Recorded in Zhoepang, Northeastern Tibet (Amdo), 15th of August 1999.
Yungdrung Gyal was born in Zhoepang 1946, where he still lives today (in the family house of GC's parents). He is the grand nephew of GC. He is a co-founder of the 'Gendun Chopel Foundation' in Zhoepang. He is in possession of several items, originally belonging to GC. Learned about GC through the stories and anecdotes of his older relatives. Tibetan, in the film.
What is your name?
I was born in 1956. So, I am 46 years old. I am his grand nephew, his sister's daughter's son.
How did you start taking interest in him?
Well, GC's ancestors were closely related to us. We have a kinship. This is why I have concern for him. To add another point, either from the perspective of the Tibetan people or the people of Amdo [Northeast-Tibet] or the people of Zhoepang [GC's home village], he was a great man. Because he was a great man, I started taking interest in him. Except for the fact that he was a relative, I didn't know anything about him, when I was small. He had an elder sister, who was seven years older than him. I was always staying with them [Yungdrung Gyal's step mother]. They told to me about his childhood days, what studies he undertook, how he left for Labrang monastery, how he fared in Zhoepang and things like that, many times. However, at that time, I didn't know much about him, but due to the constant narration from the elders, I too developed some kind of liking toward him.
What did your parents or relatives told you about GC?
They told me that he was very sharp and intelligent, when he was small. Whether it was during his stay at Labrang or at Yama Tashi Khyil [the monastery belonging to Zhoepang village], there were many who were impressed and delighted by his intelligence and knowledge of Buddhist scriptures. There are many stories about how GC, when he was young, from Yama Tashi Khyil etc. The stories tell, how he debated with his colleagues and what sort of stand the Geshes [scholars] took, when GC argued his points. When I was small, except for the fact that GC was one of our family members, I never heard about him being a great scholar. As I grew older, by reading books and seeing many people, who had interest in him visiting our home, I came to realize that GC was a great man.
Have your parents ever told you stories about GC?
They never told me any stories about him. They said that his actions, manners and his intelligence were very sharp. Earlier, when he was in the monastery [probably Yama Tashi Kyil, where GC stayed, when he was still very young] he had a teacher. People say that one day GC broke his teacher's cup. He felt very scared, for it was sure that his teacher would beat him up. Although it was not the cat but him, who broke the cup, he however caught a small cat that day and kept it inside the room, whose windows and doors were shut. When his teacher returned, GC told him that it was the cat, which broke the cup. I was told such stories about his cunning and sharpness, when he was very small kid.
Are there any other stories like this about him?
Not many. I can't recall much. However my relatives were always telling me how sharp he was, when he was a small boy. His father had already died when he was nine or ten and GC was staying in Yama Tashi Khyil. His father was a lama [a lay practitioner], called Alak Gyalwo [See interview: Akhu Lama Tsering]. After his father's death, they were three of them, his mother, his sister and GC himself. Even when he was small and staying at Yama Tashi Khyil, he was very good in painting and writing. ([Right]: An early sketch of a white crane from around 1908). We saw his other paintings yesterday. Do you remember?
When he was small and after his father's death, what kind of livelihood they had?
His father died when he was about 9. After his father's death only GC, his mother and elder sister were left in the family. Their condition was very miserable and hard then. At that time, GC was not a Gelugpa, but rather a Nyingmapa [old translation school]. His mother felt that, since GC's father was Nyingmapa, her son must become one, too. Thus she advised her son, how important it was to practice according to the Nyingma tradition. When GC was still young, he went to Labrang monastery to study Nyingma teachings from a great Nyingma lama, Khagya Terton. So that's why, even when he grew up, also when he was staying at Labrang, or at Drepung monastery [in Central Tibet], GC held on firmly to his Nyingma ideology. Because his father and mother had emphasized this to him, when he was still a small boy, so, naturally GC developed a strong liking towards Nyingmapa [the discussion, whether GC was a Nyingma or a Gelugpa practitioner, goes on to the present day and also tells the story of the internal competition of the different traditions within Tibetan Buddhism]. To tell you another thing, GC studied in a Gelugpa monastery, till he reached the age of about 20. He went to Ditsa monastery, a local monastery, and later to Labrang [1920-27] and Drepung in Lhasa [1927-34]. Later, when he was at Labrang, he didn't face much difficulty in his livelihood. His family members were nomads, but had land, too. He had three families, so to speak, his peasant family planted crops, the nomadic family herded cattle and he even got a house at the monastery. He had led quite a comfortable life. Whatever gold, silver and precious stones his father had left, they were kept by his mother. Later she had sent money to him when he was at Drepung monastery. That's why I think he didn't lead a very difficult life in the beginning.
Why did he become a monk?
GC was the only son of his parents and his family was a lama family [Nyingma lay practitioners]. So I guess this had an influence on him. And then it was also believed that he must have been the reincarnation of Dhodak Rinpoche. I feel this, too, might have conditioned him to adorn himself with maroon robes and become a monk.
Name the different places where he stayed during his childhood days?
He stayed at Yama Tashi Khyil till he was about nine. After that, he stayed in a local monastery, which is in Zhoepang Lakha. It was a good Gelugpa monastery. You can even call it a secluded place [a retreat monastery]. There was a very good Geshe [scholar] at that monastery; I am not sure whether he was from Sera or Drepung monastery, whose name was Akhu Tsultrim. He was a great intellect from Lhasa. GC took him as his teacher and studied poetry, Sanskrit etc. from him. He stayed there for three years, from 9 to about 11. Then, as I have mentioned earlier, his mother had a strong liking for Nyingma doctrine. And GC's father was a spiritual friend of Khagya Terton, both of whom were Nyingmapas. Khagya Terton had a son, who was also a lama. GC received many Nyingma teachings from Khagya Terton. These teachings have become one of the main conditions, which had influenced GC's mind towards Nyingma ideology. Gendun Chopel had told Khagya Terton that for Gelugpas there were many big monasteries like Sera, Drepung and Ganden in Lhasa and Labrang Tashi Khyil in Amdo, but there were no huge monastery for Nyingmapas. He had on many occasions discussed with Khagya Terton, how to increase the feeling of inclination towards the Nyingmapa tradition and its teachings. He used to say that to spread the Nyingma teachings, one must study Gelugpa doctrines extensively. At that time Ditsa monastery was the most famous monastery in the locality in whatever fields of study. His teacher Khagya Terton then told GC to join Ditsa monastery. So GC stayed there for three years, from twelve to sixteen, and eventually left for Labrang monastery, where he spent five years. He arrived in Lhasa when he was 25 [in 1927]. We knew his age from a note he had written on the back cover of a text in which he wrote that at 25 he finished reading the Collective Works of Shabkarpa [the head of Yama Tashi Kyil], which had many volumes. On the back of one of the texts, in small letters, GC had written that he had great faith in Shabkarpa Rinpoche and that Shabkarpa's Collective Works were as authoritative as the words of Avalokitesvara [the Buddha of Compassion]. “I wrote this when I was 25, in my native land,” he wrote. I think, GC left Labrang when he was about 25 and came to his native land, where he stayed a short time, before he left for Lhasa [See text of GC: My Journey to Lhasa]. He was 32, when he left for India from Drepung monastery, where he had stayed for about 7 years.
Do you know any stories from his early days in all these monasteries?
I don't remember much. According to his sister, Gomme, who was seven years older than GC, and who died in 1983, GC liked drawing and painting very much, when he was still very young. He was so good that, once, while he was studying at Ditsa monastery; he painted a man stealing timber from a nearby forest. The thief was later recognized through GC's painting. He was also a good poet. At 16 or 17, he left Ditsa monastery to join Labrang monastery [at the time the largest Gelugpa monastery in Northeast- Tibet]. The reason, why he left Ditsa is that he had already become a great Geshe there. He had said that Ditsa monastery was now too small for him to fit in. He said, “In a ladle of water, a meter long fish can't fit, and for a fish, who has grown to a full length, to remain in a small pool will be unbearable. Therefore I will leave for Labrang monastery.”
Tell us some stories about Labrang of that period?
GC was given the nickname “the skinny guy from Ditsa” [Ditsa gambo] because he was from Ditsa and he was very thin. If you went inquiring about GC at Labrang, using his real name Gendun Chopel, some wouldn't know him, but if you asked for “Ditsa gambo”, the monks of Labrang would immediately know! According to his mother and sister, GC had many foreign friends [referring to the American missionary Griebenow], while he was at Labrang. His mother and sister told me that he might have studied English and science at Labrang. He had also built small toys, like trains and ships, which he sailed on water. The geshes [learned monks] had watched the spectacle. Thubten Ngawang [a monk from Labrang] told me that he had seen such things with his own eyes. Sometimes he faced problems because of this He was in a monastery and they obviously had rules and regulations. There were many complaints about GC making many such strange objects. The other monks complained that it was not right. He often received a scolding for engaging in complicated matters, instead of studying scriptures.
Was he good in his studies, when he was at Labrang?
Yes, he was good. He was famous there. While at Labrang, he became known as a great scholar. But the monks and his family said bad things against him for his friendly relationship with foreigners [the American missionary. See interviews: Hortsang Jigme, Alak Yongtsin]. Some women had scorned him that the constant interaction with the foreigners had resulted in his hair turning yellow and his eyes becoming blue. “You were now like a foreigner,” they accused GC. So, when he visited his native land [Zhoepang and Yama Tashi Kyil], he used to tease his mother and sister by asking them, whether his hair had actually become blond and his eyes blue?! I didn't hear much more. Except for the fact that GC befriended many foreign friends. I don't know how he took up this relationship… most probably he stayed at Labrang from seventeen to twenty five.
Why did GC leave Labrang?
GC possessed a strong Nyingmapa ideology, when he was studying and debating at Labrang and, as you have to understand, Labrang was a Gelugpa monastery. Therefore the monks of Labrang had shown their feeling of disapprobation, a little. I think a contradiction had arisen between Gelugpa's view and GC's own view. Later, GC got the idea of going to Drepung monastery in Lhasa, and eventually after one year he left for Drepung [joining a caravan in 1927. See text of GC: My Journey to Lhasa].
What was the biggest quality of GC in your opinion?
One of GC's best qualities was that he had no greed for wealth. GC had no cravings for wealth and achieving a high status. He had firmly kept the history of the Tibetan people in his mind and had a great concern for the Tibetan people. At the end of his book, The White Annals, he wrote:
The pure affection for my race [people]
Manifests in the center of my heart,
For our king and the subjects of the snow-land [Tibet]
I bestow a small service with all my potential.
Just by looking at this verse [at the very end of his historical opus], it is clear that in his heart resided neither his family, nor his parents, nor his local community, but the history of the Tibetan people and its culture. Looking at that, I feel GC was not just a small, ordinary man. He was a great man, indeed. Whether it was his writings on Tibetan history or commentaries on Buddhist philosophy or poems, whatever he wrote, he had written with a deep analysis, like a goldsmith, checking the purity of gold by melting, cutting and rubbing it. Those works are the result of his deep research and therefore they are very valuable. Various things he stated in those books, and most of them were accurate. Another thing I like about him, is, that GC had left a letter for Horkhang Sonam Penbar [a friend in Lhasa, with whom GC worked on the White Annals], before he died in a Lhasa prison. The letter is in the hands of Horkhang's son. In this letter GC wrote:
This body, which is just like a corpse,
Wherever it may, die I will not repent.
But it is a great loss if it perishes together,
With my gold like wisdom.
What do you plan to do for GC in your life?
I was not able to do anything great for him. I have helped his mother and his sister, who were left after his death in some small ways. Later, I stayed at his ancestral place [we actually interviewed him in the house of GC's parents in Zhoepang]. Whether you consider that as a service or not I don't know. I wrote many letters to the old Horkhang, and also visited him in Lhasa and requested him many times to publish the three volumes of GC's writings called Essays of Spread-Out Gold [published in Lhasa, 1990]. I told Horkhang that he must work to publish these books. I reminded him that he was the only disciple of GC, who is left now. And as for us, we have little understanding of his work. Except for this, I don't think I have done any kind of service for GC. Some youths from our community, like Pema Wangchen, Rinchen Gyal and Dorje Gyal, have formed a group, consisting of about 60 members. It was a fund raising group. GC was from our community and he was a famous person. Using his famous name and ideas, we formed this group, and started to publish a journal called Snow Waves in 1985. I too, joined this group. All these things that we have done were done in the spirit of gratitude towards GC or you may say, in support of him.
Tell us more about this group?
Whether it is in Central Tibet or in Rebkong area or in Zhoepang [Northeast-Tibet], the education system is very backward. We lack in external facilities, like textbooks and other materials. By establishing the so-called “Gendun Chopel Fund Raising Organization”, we hope to gain some financial support and collect funds from people of the West, from our Lamas and tulkus [reincarnations], from the public or from our community. That is our plan, to use the money for education. This was the aim and purpose of founding this organization. At present our people have lot of financial difficulties. Many people don't have money to pay for books and texts. We provide financial support to those children, who are very bright, yet don't have money to study.
What happened to GC in his later life?
Something happened after he returned from India . Then he was around 46 or 47. I think this involved a big controversy. I don't understand the main reasons. What I don't understand is the social situation of that time [the 1940's and 50's. According to the books by Horkhang Sonam Penbar, Rakra Rinpoche and an English woman called Dechen Sangmo [Heather Stoddard, who wrote the first biography of GC in English, 1985], in which the history of that period was discussed, the reason why GC was imprisoned was because he committed a political crime by keeping close contact with many foreigners. Other than that, I think, these rumors that GC hadmade counterfeit notes, are lies. A woman named Lhazom Dolkar [?], who was in Lhasa at the time, has written about the reasons, why GC was imprisoned. Lhazom Dolkar is still living in Lhasa now.
Which part of the The White Annals did you like most?
GC was able to lay his hands on some very important and ancient manuscripts about Tibetan history, which were discovered in the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang [a place in today's Xinjiang province]. Other documents were written in Pali [the language of the original Buddhist texts] and some other foreign languages; it could have cost him his life if others knew they were actually in his hands [this might be slightly exaggerated]. GC's book contains many citations from these manuscripts. So, by looking at this, it is clear that GC had put lot of effort in compiling his book on Tibetan history. I think this book is very valuable. If those historical events were not so important, than GC would not have put so much effort into researching it.
If you were to describe GC...
If I were to describe GC to someone, I would do it, by describing his best attitudes, how he led his life in accordance with the teachings of his religion and his good political ideas. I would describe that GC was a child of Amdo [Northeast-Tibet], who was a great being, who had the qualities of both scholar and practitioner, whose knowledge of both external and internal phenomena and ancient and radical changes had no limitation and boundary, and whose ideas were compatible with both science and Buddhist doctrines. He was a person, who was a part of the history of a complicated and unstable society.
Yungdrung Gyal, it is said that you are the reincarnation of GC. Is that true?
No, I don't think so. It may be true if I were said to be a grand nephew of GC, but it is not true if I were said to be the reincarnation of GC. In Tibet if a great lama was born in a family, then every nephew and grand nephew of him were also said to be his reincarnation. That is a bad custom. I don't like that. Your own lama, being reborn in your own family, don't you think this is partial and unfair. For example if GC had a great fortune and if his nephew was not his reincarnation, then the family would lose all the wealth to someone else. This fear of losing everything is the only reason for such beliefs. That is a sad case.
Do you see some relation between GC and Milarepa [a famous 'crazy saint']?
No, I don't see any relation between them. But GC liked Milarepa very much. Many paintings that GC had drawn, when he was small, were on Milarepa and his life. The only thing that I can relate between them is that GC was very fond of Milarepa. It was probably the case, because Milarepa's practices were true dharma [Buddhist] practices.
Is there anything that we forgot to ask you?
No, you didn't forget anything. My future wish is that, whether it is our organization or some other organization, I think it would be nice to construct a GC memorial in his native-land. ([Right]: The office of the Gendun Chopel Education Fund in Zhoepang, 2002). I would feel great joy if, with the support and aid from foreigners, as well as local people, we could promote GC's ideas, thoughts and deeds, so that many people can learn from him. If a GC memorial group could be formed, which would strive to make this Tibetan son, who was born in this land, known to the whole world and to foreign countries, like America and China, I would feel a deep joy.