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Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler

Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler

by Gendun Chopel

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In 1941, philosopher and poet Gendun Chopel (1903–51) sent a large manuscript by ship, train, and yak across mountains and deserts to his homeland in the northeastern corner of Tibet. He would follow it five years later, returning to his native land after twelve years in India and Sri Lanka. But he did not receive the welcome he imagined: he was arrested by the


In 1941, philosopher and poet Gendun Chopel (1903–51) sent a large manuscript by ship, train, and yak across mountains and deserts to his homeland in the northeastern corner of Tibet. He would follow it five years later, returning to his native land after twelve years in India and Sri Lanka. But he did not receive the welcome he imagined: he was arrested by the government of the regent of the young Dalai Lama on trumped-up charges of treason. He emerged from prison three years later a broken man and died soon after.   Gendun Chopel was a prolific writer during his short life. Yet he considered that manuscript, which he titled Grains of Gold, to be his life’s work, one to delight his compatriots with tales of an ancient Indian and Tibetan past, while alerting them to the wonders and dangers of the strikingly modern land abutting Tibet’s southern border, the British colony of India. Now available for the first time in English, Grains of Gold is a unique compendium of South Asian and Tibetan culture that combines travelogue, drawings, history, and ethnography. Gendun Chopel describes the world he discovered in South Asia, from the ruins of the sacred sites of Buddhism to the Sanskrit classics he learned to read in the original. He is also sharply, often humorously critical of the Tibetan love of the fantastic, bursting one myth after another and finding fault with the accounts of earlier Tibetan pilgrims. Exploring a wide range of cultures and religions central to the history of the region, Gendun Chopel is eager to describe all the new knowledge he gathered in his travels to his Buddhist audience in Tibet.   At once the account of the experiences of a tragic figure in Tibetan history and the work of an extraordinary scholar, Grains of Gold is an accessible, compelling work animated by a sense of discovery of both a distant past and a strange present.

Editorial Reviews

Columbia University Lauran Hartley
 “Gendun Chopel’s Grains of Gold is the magnum opus of arguably the single most brilliant Tibetan scholar of the twentieth century, and the team of Donald S. Lopez Jr. and renowned translator Thupten Jinpa is the ideal combination of talents to expertly render it into faithful but accessible English. This excellent translation will be enthusiastically (and gratefully) welcomed by both scholars and general readers.”
Kasur Tenzin N. Tethong
“It is a delight to welcome the English translation of Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, by Tibet’s towering intellectual figure of the twentieth century, Gendun Chopel. He considered this among his best works, and it will remain a part of his rich contribution to the cultural and literary heritage of Tibet.”
Harvard University Janet Gyatso
“An extraordinary travel journal / historical essay by Tibet’s outstanding intellectual and artist of the twentieth century. Translated with grace and precision, Grains of Gold gives us a rare glimpse of how Asian religion and life appeared from the perspective of the Tibetan plateau. We hear in this work a brilliant and entirely original voice, meditating on tradition and modernity and all that they mean on the eve of the end of the world as he knew it.”
President of the International Association for Tib Tsering Shakya
“Gendun Chopel, scholar, monk and traveler, was one of the greatest Tibetan intellectual figures of the twentieth century. Grains of Gold is one of his finest literary works dealing with his travels in India, a country central to the Tibetan Buddhist world. Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr. have provided the first translation of his magnum opus, one that beautifully retains and invokes Gedun Chopel’s sense of amusement and critical engagement with his surroundings. It serves as an indispensable source for students, scholars, and general readers of Tibetan literary history.”
Tibet Foundation Newsletter
“This fascinating publication sheds light on some of the innermost thoughts of artist, writer and scholar Gendün Chöphel, one of Tibet's most exceptional intellectuals of the 20th Century. . . . The reader gains an invaluable insight into the perspective of a Tibetan beyond the borders of the Land of Snows; one that is simultaneously critical, humorous, and unique, and ranges from the history of India to observations of Tibetan habits and customs.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Buddhism and Modernity
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Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler

By GENDUN CHOPEL, Thupten Jinpa, Donald S. Lopez Jr.


Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-09197-6


First, How I Set Out from Lhasa

* * *

This is titled Grains of Gold: The Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler. I pay homage with body, speech, and mind and go for refuge with great reverence at the lotus feet of the Blessed One, the perfectly awakened Buddha.

You destroy the world of darkness with wisdoms wheel of light, profound
and clear.
You step down upon the peak of existence with the feet of the samadhi of
liberation and peace.
You are endowed with the mind of stainless space unsullied by clouds of
May the sun, the glory of all beings, rain down goodness upon you.

Whatever expressions of civility are seen
To come from the fine past traditions in the Snowy Land,
Remain like a picture casting a reflection
Of the three doors of conduct of the people of the Noble Land.

Thus, for those who enjoy the flavors of meaning
From the learned treatises of ancient times,
To speak in detail about the conditions of this land [India]
Might help them complete the branches of learning.

However many things there might be, both subtle and coarse,
That cannot be known through investigation at home in bed
Without becoming objects of the senses of sight and hearing
I shall explain here using the clearest examples.

Here in our country, due to the example set by the bodhisattva kings and ministers, everyone—the eminent, the lowly, and those in between—has immeasurable faith, affection, and respect for India, this land of the noble ones, the special land from which the teachings of the Conqueror came to Tibet. Because of this, everything we do with our body, our speech, and our mind—the manner in which our scholars express their analysis, our style of composition, our clothing, our religious rituals—all of these are permeated by Indian influence as a sesame seed is permeated by its oil, so much so that when it is necessary to provide a metaphor in a poem, only the names of Indian rivers, mountains, and flowers are deemed suitable. For example, if one composes the following, "Your body is majestic like the Vindhya Range, / Your speech pure and stainless like the flowing Ganges," the stanza would be worthy of being counted as a well-composed verse. If one composes the following, "Your body is majestic like Mount Machen Pomra, / Your speech flows ceaselessly like the Machu River," although this composition is not inelegant—the first two syllables of the two lines are identical—it would cause laughter.

Because this type of discourse has always been abundant [in Tibet], there have been occasions when numerous amusing yet meaningless things were written due to failing to recognize what are essentially everyday objects in India. In general, most of these things can only be determined by seeing them with one's own eyes and hearing them with one's own ears. It is not the case that knowing about them makes you a scholar and not knowing about them makes you a fool. Still, there is no need to say that if one speaks about them pretentiously one does become a liar. Furthermore, in some cases, some very important points have been [mistakenly] inferred and errors have often been made due to confusion. Thus, if something can be understood exactly as it is, it is absolutely certain that this can serve a great purpose. Therefore, I have gathered here in one place whatever insights I have gained about various fields of knowledge that I have seen and heard about during my wanderings in many places and regions of India and Tibet. As for drawing conclusions on the basis of guesses, writing the most astonishing tales that have no authoritative sources in order to please many people, making clear distinctions between what is and is not in order to protect one's own sack of tsampa [roasted barley] but lacking the courage even to tell true stories out of excessive concern for the opinions of others, all these things, I have set aside with abandon. Giving up such things as hope for a good reputation, I wish to write a volume, from time to time inserting—in the style of ordinary conversation—whatever I have found, only for the sake of those few intelligent people who remain open-minded.

If one remains very timid, afraid of contradicting the accounts of others, then the understanding that is capable of enhancing wisdom cannot grow. But if one were to take an honest approach, saying, "This is an error," "That too is an error," and so on, this can trample on the hearts of many, great and small, and can do much damage to such things as one's means of livelihood. As a Tibetan, I am very familiar with my own country, so I know all this very well. Still I shall write without giving this any thought. Thus I beseech the feeble-minded a hundred times not to bear malice against me.

Empty talk that makes fools amazed,
Fawning words piled up to flatter great men,
Stories that make the faithful sigh,
Leaving these far behind, I set out upon the straight path.
This is the intention with which I begin.

So it was in the male Wood-Dog year of the sixteenth sixty-year cycle [1934], when I had reached age thirty-two that I set off for India. That year was the two thousand four hundred and seventy-sixth year following the Buddha's passage into nirvana according to the Sthavira sect of Sri Lanka. This system of calculation also seems to be respected as authoritative these days in other countries where the Buddha's teaching has recently spread, and there is a need for such things as looking up dates easily. Therefore, in what follows, in whatever context, such as the royal lineages [of Tibet], I will use this [system] for years counted after the Teacher's passing. The great Sakya Pandita's statement that the sravaka schools are unreliable because they calculated their year of the Teacher's birth by confusing the construction of the Buddha's image at Bodh Gaya with the birth of the Buddha is highly offensive talk.

From the time I was a child I have wondered again and again whether I would be able to go to India just once. Having been at Drepung monastery for about seven years after arriving in central Tibet, I met a Pandita by the name of Rahula [Sankrityayan] who had come to Tibet. He encouraged me to go [with him]. This was a wish come true, and we set out. First, the Pandita and I went on a pilgrimage to places such as the Phenpo region and Radreng. In our spare time, I began to study a little Sanskrit with the Pandita. He had a lot of money and knew about as much Tibetan as a seven-year-old child. He was under the protection of some Lhasa aristocrats, so we were able to examine closely the sacred objects of the various monasteries, such as Radreng.

Although the Phenpo region is located on the other side of the same mountain range as the valley of Lhasa, that area has more [sites of ] ancient monastic centers than Lhasa. The upper part of Phenpo, which resembles a nomadic area, is broad and open and is most pleasant. Most of the monastic centers of great fame of the Kadampa, such as Langthang, Poto, and Drakyap, are at the two ends of this region. Most all of these ancient Kadam monasteries are still filled with stupas. In India as well, at the ruins of Rsipatana (Sarnath) and Nalanda monasteries, there are what seem to be countless stupas of different sizes. Thus, this [construction of many stupas] is an ancient tradition. Among these monasteries, the oldest is called Gyal Lhakhang, located in the upper region of Phenpo. This is one of what the great Gö Lotsawa calls "the four great places that are the foundation of the Buddha's teaching." It was built by Shang Nanam Dorjé Wangchuk, a pupil of Lumé, who was in turn a direct disciple of La Chenpo (Gongpa Rapsel). Since [it was built] about one hundred thirteen years following the destruction of the dharma by Lang Darma [in 842], it ranks as one of the first seats of the later diffusion of the Buddhist teaching. In one of the inner shrine rooms there is a huge statue of Maitreya and there are volumes of scriptures like a wall, without wooden covers and reaching up to the ceiling. It is like this at Radreng and Sakya as well. These volumes were in old scripts from very ancient times; as for the form and so forth of these old scripts, I will explain this later in a separate section.

At one corner of this shrine room, there was a stone statue of Maitreya about the size of a person, with two attendants, in an unmistakably Indian style. Seeing this, the Pandita was most amazed and said, "This was brought from India." However, when we lifted the lamp and examined it carefully, there was the following inscription on the curtain behind it:

This image of Maitreya, the excellent object of veneration,
[Was commissioned] by Tsangdo Köntsek, the excellent benefactor
Here at the excellent abode where a victory banner is hoisted.
May I attain supreme awakening, the excellent fruition.

om meha rana hum?

Thus, it seems that this statue was made in Tibet by an Indian craftsman. This style of verse, which is like a composition with paired words, is always found on ancient stone [images] and other similar objects. Although [Tibetan] scholars often criticize the writing of [the mantra] om with the long vowel, it appears in most ancient writings. In any case, this is nothing other than writing [Sanskrit] in Tibetan script based on how the Indian language was pronounced in the past. In writings in which the names of some Tibetan translators clearly appear at the end, even words like vajra are written [phonetically] as ba-dzar ('ba' 'dzar) and so on. So the current system of being able to transliterate Sanskrit in its purity in the way it is written in Indian letters seems to have been developed by [Tibetan] scholars at a later stage. However, in this [later] system, because words like prajna are written like Indian letters, when they are read like Tibetan words today, it [prajna] has become tanyar (ta dznyar) and so on. In most ancient writings it was written as par gya (par 'gya'). Thus, insofar as reading [in Tibetan] is concerned, this [older system] is clearly better. However, I shall speak about these issues in detail later.

As for Indian cast metal images and paintings, they still exist in the old Tibetan monasteries like accumulated treasures. However, the Pandita kept saying, "Other than this one, I haven't seen a single Indian stone statue [in Tibet]." Gyal Lhakhang temple is located near the southern mountains. Nearby there is a mountain slope that would have been a suitable location for constructing a monastery today; however, this temple was not located there, but in the middle of the plain. Similarly, in general, the monasteries and temples constructed by the early religious kings as well as those built at the beginning of the later diffusion of the teaching [beginning in the tenth century] are always in the middle of a plain. It seems that in later times all the monasteries gradually moved higher and higher toward the summit of the mountains. There are very few mountains in central India; thus, all the monastic centers like Nalanda and the Mahabodhi [in Bodh Gaya] are on the plains. I think that something like this served as the model [for the early Tibetan monasteries]. However, when Indians find a small hill, they call it "such and such, the king of mountains" and "so and so, the king of mountains." They build a temple on top of the mountain and seem to make it into something of great value. Vikramasila monastery was also on top of a small rocky hill near the Ganges. In that area there is only a small rocky hill in the middle of the Ganges and two mountains along the banks. Sakya Pandita's statement that Vulture Peak is one of the great mountains of the land of the noble ones is quite true. However, what was referred to in the ancient past as "India, the land of the noble ones" refers to the central region. Elsewhere, in the south marked by the Vindhya Range and in regions facing the oceans in the east and west, there are many great mountains.

At the gate of Gyal Lhakhang temple is a stone pillar with four sides, slightly taller than a standing person. Around the middle on all four sides are bands with patterns of vajras, jewels, and lotuses. On the eastern face, from the top down, is the following inscription:

... was erected. In general, these days (there are few who agree on the importance of single-minded attention to virtue; nonetheless,) (those people who go for refuge to the three jewels,) (are advised to take the Buddha for their god;) (to always entrust themselves to the dharma, and to train principally in the view, to [ensure that their] words) (are calmed in a natural way, to secure their livelihood in a pure way,) (to combine everything they do with the dharma. In general, it is gathered into a single piece of advice.) (Each person should shoulder their responsibilities; evil counsel should be rejected;) (truthful words should be accepted. If one does these ten things here,) (one will be happy both in this life and hereafter.) (Thus these ten words ...).

From this point there is about one line with scattered words with the clear phrase that reads, "Hold these in your mind without forgetfulness." The parenthetical marks above represent the words found across the width of the stone pillar. After this, there appear to be some lines, but they are not legible. There is no suffix ra in the word spyi (general) in the phrase "In general these days" (spyi deng sang) [as there is in later usage] and the words appear exactly as [represented] here. There is a crescent mark [i.e., a closed parenthesis] where the line ends. In many of these ancient writings the vowel i is often written backwards; this is not the case here. Whether this is the stone pillar of a lama or a king does not even seem to be known. When one sees the authoritative tone of the words like "erected," and "each person should shoulder their responsibilities; bad advice should be rejected," it looks like [the pillar] of a king. If that is the case, it is possible that it is that of Tashi Tsek, the nephew of monarch Lang Darma, and his son Ngadak Ödé and so on. Furthermore, there was another stone pillar within a walled area there, but the owner of the house had gone elsewhere that day so that door could not be opened. People say that in such and such region of Phenpo there are still one or two more stone pillars. If there happens to be a pilgrim who is in less of a hurry than we were, and who can copy those inscriptions, this would be very good. Regarding the inscriptions of the stone pillar in Lhasa and so forth, I wish to write a little bit about the newly discovered Tibetan histories [elsewhere]. Thus, it is appropriate that I present these in that work.

If one were to walk a little way down from Gyal Lhakhang temple, there is a small nunnery on a pleasant nook in the hill. When we went there, they said it is of Patsap; it appears to be the seat of that great translator. Apart from a small dilapidated temple, there is nothing else there. With respect to famous seats of learning like this one, for those who have not looked at our histories carefully, apart from saying that they are located in the Ütsang region, we have no idea where they are. When we arrive by accident, immeasurable joy and sadness come into our minds. All of these temples of the Kadampa tradition are poorly designed; they do not even have straight and attractive pillars; they are made from crooked trees. Still, although most of these [temples] are like that, the instant you encounter them, they have a resplendence that inspires admiration that accords with the dharma and creates a sense of joy. It is even said that the people of the Phenpo region have an honest nature. The countryside is also most pleasant.


Excerpted from GRAINS OF GOLD by GENDUN CHOPEL, Thupten Jinpa, Donald S. Lopez Jr.. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thupten Jinpa is adjunct professor at McGill University in Montreal and has translated and edited numerous books and is the author, most recently, of Essential Mind TrainingDonald S. Lopez Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan.

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