Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the Tricycle blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition.
Gendun Chopel was a philosopher, painter, scholar, and activist. He lived a fascinating life, the details of which reflect the tumultuous and transformative time in which he lived—born just months before Colonel Younghusband rode across the southern Himalayan border, forever rupturing the fragile skin of the Tibetan border, and passing away just a few weeks after Chinese soldiers marched around the heart of Lhasa.
Gendun Chopel was born in the spring of 1903 near Lake Kokonor in Amdo, where his parents were returning from pilgrimage to central Tibet. He spent the first ten years of his life studying under the prolific yogi-poet Zhabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (1781–1851) in Rebkong. Like Pelden Tashi (1688–1742), the founder of the Ngakmang lineages, Gendun Chopel navigated between the Nyingma and Geluk traditions, maintaining a strong nonsectarian view throughout his life.
At the age of 13 he went to the Geluk monastery Ditsa, and five years later attended the monastic university of Labrang Tashikhyil, where he stayed for six years. During this time he earned a reputation as an innovative thinker and unbeatable debater. He also learned the rudiments of English and clock mechanics from a Christian missionary from America, Marion Griebenow, who taught him the skills necessary to make mechanical birds and boats.
Gendun Chopel’s iconoclastic views clashed with Gelukpa orthodoxy at Labrang, and in 1927, at the age of 25, he set out for Lhasa, travelling for three months on foot with a caravan of pilgrims. Once in Lhasa, Gendun Chopel entered the Gomang College at Drepung Monastery to study with Geshe Sherab Gyatso (1884–1968), one of the most revered Geluk scholars of his time.
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Asha Kaufman is an arts and museum professional with a specialty in Himalayan art and culture. She has a Masters from Harvard Divinity School and serves as Manager of Outreach and Development at the Treasury of Lives.