His own teacher called him “the madman.” But was there method in his madness? Today, this mysterious Tibetan renegade is regarded by some as a traitor, by others as a visionary hero.


Gendun Chopel, Illustration
Gendun Chopel, Illustration

Should the life of Gendun Chopel ever be made into a movie, the film would begin with a panoramic shot of the Potala, the palace of the Dalai Lama, on a brilliantly sunny morning in November 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, where a group of prisoners is being released as result of a general amnesty proclaimed in the name of the current Dalai Lama, who was then fifteen years old. The inmates emerge one by one into the sunlight, some staggering, some limping, all unshaven, with long, unkempt hair, emaciated, dressed in rags. 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 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 arrived in Lhasa and first beheld the Potala. In the years between these visions of the great structure, he would live the most remarkable (and what has become the most storied) life of modern Tibetan history. A brilliant historian, philosopher, and artist, Gendun Chopel is today regarded by some as a traitor, by others as a prescient culture hero.

He was born in Amdo, the northeast province of Tibet in 1903. His father was a lama of the Nyingma sect, the “old translation school,” that traced its heritage to the mythically potent but historically problematic visit of Padmasambhava to Tibet at the end of the eighth century. Gendun Chopel was apparently something of a prodigy, learning to read and write by the age of four. His father died when he was seven, and as in the case of Milarepa, another Tibetan culture hero of an earlier age, an evil uncle swindled his mother and her sole child out of their house and property. Shortly thereafter, Gendun Chopel was identified as an incarnate lama of the Nyingma sect but he did not receive the customary material benefit; in fact, he seems never to have been formally invested, for the treasury of the lama had been completely depleted in the period between incarnations. Although his family (and his previous incarnation) belonged to the oldest of the sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma, he entered a monastery of the newest sect, the Geluk, that of the current Dalai Lama, “founded” by Tsong Khapa (1357-1419).

Gendun Chopel studied elementary logic at this first monastery before moving in 1920 to one of the two major Geluk institutions in the region, where he distinguished himself at debate. This central activity of the monastic educational system pairs off two monks, one seated and defending a position, the other standing to challenge that position, and punctuating each challenge by clapping his hands in his opponent’s face. Gendun Chopel quickly gained notoriety as an unusually skilled and unconventional debater—so unconventional, in fact, that some sources suggest he was invited to leave the monastery for critical remarks about the positions set forth in the monastery’s textbooks, while others say he was expelled for making mechanical toys. Whatever the reason, he left Amdo in 1927 for Lhasa, the necessary destination for any Geluk monk who wished to pursue academic training at the highest level. He enrolled in Gomang College of Drepung monastery, one of the “three seats” of the Geluk in the vicinity of Lhasa and, with some twelve hundred monks, the largest Buddhist monastery in the world. This was regarded as the intellectual center of Inner Asia, yet Gendun Chopel seemed little impressed by the cosmopolitan atmosphere or the scale of monastic life, and rarely participated in regular activities of the monastery, such as lectures and prayers. When he did attend lectures, he fell into constant arguments with his teacher, who eventually refused to address him by name, calling him only “the madman.” Gendun Chopel soon came to devote much of his time to painting thangkas of various deities, whereby he earned a small income. He would, however, frequent the debating courtyard to confound his fellows, often challenging the best students while disguised as one of the dap-dop, the society of monk police who enforced discipline in the monastery; something like a Buddhist version of the Hell’s Angels, these athletic monks prided themselves on their ignorance of Buddhist philosophy. For an aspiring geshe to be defeated in debate by a dap-dop was thus an unspeakable disgrace, which Gendun Chopel undoubtedly took great delight in inflicting.

During his years at the monastery, he completed the curricula in logic and epistemology, the structure of the Buddhist path, and Madhyamika philosophy. Madhyamika is considered in Tibet to be the highest of the Indian Buddhist philosophical schools. It derives from the works of the Indian master Nagarjuna, who delineated a “middle way,” not between the extremes of sensual indulgence and asceticism (which the Buddha eschewed), but between the extremes of existence and non-existence. Gendun Chopel abandoned his formal studies in 1934 to accompany the scholar Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963), who was on an expedition from India in search of Sanskrit manuscripts in southern Tibet. Rahul Sankrityayan was a distinguished Sanskritist and an active figure in the Indian independence movement, who after six months in a British prison term had become a member of the Indian Communist Party. Gendun Chopel ended up accompanying Pandit Rahul to Nepal and then on to India, where he was to spend the next twelve years. Much of Gendun Chopel’s current fame, both in Tibet and within the diaspora community, derives from his exploits during these years outside Tibet; at a time when the government of Tibet was resisting the influence of the foreign world, Gendun Chopel left Tibet to immerse himself in it.

He was extremely active during this period, in both his scholarly and personal pursuits. He traveled extensively through India and studied Sanskrit, Pali, and English, gaining considerable facility in each. For example, he translated the Pali scripture the Dhammapada, the classical Sanskrit drama Shakuntala, and the Bhagavad Gita into Tibetan and he translated the Pramanavarttika, Dharmakirti’s classic work on logic, from Sanskrit into English. He met and became friends with the noted Russian scholar George Roerich and assisted him in the invaluable but unreadable translation of the Blue Annals, a history of Tibetan Buddhism written in 1476. While in India he also was given access to several ancient manuscripts on the Tibetan dynastic period as well as Tang historical records, which he used as the basis for his unfinished history of early Tibet, the White Annals, a work important for its attempt to document Tibet’s role as a major military power in Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries. He visited and made studies of most of the important Buddhist archaeological sites in India, writing guidebooks for Buddhist pilgrimage, claiming to locate at Sarnath the precise spot where the Buddha first turned the wheel of the dharma. He also visited Sri Lanka, where he was moved by what he perceived as the authentic Buddhist practice of Theravada elders. Yet Gendun Chopel acquired vices while abroad that led to the loss of his monastic vows, and he developed a reputation as a heavy smoker and drinker. (His surviving contemporaries still tell stories of Gendun Chopel’s making intricate sketches and expounding arcane points of Buddhist philosophy while drunk.) He also spent a good deal of time studying Sanskrit erotica and frequenting Calcutta brothels, using his studies and his experiences as the basis for one of his most famous works, the Treatise on Passion, a work that apparently scandalized Lhasa society upon its publication. (It has recently been translated by Jeffrey Hopkins as Tibetan Arts of Love.)


The Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet
The Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

He spent the last two years of his stay in India, 1945 to 1946, in the Kalimpong-Darjeeling area of Sikkim. Kalimpong was the major conduit for trade and travel in and out of Tibet. It also seems to have been the center for a wide range of political discussion among the Tibetan community there, as the Indian independence movement and attendant anti-British sentiment grew with the defeat of Germany and as the civil war in China again flared with the defeat of Japan. Gendun Chopel became involved in discussions with a small group of Tibetans who would become the ill-fated Tibet Improvement Party. Its logo, designed by Gendun Chopel, featured a hammer and sickle and the name of the organization in both Chinese and Tibetan. The founder of the group was a great admirer of the leader of the Nationalist Revolution in China, Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), and his political philosophy. The party advocated the same changes in Tibet that had occurred in China with the fall of the Qing dynasty, believing that the present form of government in Tibet, dominated as it was by the Buddhist clergy, to be totally unsuited for the modern world. The party sought an autonomous Tibetan republic, organized along democratic lines but under the overall control of the Republic of China.

Gendun Chopel had himself become increasingly critical of the government of Tibet and of the corruption and political machinations of the Geluk monasteries, and so found kindred spirits in the Tibet Improvement Party. He believed that major reforms, if not revolution, were necessary in Tibet and he proposed that monks be paid salaries rather than being allowed to own or administer estates (as many did) and that they be required to study and be prohibited from engaging in commerce. Late in 1945, the party asked Gendun Chopel to return to Tibet, not by the usual route but through Bhutan and then east and north along the Anglo-Tibetan border. He was asked to disguise himself as a monk-beggar on pilgrimage and to make maps of the area. Gendun Chopel performed the task, finally arriving in Lhasa after twelve years abroad in early 1946. He seems not to have known that the maps and notes he made for his comrades were intended ultimately for the Chinese government, for he sent them through the British postal service to India, rather than by personal messenger. Indeed, it is unclear to what extent Gendun Chopel shared the view of the leader of the Tibet Improvement Party that Tibet should become an autonomous region of the Republic of China. Much of his historical research during his years in India was devoted to proving the independent status of Tibet.

In Lhasa, the government of Tibet was soon aware of Gendun Chopel’s presence in the city. In July 1946, the head of the British Mission in Lhasa, Hugh Richardson, wrote to his superior, Sir Basil Gould:

The Foreign Bureau know all about [Gendun] Chomphel La. They say he is always demanding interviews with the Shapes [government ministers], decrying Tibetan Buddhism as corrupt, praising the “New Wisdom” (which seems to emanate from India), speaking in favor of Nazism and generally conducting himself in an eccentric way. For these reasons the Tibetan Government have had him watched. They say he is corresponding regularly with Roerich.

Meanwhile, Gendun Chopel worked with one of his former classmates at Drepung monastery on a Tibetan dictionary that is still widely used today. In late July, the government decided to place him under arrest, informing him only that charges had been brought against him for distributing counterfeit currency. A search of his rooms yielded a black box containing a mass of notes and papers, various papers around the room containing information on the border area, a list of influential people in Lhasa, and some figures on Tibetan troop strength, and a cache of £100 notes. Upon his arrest, Gendun Chopel made two requests. He told his captors that when they searched his room, they would find scraps of paper and cigarette wrappers with notes on them representing the basis of a history of Tibet that would set forth the origin and independent status of the nation. He asked that these not be disturbed. He also told them that they would find a large cloth bag that contained a life-size inflatable female doll on whose head he had painted the face of a beautiful nomad woman. He apparently explained that since he was no longer a monk, he had certain needs, but he had decided not to marry in order to have more time to concentrate on his studies. He asked that the doll’s existence be kept secret, a request that was obviously not honored.


Gendun Chopel (center) in India
Gendun Chopel (center) in India

His interrogation moved from polite inquiry to flogging, throughout which he maintained his innocence of any treasonous activities. He was first incarcerated in a jail where he was permitted to have whiskey and a diary but was then transferred to the infamous prison at Shol. He was released in 1949, just a year before the Chinese invasion. By all accounts, he emerged from prison a broken man. Though supported by friends, he refused to wear anything but his prison rags and became increasingly addicted to alcohol and opium. His writings had been confiscated, and he showed no interest in reviving his many projects. He developed a severe cough that never improved, and died of undetermined causes in October 1951. He was probably forty-eight years old. (On the life of Gendun Chopel, see Heather Stoddard’s excellent biography,“Le Mendiant de l’Amdo)

Shortly before his imprisonment, Gendun Chopel gave instructions on the Madhyamika philosophy of Nagarjuna to a lama of the Nyingma sect named Dawa Sangpo. Prior to his death, Gendun Chopel instructed his student to compile his notes, which were edited by Dawa Sangpo in 1952 under the title Nagarjuna’s Intention Adorned and published with the sponsorship of the Nyingma hierarch Dudjom Rinpoche. Upon its publication, Nagarjuna’s Intention Adorned became regarded as a controversial work for its critique of much of the Geluk interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika philosophy. Some partisan Tibetan biographers have gone so far as to claim that only a tiny fraction of work is actually by Gendun Chopel, the rest having being written by his Nyingma disciple, the implication being that no one trained at the highest levels of the Geluk educational system could be so critical of his own sect. However, my research suggests that the first third of this work was actually written by Gendun Chopel in his own hand and that the remainder of the work is derived from notes made by Dawa Sangpo during Gendun Chopels teachings to him. In any event, most Geluks feel that Gendun Chopel—or, as they prefer to say, his Nyingma disciple—is effectively refuted in a number of responses to Nagarjunds Intention Adorned (including one written by Gendun ChopePs own teacher, Sherab Gyatso, regarded today as a Chinese collaborator).

Many of the most sacrosanct domains of Geluk scholastic philosophy are the targets of his attack, beginning with the question of valid knowledge. If all unenlightened beings suffer from ignorance, as the Buddha taught, on what basis do we make judgments about the world? Is there such a thing as valid, reliable knowledge for the unenlightened, and if so, what are its sources? The standard Buddhist position is that there is valid knowledge and that it derives from two sources: sense perception and inference. One of the things for which Tsong Khapa, the Geluk “founder,” is most famous is his attempt to set forth a system of epistemology that is simultaneously able to provide a basis of valid knowledge while upholding the doctrine of the emptiness of all phenomena. How can unenlightened persons make reliable judgments when everything is like an illusion, appearing to be real but in fact lacking any intrinsic nature? Tsong Khapa argued that despite the fact that to the ignorant mind nothing exists as it appears, it was possible for unenlightened beings to use sense perception and inference to have accurate knowledge of the world. Gendun Chopel will have none of this. He writes:

Therefore, our statements about what does and does not exist are in fact classifications of opinion. Our statements that something does not exist or does not occur are [merely] classifications of what we cannot understand. Reality, which is neither existent nor non-existent, is not to be classified in the former [the conceivable]; it is to be classified in the latter [the inconceivable]. An amazing example of a majority declaring a minority to be liars is set forth by the master Candrakirti. Aryadeva’s Four Hundred says: “Therefore, why is it incorrect to say that the whole world is insane?” The commentary on that says, “In an ancient land an astrologer went to the king and said, ‘Seven days from now it will rain. All those whose mouths the water enters will go insane.’ When the king heard that he covered the mouth of his well of drinking water and no rain fell into it. His subjects were unable to do the same and so the water went into all of their mouths and they all went insane. The king was the only one whose mind remained normal. In that country the way the populace thought and spoke and the way the king thought and spoke did not agree. Therefore, they all said that the king was insane. In the end, not knowing what else to do, the king drank the water and they all came to agree.” Thus, due to the single great insanity from drinking the crazing waters of ignorance beginninglessly, we have no confidence whatsoever in deciding what exists and does not exist, what is and is not. Even though a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, or a hundred thousand of such insane people agree, it in no way becomes valid.

Valid knowledge, for Gendun Chopel, then, amounts to nothing more than popular opinion. This is a position that had been put forth in the past by scholars of other sects of Tibetan Buddhism. What is striking about Gendun Chopel’s work is that someone trained in (and claimed by) the Geluk educational system would launch such a withering critique of sacrosanct Geluk dogma.

But if the unenlightened have no valid knowledge, can they not at least rely on the words of the enlightened lineage of teachers? Gendun Chopel lampoons the storied Tibetan appeal to the authority of the lama, alluding to a Tibetan proverb which says that if you need a witness to support your claim, find someone weaker than you are.

One might think, “We make decisions without confidence, but when we follow the decisions of the Buddha, we are infallible.” Then who decided that the Buddha is infallible? If you say, “The great scholars and adepts like Nagarjuna decided that he is infallible.” Then who decided that Nagarjuna is infallible? If you say, “The foremost lama Tsong Khapa decided it.” Then who knows that the foremost lama Tsong Khapa is infallible? If you say, “Our kind and peerless lama, the excellent and great so and so decided.” Then, in dependence on your excellent lama, the infallibility is a matter of your own opinion. The witness of a lion is a tiger, the witness of a tiger is a yak, the witness of a yak is a dog, the witness of a dog is a mouse, the witness of a mouse is an insect. Therefore, the final witness for them all is an insect.

He returns again and again to this critique of certainty and mercilessly satirizes the monks in the monasteries who make complacent declarations about what does and does not exist. His scorn is directed not at Tsong Khapa but at his narrow-minded successors. Gendun Chopel seems completely to reject rational thought as a means to enlightenment. The enlightened mind is wholly other, gained, perhaps, by the bliss-inducing techniques he describes in his Treatise on Passion. Thus, he repeatedly points out that whatever ideas we may have about the nature of enlightenment are mere fancy. For example, he writes:

But if there can be no confidence in anything whatsoever, what should one do? As stated before, as long as one abides in this world, there is nothing to do other than continue believing in the false, directing the mind to the false, making various explanations in terms of the false. However, to think that the dirt, mountains, and rocks that we see now are still seen when we are buddhas is a great mistake. As long as consciousness remains in the body of a donkey, it is able to experience the sweet taste of grass, but when it has departed, the taste is also destroyed. The knowledge of the nightingale that the night has passed is destroyed when it departs from the nightingale’s body. If we had some additional sense organs other than these present five, external objects of knowledge would multiply. If these two eyes were located one on top of the other rather than on the right and left, it is certain that the shapes and colors of all external forms would be different. In whatever we decide, we have no means whatsoever for deciding other than in dependence on these five sense organs. If something is not seen with these two eyes on the forehead, there is no other method to see form. It is impossible to hear any sound which is not held in this small hole of the ear. Therefore, all objects of knowledge are measured by these five weak senses with the mistaken mind summoned to assist. Having decided [that this is the case], remaining content and saying that a mode of being which does not appear to our mind [in fact] does not exist is the gateway to all trouble. . . . Therefore, the ultimate purpose for cultivating the noble path is in order to newly understand what the mind did not perceive and the eyes did not see before.

When we carefully examine all of the conceits that we hold about transcendent phenomena, they are merely fabricated from examples drawn from the world and, within that, from the human realm. For example, based on the fact that we like jewels, the ground, houses, etc. in Highest Pure Land are made of jewels. Similarly, the auspicious marks of the Enjoyment Body of the Buddha are in fact things which are pleasing to our human eye. Through careful research I have learned that the clothing of the Enjoyment Body and of the gods are the clothing of ancient Indian kings. This is not something that I simply imagined; it is stated in the sutras. Furthermore, the qualities of buddhahood, which in reality cannot appear to our minds, are merely set forth with skillful methods as something that can appear to our minds in order that our minds may be clarified and expanded. For example, if the Buddha had gone to China, it would certainly be the case that the Enjoyment Body of Highest Pure Land would have a long shiny mustache and would wear a golden dragon robe. Similarly, if he had gone to Tibet, there is no doubt that in the Highest Pure Land there would be fresh butter from wish-granting cows in a golden churn five thousand miles high and there would be tea on the leaves of the wish-granting tree. Therefore, all of this is merely the way that we common beings think; as to the actual sphere of activity of the Buddha himself, the master Candrakirti says, “However, this secret of yours you do not tell.” It is certain that [this secret] is unsuitable to be stated in our presence or that even though it were stated, it is something that we could not understand. If one has simply a paltry faith in the inconceivable secret of the Buddha then one should believe that the Buddha can make an aeon equal to an instant and an atom equal to a world.

Thus, Gendun Chopel wants rather radically to discredit any knowledge that may be claimed about the state of enlightenment, while he constantly points to those abilities ascribed to the Buddha which are logically impossible. He reviles the Geluk monks for debating endlessly about the nature of contradiction but who, when confronted with the Buddha’s ability to make an aeon into an instant, simply bracket that as a special case and thus refuse to consider the implications of such an ability for their own canons of logic. They are willing to sacrifice the rhetorical and philosophical impact of such claims on the altar of doctrinal consistency and maintenance of the Geluk party line. Gendun Chopel’s point seems to be that emptiness completely contradicts the world.

One of the hallmarks of Tsong Khapa’s thought is what is called the compatibility of the two truths, the ultimate and conventional: that emptiness, the ultimate truth, does not utterly negate the world as we know it. For Tsong Khapa, despite the fact of emptiness (Tsong Khapa would even argue, because of the fact of emptiness), the objects of our everyday experience function—tables support teacups and actions have effects. For Gendun Chopel, this is a gross error. The eye cannot hear and the ear cannot see; they are incompatible. In the same way, there is no commonality whatsoever between the way things are perceived by the ignorant mind and the way they are perceived by the enlightened mind. The statements in the sutras that we cannot conceptually understand should serve as an indication that enlightenment completely contravenes the world. He sees in the Geluk obsession with consistency an evisceration of Nagarjuna’s critique, a domestication of the rhetoric of enlightenment, until it does nothing more than validate the operations of ignorance.

Throughout, although he does not mention the story, Gendun Chopel seems to be objecting to the command delivered by the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjushri, when he appeared in a vision to Tsong Khapa. Manjushri told Tsong Khapa to guard the conventional, to preserve the appearances of the world. It is this concern with upholding the validity of the conventional, (understood primarily as the cause and effect of actions) in the face of emptiness, that seems to motivate so much of Tsong Khapa’s work. It is a concern with strong ethical implications, serving as a check against the profligacy that a misunderstanding of emptiness might inspire, a profligacy to which some might argue Gendun Chopel succumbed. At the same time, the strong emphasis on the viability and hence the value of conventional truths provides a fitting ideological basis for a sect whose leaders remained very much “in the world,” leaders who set out to rule Tibet, and succeeded in doing so, acquiring vast wealth and power for themselves in the process. This was a power that Gendun Chopel sought to challenge, and therefore it is in some ways not surprising that he took the scholastic vocabulary of the Gelukpas and turned it against them, using it to undercut their most cherished foundation, perhaps imagining that to defeat the Geluk geshes in the debating courtyard could somehow lead to the defeat of the Geluk clerics who ruled Tibet from the Potala.

This was Gendun Chopel’s final iconoclastic assault, an assault on the philosophical foundations of the ideology of the Tibetan state, and he made it on the eve of the greatest crisis in Tibetan history: the Chinese invasion and occupation that began in the year before his death. He did not live to complete the many works that may have brought some resolution to the conflicting impressions that are his legacy, yet many of his works do survive, and it is their future study which may allow us to resolve the contradictions that surround this critic of categories: Was Gendun Chopel Nyingma or Geluk, reprobate or tantric master, polemicist or philosopher, dilettante or savant, traitor or patriot, madman or visionary?

From Tibetan Arts of Love by Gendun Chopel

As much as one approaches the nature of a thing,
So much do the words of scholars become dumb.
Hence it is said that by nature all subtle phenomena

Pass beyond proposition, thought, and verbalization.

Having set the mind in the realm of emptiness endowed with all aspects,
Who could view this wheel of illusory appearances
With a mind of asserting is and is not
That even the hand of Buddha does not prevent!

The small child of intelligence swoons in the deep sphere of passion.
The busy mind falls into the hole of a worm.

By drawing the imaginations of attachment downwards
Beings should observe the suchness of pleasure.

Wishing to mix in the ocean of the bliss of the peaceful expanse
This wave of magician’s illusions separated off

By perceiving the non-dual as dual, subject and object,
Does one not feel the movement and igniting of the coalesced!

To what could this reality devoid of projection move?
Where could this mind devoid of pursuit run?
Since, having abandoned their nature, they do not stay still,
Move these two—appearances and mind—in the direction of bliss.

Even taking a single step is for the sake of seeking bliss.
Even speaking a single word is for the sake of seeking bliss.
Virtuous deeds are done for the sake of bliss.
Non-virtuous deeds also are done for the sake of bliss.

Eyeless ants run after bliss.

Legless worms run after bliss.

In short, all worldly beings one by one

Are running, faster and slower, in the direction of bliss.

If one really considers the fact that the one billion worlds of this world system
Are suddenly swallowed into a gigantic asteroid devoid of perception or feeling,
One understands that the realm of great bliss

Is that in which all appearances dissolve.

Though they have attained the glory and wealth of the three billion worlds,
they are not satisfied

And therefore come to be renowned for burning ravenous passion.
In fact they seek the sky-kingdom of bliss and emptiness
With the dumb child of a mind knowing nothing.

Translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, printed with permission from Snow Lion Publications.


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