Excerpt of an interview, conducted in Rebkong monastery on August 17, 1999.
Born in 1920 near Rebkong in Northeastern Tibet, Lhade Akhutsang met Gendun Chopel once after his release from prison in Lhasa 1949. Lhade Akhutsang had previously studied in Drepung monastery. Later he became the tutor of the late Shar Kalden Gyamtso, the highest and most influential lama in Rebkong. He died in the monastery of Rebkong in 2006 (Qinghai Province).
What is your name Geshe-la?
How old are you?
Eighty-seven years old.
How did you meet Gendun Chopel?
I saw him just one time, when I heard him making a conversation with somebody else. This was around the time that Rebkong Kabgyon [a high monk from Rebkong monastery, near Gendun Chopel’s home in East-Tibet] visited Lhasa. Gendun Chopel also came to see Rebkong Kabgyon. That was the only occasion I had to see him, and I never saw him again.
This was later, when he was already released from the prison [after 1949]. He could not sit straight and he was trembling. His whole body was shaking. According to the attendants of Rebkong Kabgyon, Gendun Chopel said to him: “I have been writing a Tibetan history and now I am moving to another place [in Lhasa]. When I have shifted to my new house, I will invite you and I will then show you the book that I wrote on Tibetan history.” This conversation is not something that I witnessed personally. The attendants of Rebkong Kabgyon told this story to me. The book was the so-called White Annals. You might have seen it.
At that time, did the monks talk about Gendun Chopel?
Yes, but I heard only very little. He was imprisoned before we arrived in Lhasa [in 1946]. He spent three years in prison. He was released when we were in Lhasa . It was said that Gendun Chopel was released on the assurance given by the Lubum Khangtsen [college] of Drepung monastery. Gendun Chopel was not allowed to leave Lhasa.
What sorts of discussion were going on about the cause of Gendun Chopel's imprisonment?
You might have heard about his detention from the book written by Rakra Tulku [Rakra Tethong Rinpoche, a friend of Gendun Chopel's]. But nowadays I hear a different interpretation of his arrest. When Gendun Chopel was in India [1934–1946], when India was under British occupation, it was said that the British demarcated a boundary between Mon in the South of Tibet [presently Arunachal Pradesh] and India. In those days some patriotic people—such as the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's attendant Chensel Kunphela, Pomdha Rabga [Rabga Pangdatsang], and others—sent Gendun Chopel to examine the border, expressing their doubts that the British would be honest. It was said that Gendun Chopel gave a written report about his investigation to the Tibetan government. When the British learned that Gendun Chopel had given this report to the Tibetan government, he was arrested as incited by the British [this rumor, regarding the border conflict goes back to the material that was confiscated when Gendun Chopel was arrested. Among his notes, the magistrates found some maps from the border between India and Tibet].
Have you ever Gendun Chopel's compositions?
Yes, I read one or two of his compositions. He once sent an alphabetical composition to the [monks in Labrang] Tashi Khyil monastery [East-Tibet]. I used to know a few lines of this alphabetical composition. [See: Horkhang, vols. 10 and 11]
What do you like about Gendun Chopel?
He had an immense love for his country and he interpreted Tibet's history very clearly. His sources might have been Tibetan or Indian, but he had authentic sources. He wrote about the Tibetan history, conducting research based on ancient documents and inscriptions he found on the stone pillars [in Lhasa and Samye, dating back to the eighth century].
Please tell us more.
His book The White Annals gives a different interpretation of early Tibetan history. It was written after careful research [into the inscriptions] on the old stone pillars, other anecdotes, and of course, by studying historical documents written in the Chinese language. He studied the early [Chinese] documents of Dunhuang. I think he did a good job, though, some people don't like it because Gendun Chopel disagrees with some of the early accounts.
Can you give us an example?
The early accounts of the Tibetan history claim that the King Songtsen Gampo lived for eighty years, whereas Gendun Chopel wrote that the king lived for only thirty-four years. This determination of the king's age was done through comparing all the accounts of Dunhuang and other Chinese accounts. Some people don't accept this new idea since it disagrees with other early accounts.
When did you hear about Gendun Chopel's death?
It is said that he died when we were already traveling back to our village [Rebkong in Northeast-Tibet]. After we had arrived in Rebkong, some people arrived from Lhasa bringing the news of his death.
Did you feel sad?
No, I did not really feel sad. Though, I thought, Alas! Why didn't Gendun Chopel live a bit longer? Alas! We’ve lost him. We both belonged to the same place [East-Tibet] and that's the reason why I had a little concern about him.
Was Gendun Chopel important during his lifetime?
Of course, I feel that he was important. He was a great scholar. He had historical knowledge of many different countries and, obviously, of Tibetan history. He had a deep concern for Tibet, which compelled me to feel that his presence in our community was very essential.
What exactly do you mean by that?
Gendun Chopel was not the only person who thought Tibet was backward. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama also felt the same thing. As did many of the aristocratic officials. But they did not take too much interest in this. Tsipon Lungshar, Tsarong, and many other [officials] had been exposed to foreign countries [England]. They knew about the backwardness of Tibet. In fact, there were many other [officials] who never had any exposure to the outside world and did not know whether Tibet was behind or backward. Obviously, there was no unanimous consent, and thus important changes could not be made. Moreover, the reformers couldn't gain the power. During that time, Gendun Chopel was the most learned person in both spiritual matters and temporal knowledge.
Why is Gendun Chopel still important to you?
I think if we Tibetans had found a way to listen to his opinions, we would have seen good results. But nobody really listened to him because he did not have any power. He was not a government employee. Therefore, no aristocrats, whether high or low, would really listen to him. Aristocrats wanted a luxurious livelihood for themselves and a poor lifestyle for general public. They never really wanted to change the society.
What sort of man was Gendun Chopel in your opinion?
He was very different; nobody could match him. He was a man with allegiance to his ethnic group [Tibetans as opposed to Chinese], and he was also an altruistic man. He was highly qualified in terms of learning Dharma [Buddhist teaching] and worldly knowledge [science]. He was also a great poet and talented author. He was a man who desired to benefit his own people [in Tibet]. I can't find better words than these to explain it to you.
Again, how was he, when you met Gendun Chopel the first time?
He was trembling and shaking. This was the sign of being depressed after his long term in prison [three years]. Somebody said it was also due to his drinking too much alcohol. Gendun Chopel wore old clothes. He was very thin and didn't look like a cultured man, then.