A Modern Man in Old Tibet

    The Madman’s Middle Way: Reflections on Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gendün Chöpel The Madman’s Middle Way: Reflections on Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gendün Chöpel
    By Donald S. Lopez Jr.

Reviewed by Felix Holmgren

One morning in the early 1940’s, when the Tibetan monk Gendün Chöpel was about forty years old and his travels had taken him as far as Sri Lanka, he accompanied a group of Theravadin monks as they went on their daily round of alms-begging. Although he had been ordained as a Buddhist monk for most of his life, he had never before witnessed or engaged in this practice. In Gendün Chöpel’s native Tibet, only genuinely destitute monks were ever seen begging. Stories of groups of monks approaching towns and villages to beg for alms were something one might come across in old books, something that belonged to the distant and long-lost Golden Age in the holy land of India. Seeing the Sinhalese monks re-enact this ancient tradition inherited from the Buddha, he thought, “I alone am seeing this legacy of our compassionate teacher,” and he sat down on the ground and cried.

This episode encapsulates the feelings that dominated Gendün Chöpel’s life, a man that Donald S. Lopez Jr. writes, “was arguably the most important Tibetan intellectual of the twentieth century.”

In The Madman’s Middle Way, Lopez presents a translation and study of Gendün Chöpel’s last work, the Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thought, along with the relatively scanty information available on Gendün Chöpel’s life: the prediction of his birth by his previous incarnation; his thorough monastic schooling, during which he became notorious both for his brilliance and his taste for controversy; his extensive travels in South Asia; the imprisonment to which he was subjected when he eventually returned to Tibet; and the illness, drinking, disillusionment, and untimely death that concluded his life.

Gendün Chöpel’s life was characterized by loneliness, fervent religiosity, an impulse to explore that led him far from his homeland, and experiences of things so incredible that he could not communicate them to his fellow Tibetans, whom he regarded as narrow-minded and proud.

Gendün Chöpel’s was one of the most forceful voices of his time, urging (albeit in vain) that Tibetans voluntarily embrace modernity before it was forced upon them. In an essay published in 1938, he lamented that although “in the great lands there is not a single scholar who has even a doubt” that the world is round, and Buddhists from Sri Lanka to Japan accepted this, the stubborn Tibetans anxiously held on to the belief that the world was flat and structured exactly as described in the Buddhist scriptures.

Unlike many of his contemporaries in other Buddhist countries, Gendün Chöpel didn’t systematically pursue a modernist agenda, but the critical and fiercely independent approach he brought to perennial Buddhist and Tibetan issues is unmistakably modern in its empiricism, eclecticism, and intense dislike of conformity.

Gendün Chöpel’s oeuvre includes: translations of the Hindu Bhagavadgita and the Theravadin Dhammapada into Tibetan, and of the Mahayana classic, Bodhicaryavatara, into English; a pains­takingly researched pilgrimage guide­book, which gives directions on how to make use of the Indian railway system to reach ancient charnel grounds and other places described in the Buddhist tantras; a manual of sex (still popular with dis­cerning householder yogis and yoginis) based on a thorough study of the Sanskrit literature on the topic, as well as appli­cation of the aforementioned empirical approach; political tracts advocating the abandonment of Tibet’s feudal system and monastic land ownership; travel journals describing his encounter with foreign cultures and “the new reasoning” (science); and the first attempt at writing a political history of Tibet using text-criti­cal methods.

Compared to these works, Gendün Chöpel’s Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thought seems a rather traditional text. The topic, Madhyamaka philosophy, is one that Tibetan scholars have written more treatises about than anyone can hope, or wish, to read in one lifetime, and the Adornment doesn’t bring anything essentially new to the picnic.

Nagarjuna, the Indian scholar who founded the Madhyamaka tradition at some point in the first centuries C.E., set out to reformulate the message of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras in the form of logical arguments. The whole project was self-contradictory from the outset, since the Perfection of Wisdom literature is concerned precisely with the impossibility of framing reality in language, thought, or logic. Nagarjuna therefore turned logic against itself and constructed arguments intended to show how rational thought always runs into contradictions when it tries to grasp the true nature of reality. Many Mahayana traditions consider the contemplation of these arguments a powerful method for realizing the view of prajnaparamita.

Over the centuries, controversies arose over the correct way of constructing Madh­yamaka arguments and exactly what it was they pointed to. It is this debate, in one of its Tibetan bifurcations, that Gen­dün Chöpel takes up in the Adornment: the quarrel many philosophers had (and have) with the Geluk sect’s interpreta­tion of Madhyamaka. In the Adornment, Gendün Chöpel joins a long procession of scholars who have taken the Geluk philosophers to task, claiming that they ruined Nagarjuna’s philosophy. But what is remarkable about the Adornment is its unusual style, not its philosophical content.

Most Tibetan philosophy is written in an extremely formalized prose that often bears more resemblance to computer code than to anything meant to be processed by the human cognitive apparatus. The Adornment, by contrast, consists of some 250 loosely connected paragraphs, some of which can be read as self-contained aphorisms, dealing in a freeform way with a number of controversial issues in Madhyamaka exegesis. (Lopez compares the structure of the Adornment to Witt­genstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) It is not always easy for the reader to see where the discussion is going or how vari­ous topics are related to each other, but the risk of disorientation is outweighed by the freshness of Gendün Chöpel’s rhetoric as he has his say in philosophical debates that have lasted for centuries.

Many of the points discussed in the Adornment – the conventional status of phenomena, the so-called object of refutation, the distinction between the Consequentialist and Autonomist inter­pretations–are ones that Tibetans consider to be among the most subtle and difficult to penetrate in all of Buddhist philosophy. Gendün Chöpel invokes a great deal of specialized terminology, but usually only to declare it redundant and deceptive. His standard maneuver is to bring the issue at hand down to the level of common sense, where the hairsplitting he accuses others of indulging in is made to look ridiculous. Here, for example, is how he approaches the hotly contested issue of whether any­thing can be known for certain about the experiences of unenlightened beings:

Sometimes this mind of ours seems mistaken, sometimes it seems correct. It is established by experience that it is always deceptive, like a bad soothsayer. Who can trust it…Things that 100,000 Muslims decide are true are decided to be false by 100,000 Buddhists. Each is firmly based in their own scripture and reasoning, which are as immutable as a diamond. Each of them asserts that their teacher is the infallible refuge.

With such simple examples, the Adorn­ment again and again argues that there is nothing that is even slightly real or trustworthy in samsara, the realm of conceptuality.

Many Buddhist modernists, from before Gendün Chöpel’s time up to the present, have tried to reconcile Buddhism with science by claiming that modern sci­ence is only rediscovering what Buddhists have known all along, or alternatively, that Buddhists should not make claims about anything that cannot be demon­strated by the natural sciences. Gendün Chöpel doesn’t seem to feel any need for such stratagems; his is an inverted modernism, based on the conviction that rationality always fails. For him, there can be no serious conflict between Buddhism and science, because science explores the realm of confusion, whereas the realm of enlightenment is what matters for Bud­dhists. “Please pray,” he writes, “that the two, this modern reasoning of science and the ancient teachings of the Buddha, may abide together for tens of thousands of years.”

The style of the Adornment may be informal by the standards of Tibetan scholasticism, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy read. Without a rather solid foundation in Madhyamaka philosophy and its Tibetan developments, it is vir­tually impossible to follow its winding arguments, which are made even more confusing by Gendün Chöpel’s frequent deployment of irony. The thorough com­mentary provided by Lopez will therefore be greatly appreciated by many readers. Lopez patiently provides the philosophi­cal and historical background necessary to appreciate each of the Adornment’s paragraphs, and he has the courtesy to adapt his explanations to readers with vir­tually no background in the subject mat­ter. It is all the more incomprehensible, therefore, that the editors have decided to print Tibetan names and expressions in transliterated rather than phonetic form. Tibetan transliterations are disruptive to 

the reader and are of no use at all to non­specialists, who are left guessing about pronunciations. Transliterations would have fitted nicely among the discreet foot­notes, where other philological remarks are reported.

It is also hard to understand Lopez’s silence on the many precursors of Gen­dün Chöpel’s critique of Gelukpa philoso­phy. True, this is one of several topics that “merit a separate study,” as Lopez writes, but given that there is now a growing lit­erature on, for example, the Nyingma and Kagyü schools’ interpretations of Madhyamaka, the failure to account for these, however briefly, or even to provide adequate references, must be considered a serious omission.

This complaint notwithstanding, Lopez’s study is remarkably well-rounded, and will be greeted with enthusiasm by the growing number of people, Madhya­maka aficionados and others, who con­sider Gendün Chöpel a hero. The book’s introductory biographical sketch is decid­edly the most thorough introduction to Gendün Chöpel available to nonspecialist English readers, and it includes plenty of passages translated from his writings.

Since his death at the age of forty-eight more than half a century ago, Gendün Chöpel’s fame has grown steadily. Many Tibetans now regard him as the most important scholar of the last century, or even as a saint. He has also attracted the attention of several Western schol­ars over the past decades. The figure of Gendün Chöpel, diminutive and tattered in life, now towers at the intersection of the many contradictions that face those who are trying to bring Tibetan culture and religion into modernity. His life and thought serve as a bridge for people on both sides of the divide who want to, or are forced to, remain modern, Buddhist, and, in some cases, Tibetan, all at once.

One can expect a growing interest in this rebel-madman-saint. In addition to the present book, a new documentary film (Angry Monk) chronicling Gen­dün Chöpel’s travels has recently been released (see www.angrymonkthefilm. ch). In addition to fueling the growing GC cult, The Madman’s Middle Way will be of lasting value to those with an inter­est in Tibetan Madhyamaka philosophy, Tibetan political history, and the Bud­dhist modernist movement of the early twentieth century.


FELIX HOLMGREN is a freelance writer based in Boudhanath, Nepal. He is studying at Kathmandu University’s Center for Buddhist Studies at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Boudhanath.