Culture Film

Gendün Chöephel: The Legendary Tibetan Free Thinker

Gendün Chöephel was a rebellious Tibetan monk who, through his controversial writing and illustration, inspired radical change in Tibetan culture. Considered to be the reincarnation of a famous Buddhist Lama, he is one of the most notorious Tibetan intellectuals of the 20th century.

Born in 1903, Gendün was a man of many creative and intellectual pursuits. He was regarded as an artist, a poet, a writer, and a scholar who published a collection of influential works throughout his adventurous life.

Chöephel was the son of a revered monk in Rebkong, Amdo region. At a young age, the boy was sent to the monastery known as Yama Tashikyil to begin his Buddhist studies. When he turned 17, the young monk was sent to Labrang to complete his monastic education.

The Labrang Monastery was a renowned temple in Eastern Tibet whose reputation attracted monks from all over central Asia. It housed one of the largest monastic universities of the 20th century. At the time, there were over 4000 Monks studying and living within its white walls and gilded roofs.

Labrang Lamasery, Gansu, China

The art of philosophical debate was an important aspect of the monastic lifestyle with a longstanding history of over 800 years. The traditional format involved one monk presenting a philosophical question to a challenger, who then responds with an answer of increasing wit and wisdom.

This practice had been established to train the student’s critical understanding, but had deteriorated into an empty ritual where the memorization of responses made by past scholars was the only way to defeat your opponent.

Gendün revitalized these monastic debates by making a name for himself with his unconventional approach, always finding a way to defeat his adversaries with an eccentric but effective response. This left a deep impression on the methodical monks of Labrang, who continue to tell stories of his debates to this day.

The young innovator was memorable for more than his wise words. It was well known in the monastery that he could make mechanical toys he fashioned out of broken clock parts. An elder monk recalled that Gendün would boast about how he could create a mill without the need for water if he had the proper materials. The monks were upset by his radical ideas, creating undue resistance to his ingenuity.

In 1934, Gendün turned away from life at the monastery. After becoming disillusioned with the rigidity of the monastic traditions, he departed from the temple and moved to Lhasa, supporting himself with the talent for painting he developed as a monk. Chöephel could paint extremely realistic portraits for his clients, some of which still exist today as a testament to his mastery.

Gendün soon realized that the society he lived in shared the same stagnancy as the monastery, having closed itself off to the progress of the world. His criticism of the ruling authorities grew, and he began to investigate the source of the motionless monotony that surrounded him.

After discovering wall murals and ancient writings that revealed the violent, war-torn history of Tibet to the young academic, his world view was completely shattered. Until now, Gendün had only heard TIbetan history through Buddhist legends taught by monks. This revelation ignited a fire within, which compelled him to seek out the true history of his country.

Rahul Sankrityayan

Around the same time, Gendün became acquainted with Rahul Sankrityayan, a traveling historian and activist on a research expedition to recover Buddhist manuscripts which no longer exist in India. After extensive deliberation, they decided to travel through Tibet together, visiting countless monasteries in search of these rare manuscripts.

Rahul saw his historical journey as an aspect of his activism. To him, acquiring knowledge of the past was a way to effectively resist the British colonial occupation. Gendün became inspired by Rahul’s rebellion against the powers that be, and was most likely influenced by his historical method of activism.

Gendün and Rahul traveled together for months, visiting many old monasteries throughout Tibet, and eventually reaching the Sakya Monastery in 1938. At long last, they had uncovered all the missing manuscripts which had been destroyed or lost to time.

Sakya Monastery

After experiencing everything Tibet had to offer, Gendün felt drawn to the land his companion would speak so fondly of. He decided to return with Rahul to India, and at the age of 32, they arrived at the Ganges River. Shortly after his return, Rahul was arrested for his activism in the independence movement and is thrown into prison.

Gendün never saw his companion again, but eventually decided to continue on his pilgrimage through the exotic country he had only just begun to discover. His journey began with the ancient Buddhist pilgrimage sites, but quickly extended to notable locations all over the foreign land.

Gendün’s adventure through India lasted for many years, and he made sure to write down everything that he saw. His personal notes later became the foundation for a travel guide of India that is still used today. Through his written accounts and painted illustrations, he introduced Tibetans to unknown cultures and encouraged them to learn from new and old traditions. Some Tibetans consider this to be his greatest accomplishment.

Chöephel spent some time writing newspaper articles for the Tibet Mirror, a small Indian newspaper that was read in Lhasa by open minded nobility and monks. At the time, Tibet did not have a newspaper, and this was the first of its kind. He went on to write a collection of essays, translations, and historical works which expressed his critical reflections on the politics and religion of various countries- including Tibet.

While in Kalimpong, India, Gendün is asked to design an emblem for the Tibetan Improvement Party. He accepts and creates an image that would eventually become his downfall; a crossed sword and sickle that sends the British occupation into a panic.

After returning to Lhasa, Tibet in 1946, Gendün is arrested under suspicion of being a communist spy. His written and historical works are confiscated and he is thrown into prison. After 3 years of detention, Gendün is freed, returning to society as a depressed, broken man. After the government began to realize the significance of his work, they released some of his written material, and demanded that he continue writing. Chöephel, having lost the will to write, refused these demands.

Gendün Chöephel’s wife, Tseten Yudron, gave an account of his remaining days:

“After his release, we lived together for two years. Not much time for us. He died shortly afterwards. If he hadn’t drunk so much he would have lived longer. He got crazier and crazier, at the end he was barely a human being.”

Despite his fall from grace, Gendün Chöephel’s life was an inspiring embodiment of revolutionary thinking. No Tibetan before him had ever written political history about Tibet, and this was surely a game-changing component to the socio-political climate. This sole individual’s actions revealed a previously unknown chapter in the culture of Tibet, and it is clear that many still proudly recognize Gendün Chöephel’s significant contributions to Tibetan history.






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