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Buddhadharma : Summer 2006
buddhadharma| 73 |summer 2006 monks re-enact this ancient tradition inherited from the Buddha, he thought, “I alone am seeing this legacy of our com- passionate teacher,” and he sat down on the ground and cried. This episode encapsulates the feelings that dominated Gendün Chöpel’s life, a man that Donald S. Lopez Jr. writes, “was arguably the most important Tibetan intellectual of the twentieth century.” In The Madman’s Middle Way, Lopez presents a translation and study of Gen- dün Chöpel’s last work, the Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thought, along with the relatively scanty information available on Gendün Chöpel’s life: the prediction of his birth by his previous incarnation; his thorough monastic schooling, during which he became notorious both for his brilliance and his taste for controversy; his extensive travels in South Asia; the imprisonment to which he was subjected when he eventually returned to Tibet; and the illness, drinking, disillusionment, and untimely death that concluded his life. Gendün Chöpel’s life was character- ized by loneliness, fervent religiosity, an impulse to explore that led him far from his homeland, and experiences of things so incredible that he could not com- municate them to his fellow Tibetans, whom he regarded as narrow-minded and proud. Gendün Chöpel’s was one of the most forceful voices of his time, urging (albeit in vain) that Tibetans voluntarily embrace modernity before it was forced upon them. In an essay published in 1938, he lamented that although “in the great lands there is not a single scholar who has even a doubt” that the world is round, and Buddhists from Sri Lanka to Japan accepted this, the stubborn Tibet- ans anxiously held on to the belief that the world was flat and structured exactly as described in the Buddhist scriptures. one morning in the early 1940’s, when the Tibetan monk Gendün Chöpel was about forty years old and his travels had taken him as far as Sri Lanka, he accompanied a group of Ther- avadin monks as they went on their daily round of alms-begging. Although he had been ordained as a Buddhist monk for most of his life, he had never before wit- nessed or engaged in this practice. In Gen- dün Chöpel’s native Tibet, only genuinely destitute monks were ever seen begging. Stories of groups of monks approaching towns and villages to beg for alms were something one might come across in old books, something that belonged to the distant and long-lost Golden Age in the holy land of India. Seeing the Sinhalese felix Holmgren iS a freelance writer BaSed in BoUdHanatH, nepal. He iS StUdying at katHmandU UniverSity’S center for BUddHiSt StUdieS at ka- nying SHedrUB ling monaStery in BoUdHanatH. the MadMan’s Middle way: reflections on reality of the tibetan Monk gendun Chopel a Modern Man in old tiBet university of Chicago Press, 2006 264 pages; $35.00 (hardcover) reviewed by felix holmgren By donald s. lopez Jr.