Recorded on August 24, 1999 near Jentsa in Northeastern Tibet.
Gurung Gyalsay, born 1911 near Jentsa in Northeastern Tibet, was a highly regarded Nyingma Lama. He was close to the parents of Gendun Chopel, especially his mother, who lived with him during Gendun Chopel's stay in India. He received many letters of Gendun Chopel from India (describing British Rule, Mahatma Gandhi, etc.), all of which were lost during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). He later worked for the Chinese administration in Qinghai Province. He died shortly after the interview in the year 2002.
Please introduce yourself briefly, including your name and age.
[He doesn't understand our question.] Today some of you comrades have come from Switzerland to ask me some questions about Gendun Chopel. I would like to tell you briefly about him. Terton Lama Sogyal Rinpoche, Thubten Choedor, Kathok Situ, and others recognized me as the reincarnation of Ju Mipham Chogley Namgyal. I was born in Dragar Nakha, the place where I live presently. I am eighty-nine years old. My horoscope sign is pig.
To tell you about Gendun Chopel: he was the reincarnation of Alak Dhodak. In our area, we call Gendun Chopel the reincarnation of Dhodak. We never call him Gendun Chopel. He was born near Rebkong in Yama Tashi Kyil [actually Gendun Chopel was born en route from Lhasa to Amdo]. He studied scriptures in YTK and later went to Labrang monastery. He studied scriptures at Labrang and defeated all his spiritual friends in philosophical debates. This earned him jealousy in Labrang. Then he went to Ditsa, where he lost weight and earned the nickname of Ditsa gambo, meaning the skinny man from Ditsa [Gendun Chopel was in Ditsa before he went to Labrang]. Later he went to Lhasa . In Lhasa he studied scriptures [in Drepung monastery] for some years [1927–1934] and then went to India. In India, there was a good ruler by the name of Mahatma Gandhi, who was fighting for the independence of his country. Gendun Chopel served Mahatma Gandhi by doing a lot of political work for the Indian independence [in fact, Gendun Chopel never met Gandhi]. While he was in India, we wrote to each other several times. He sent me several travel books on India, written both in English and Tibetan [there is no travel book in English]. He also sent me several other books. He had entrusted the care of his mother to me. Around that time [when he was in India], he came to Lhasa en route to his home village. But the prevailing turmoil in China prevented his homecoming. [See the letter Gendun Chopel wrote back to his mother.]
When he was about to come home from Lhasa, the Tibetan government arrested him . Several high ranking people and friends in Amdo [Northeast-Tibet], including Chen Hu and Bhen Hu [?], sent petitions to Ma Bufang [a Muslim warlord, who was in control of large areas within Amdo]. Ma Bufang wrote to Lhasa, stating that Gendun Chopel belonged to Amdo and must be allowed to return home. Lhasa replied by saying that Gendun Chopel had been arrested, because he had been a communist party member. We sent another petition to Ma Bufang, stating that Lhasa's claim was untrue. We were working to get Gendun Chopel released when the Red Army came to Amdo. This prevented us from continuing our efforts on his behalf. I wrote a letter to Lhasa, when Tibet's liberation was underway. According to government soldiers, Gendun Chopel died of poisoning. Alak Dhodak [Gendun Chopel] is the son of Gyalpo Tsang. The reincarnation of Gyalpo Rigzin Palden Tashi was my uncle. Gendun Chopel was the son of Gyalpo Tsang. This is how we are related. . . . During the Cultural Revolution [1966–1976], I went to Xining [the capital of Qinghai province, formerly Northeast-Tibet]. During my absence, some people took away many of my documents, including Gendun Chopel's letters. This was a great loss to me.
Tell us the contents of those letters.
As I remember it, his letters said that India was under British rule, that Gandhi was leading the Indian struggle for independence, that the people of India did not want to live under British rule, that Gandhi urged his people not to use electric lamps, reasoning that electric lamps were bad for the eyes and that people had to pay for the electricity they used, etc. Instead, Gandhi suggested using the Indian oil lamps, which he said, gave better luminosity and did not harm the eyes. Gandhi, Gendun Chopel wrote, urged people not to travel by locomotive trains. People followed his advice and boycotted the British-made electric lamps and trains. Gandhi, he wrote, spun [wool] every day and earned his living from the sale of threads spun by himself. The people of India followed Gandhi in every way. He wrote at length on how the British were forced to give independence to India. He sent me a guidebook on the eight pilgrim sites in India, including the birthplace of the Buddha. The book gives many details of the life of the Buddha. These were the contents of his letters to me . . . [Thinks.] We knew Gendun Chopel's mother as Ani Badho.
Did Gendun Chopel's mother tell you about her son's early life?
Gendun Chopel and I were related spiritually. We were also like-minded. That is why his mother stayed at my home while he was away in India. Gendun Chopel wrote to me saying, “My mother is old. You should look after her. There is no one to look after my mother during my absence,” etc. Of course, there were like-minded people and fellow students who were ready to look after his mother. But since Gendun Chopel and I had a close spiritual relationship, his mother stayed with me for two years.
Gendun Chopel's mother told me that she was old and wanted Gendun Chopel to return home to meet her once before she died. I wrote to Gendun Chopel, and related his mother's wish. Accordingly, Gendun Chopel came to Lhasa on his way home. But he had this incident [arrest] in Lhasa, which I narrated earlier [it is not sure, though, whether Gendun Chopel had any plans to return home at the time, 1946].
It is said that, when Gendun Chopel was a child, he made a boat with an engine, made of old and broken watches. That boat could sail up and down in the water. [See interview: Alak Yongtsin.] He was also fond of painting. He was a gifted person. Although he had no training in painting, he could paint portraits with uncanny resemblance to the models. In the past, I used to have some of his paintings. They are now no longer with me. Such was his precocity. Very few people can paint such portraits without training. In those days, there weren’t scientific developments like today. But he was even then fond of technology and painting. He was fond of reading. And he retained everything he read. It is believed that he achieved a spiritual attainment and never forgot anything. People say this from a spiritual point of view [meaning that Gendun Chopel was spiritually a highly developed person].
You must have heard of Geshe Sherab Gyatso from Dobhi. He studied scriptures in Lhasa and was considered a great religious scholar [in Drepung monastery. He was also Gendun Chopel's teacher in Drepung]. People say that Geshe Sherab Gyatso could not win against Gendun Chopel in philosophical debates. Geshe Sherab Gyatso lived in the city of Xining [Northeast-Tibet]. We lived together for a long time. I told Geshe Sherab Gyatso of the death of Gendun Chopel in Lhasa. Geshe la said, “Alas, That's bad! That's bad! This is sadder than the news of the death of one thousand people.”
Those who had traveled to India told me this story: When Gendun Chopel wrote this travel guide India; he sat on many trains and wrote down all the routes the train would take. For this, he was exempted from paying the train fare. They also said he was highly respected in India. These stories are most probably true. This was probably due to his association with Gandhi. I used to have some of the books that he sent me. Now they are all gone.
Do you know why Gendun Chopel was imprisoned in Lhasa?
This I told you earlier. We received a message from Lhasa that he had been imprisoned on the charge of being a communist party member. In reply to our letter demanding his release, we got this reply from Lhasa: “He is a communist party member. That is why the Tibetan government arrested him in Lhasa.”
What do you think of Gendun Chopel?
We call him Dhodak Tulku [reincarnation]. He was later named Gendun Chopel. Dhodak Tulku had been a greatly learned and high lama of Sichuan [actually the Tibetan region of Kham, which has been incorporated into the Chinese province of Sichuan]. My father, Gurong Tsang, got Gendun Chopel recognized as the reincarnation of Dhodak Tulku. Gendun Chopel was the son of Gyalpo Tsang. Gyalpo Tsang and we belonged to the same spiritual lineage [Nyingmapa, the old translation school]. As I see it, Gendun Chopel was an extremely precocious person. He was not a person who would be partial to Gelugpa or Nyingma doctrine. He looked at the reality from the scientific point of view. He said a lot of great things:
Those who cannot appreciate “wondrous things”
Are simpletons, as the Dharma Kings and Lamas say.
From these words it can be discerned that he was a great lover of scientific thinking. Another one:
If the nomads want to eat meat,
And valley dwellers want to drink butter oil,
It is pointless to prevent them by coercion.
It is pointless to coerce them against their wish.
This is extremely logical. Many people like his way of scientific thinking.
These days some Gelugpa followers dislike Nyingmapas. Gendun Chopel was not like this. He was non-sectarian and a scholar of all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He visited the monasteries of Tibet and catalogued all the scriptures that had been translated from the Indian language. This shows how much he persevered. He did a great service to Tibet. From my point of view, he was partial, neither to the old doctrine [Nyingma], nor to the new one [Gelugpa]. He investigated all the phenomena in this world. He was fond of scientific thinking.
What do you think was the cause of Gendun Chopel's death?
He had many like-minded friends. When he was in prison, many of them gave him chang [Tibetan beer] and arak [strong liquor]. He drank a lot. This is true. After his release from the prison, he went to Drepung. Lhubum khangtsen [college] of Drepung gave an assurance to the government that Gendun Chopel would confine himself within the premises of Drepung [actually Lhasa]. This is how he came to stay at Drepung [Gendun Chopel stayed in Lhasa]. While in Drepung, he did not drink that much. He died just before [actually after] the People's Liberation Army [PLA] came to Lhasa .
The Tibetan government had arrested him on the charge of being a communist party member. They feared that if the PLA came to Lhasa, Gendun Chopel would seek vengeance against the Tibetan government. That's why he was poisoned. This is what I was told [Gendun Chopel was not poisoned, but this was a rumor at the time]. After his death, his body was taken to the cremation ground near Sera monastery. I got the information on who took his scalp and how unique one part of his scalp was. [See interview: Akhu Lama Tsering.] I wanted to go to Lhasa at that time, but could not do so. It is said that Kham Gojo Lama saw the letter “Om” in relief on the inside of Gendun Chopel's scalp. This letter had come to be there miraculously, without being carved by any human hand . . . [Thinks.] Later, some people said that Gendun Chopel had been poisoned before the arrival of the communist party personnel.
Tell us more about Gendun Chopel?
The Tibetan government imprisoned and finished off a good son of Tibet. If there had been more people like Gendun Chopel, our Snow Land of Tibet would have become exceptionally great. But Tibet is like this. If an exceptional person like Gendun Chopel was born, he would be imprisoned, mistreated, and killed. I have heard that, because Gendun Chopel was such a gifted and precocious person, the British and Swiss research his life. That's how it is. Gendun Chopel and I were friends. That's why I felt anguished about his death. Well, we can do nothing about it now. This is a preliberation story [meaning that before “liberation”, things were worse]. A section of the Lhasa aristocracy was fond of Gendun Chopel, while others were not. That's why he was killed.
What do you think about Gendun Chopel's political and historical thinking?
I thought over this. In the preliberation period [before 1951], Gendun Chopel's intelligence and knowledge would not have been well received, even in Amdo. But today, his intelligence and knowledge would be extremely useful for the Tibetan nationality or otherwise. However, Tibet does not have good karma for such an exceptional human being. It is extremely rare that a learned person like Gendun Chopel is born in Tibet.
But the Lhasa aristocracy jailed him. What wrong did he do to the Lhasa aristocracy? This is what happens in our Tibet. As a people, Tibetans are hopeless. If Gendun Chopel were alive today, he would be of great help to the country and the government. His intelligence and knowledge would be very useful. But in the preliberation days, Gendun Chopel's intelligence was not appreciated. I think so nowadays. But now it is too late. I will narrate for you the words of Gendun Chopel:
If there were wants, it would be futile to suppress them.
If there were no wants, it would be futile to impose them
This is a composition of Gendun Chopel. He wrote this. In these few words, he expressed a lot. Only two verses, but these verses encompass many things. You all should contemplate on these verses from a spiritual point of view or otherwise. From these two verses one can gauge what sort of mind he had.