Recorded on August 26, 1999 in Tharchoe Monastery, near Mangra in Northeastern Tibet.
Born 1907 near Mangra (Amdo), Alak Yongtsin studied at Labrang Monastery, where he became Gendun Chopel's friend in the early 1920s. He stayed in Labrang as a highly regarded tülku (reincarnation), until its closure in the early 1960s. He spent several years in the Chinese Gulag, released in the early 1980s. He returned to his birthplace in Northeastern Tibet and later became the spiritual teacher of a young reincarnation in Tharchoe Monastery. He died in 2004 at age ninety-seven.
Alak Yongtsin begins talking, without us asking a question:
My native place is called Heynan District these days. I moved to Labrang Tashi Kyil at the age of 17. In the beginning, I was called Shabdrung of Kokonor [tib.: Tsongnombo] at Labrang. Prior to that, when I was 8 years old , I was recognized as the reincarnation of Sherab Gyatso Tsang. When I was young, I was called Tulku [reincarnation] of the Tutor of Shabdrung Karpo. So, I went to Lamo Dechen and stayed there for one year. Afterwards I secretly fled to Labrang monastery, where I was called Shabdrung of Kokonor. Then, after I formally joined Labrang, I started going to the debating sessions. When my classmates and myself were at the prayer session at the debating courtyard, some other monks were talking. While I kept listening to them, I heard them saying that Pis Ta Samudra had called a pillar as adarsha. Then, one of these monks turned to me and asked, “Hey guy! You may have heard something like that from Ditsa Alak [the nickname of GC], haven't you?” Then I replied by saying, “Pis Ta Samudra calling a pillar adarsha? Pis Ta Samudra is Sanskrit, meaning Dhargye Gyatso.” I said that an adarsha on a pillar means someone bald, whose forehead resembles a mirror. So, I told them thus. Then, one monk looking at me from the midst of the assembly said this, “Oh yes! Where are you from?” “I'm from Tsongnombo”, I said. “Why? When I was small, I had a teacher. He taught me some Sanskrit words like this.” When I said this GC told me, “You are good. We'll make friends. You should join the Thanye Dratsang.” Thanye refers to the different linguistic studies, after which our monastic school was named. Then we had conversations with each other and became acquaintances. Then, when I asked about his birthplace, GC replied, “My birthplace is Zhoepang, near Rebkong. My father was a Nyngma practitioner. He was a Tantric. My mother is still alive. She is a nun, now. As a child, when I was in Repkong, I was called Alak Dhodrak [GC was the reincarnation of Alak Dhodrak, see interview: Akhu Lama Tsering]. Later I moved to Ditsa monastery and studied some philosophy there. I studied Sanskrit from Bido Jamyang Tsang. I certainly know it well. The fact that I know the mantra [short prayers] language, is because of my limited Sanskrit knowledge.”
Thus, we remained friends. GC mainly studied philosophy. Specifically, he had studied the texts about the “Colors”, the “Advanced Studies in Colors”, the “Intermediate Level of Collected Topics”, the “Advanced Level of Collected Topics” and the “Study of Logical Reasoning”. He completed these studies. So, for four years we knew each other very well. Since Ditsa Monastery was very small, GC thought of moving to a larger monastic institution. So, he joined Labrang and pursued his studies in philosophy. During that time, because he had stayed in Ditsa Monastery, instead of calling him GC, people called him Ditsa Alak [the monk from Ditsa]. He was famous as it was known, “Ditsa Alak [GC] is a great Logician, a ‘Rigpa.’” He was extraordinary, even while debating in the preliminary logic on the Collected Topics. Besides, he had hands for art and could make drawings of anything with ease. Also, he was very good at writing compositions. Moreover, it was known that he had assembled together pieces of machines from broken clocks and made a small mechanical boat that could go from the near side to the far side of a small pondthat had formed after the earth had been dug out [for one of the temples in Labrang monastery]. GC once told me, 'If I ponder on it, I think I could make a mill that can run without the need for water.' So, he had created a small boat that ran on the water. But I have not seen that myself.
After completing his studies in Buddhist philosophy, he and Jamyang of Yugya had a debate on Pramanavarttika amidst the whole congregation of monks in the main Prayer Hall. At that time, Ditsa Alak [GC] posed as the defender [answerer], and they disputed for as long time. His rival was a very good scholar as well. Through this debate GC earned the title of “The Learned Master of Logic”. Then he pursued the “Perfection of Wisdom” studies, by joining the junior class. Alongside the study of philosophy, he also studied various other traditional subjects. Since he was a great scholar, he did not accept others easily. Because of that, it was said that Ditsa Alak was arrogant. Some said that he had no faith in the Three Jewels [Buddhism]. One when he talked with me, he had told me that he may have been an Indian in the previous life, because he was interested in learning Sanskrit since his childhood. Around that time  it was heard that Ditsa Alak [GC] was going somewhere else. The monks said various things such as, “Because Ditsa Alak has no faith in Nechung Trinley Gyalpo, the Dharma Protector did not allow him to reside in our monastery.” Again, some said that he was arrogant. And because Nechung Trinley Gyalpo [the protector deity] is riding a lion, he is hostile to arrogant people. Therefore, GC could no longer stay here. Then, he told me that he would not stay here any longer. That he was going to go to Lhasa and then from there to India. He told me that it was of no use for him to stay in this place. Later he left Labrang. While leaving here, he had put up a poster on his door [Alak Yongtsin starts reciting from memory]:
Hey, while I am gone to another place
Some monks, babbling words from their mouth
May say, “Somehow, Nechung Trinley Gyalpo
Did not let him stay, for he was arrogant.”
If there is such a strict Dharma Protector,
How could he allow those people,
Who wandered places familiar or strange to them,
To do business in tea, beer and dried mutton
And get themselves totally messed up?
Like the banyan leaves, they fold up their lower garment,
The worst of weapons, iron knifes, and bricks of tea they hold,
It would be right if these people were now expelled
They have doubled in number since the last year.
Lacking the pure faith, like the Friday planet,
Some say that he was expelled to another place.
Why are the cows, dzomos [female yaks], birds and insects,
The impure sentient beings, not expelled?
Nechung Gyalpo, the tusk bearer [elephant],
Has no reason whatsoever to expel those, who,
Disregarding the various hardships in hot and cold weathers,
Study and contemplate the scriptures of the Buddha,
In all possibilities and circumstances.
The jokes about which hats, clothes and shoes are better?
And those, about eating only simple food.
Between the two, although we see a big difference,
From up there, the Buddhas do not see any difference.
Rather than expelling a proud one, who knows
The “Collected Topics” of Ratoe and Se across mountains and other places,
Would it not be better if those arrogant ones,
Who sell meat and chang [beer] from door to door
Are expelled to other places instead?
Ha, ha! Am I right? Think yourselves.
Examine thoroughly by asking the Akhu Geshes.
Thus, this is spoken by one, who is a literary,
The lion of logic, Sangha Dharma [GC].
So, pasting these lines on his door GC left. Later he went to India. I never got any letter from India. But his classmates had received many letters. Although I know some of the contents of letters, I don't need to tell them now. At Labrang we were very close to each other. He had given me pictures drawn by himself. In one of these pictures, he had drawn a monk; whose hands were held this way, with his fingers this way, and a tree on this side. Now I have grown old. I am 92 years old.
Even as the mind imputes only a mirage over there
Water is seen to be obtained from it.
How is it that from a mere imputation of the mind
Leaves and flowers grow on trees?
So, he wrote this at the bottom and offered it to me. Also, he offered me a picture of an old bald monk, who was looking into a mirror, which reflected his face. With this picture he wrote this verse reflecting our view on emptiness:
Though measurable upon the nature of one’s own mind
And devoid of any power of establishment
This meaningless perception of the sight
Do you feel contended with this manner?
Thus this is how I can describe our friendship with each other. Otherwise, I do not have any big reasons to prove that.
Did GC study English with the American missionary “Sherab Tanphel” [engl. Griebenow]?
That I did not hear. I don't know. But other people said that GC went to an American, named Sherab Tanphel, outside of Labrang to learn some foreign language, reading and writing. But I have no clear idea about it. I had heard people talk about Ditsa Alak, going to a Russian [the missionary was originally from Russia] to learn languages. His name was Sherab Tanphel.
Tell us more about this famous debate in Labrang?
The debaters were called the Antagonist and Protagonist, who took turns to pose questions and give answers and vice versa. One stood up in the middle row and the other stood up next to the Gekoe's [ritual master] row. And the two of them debated. On that day, it was known that GC debated very intensely and this debate became very famous.
What was the atmosphere of this debate, what was it about?
There are four philosophical schools of tenets. Out of the four the “Idealists” reject external objects. At that time, GC and his opponent debated on the “Commentary of the Valid Cognition Text”, the Pramanavarttika, in connection with the “Idealists” position. The “Idealists” say that there are no external objects. It was said, “If there is a particle, then it must necessarily be a particle unit for the composition of external objects.” It was argued, “Should that be the case, then, there aren't any particles, because there are no particle units for the composition of external objects.” To that GC replied, “If ‘X’ is a particle and if it must necessarily be the particle unit for the composition of external objects. How can that be if there are no particles.” So, the whole monastery laughed at debates such as this one, in which the debaters argued about, whether infinitesimal particles do exist or not. Although the monks jeered at GC, later, when the same issue was readdressed back to his rival, the rival was not able to hold on to his position. The position that GC held was something very unconventional to the usual methodology of debate. “If ‘x’ is a particle, then it must be a particle unit for the composition of external objects. But there is no particle. And if there is no particle, then, the eight different colors don't exist. Because in the very first place there is no particle.” When this argument was thrown at GC's rival, the three thousand monks of our monastery made jokes at him saying, “Ho, ho, ho.” Later, when they switched turns and it was argued, “Are there particles? If so, are there particle units that form the basic unit for external objects or not?” At that, despite being such a good scholar, his rival was cornered and didn't have any answer to give. All the scholars at the time had claimed that GC had such a definitive good understanding of the subject matter [debating], and that his arguments were profound. In retrospect it seems that on that day, GC was unable to hold on to his own position. I was there in the gathering at the Dunpai Rigda Debate. My class was junior to his. We didn't have a say in this debate. Only the big Geshes [scholars] debated. However later, one of the great learned Geshes had mentioned that GC had won this debate.
Why did GC leave Labrang and go to Lhasa?
He didn't have any problem at Labrang. Not even one. I don't have any reason to say, as to why GC went to Lhasa, leaving Labrang. I knew him well at Labrang. He was a senior student and I was junior to him. I don't have any idea to relate about his problems with any of the officials or the disciplinarians of the monastery. At some point, when it was known that GC was not going to stay, but was going to go to Lhasa, some people were talking to each other saying that GC was being unable to restrain his mouth, therefore he could no longer stay here. On the one hand, he had connection with a Russian [actually the American missionary Griebenow, or, as the Tibetans called him, Sherab Tanphel]. On the other hand, he did not pay enough attention to studying philosophy, but was lost in the study of other secular subjects [making mechanical toys]. Moreover, because he lacked faith, he could not stay here. Such talks had spread in the monastery, and, in his own writing that GC had stuck on his door as he left, all his reasons were mentioned. When he was at Labrang, I had never heard of any wrongs done by him. Last year, in one essay, another reason for his leaving was mentioned. But I don't know. It's not clear to me. Anyway, he left for Lhasa. Then I heard that he had gone to Khagang and was at Khagang Monastery. From there he had gone to Lhasa, where he became a student of Geshe Sherab Gyatso of Dobi. He stayed at Lhubum khangtsen and studied philosophy intensely. Under Geshe Sherab he studied the “Perfection of Wisdom”, the Prajnaparamita, and he particularly studied the “Middle Way”, the Madhyamika philosophy and Tsongkhapa's “Essence of Eloquence”. GC was very brilliant. And Geshe Sherab was also a great scholar. They were very close to each other. The Geshe had said one day, “Okay. Today I am going to explain the definitive and interpretive meanings of the scriptures and do some analysis on it. So, ask GC to come to my class.” But GC replied, “Although I could come, I know already what Geshe Sherab would explain to us. He will say this at such and such point, and after that he will say this. I already know what he has to say.” From the point of view of the Dharma [Buddhist teaching] that was a slightly wrong way of relying to this respected Lama [Geshe Sherab]. GC had not been faithful.
Then, since GC was a Nyingmapa in his previous life [GC was born into a Nyingma family], he had a special appeal for the philosophical view of the Nyingma tradition. While in Lhasa, he wrote a book on this view [the Nyingma positions]. Both Trijang Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche [both teachers of the Dalai Lama] had told Geshe Sherab that GC had written such a book on Nyingma views, and asked him to make an argument against this religion [Nyingma tradition] and that they should write a refutation of GC's position [This discussion relates to the controversy, surrounding GC's philosophical essay, the “Adornment for Nagarjuna's Thought”. See interview: Akhu Lama Tsering]
In 1958, I got to know Geshe Sherab. I went to a meeting in Xining and that autumn, we were all arrested. At that time, I had gone to see Geshe Sherab. He told me that it was not good that he was asked by both of the Dalai Lama's tutors to write a refutation against GC's book on the Nyingmapa view. He said that he had written a refutation and had left it in the hands of Alak Khonag at Trelzong Monastery. He asked me to get that refutation and read it for myself. He said, “It's not good if a teacher has to refute his student.” So, Geshe Sherab had also made a refutation of GC's views. Now Geshe Sherab's refutation is published with the remark, “The last pages have not been found.” Other than this, I have nothing else to say.
Please tell us something about the imprisonment of GC in Lhasa.
GC became a great scholar of philosophy in Lhasa. After that he went to India. After returning from India, although he had a great plan to make a film on the twelve deeds of the Buddha, he lacked the resources [nobody else could confirm this story]. I have also heard that GC made counterfeit Tibetan currency notes and dispersed them everywhere, and since they came into the hands of the Tibetan government, GC was arrested. I don't know, whether this is true or not. But this was the rumor. [See interview: Tashi Pelra] While in India GC had talked about making a film on the life of Buddha and having already completed a part of the film, it was said that due to shortage of resources, GC had printed counterfeit Tibetan notes. After the investigation, GC was found responsible for the fake notes, and so he was arrested. Thus I had heard. At that time [probably after 1946] it was said that the Indian government had appealed to the Tibetan government not to give him the death sentence [also this story could not be confirmed]. The Tibetans have a vulgar attitude. First, GC was an exemplary monk with clean moral conduct. Then, he was kept in the same prison cell with a Khampa girl, and because of her he had to disrobe. There were such talks, but I don't know if they are true or a lie. The reason for the Tibetan government's arrest of GC was said to have been the counterfeit notes. I don't know, whether there were any other reasons for his arrest. Here in our area [Northeast-Tibet], it was said that GC had duplicated the Tibetan national currency and therefore he was punished and imprisoned by the government. Whether these stories are true or not I don't know.
Also in Lhasa, GC won the first position in a debating contest [in Drepung monastery]. He and a great Geshe [scholar] were said to have staked their chabri in a debating contest. GC had said to his opponent, “If I defeat you in this debate, you have to hand over your chabri to me. But if you defeat me, I will give you my chabri.” So, in the end GC won the great Geshe's chabri. A chabri is nothing so holy. It is a square container for fetching water that hangs from the waist, on the front side of a monk. However, it was a mistake that GC took the chabri. Because he took the chabri of a great scholar, it was inauspicious for him, such that in the later part of his life GC had to disrobe. So, I have heard. I don't really know. What I'm saying was just a rumor, but not something I learned from his own words. What I had told you earlier I know, due to our close friendship with each other. That's all I have to say. I don't know anything else. I have told you no lie. I have told you, what I actually heard.
What did you feel when you heard that GC had died after his release from prison?
Prior to his arrest, he had gone to India and had written all his works like the Guide Book of India, etc. People who have gone to India have said that if they had GC's guidebook with them, then they could consult it to find the directions to places. GC's guidebook is honored highly, even in the Noble Land of India. Oh! He was a unique personality. I had thought, “How bad! If he had lived a little longer, it would have been good.” That's all for now.