“Gendun Chopel: Tibet’s Modern Visionary” by Donald S Lopez Jr

A world map drawn by Gendun Chopel, 1938 A world map drawn by Gendun Chopel, 1938

Much of what we know of Gendun Chopel in the West must surely be due to the efforts of Donald Lopez, who tells us that he’s written six books on him; “I had not intended to write so much about him,” he says on the first page of this new book, but readers should be glad that sometimes intentions simply go out of the window!

Lopez is the leading authority on Gendun Chopel in the West, and has published an excellent translation of the recently-reviewed A Treatise on Passion. Gendun Chopel: Tibet’s Modern Visionary is not only a wonderful companion to the Treatise, but also introduces us to other writings by this remarkable teacher and scholar by combining a biography with generous selections from Gendun Chopel’s works, an effective way of getting readers’ attention onto writings other than the Treatise on Passion. Lopez also includes some drawings and poetry, which allows us to better understand the remarkably wide range of talent possessed by this very significant modern Buddhist teacher.


Lopez starts with five chapters devoted to Gendun Chopel’s life, with the fifth one a detailed discussion of the kind of Buddhism the master practiced; the next ten chapters contain extracts from most of his major writings. Lopez chronicles each stage of Gendun Chopel’s life in Tibet, India and Ceylon, culminating with his return to Tibet, his imprisonment on what must surely have been a trumped-up charge of forgery and his premature, tragic death brought on, in part, by over-consumption of alcohol, a habit which seems to have begun when prison guards offered him drinks.

When he died in 1951 he was only forty-eight years old. Since his death, however, Gendun Chopel’s stature and reputation as teacher and writer has steadily increased, and while he was known during his life in scholarly Buddhist circles, his legacy amongst ordinary readers, Tibetan and foreign, only began to take on real significance after his death.

When Gendun Chopel decided to leave Tibet and do some travelling, the decision had a massive impact on the rest of his life. During the course of his wanderings, he not only met other teachers and people who influenced him, but discovered other religions and other forms of Buddhism. Unlike many other Buddhists, Gendun Chopel acquired a knowledge of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and was not afraid to express his rather negative opinions, especially on the two latter religions. The Hindus, he says, like “immensity”, and tell us that kings ruled for hundreds of years, which, for him, is clearly nonsense. Christians “tell great lies in the guise of accuracy”, giving measurements for Heaven and counting the number of angels. Islam, which Gendun regards with contempt and disgust, actually rewards people for killing non-Muslims. Both Christians and Muslims are attacked in equal measure for their bloody histories and their practice of forcible conversion, both of which Gendun Chopel tells us derive from what he calls their “blind faith” in their sacred books. He believes that this propensity for violence is caused by the fact that, unlike Buddhism, these religions only have scripture (dgama); Buddhism alone has reason (yukti) as well, which allows it to strike a more sophisticated and philosophical balance in its world-view, and which is essentially non-violent. What he might have said about the persecution of Rohingyas by Buddhists in Burma is an interesting speculation.


 Gendun Chopel: Tibet’s Modern Visionary, By Donald S Lopez, Jr (Shambhala, May 2018)

Gendun Chopel: Tibet’s Modern Visionary
, by Donald S Lopez Jr (Shambhala, May 2018)

Much about Gendun Chopel does not fit in with standard notions of Tibetan Buddhist monks, and of course for that part of his life after going to India he was no longer a monk. His travels, too, broadened his outlook and put him into contact with other ways of looking at the world, both religious and secular. That is why Lopez’s chapter on Gendun Chopel’s brand of Buddhism is so important. As Lopez puts it, he “seemed always to be floating between two worlds,” influenced by people and philosophies with which he came into contact, but, in the end, “he remained a Tibetan patriot and a devout Buddhist until his last days.”

However, there were differences between Gendun Chopel and other Buddhist teachers or tulkus; he never had any followers or patrons, and he did not found a “school”. Sometimes he appeared almost mad; at one point he blew cigarette smoke on a picture of his lover Tara, whom he revered, and then followed this action up by reciting her prayer. He stubbed another cigarette on the forehead of a statue of Buddha and then debated other monks on the question of whether the Buddha could feel physical pain.

At the same time, as Lopez points out more than once, Gendun Chopel was also conventional in many ways; he read and committed to memory many important Buddhist texts and “excelled at each of the three traditional activities of the Tibetan scholar: explication, disputation and composition.”

He showed that a Buddhist master could also be cosmopolitan, and while he sometimes “floated” uncomfortably, he always came back to his roots in Tibetan Buddhism, which sustained him and got him through many hardships. The country he loved, by the time he died, was in the process of being subsumed by the Chinese, and he found himself unjustly imprisoned by his countrymen, which ultimately broke him. He wrote in a poem,


The naked truth, terrifying to behold,
Is not to be covered in the robes of self-deception.
This is the first vow of the scholar.
Please keep it though it costs you your life.


He did, and it did.


This book is the first in a projected Lives of the Masters series issued by Shambhala Publications, and if it is anything to go by, the series looks very promising indeed. The book is attractively-designed and reasonably-priced, too.

Lopez’s book is freshly-written and is a more than worthy inaugural volume for the Lives of the Great Masters series. No-one knows more about Gendun Chopel than Donald Lopez, and he is to be commended for making his book so accessible, and also for including the extracts from Gendun Chopel’s writings. The biography and the analysis in the first half of the book leads readers directly into the second half, where Gendun Chopel speaks so eloquently for himself. We need to know more about Buddhist teachers in recent times, and to understand how they coped with an increasingly modernizing world; answers to questions about these matters are to be found in books by people like Donald Lopez, and this book is essential to understanding how the mind of a modern Buddhist master works.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.