went to greet him and informed Rebkong Kyabgon that he was working on a book and asked Rebkong Kyabgon to go through the book. Gendun Chopel also asked Rebkong Kyabgon to finish the book. Although Rebkong Kyabgon accepted, he couldn't finish the book, and it was left incomplete.
At forty-seven, on his deathbed, Gendun Chopel asked some of his friends to recite the “Long Mantra of Ushnisha Vijaya” and the “Prayer Pleasing Manjushri” composed by Lama Mipham. He seated himself in the posture of Maitreya [the Buddha of the future], and facing northward, he breathed his last breath. [This account, and the following, is part of the legend surrounding Gendun Chopel's death. In reality, Gendun Chopel died alone in his room.] It was said that Gendun Chopel was a great tantric practitioner and had reached a higher state of mind. Because of this, it was also said that, clearly inscribed on his bones were letters. Others said many relics flowed from Gendun Chopel’s skull and that he was a great tantric practitioner. He died that way [such accounts also discuss whether Gendun Chopel was in fact a naljorpa, a “crazy saint.” See interview: Ju Kesang].
You know Gendun Chopel's mother. Did his mother tell you stories about him?
No, she never told me any stories. She told me that she had sent letters to him and had received replies from him. [See Gendun Chopel's letters from India.] However, she said that since they were separated by great distance they would not meet again. Whenever she said this, she would shed tears. Besides this, she never told me any stories. In her later life she received the layperson's vows [became a nun].
In her youth she gave birth to Gendun Chopel, and in the evening of her life she became a nun. She wore maroon robes. She received the celibacy vows and became a nun. Badho was her dharma [Buddhist] name and her lay name was Pema Tso. That was the only story she told me. “I will not meet my son again. I have written to him. Now we will not meet,” she would say and cry. The two of us spent time together, receiving teachings on The Oral Instruction of Lama Kunsang from Alak Tsethar of Lun monastery, and I also stayed at her retreat house.
Did she tell you what the letters contained?
Except for her telling me that she was receiving these letters, I didn't see the letters myself. I heard that in one letter Gendun Chopel sent greetings to his mother and that the only other thing he wrote besides his greetings was about an Indian tree mentioned in a verse from Shantideva's guide to The Bodhisattava's Way of Life:
Other joys are like chu-shing,
Which, after producing fruits, disappear.
He wrote that chu-shing is a tree that grows near a lake called Kuda in India, whose shape is like that of a thigh of a young woman, contrary to the claims made by Mar Nang Tsang and Shamar Tsang [Tibetan authors]. He further wrote with regards to this tree that even if the layers of its bark were taken off, its inner core couldn't be reached. Many Amdo scholars agreed that chu-shing (in context, “the chu-shing has no essence”) meant the long shoot of an onion. But Gendun Chopel argued that the shoot of an onion was a type of grass, not a species of a tree. He wrote that the shape of the chu-shing that grows near Lake Kuda looks different. He even sent bark from that tree. I have heard such stories but haven't seen the letter with my own eyes. It was said that he wrote such things in his letters.
Out of this [chu-shing discussion], a spiritual argument developed. Others claimed that an onion, when observed from the outside, seemed a big solid thing whose inside was filled with empty space, with no essence. Its roots dry out and die right after the seeds formed the top of the shoot. Likewise, the joy that arises from its positive causes, the virtuous deeds, disappears after giving its resultant joy. It might be possible to increase the material wealth in this worldly life with such causes, but these causes couldn't be transformed into a continuum resulting in the state of Nirvana. So some scholars from Amdo believed the onion to be a metaphor for “lacking of essence.” But Gendun Chopel stated that what they were actually talking about was not an onion at all, but in fact a tree, growing near Lake Kuda whose shape was like that of a thigh of young woman. And this tree, which dies after bearing fruit, has a trunk made of many layers of skin. As mentioned in the verse, "Other joys are like chu-shing, which, after producing fruits, disappear.”
Do you know of any more stories about Gendun Chopel?
No, not many. I have heard analogies used by Gendun Chopel to explain the rarity of “a fully endowed human life.” But he was someone who would not listen to other people's explanations. Older tantric practitioners used to describe how Gendun Chopel would explain these things when their prayer session ended. But even with such explanations, it was very difficult to understand the point. Gendun Chopel used to say that it would be very useful to hold wind by meditating on wind when one is small. There were only few monks who practiced “wind yoga” [levitation]. They say that in the assembly hall, when Gendun Chopel meditated on wind and held wind, his face would appear through the windows of the second floor [another story, adding to the ongoing discussion of whether Gendun Chopel was a “crazy saint” in possession of special spiritual power].
How did your interest in Gendun Chopel develop?
At first I didn't have any real interest in him. Earlier, I didn't understand his beliefs. Akhu Lodroe [a monk from Amdo] would often tell us about Gendun Chopel's stay in Lhasa [in Drepung monastery]. When they knew that Gendun Chopel would attend a debate session and would actually debate there, even the old monks, leaning on their crutches, would come to the debating ground, saying, that today they would learn new logic and gain new knowledge and would listen to Gendun Chopel's arguments attentively:
In a debate there were two participants, the questioner and the answerer. One day, Gendun Chopel was the answerer and another monk questioned him. The questioner first recited a few words from The Golden Rosary of Eloquent Speech and then asked Gendun Chopel to recite the words immediately preceding them. Gendun Chopel told the monk that the words didn’t come to mind. To that, the monk replied snobbishly that if the words did not come to mind, why had Gendun Chopel asked for this quotation? Then Gendun Chopel asked the monk to recite the words preceding one sentence that Gendun Chopel himself recited from “The Praises to the Twenty-One Taras.” The monk told Gendun Chopel that he couldn't recite that. Gendun Chopel mockingly told the monk that if he was unable to recite the sentence from “The Praises to the Twenty-one Taras,” then how could he—Gendun Chopel—recite the words from The Golden Rosary of Eloquent Speech? The logic here was that “The Praises to the Twenty-One Taras” was a short prayer that was recited daily by all the monks, whereas The Golden Rosary of Eloquent Speech was a huge text that was not recited daily. If the questioning monk couldn't recite the sentence preceding the one that Gendun Chopel recited, then how could Gendun Chopel recite the words from such a thick volume of text as The Golden Rosary of Eloquent Speech?
After the People's Liberation Army came to Tibet [1950–1951], Gendun Chopel was known by people of Tibetan nationality to be a great scholar, and hence some asserted that he was the second greatest scholar in the world and some asserted that he was third. Although he was highly honored, his assertions were not really known then. In the expression of worship at the beginning of his book, The Ornament of Nagarjuna's Thoughts [the controversial text on Buddhist Madhyamika philosophy], Gendun Chopel wrote that, even though he hadn't put his assertions out before, he had practiced the teachings of the Nyingma tradition, particularly the Great Perfection practice of highest yoga tantra. When he was alive, his beliefs were not understood and his beliefs were not valued. Now, after being recognized as a great Tibetan scholar, Gendun Chopel has a high status. But before, it was not like that.
He didn't stay long around here [in Amdo]. He didn’t found any monastery here. And except for a few disciples, like Nyagrong Dasang, he didn't really have many famous students. Gendun Chopel didn't have many great achievements to his name. Because of this, he didn’t have a high status when he was still alive. He went to Lhasa and India and stayed in those places. He also wrote a guidebook.
From your viewpoint, in what way is Gendun Chopel important?
From a religious point of view, it is said that Gendun Chopel had the five main Buddhist texts as his belt. He was highly knowledgeable on the five main texts. He was particularly good in Pramana. From the secular side, what Gendun Chopel said was very compatible with science. It is also believed that Gendun Chopel's ideology was very similar to that of Marx's and Lenin's.
Gendun Chopel never accepted that conventional phenomena could be perceived by valid cognition. Hence, he tried to disprove Tsongkhapa on this point, which resulted in many [Gelugpa] lamas disliking him. But he was very learned in Pramana. From the secular side, too, he had stated that, except for the lack of facilities, he could have built an airplane. In every field, he was a man of great knowledge.
What about science?
Gendun Chopel was good in science. It was believed that, despite a lack of materials and resources, he had great technological knowledge. It is recorded in his biography that Gendun Chopel made paper planes and flew them over Sang River [in Labrang]. Even though he had the know-how to build airplanes, he had no materials or financial backing. And of course he was also very knowledgeable in the five main Buddhist texts. He was good in science, but lacked the means. It is claimed that H. H. the Dalai Lama has said, “If Gendun Chopel was living now; he would be a very big help. He would be like a staff for an old man. However he is no more.” Those who share his nationality [Tibetans in Tibet] stated similar things. Since Gendun Chopel had such a deep knowledge of science, it is said that, even if Gendun Chopel were living in another world, it wouldn't be a waste of money to bring him back from there. Gendun Chopel had the knowledge, but was lacking in resources. At that time we couldn't even build explosives here.
Why did so many people take an interest in Gendun Chopel only after his death?
That is difficult to say. Of all his achievements, his main achievements are his many writings. Going through his writings, you can see that Gendun Chopel was a great scholar and thus he was respected. He didn’t establish a monastery, nor did he give teachings over a long period of time, which would have gained him many disciples. However, after his death, like a Tibetan proverb expresses: “We love the dead ones, and we like the previous year better.”
By reading his writings, people realized that he was in fact a great scholar. Except for his writings, Gendun Chopel had no other great achievements . . . [Thinks.] There are many new terms that Gendun Chopel used and clarified in his writing that were not used by earlier scholars. There are points Gendun Chopel resolved that were left undecided by earlier scholars. He wrote and explained all this in his Wandering Around the Country: The Story Called Spread-Out Gold [travel account from India]. And then there is The Ornaments of Nagarjuna's Thoughts [his controversial thoughts on Madhyamika philosophy]. He wrote so many works. I have read only a few. Only a few books have reached my hands: The Ornament of Nagarjuna's Thoughts; Wandering Around the Country: The Story Called Spread-Out Gold; and The White Annals [on Tibetan history]. Gendun Chopel has many writings to his credit. In the Kham area of East-Tibet The Ornament of Nagarjuna's Thoughts is studied mainly. If one reads his Collected Works [published in Lhasa by Horkhang Sonam Penbar in 1990], one will have a sense of awe. Usually, we develop adoration after reading collected works. If the work is very good, then we hold the author in great esteem. But I haven't read much.
Please explain why you like The Ornament of Nagarjuna's Thought.
In The Ornament of Nagarjuna's Thought, one of the four philosophical views of Buddhist tenets, Gendun Chopel expounded clearly the Consequentialist's view and further established it. The Consequentialist's view and the Great Perfection [Tsogchen] view are the same. Nagarjuna's view and Padmasambhava's views are similar. In The Ornament of Nagarjuna's Thought, Gendun Chopel explained the Middle Way Consequentialist's view in great detail. And the view is similar to that of Tsogchen [by Padmasambhava, the founder of the Nyingma school]. We, the elder tantric practitioners [of the Nyingmapa tradition], practice the Great Perfection. What is not clear in the Tsogchen texts is clearly explained in The Ornament of Nagarjuna's Thought. So reading both texts gives us many new insights. Therefore I like to read Gendun Chopel's text.
In The Ornament of Nagarjuna's Thoughts some assertions of the Gelugpa tradition have been refuted. What is your opinion on this?
In Gendun Chopel's text the philosophical views of different tenets are explained. The Middle Way Autonomists accept that conventional existing phenomena can be perceived by valid cognition. The Mind-Only School also accepts this. But The Middle Way Consequentialists [Gendun Chopel's position in his book] do not accept it.
In that respect, Gendun Chopel gave many metaphors. One metaphor, given by Gendun Chopel, is the River Ganga of India. It gives me joy to explain these things, but it is difficult to understand [here Akhu Lama Tsering also refers to us, the interviewers. He is afraid that we can't follow his explanation]. This is a problem. Also we [learned monks] didn't understand the concept of valid cognition, perceiving conventional things, but when it was explained to us by using the metaphor of River Ganga, then even we feel it must be true. The lower tenets accept valid cognition perceiving conventional things. It is really difficult to grasp this concept. If we tried to explain the concept to those who have not studied Buddhist texts, then they won't understand it [again he refers to us]. The difference lies in the view of each tenet. It is not easy to say, this is right and that is wrong. You have to analyze it in your mind, and you must not exceed what you have established in your mind. There is an end to investigations. It depends on the intellect of the investigators. I am not saying that Tsongkhapa had a lesser intellect. Like the sun and the moon, Shantarakshita was very famous both in India and Tibet. From the philosophical point of view, he was a proponent of the Autonomy School. He was neither a proponent of Mind-Only School nor a proponent of the Consequence School. It is just that he held the view of the Autonomy Middle Way School. It was not that Tsongkhapa practiced the paths propounded by the Autonomy School, because he didn't realize the presentation of the base, the path, and the resultant state, proposed by the Mind-Only School or the Consequence Middle Way School. At that time [sixteenth century], his main disciples were proponents of the Autonomy School. Therefore he held the views of that school. Except for that, we cannot say this is correct and that is incorrect. It is just how each tenet proposes their views. [We couldn't really follow his philosophical explanations, but for people trained in Buddhist philosophy, it might be interesting.]
What do you think about The White Annals?
In this book, mainly the history of the Tibetan kings was dealt with: When did the kings live? How long did they live? And what were their achievements? Except for these points, I don't think there is anything special about this book. Mainly Gendun Chopel's book discusses the Tibetan kings, how they ruled their country, etc. There are many inconsistencies regarding the dates. Gendun Chopel made decisive points on many such issues. For example, in one of the old Bön texts [pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet], it is written that King Songtsen Gampo lived for thirty-five years, but Gendun Chopel claimed this was a misunderstanding; in fact the king lived for eighty-two years. Gendun Chopel also coined many new terms by deciding on many points.
Could you describe Gendun Chopel in just a few words?
I wouldn't know how to describe him in just a few words. If I were asked who Gendun Chopel was, I would say he was a person of very high intelligence, a special person, and superior to ordinary people. Of the three levels of intelligence—low, middle, and superior—he was a person of a superior level of intelligence. If I were asked why Gendun Chopel was of higher intellect, then the answer is that he perceived the Madhymika view [discussed above: The Ornament of Nagarjuna's Thought]. Only those who possess a sharp intelligence—intelligence like a precious jewel—can perceive the Madhyamika view. Not only did Gendun Chopel perceive the Madhyamika view, he wrote commentaries on it, too [see above]. What he perceived, he wrote down and explained. He was a person who renounced other worldly work. He had no attachment for worldly wealth; he let go of all worldly attachments. [Again Akhu Lama Tsering is putting Gendun Chopel in the context of a “crazy saint.”] Throughout his whole life Gendun Chopel renounced mundane strivings and wandered everywhere. Because of that, I would say, he was an extraordinary person. Otherwise I don't know how to describe him.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
I have nothing special to add. If Gendun Chopel's reincarnation was found and enthroned, then everyone would place high hope in him. For Gendun Chopel, even the Tibetan nationality pays tribute. If some kind of meeting were held to find and locate the reincarnation of Gendun Chopel, and then enthrone him, then I would have great hope. Except for that I have nothing special to add.