In 1985, I published a rather thick volume in French on the life of Gendun Chopel and the Tibetan sociopolitical situation in the first half of the twentieth century. In order to write this book, I researched for ten years. In addition to consulting English-language documents and Tibetan materials, I also had the good fortune to travel to eight countries in Asia and the West and to meet more than forty people associated with Gendun Chopel in various ways: patrons, friends, codisciples, and students, as well as people who opposed him and sent him to prison. Since then, most of these individuals have passed away and are no longer with us.
While I was researching, political suspicions both inside and outside Tibet were high, so various readings and misunderstandings arose regarding my objective and the contents of the book. However, my main objective in writing it was to do so for the Tibetan people. As observed by Gendun Chopel himself: If the Tibetan people are ignorant of their own history, it will be very hard for us to unite and find a path for the future. Thus, thinking that it would be helpful to clarify this period of Tibetan history as far as possible, I wrote the book. I should add that it offers a new version, one not told by the Ganden Phodrang administration, but based on the history, views, and projects of people who were not government officials. Thus, Professor Melvyn Goldstein’s history, Demise of the Lamaist State, for example, which was written a few years later, differs significantly from my book in terms of its goal and the views expressed. Unfortunately, because my book was published in French, most Tibetan and English speakers could not read it. I am hoping that a new edition of my book will be published in English next year.
Today, I shall speak about new information that I have obtained only in the last two years. This is closely related to the situation in Gendun Chopel's birthplace, Rebkong, and his home village of Zho’ongchi (Zho 'ong dbyi). I shall talk about his father, Alak Gyalwo tsang (A lags Rgyal bo tshang, ca. 1865–1910), teachers of lay mantra practice and their students, as well as his friends; above all, I shall discuss the second Zhabkar Rinpoche Tsokdruk Rangdröl (Zhabs dkar Tshogs drug rang grol) and his students, the third Gurong (Dgu rong) Rinpoche, Orgyen Chöying Jikdrel Dorjé (O rgyan chos dbyings 'Jigs bral rdo rje,1875–1932) and Alak Maksar tsang (Mag gsar)—all great yogis who were lineage holders in Rebkong.
In 1887 or so, when Alak Gyalwo, the father of Gendun Chopel, was still quite young, a few Rebkong mantra teachers and students (please see the names listed above) went on pilgrimage to Central Tibet (Ü and Tsang). While they were there, in 1888, British troops were on the Tibetan border preparing to invade Tibet for the first time from Sikkim. Thus, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso (1876–1933)—who was eleven or twelve years old at the time—and his regent, the Demo hutuktu (r. 1886–1895) called on all Tibetans and launched a major movement called the "Turn Back the Piling Army" (Pi ling dmag zlo) [Translator’s note: Piling is a phonetic rendering of phyi-gling, i.e., "Resistance Against the Westerners," per consultation with Pema Bhum and the author.] The project to expand and upgrade the Tibetan army began at that time.
It seems that no Western sources have detailed this yet. In Tibetan, however, I have found three reliable sources. When Younghusband invaded in 1904, this was actually the second time. According to Tibetan sources, when the Demo hutuktu heard that the Rebkong mantra practitioners were in Central Tibet, he called on them especially to serve in the Anti-Piling Resistance movement, as he was aware of their great skills. According to the seventh volume of Tibetan Historical Sources (Lhasa, 1985) (Tib., Bod kyi lo rgyus dpyad gzhi'i rgyu cha bdams bsgrigs), oracles, mediums, teachers and students, mantra practitioners, monks, the general population (mi ser), and militia from all over Tibet and Kham were organized. The mantra practitioners from Rebkong appear as representatives of one important community from Amdo. They performed rituals in front of the stupa at Gyelbumgang (Rgyal 'bum sgang) which was located in Tsetang (Rtses thang), and it is said that the earth and stupa there shook.
It is said that they were able to hold off the British troops for one week! Moreover, in accord with a blessing requested by Alak Zhabkar, from inside the stupa he pulled out a page of ancient Indian writing on a palm leaf. Then, when the Amdo mantra practitioners reached the battlefield and saw the bodies of the Tibetans killed or those in great suffering, they felt great compassion and gave all of their things to the people of that area. Later, the Demo hutuktu looked after them very well, providing them with corvee travel passes. It is also written that as they visited monasteries and temples on the way from Amdo to Ü-Tsang, Alak Zhabkar taught Alak Gurong (who was thirteen years old at the time) about Tibetan history.
The mantra practitioners from Rebkong visited many areas of the Tibetan Plateau, and at the end of 1888, Gurong Rinpoche visited Shanghai in China. They saw a great deal, and as was the case for Lhasa aristocrats at that time, they, too, came to know about modern life and society. For example, they experienced new things: watches, bicycles, trucks, baby strollers, and so forth. When Gendun Chopel was young and stayed with his parents at Yama Trashikhyil, the retreat hermitage of Alak Zhabkar, he must have heard or known about these things. My point is that Gendun Chopel was not some ignorant Amdo beggar out in the wilds on the frontiers of Amdo and Tibet; rather, he certainly knew about the contemporary situation in China. In particular, there were two lamas (who were very close to his family circle), Alak Gurong, and Lama Kagya from whom Gendun Chopel learnt yoga, who were particularly interested and attracted (by modernity) and were known far and wide from the beginning of the twentieth century as “new people.”
Furthermore, at that time, there was extended and bitter fighting between the Amdo Tibetans and the Hui led by the Muslim Warlord Ma Bufang, etc. Many of the population of Golok, etc. were wiped out by the “divine-armies” (lha dmag) of Ma Bufang. Because of his great ambitions, it was a dangerous time for all areas of Amdo. Thus, on both sides, there were prisoners and unbearable torture of the population. While Gendun Chopel was staying in various key places on the Tibetan borderlands, such as Labrang Trashikhyil, there is clear evidence that he experienced all of this and was deeply impressed by it. Also it is quite possible that Alak Gyalwo, Alak Zhabkar, and other mantra practitioners would have said that guns were stronger than the rituals they performed.
In general, people who reside in the borderlands of whatever country or region do not share the same way of thinking held by the government servants residing in the heart [or capital] of that land. In particular, among the Tibetan officials at that time, a great many were arrogant and self-important. In contrast, for people in the border areas of Amdo and Kham, for generations had experienced much suffering and their senses were sharpened; moreover, many were familiar with the way of living of other nationalities. For that reason, several great political and cultural figures have risen and continue to rise from these frontier regions.
If we look at history in this way, not only was Gendun Chopel an innately intelligent youth, but the background to his life is becoming much more clear and detailed. We can be sure that he would have seen and heard of modern things—watches, etc.—not only at Labrang Trashikhyil, but even in the environment of his childhood. Moreover, through his father, his father's friends, Alak Zhabkar, and others, he likely heard about the British invading forces and knew that they had oppressed and killed Tibetans for no reason and were arrogant.
Later, when Gendun Chopel returned from India to Lhasa and after he was released from prison, when the British diplomat Hugh E. Richardson started researching the inscriptions on stele in the late 1940s, Gendun Chopel did not try very hard to assist him. I think there is a deep reason for this. Furthermore, Gendun Chopel may well have developed a strong interest in Tibetan history from childhood, thanks to Alak Zhabkar. I also think that what he saw of the Chinese, Tibetan, and Muslim warfare while he was staying at Labrang Trashikhyil, must have greatly influenced him. And it is quite likely that he heard as a youth about the Indic text written on palm leaf found by Alak Zhabkar in the stupa of Gyelbumgang.
Finally, Gendun Chopel was a student of Dowi Geshé Sherap (Rdo sbis dge bshes Shes rab), and while Geshe Sherap was partisan to the Gelukpa School, he was also one of those who was hoping and wishing for a new society. For all of these reasons, I do not think it is so surprising that once he had the opportunity to go to India, Gendun Chopel became a progressive, an original thinker, and a modern scholar. From childhood, when he was in Amdo, he was surely left with strong impressions. That is all. If you would like to know more details about this question, please see the English edition of my book when it is released.