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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 10 74 quest for further education led him to a series of monasteries affiliated with the dominant Gelukpa school, culminating in his joining the great monastic university of Drepung in Lhasa in 1927. Everywhere he went, Gendun Chopel distinguished him- self by his wide array of talents and interests, which included painting, literary analysis, poetic composition, and above all the philosophical debates that were central to Gelukpa monastic education. He also gained notoriety as an icono- clast, who challenged the interpretations found in the stan- dard textbooks, and in debate could—and would—argue for any position, including those deemed “extremist.” Branded a sophist, distrusted by many classmates, and frequently in conflict with his teachers, he left Drepung and monastic life forever in 1934 when invited to accompany the Indian pandit Rahul Sankrityayana to southern Tibet to search for Sanskrit manuscripts. At the end of the expedition, Gendun Chopel returned with Sankrityayana to India. He spent most of the next twelve years traveling the subcontinent, visiting Buddhist holy sites and modern cities, as well as living for a year in Sri Lanka and spending considerable time in the hill station of Kalimpong, a center for Western–Tibetan interchange and the fermentation of Tibetan modernism. He met sadhus and scholars, learned first-hand about women and wine, and produced an array of writings that included a lengthy account of his travels. He translated Sanskrit classics like Shakuntala and the Ramayana into Tibetan, wrote a pilgrim’s guidebook to South Asia as well as scores of poems in Tibetan and at least four in English. His history of early Tibet, White Annals, was derived in part from texts that had been recently discovered in the Dunhuang caves in China. He also compiled a manual of the erotic arts that was written in verse, and drawn from Indian treatises and personal experience. He returned to Tibet in 1946 and gathered around him a small circle of disciples with whom he discussed politics and culture, and to whom he lectured on various topics, including Madhyamaka philosophy. His posthumously published inter- pretation of the latter would scandalize the religious estab- lishment with its attack on the Gelukpa way of explaining emptiness and the two truths. Not long after he returned, he was imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The real reasons for his incarceration are uncertain, but his critical attitude toward Tibetan political and religious institutions may have been a factor. He emerged from prison in 1949 and died in 1951, probably from cirrhosis of the liver. Though he wrote little in his final years, he did continue to compose poetry, the one thing that had given him pleasure throughout his life. Whatever their views on his political or philosophical opin- ions, most educated Tibetans agree that Gendun Chopel was a superb poet, perhaps their greatest of the twentieth century. He was deeply learned in both Sanskrit and Tibetan literature, had mastered a full range of Tibetan poetic forms, and could with equal effectiveness express religious piety, philosophical subtlety, or emotions such as joy, wonderment, outrage, loneli- ness, bitterness, and despondency. In preparing In the Forest of Faded Wisdom, the prolific scholar and author Donald Lopez has brought together virtually every poem by Gendun Chopel known to exist, apart from poems he translated from Sanskrit and most of his manual of erotics. The book includes a concise and highly informative introduction; facing-page versions of the original Tibetan poems and Lopez’s careful and often eloquent English translations of them; Gendun Cho- pel’s handful of Victorian-style poems in English; a useful, if insufficiently informative, set of endnotes; and an index of first lines. Gendun Chopel never collected his own verse, which is found scattered in a multitude of sources, many of them undated, so a chronological presentation of the poems is nearly impossible. Lopez therefore arranges them in six the- matic sections: “Teachings of a Master Without Disciples,” “Laments of an Unknown Sage,” “The Ways of the World,” “Songs of the Tibetan Kings,” “Precepts on Passion,” and “English Compositions.” These titles convey the range of top- ics Gendun Chopel addressed in his poetry, which include tra- ditional Buddhist sutra and tantra teachings, his long-standing sense of persecution and isolation, the vanity and ignorance of people everywhere (whether lay or monastic, Tibetan, Indian, or Western), the greatness of Tibet in its early era, and the joys and snares of sexual love. Some of these are themes found in Tibetan verse from any era, and many of Gendun Chopel’s poems could as easily have been composed in 1640 as 1940. At the same time, though, his first-hand knowledge of India and its culture, his acquaintance with Western scientific and political ideas, and his pessimism in the face of his own and the world’s limitations set him off as decidedly modern rela- tive to other Tibetans of his era—though he himself, as Lopez suggests, must have felt as if he inhabited an in-between state, a bardo, neither traditional nor modern, monk nor layman, Tibetan nor outsider. The short poem from which the book takes its title is typical: The old sayings that contain the seeds of truth The footprints of the rabbit that jumped to the wondrous mountain, When one enters the forest of faded wisdom, Who can distinguish right from wrong? There is a mixture here of nostalgia for the certainties and wonderment of bygone times and regret that in the present day we are lost (like Dante in his time) in a dark wood, where Reviews