Tibet's Modern Visionary
Series: Lives of the Masters
- ISBN: 9781611804065
- Published By: Shambhala Publications
- Published: May 2018
Gendun Chopel: Tibet's Modern Visionary is Donald S. Lopez Jr.’s sixth book on Gendun Chopel, a complex and frequently contradictory figure in the modern history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. The book is part of Shambhala’s Lives of the Masters series, focused on Buddhist masters of various traditions, including such towering figures as Tsongkhapa, Atiśa, Dogen, and Maitripa, as well as modern ones such as S.N. Goenka.
Chopel is an unusual addition to this group, considering his reputation as a fiery iconoclast. Although recognized as a tulku (a reincarnation of an important, presumably spiritually advanced lama) and thoroughly trained in Buddhist philosophy as a Geluk monk, Chopel eventually left Tibet for India, renounced his monastic vows, and spent much of his life as an itinerant layman who became known more for his radical views and excesses, which seemingly violated the norms of a Buddhist master, than for his literary contributions. A prolific author, poet, translator, and artist, he was eventually imprisoned in Lhasa under mysterious circumstances, dying of alcoholism shortly after his release.
Throughout his books on Chopel, Lopez carefully analyzes Chopel’s writings to uncover what lies beyond sensationalized depictions of him as a rebel, hedonist, and drunk. While the controversial aspects of Chopel’s life may help us understand him as a person, they can just as easily detract from our understanding of the significance of his works, which include important contributions to the fields of Buddhist philosophical polemics, Tibetan and south Asian history, poetry, and studies of the encounter between traditional Buddhist cultures and modernity. Here in particular, Lopez explores the question of why Chopel is worthy of being considered a Buddhist master at all, given his problematic history. As Lopez writes, “it was Gendun Chopel’s fate to confront the madness of modernity like no Tibetan before him, to be portrayed not in the warm tones of the thangka painting [a traditional Tibetan Buddhist religious painting] but in the starkness of the black and white photograph. Perhaps we know too much about him to imagine him to be a Buddhist master” (xii). As this book makes clear, Chopel’s works provide ample evidence of his credentials as a crucial Tibetan literary and religious figure, if not an unconventional Buddhist master.
Lopez has arranged the first four chapters according to the chronological and geographical order of Chopel’s life: Tibet, India, Ceylon, and his return to Tibet. Lopez highlights Chopel’s “double identity” as a follower of both the Nyingma and Geluk orders, respectively the oldest and newest Tibetan schools, an identity that helped shape his antagonistic stance toward the scholastic, orthodox Gelukpas. As a monk in Tibet, Chopel entered Drepung, one of the great Geluk monasteries, developing a reputation as both a skilled debater and a harsh critic of fundamental Geluk views. Chopel’s 1934 meeting with Indian scholar Rahul Sankrityayan eventually led him to India, where he lived for twelve years, writing and translating prolifically while frequently experiencing financial struggles. In India, he studied Sanskrit, English, and modern scholarly methods, honing a sophisticated and worldly outlook unlike those of his Tibetan contemporaries.
According to Lopez, Chopel was critical of many Tibetans’ tendency to unquestioningly accept classical Buddhist doctrines, writing that “I am not some gullible fool who believes everything he hears. I am a discerning beggar who is naturally intelligent and who has spent this human life in learning” (25). In a 1938 article, “The World Is Round or Spherical,” published in Melong (The Mirror), the Tibetan-language journal he founded, Chopel chides fellow Tibetans for dogmatically accepting traditional Buddhist descriptions of the world, with Mount Meru as the center of the world or universe, or axis mundi. Having abandoned his monastic vows, he drew on his study of Sanskrit erotic literature and his own “active erotic life” to compose the Kāmaśāstra (Treatise on Passion), one of the only works of erotica composed by a Tibetan author. Writing that “I have little shame and great faith in women,” Chopel wrote of women as “full partners in the play of passion” (42), not mere sources of male pleasure.
Among Chopel’s major philosophical works are Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought, a treatise on the thought of the seminal Mahāyāna philosopher Nāgārjuna, which attacks some of the most cherished views of the Geluk school. Here, he notoriously claims to be “uncomfortable about positing conventional validity” (107, 247), a direct attack on the Geluk view that “conventional truth” was a valid, if provisional, form of truth. In the Geluk view, Chopel’s statement undermined there being any ontological basis to anything, thus bordering on nihilism.
Chopel’s greatest work, according to Lopez, is Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler (completed in 1941, but not published until 1990; University of Chicago Press, 2014). This ambitious work seeks to recount the history of south Asia from the 13th century on, when Tibet last had extended contact with India. It includes discussions about the Gupta dynasty, Sri Lanka, ancient Tibetan history, Hindu myths, Islam, and Christianity, and a scathing critique of European (especially British) colonialism. While critical of aspects of Brahmanical Hindu culture, Chopel’s views of Christianity and Islam were far more severe: he writes that in their scriptures, “they tell great lies in the guise of accuracy” (96) and that they were capable of “making people drunk on faith” (97). He decries their “just wars” of conversion and is especially harsh in his assessment of Islam, which he blames for the destruction of the influential Buddhist monastery Nālandā in the 13th century (99) and the demise of Buddhism in India.
In his 1940 trip to Ceylon, discussed in chapter 3, Chopel encountered a Buddhist culture quite unlike his own, where Buddhists followed the Theravāda tradition, known by Mahāyāna Buddhists such as Chopel as Śrāvakas (“listeners”): followers of the supposedly inferior Hīnayāna (“lower vehicle”). Lopez writes that Chopel’s attitude toward Theravāda monks was one of “profound ambivalence,” expressing “sincere admiration for the purity of their practice” but “dismayed by their conservatism” (59). After Chopel’s 1945 return to Tibet, described in chapter 4, he began to gather students but soon ran into trouble for his controversial views, leading to his arrest and imprisonment under the pretext of passing counterfeit currency. During his prison term, which likely lasted more than four years, he drank heavily, dying of related health issues after his release in 1951, at age forty-eight. Chapter 5 explores Chopel’s Buddhist views, and the book’s second half includes translations of excerpts from his major works, aptly illuminating themes from the first five chapters.
Chopel was a study in contrasts, an eloquent witness of his unique place in time and history. He was at once a staunch critic of fellow Tibetans’ gullibility and a fierce defender of Buddhist teachings; an enthusiastic student of modern learning who condemned Western aggression and cultural arrogance. Lopez’s accessible but meticulously documented book is an excellent introduction to the thought of this fascinating figure that will be of value to both scholars and general readers interested in Tibetan Buddhism and modern Tibetan and south Asian history.
Patrick Lambelet is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.Patrick LambeletDate Of Review:January 30, 2022