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FIRST BEGINNING Should they make his life into a movie, the film would begin with a panoramic shot of the Potala, the palace of the Dalai Lamas, on a brilliantly sunny morning in the autumn of 1950. The camera would pan down to the cluster of buildings known as Shol at the foot of the Potala, zooming slowly to the notorious prison there, where a group of prisoners is being released in a general amnesty proclaimed in the name of the fifteen-year-old Dalai Lama. The inmates emerge one by one into the sunlight, some staggering, some limping, all unshaven, with long unkempt hair, emaciated bodies, and tattered garments. The camera focuses on the last man to emerge, undistinguished from the rest. He appears disoriented as he is approached by a small group of obviously well-born monks and laypeople. But instead of greeting them, he turns to look behind and above, to stare up at the massive edifice of the Potala looming over him. The sight sends him into a reverie (cinematically rendered as a flashback), back to 1927, the year he first arrived in Lhasa from his homeland in the far northeastern region of the Tibetan cultural domain and first beheld the Potala. He is unaware that his gaze is met by that of the teenage Dalai Lama, the young lord who looks down at the prisoners from a window of his palace, peering through a telescope that had been presented to his previous incarnation by a foreign potentate.
But students of his life would immediately note evidence of artistic license in this single scene. It is unclear precisely when he was released from prison; his release may have occurred as much as a year earlier. Although he had been incarcerated at Shol during part of his sentence, he was released not from the prison at the foot of the Potala but from the courthouse in Lhasa. And there are conflicting reports about the state of his health at the time of his release. Some say that he emerged a broken man. Others say that his health was good, that he only began drinking heavily later.
SECOND BEGINNING On December 1, 1951, the following obituary appeared on the front page, center column, of Melong (English title, The Tibet Mirror). Founded in 1925 by the Tibetan Christian Khunu Tharchin (1890-1976), Melong was the first, and at the time the only, Tibetan-language newspaper. It was published not in Lhasa but in Kalimpong in northern India, in the borderland between Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan.
Admonition to Remember the Uncertainty of Death We have been saddened ever since hearing the most distressing news of the passing from this lifetime on the fifteenth day of the recent eighth month, due to water sickness, of the supreme being renowned as a spiritual friend skilled in the outer and inner sciences, Dge 'dun chos 'phel. Earlier, he had gone to India, the Land of the Noble Ones, and although he only stayed there for twelve years, he carefully examined the various Tibetan treatises and histories concerning the holy places and cities of India, and while visiting the holy places along the way, he studied the Devanagari script of Sanskrit and the English script, and he translated various Sanskrit books into Tibetan. He performed many auspicious deeds to benefit others, such as composing a pilgrimage guide in order to assist those who go on pilgrimage. In the foreign year 1947, he went to Tibet via Bhutan. During that very year, the Tibetan government, for whatever reason, ordered his imprisonment. Last year, after being released from prison, he was writing a chronicle of Tibet on the orders of the government. Nowadays, if one needed to acquire the learning of the likes of this excellent spiritual friend, even if one spent several hundred thousand coins, it would be difficult for such a scholar to appear. Alas, such a loss, such a loss. I do not know whether or not anyone is publishing the book that he wrote about his long stay in India as well as whatever he had finished of his newly written chronicle of Tibet.
One notes here the tone of personal loss; the obituary was presumably written by Tharchin himself. Also notable is the lack of the kind of specific information that one would expect to find in an obituary. The only dates provided are the date of his return to Tibet, which is inaccurate (he returned to Lhasa in 1946) and the date of his death, and this date, although occurring just a few months before, is disputed by other sources. Of his numerous writings, only his pilgrimage guide is mentioned. And the lament ends on a note of uncertainty, wondering what might have become of his books.
THIRD BEGINNING It is one of the pious conventions of Tibetan Buddhist literature not to immediately mention the name of a great religious figure, especially if it is one's teacher, but to write instead, "The name of this exalted being cannot be expressed in words, but if it is necessary to do so, he might be called______." I have not mentioned his name thus far, not out of any particular piety, but because I do not know how to write it in English. Among the various European-language sources I have consulted, his name has appeared as Gedun Chopel, Gendun Chophel, Gendun Chöphel, Gedun Choephel, Gedün Chompel, Gendun Chomphel, Gedun Chöpel, Gedün Chöpel, Gendün Chöphel, Gedun Chos-'phel, Gedhun Chonphel, Dge 'dun chos 'phel, dGe-'dunchos-' phel, Dge-vdun Chos-vphel, Dge chos, dGe-hdun Chos-hphel, Gedun Ch'omp'el, Ge Dun Qu Pel, and Gytun Chhephel (as he himself first spelled his name). This remarkable range of renderings results fromthe fact that, despite its vast literature, no one-Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, European, or American-has devised a standardized system for the phoneticization of Tibetan words in the Latin alphabet. In the generally accepted transliteration system, it is dGe 'dun chos 'phel, but how is that pronounced? Faced with yet another uncertainty about his identity, if I must express his name, I will call him GC.
He was arguably the most important Tibetan intellectual of the twentieth century. Born at the beginning of that century and dying in the middle (his birth and death dates are variously reported), he lived a life bracketed by two of the defining moments in modern Tibetan history, the entry of British troops into Lhasa in 1904 and the entry of Chinese troops into Lhasa in 1951. He thus witnessed decades of profound upheaval in Tibetan society, an upheaval only exceeded by that which followed shortly after his death.
After excelling in the traditional monastic curriculum in his youth, GC would become a philosopher, a poet, an essayist, an artist, a linguist, a translator, a geographer, a historian, a social critic, a sexologist, a botanist, a journalist, an ethnographer, and a sometimes tantric yogin. For some combination of these activities-the precise reasons are unclear-he would be imprisoned by the government of the young Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Sometime shortly before his imprisonment or shortly after his release-the date is uncertain-he gave teachings on the middle way to a group of students. Shortly after his death, although some say before, a text was published that purported to contain those teachings. But the authorship of the text was immediately questioned, and remains a point of sometimes impassioned contention today. One can say with some degree of conviction that the overriding theme of the work is the question of the possibility of knowledge. That is, it is a work of uncertain authorship, attributed to a man about whose life so little can be said with confidence, which calls into question the possibility of certainty. This is a study of that text.
That text, whoever its author, was composed near the end of GC's life. To what extent that text, which we shall call the Adornment, represents the culmination of that life is a question worthy of consideration, a consideration that can occur only when one has some sense of the events of that life. I shall begin, therefore, with a survey of GC's life. This will not be a conventional biography, however. Too many questions remain concerning the most basic events of his life. Employing the broad chronology of his life and travels, I shall offer instead a literary life of GC, providing as much of the narrative as possible from his own words, especially his writings from his time in India and Sri Lanka, in an attempt to give some sense of his interests, concerns, and perspectives in the possibly vain hope that these might allow us to better understand the Adornment.
A MDO He was born in A mdo, the northeast province of the Tibetan cultural domain. Although dates as disparate as 1895 and 1905 have been suggested for the year of his birth, recent consensus has placed his birth onAugust 14, 1903. (Among others born in 1903, one could list Yasujiro Ozu, Bing Crosby, Theodor Adorno, Benjamin Spock, Claudette Colbert, George Orwell, BobHope, Evelyn Waugh, Mark Rothko, Anais Nin, Yevgeny Mravinsky.) His father, A lags rgyal po (also known as A lags dpal ldan and Snags 'chang rdo rje), was an incarnate lama (sprul sku, pronounced tulku) and sngags pa or mantrika of the Rnying ma or "ancient" sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which traced its heritage to the mythically potent but historically problematic visit of Padmasambhava to Tibet at the end of the eighth century. Prior to his birth, a prominent Rnying ma lama known as Rdo brag sprul sku (or "the tulku of Rdo rje brag Monastery"; his name was Rig 'dzin 'jigs med bsod nams rnam rgyal) had visited GC's parents and announced that he, the lama, would be reborn as their son, leaving behind his ceremonial hat as an omen. GC's parents subsequently set out on a long pilgrimage from their home in A mdo to the holy city of Lhasa, a journey of many months. GC had been conceived by the time they reached Rdo rje brag monastery near Lhasa, where the monks believed that the unborn child was the next incarnation of the tulku who had visited them; the monks urged the future parents to remain until the birth. The parents decided to return home, however, knowing that if the child were a girl, it would be considered inauspicious, and if it were a boy, the monastery would insist that the child remain there for his education. They thus set off on the long trek to A mdo, but did not reach their village before the child was born, near the birthplace of Tsong kha pa (1357-1419), the famous "founder" of the Dge lugs sect. GC's parents took their new son to their home in the village of Zho phung in Gsermoljong, "GoldenValley," in the Reb gong region of A mdo.
GC was apparently something of a prodigy, learning to read and write by the age of four. He was regarded, at least locally, as the incarnation of Rdo brag sprul sku and was known by that name. His birth name, however, was Rig 'dzin rnam rgyal. When he was seven years old, he was invested as an incarnate lama in a ceremony at the Rnying ma monastery of G.ya' ma bkra shis 'khyil. He continued to study, both with his father and other local lamas, gaining particular recognition for his skills as a poet. Sometime during this period, his father seems to have died or otherwise departed from the scene, for reasons that are unclear. At age fourteen GC entered a local Dge lugs monastery of five hundred monks, called Rdi tsha, where he studied Buddhist logic for three or four years and developed a reputation as an excellent debater. It was from his time at this monastery that he came to be known as "Rdi tsha Slim" (Rdi tsha skam po), a nickname he would carry among his A mdo countrymen throughout his life. It was at Rdi tsha that he was ordained as a Buddhist monk and was given the ordination name Dge 'dun chos 'phel. Dge 'dun is the Tibetan translation of sangha, the order of monks; chos 'phel means "spreading the dharma." He would enjoy a complicated relationship with the Buddhist sangha throughout his life. Many would come to question whether he indeed spread the dharma, although dharma is notoriously difficult to translate. He would probably point out that one of its ten traditional meanings is "truth."
At the age of seventeen, in 1920, he moved to one of the two major Dge lugs monasteries in the region, Bla brang bkra shis 'khyil, with 2,500 monks, where he completed his studies of logic and epistemology, and began the study of the structures of the Buddhist path.
The standard Dge lugs curriculum was the vehicle of GC's monastic education, an education that he came to stridently criticize. It is probably useful, therefore, to describe its general contours. After learning to read and write (usually beginning between the ages of seven and twelve, although GC learned at a younger age), a monk would study the elementary textbooks on logic called Collected Topics (bsdus grwa), which introduced basic philosophical categories drawn largely from the works of Dharmakirti and which provided numerous examples of the mechanics of logical statements that are roughly the equivalent of the syllogism (technically closer to an enthymeme). This was followed by the study of basic epistemology through textbooks called "types of awareness" (blo rigs) and more advanced study of the mechanics of argumentation through works called "types of reasons" (rtags rigs).
The formal curriculum involved the study of five main texts. The first is the Ornament of Realization (Abhisamayalamkara) attributed to Maitreyanatha, a poem in eight chapters from which numerous commentators in India, and later in Tibet, extracted a complex taxonomy of the Buddhist paths to enlightenment, via both the Hinayana and Mahayana. It is highly detailed, employing the famed eight subjects (beginning with the Buddha's omniscient consciousness and ending with the dharmakaya of the Buddha) and seventy topics to reveal the so-called hidden teaching of the perfection of wisdom (prajñaparamita) sutras.
After completing the study of this text, which took about six years, the curriculum moved next to Candrakirti's Entrance to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara), which is regarded as a supplement to Nagarjuna's famous Treatise on the Middle Way (Madhyamakasastra) in that it provides what can be termed the religious context to Nagarjuna's exposition of emptiness. Candrakirti's text is devoted to setting forth how the understanding of emptiness is to be integrated with the practice of each of the ten perfections (paramita), virtues cultivated by bodhisattvas on a ten-staged path to enlightenment. Over half of Candrakirti's text is devoted to the sixth perfection, wisdom. This long discussion of the seminal topics of Madhyamaka philosophy, including emptiness, the two truths, a critique of the Yogacara, and proofs for the selflessness of persons and other phenomena, is regarded by the Dge lugs as the locus classicus of Prasangika-Madhyamika. GC quotes from it frequently in the Adornment.
Throughout the long course of study, there was time taken each year (often in the form of a communal winter retreat at 'Jang of monks from several monasteries) for the topic of logic and epistemology, represented by Dharmakirti's Commentary to [Dignaga's "Compendium on] Valid Knowledge" (Pramanavarttika). This text contains arguments for the existence of rebirth, for liberation from rebirth, and for the omniscience of a buddha; discussions of the two valid sources of knowledge (direct perception and inference); classifications of proof-statements; and an analysis of the operations of thought. Written in a cryptic poetic style, this is considered one of the most difficult Indian sastras. It was one in which GC excelled.
The final two texts of the Dge lugs curriculum are the Discourse on Monastic Discipline (Vinayasutra) by Gunaprabha, which is the Tibetans' primary source for the rules and regulations governing monastic life, and the Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharmakosa) by Vasubandhu, a compendium of Vaibhasika and Sautrantika tenets dealing with all the major categories of Hinayana doctrine, encompassing philosophy, soteriology, and cosmology.
The successful completion of the entire curriculum commonly took some twenty years of study. During this time, the chief educational techniques were limited to memorization and debate. In addition to the Indian texts listed above, the monk would study extensive commentaries or textbooks (yig cha) on each work. Each college of the major monastic universities had its own textbooks on the Indian root texts. There were two types of these textbooks. The first, called general meaning (spyi don), was a relatively straightforward prose commentary that followed the sequence of the Indian text, offering what the college considered the correct interpretation. The other form of textbook was the analysis (mtha' dpyod), which set forth the meaning of the text in the form of debates on each of the important points. Each section of the analysis had three subsections: the refutation of wrong interpretations, the presentation of the correct position, and the dispelling of any objections that might be raised about the correct position. The most famous of the yig cha were those used by the six scholastic colleges of the three great Dge lugs monasteries around Lhasa, Dga' ldan, 'Bras spungs, and Se ra. Composed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, these texts, and various allegiances to them, led eventually, among other effects, to a concentration on them instead of the Indian and Tibetan texts that they sought to synthesize. Some would also say that such a concentration, even a fixation, resulted in a heightened degree of sectarianism, both among the Dge lugs colleges and especially between Dge lugs and the non-Dge lugs sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
Excerpted from The Madman's Middle Way by DONALD S. LOPEZ JR. Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 24, 2012
Posted November 24, 2012