In the summer of 1792, the Qianlong Emperor was confronted with a uniquely Tibetan Buddhist problem: Qing authorities had discovered the Eighth Dalai Lama, Seventh Panchen Lama, the Fourth Jetsundamba, several other prominent reincarnate lineages, and a distinguished Tibetan statesman, were embedded in a web of kinship ties. “… How is it possible that the reincarnations of all the major kutuktus of Tibet have come to appear only in the noble households?” he remarked in a letter to one of his most trusted generals.
Modern Tibetan literature has been rather hard to find, with the exception of religious and spiritual writings, and some poetry, notably Woeser’s Tibet’s True Heart: Selected Poetry, the only book of modern Tibetan poetry I have come across. Woeser has a short story in this new collection, and was the only Tibetan writer represented that I actually knew by name.
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!
It’s always been a pleasure to handle a Folio Society book, and having three of them at one time, all on Asian themes, was even better.
In 1934 Gendun Chopel, a former Tibetan monk, arrived in India in the company of an Indian scholar, Rahul Sankrityayan, just after giving up his monastic vows. He would remain there for some time before returning home in 1945 and getting himself arrested on a (probably) trumped-up charge of forging banknotes. While in India, he lived in penury as he wandered around from place to place, gathering material for what would eventually become The Passion Book, a work completed in 1939 which started circulating in manuscript form and was eventually published in 1967, sixteen years after its author’s death.
There are various translations of the Life of Milarepa available, but since Garma C Chang issued his translation of the Hundred Thousand Songs in 1962, there has been a gap of more than fifty years, and Tibetan Buddhist scholarship has made a great deal of progress over that time, which makes 2017 an ideal year for a new translation of this work.
Novels about Tibet are rare, one in English by a Tibetan even rarer. For most readers, Tibetan titles tend to be non-fiction books focusing on Buddhism and meditation, and occasional memoirs of old Tibet. So Tshewang Yishi Pemba’s posthumous novel, White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings, published in February in India, marks an important milestone for Tibetan writing.