In this article from 2002, Lawrence Pintak profiles Gene Smith, the man from Ogden, Utah who single-handedly spearheaded the preservation of thousands of Tibetan texts after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. Smith died in 2011.
He has spent his life wrapped in the dharma.
For the past 40 years, Gene Smith has lived, breathed and slept with the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Smith is not a monk, he has never sat an extended meditation retreat, and there is no Ph.D. after his name. But he is a legend to lama and scholar alike.
“Gene Smith single-handedly put Tibetan studies on the map,” says Leonard van der Kuijp, chair of the department of Sanskrit and Indian studies and professor of Tibetan studies at Harvard. “I think it’s safe to say that if it had not been for him, most of us who do Tibetan studies today would be doing something else with our lives. Tibetan literary culture was one of the most prodigious in the world. Gene has been instrumental in keeping this alive.”
To say Smith has spent his adult life with the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism is to mean that literally. When I visited his apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, every room—including his bedroom—was lined floor-to-ceiling with cloth-wrapped texts of the Tibetan canon: the Kangyur (the teachings of the Buddha) and the Tengyur (the commentaries), together totaling more than 300 volumes.
Wandering the halls of the apartment was like walking through sacred Tibetan history. On a table in one room sat the pages of a thirteenth-century commentary, stained brown with age, by the founder of the now-extinct and little known Changpa lineage of the Kagyü tradition (not to be confused with Kalu Rinpoche’s still-extant Shangpa lineage). In another room were the official biographies of all of the Dalai Lamas. Photocopies of recent manuscripts published in Beijing were piled on a chair a few feet from a copy of the Stog Palace Kangyur, dedicated to an early king of Ladakh. Hidden away was an early print of the Kalachakra tantra struck from woodblocks carved around the year 1300 for Kublai Khan’s queen.
In all, Gene Smith has gathered together more than 12,000 texts; his is generally acknowledged as the most comprehensive collection of Tibetan sacred literature in the world today. Among them are the basic texts of each of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, along with the collected works of many of the greatest teachers: Tsongkhapa, Longchenpa, Jikme Lingpa, Patrul, Mipham, several of the Karmapas and Dalai Lamas, the five Sakya masters and all of the Panchen Lamas. The texts and commentaries include both well-known works and recent discoveries.
“His contribution is stunning,” says Jeffrey Hopkins, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at the University of Virginia, who spent a decade as the Dalai Lama’s chief interpreter.
It was as a young, would-be academic that Smith was first exposed to Tibetan teachings. In the late 1950’s, nine Tibetans came to the University of Washington on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Among them was one of the first Tibetan teachers to come to the West, the Ven. Deshung Rinpoche, who was tutor to the Sakya Phuntsho Phodrang, throne-holder of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. Smith began to study under Deshung Rinpoche, and eventually shared a house with the Sakya Phuntsho and his family.
“I kept asking him to clarify various concepts,” Smith recalls of Deshung Rinpoche, “and he finally said, ‘You really need to do some practice and you will understand.’” Smith took his advice and by the time he completed his Ph.D. qualifying exams in 1964, the teacher had decided his American student was ready for much more. “He said, ‘Go out to India, don’t hang around here.’ So he gave me letters for various lamas and said, ‘See what you can do about picking up the pieces of the tradition.’”
Smith took off for India. The doctorate would forever remain uncompleted, but by the time he moved back to the U.S. more than three decades later, Smith had achieved what few academics could even dream of.
The vehicle for Smith’s life’s work—and the saving of Tibet’s literary tradition—came in the unlikely form of a U.S. government food aid effort, known as the Public Law 480 Initiative. The measure allowed developing countries to purchase surplus U.S. wheat and other agricultural products using their local currencies, thus avoiding a drain on their foreign currency reserves. The U.S. then used the local funds on cultural and scientific programs within each country’s borders. One of the programs under the initiative was a Library of Congress project to purchase Sanskrit, Urdu and Hindi books in India.
“When the Tibetans came out of Tibet in 1959, they brought books with them, so by 1963 we were beginning to explore the possibility of using PL 480 funds to encourage them to publish those books, which were not available in Western libraries,” Smith recalls. Having quickly developed an extensive network of contacts in the Tibetan exile community, Smith went to work at the Library of Congress office in New Delhi with the task of locating and purchasing copies of Buddhist texts scattered among refugees in India, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan.
The lamas who fled Tibet had been forced to leave behind vast libraries of both printed texts and the woodblocks used to print them, many of which were later burned by the Chinese. In some cases, only a single copy of a particular text made it into exile. With the lamas scattered in exile, they had no means of knowing who had a particular text—or even if it existed any longer.
This was where Smith’s role—and the U.S. government’s money—became crucial. Smith identified texts in his travels and the PL 480 monies were used to have copies made, using photo-offsets and other methods. Another project located the original woodblocks and began reproducing texts from those. In each case, some copies were sent back to the U.S. and the rest were made available to the monks so the texts could once more move into general circulation. Smith would always purchase at least one copy for his personal collection.
“His stationing in India at the time of the Tibetan diaspora was one of the most fortuitous moments for scholarship and Tibetan Buddhism,” says Donald Lopez, professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Michigan and author of Prisoners of Shangri-la. “He was there with the money to help the Tibetan refugees at a time they most needed it.”
The PL 480 manuscripts were made available to libraries at eighteen U.S. universities. It is no coincidence that those schools that took–and preserved–the entire collection house today some of the strongest departments of Buddhist studies. “People like me were on the receiving end of all these books and it was really the central reason why I chose to come to the University of Virginia in 1973,” says Jeffrey Hopkins. “We have this fabulous library that you can say Gene Smith constructed for eighteen different universities.”
The effort had an incalculable impact both on scholarship and the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. According to Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, Smith’s work “saved countless endangered texts and provided an invaluable service to Tibetology students and scholars around the world. Without his efforts, many precious and rare texts would have perished forever.”
Even when the Library of Congress transferred Smith to Indonesia, and later Egypt, he remained involved in the Tibet project, lending his knowledge and contacts to the PL 480 program, which eventually acquired some 8,000 volumes.
“I really encouraged them to go on with it,” he explains. “I stayed in touch with all of the lamas but the purchasing was done by others.” Meanwhile, a wealth of texts was suddenly becoming available in China, which was not covered by the PL 480 program. So Smith leveraged his contacts to continue building his personal collection.
“Just after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese started allowing the publication of religious books again, so what I tried to do was set up a blanket order with Chinese friends for the purchase of everything that came out of China,” he says. After he took early retirement from the Library of Congress in 1997 to help found the Himalayan and Inner Asian Resources project of the Trace Foundation, Smith remained at the receiving end of a constant flow of newly discovered texts arriving from China and South Asia, which has resulted in an unrivaled assembly of sacred manuscripts.
But it is not just the collection that has made Smith famous in Tibetan circles. He is also renowned for his knowledge of the history of the texts and the lineages that produced them. “Everyone would agree that he knows more about Tibetan Buddhism than any non-Tibetan in the world,” says Lopez, who was part of a generation of scholars, experts and lamas who followed a well-traveled path through the informal salon that thrived in Smith’s New Delhi home.
“Gene’s house was an obligatory stop for anybody working on Tibetan Buddhism,” Lopez recalls. “It was a real haven for young scholars. Gene was incredibly generous to all of us with his time, his knowledge and his hospitality.”
“His home in New Delhi was a gathering place for lamas as they came through, because he had access to texts that many of them thought had been lost forever,” confirms Hopkins. “It would be difficult to say whom he helped more, the scholars or the lamas themselves.”
Even among those who did not make the trek to India, Smith’s fame spread. With each text he sent back to the U.S. under the PL 480 program, Smith included a set of introductory notes to help put the manuscript in historical, religious and cultural context. Mimeographs of those write-ups were voraciously consumed by would-be Tibet scholars hungry for insights, and eventually approached cult status. A collection of these writings, which offer a fascinating glimpse of the politics and personalities of Tibetan history, was recently published by Wisdom Publications under the title Among Tibetan Texts.
Four decades after Gene Smith began exploring the mysteries of Tibetan texts, the thirteenth Tsona Gontse Rinpoche stood on the threshold of the Tibetologist’s study. His jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide. “Oh, my goodness!” he gasped, folding his hands over his mouth as he surveyed the metal racks stacked high with hundreds of texts, each wrapped in maroon or saffron cloth and neatly labeled. A high Gelukpa incarnate lama and a government minister in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, Tsona Rinpoche was the latest among scores of lamas from all schools who have made the pilgrimage to what, since 1999, has been officially known as the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC). They come either in search of specific texts or just to see this legendary collection.
But if Smith has his way, very soon they will no longer need to visit. The TBRC was formed by Smith and a group of friends with the express goal of digitizing every text in his vast collection and making them available for free on the Internet. “What we’re trying to do is make things as easy as possible for the scholars, the holders of the traditions and the translators to gain access to the texts,” says Smith. “Right now, Tibetan studies is basically a matter of serendipity. If you come across something, you may think, ‘Aha! That’s the only thing there is on this field.’ So what we get is a little book that doesn’t examine all the rest of the stuff out there on the same subject. We’re simply making things accessible to more and more people. We’re sort of a clearinghouse.”
But watching the face of Tsona Rinpoche as Smith demonstrated the archive’s Web site, www.tbrc.org, it was clear that the Tibetan saw this latest manifestation of digital dharma as nothing short of revolutionary. “Let’s say you want to find out about a specific lineage lama,” Smith suggested, typing the name of the first Tsona Rinpoche into the site’s search engine.
“This gives us a list of all his writings, his students, his teachers, the names by which he was known,” Smith explained as the results page came up, adding as he read from the screen, “He was a Gandenpa of the Rimé movement.”
Rinpoche nodded, transfixed.
Smith then did a search for Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Geluk school. The screen showed a listing of all of the renowned teacher’s writings, with links to those in the collection that had so far been digitized. The page also displayed four small images of Tsongkhapa thangkas. Smith clicked on one of them and was taken to another site housing the online Tibetan art collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin (www.himalayanart.org). There will soon also be links to all the historical texts associated with the specific individual. This historical texts project is currently being developed in partnership with the Lumbini Research Institute in Nepal and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ultimately, the entry on each major teacher will include his ordination and other names, key dates, lineage, students, teachers, monastic and hermitage sites, written works and family relationships. In short, his entire mandala.
“What we are trying to do is build an encyclopedia of Tibetan Buddhism on the Web,” Smith told the lama, “making sure everything is available to future generations.”
The small portion of the texts in the TBRC collection that has so far been digitized can be downloaded from anywhere in the world and printed out in the traditional pecha format of long, narrow, unbound pages. Hard copies of the rest can be ordered through the site. They are provided free to lineage holders; scholars are expected to pay a small fee.
The sheer size of some commentary collections makes downloading impractical, so they are available on CD’s. A seven-disk set containing all 111 volumes of the collected works of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great is currently being distributed to lineage lamas, a CD edition of the joint historical texts project is soon to be released, a 30-CD set of a 110-volume edition of the Kangyur is being prepared, and plans are in the works for CD sets of the works of key teachers in each of the four main schools, as well as of the 232-volume Tengyur.
Smith is helped by a handful of young volunteers who work on Internet architecture, databases of texts and information, and the never-ending task of cataloging new additions to the collection. “We’re constantly getting books in from China,” says Smith. “Chou En-lai was a very wise man. We regard him as a sort of demon but he said of Tibetan Buddhism: ‘This is a rich tradition and it shouldn’t be destroyed.’ So he said that each province could have one living museum where they would not destroy the library or the printing house.
“Now all of a sudden these have become available and we’re systematically striking impressions of each of these blocks and trying to print them in ways that will last.” In addition, many of the texts that were buried during the Cultural Revolution are now being dug up. The TBRC has a team of people on the ground throughout Tibet and China gathering copies and, in some cases, overseeing new printings.
“Most of us use the Web site on a daily basis,” says French Tibetologist Francoise Pommaret, who heads a Tibetan laboratory in the French ministry for research and higher education. “It is useful not only for researchers but also for the preservation and the propagation of Tibetan culture and for all the people influence by this culture: Tibetans in China and in exile, Ladakhis, Bhutanese. It is a ‘work of memory’ as we say in French, as well as a research tool.”
The home page of the TBRC Web site prompts visitors with questions like, “Looking for information about a book, person, or place from Tibetan history?” and “Looking for information about our holdings or the PL-480 Collection?” The heart of the site is the history database and the searchable archive of low-resolution images of hundreds of texts (with more constantly being added). The latter can be printed, or high-resolution versions can be obtained by emailing the archive and requesting either that they be made available as a PDF file or shipped on a CD.
The search engine uses a transliteration language known as Wylie, which is the most widely accepted means of translating Tibetan script into the characters used on a Western keyboard. In many cases the search engine will recognize the commonly used Western forms of Tibetan terms. Punch in the word Kagyü, for example, and it will find everything related to that lineage, even though the actual Wylie transliteration is bka‘ brgyud.
Smith’s imposing presence is lit with a smile as he explains the computerized system he and his team have been working to create: “Say we’re interested in all of the commentary on the Heart Sutra. So you go to the Web site and just type in ‘Shes rab snyingpo,’ the Wylie transliteration of ‘Heart Sutra.’ The search engine then gives us a list of all the texts on the Heart Sutra. Then the lama or scholar can say, ‘I want to see all of the commentaries,’ and we will have them accessible on the Web. Right now, because of the size of these files, few people can download them, so what we’ll have to do is send them by CD. But they will be able to browse them on the Web and eventually the idea is that they can download them freely.”
The site does not contain translations of the texts. That is beyond the scope of the archive project. For the moment the scanned images of the original texts are the only portion of the site in Tibetan script. All of the other content—from instructions to biographical information on the lamas—is in English. Eventually, the entire site will also be available in Tibetan script, but that is not currently possible since there are two different—and incompatible—programs for putting Tibetan script on the Internet, one used in China and another by Tibetans in exile. Once programmers complete work on a version that can be read by all, Smith intends to duplicate the entire site in Tibetan script to make it accessible to the people whom he is most interested in serving, the Tibetans themselves.
Meanwhile, Smith is also working on a dictionary project that will begin to solve the problem of transliteration. “Take the word yeshe or rigpa or any of these terms that are technical, describing the way the mind works. If X has translated it this way and Y has translated it that way, our database will show you all of the various translations, with the context.”
And while there are currently no plans for the site to contain translations, Smith does intend to begin cataloging all of the English translations of texts being done by American dharma centers and scholars. “Now what’s happening is various organizations have explanatory texts translated from Tibetan into English. And center Y, adhering to a particular lineage, may have translated a guru puja, and center Z doesn’t have the guru puja and decides to translate it all over again. Similarly, if a scholar has translated something and it is not published, then we want to be able to have it on the Web. ‘Yes, it’s there, it’s not published, contact author X or dharma center Y for copies.’ It’s to try to reduce effort.”
Today, Smith is considered a walking encyclopedia of Tibet, which makes him invaluable not only to the archive, but also to Wisdom Publications, for whom he works as acquisitions editor, drawing on his unrivaled access to the sources of texts and his network of lamas and academics. “He has more knowledge of Tibetan bibliography than probably anyone else in the world,” observes Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard Divinity School, who regularly consults Smith on her own work. “He’s someone we call up and say, ‘Where do I find stuff on X?’ He can tell us where to look for the things we are interested in.”
“When we see each other he’ll often point out to me that such and such has just come out and it might be helpful to me,” adds Hopkins. And it’s not just with the big-name professors that Smith shares his expertise. Jacob Dalton is a Ph.D. candidate who turned to Smith for guidance. “Basically, he just gave me the whole direction of my dissertation. I’d meet with him and there was so much information that I kept straining to remember it all and then I’d leave and forget half of it. I felt like a total idiot and he never hesitated to tell it to me all over again. It was incredible.” Dalton ended up spending some time as a volunteer at TBRC. He says the education he received there rivaled anything he experienced in the classroom.
“When you hang around that place there are times when he just gets going on these stories—stream of consciousness from one topic to another—and slowly people would come from all corners of the house and sit transfixed for hours,” he recalls. “There would be these really obscure historical points and he would just bring them to life. It was so exciting. He’s able to say, ‘I think that’s…’ and he would just turn around and grab a text off the shelf that he hadn’t read in years and flip quickly and find some spot to illustrate his point.” Dalton says he knew his dissertation was ready to be defended when Smith gave it his imprimatur. “When Gene Smith doesn’t know what else you should look at, you know you’ve chased everything down.”
The texts are Smith’s children and the sixty-five-year-old scholar is preparing for the day when he is no longer around to take care of them. “I want them to go back to China,” he says, gesturing toward the sea of carefully wrapped manuscripts lining his walls. “There’s no set in China and I believe firmly that although right now the political situation is not right, if Tibetan Buddhism is to survive in its traditional form, it’s going to be in China. The Han [Chinese] are taking to Tibetan forms of Buddhism with great fervor.”
Eventually, five digital copies of the collection will be placed with lineage holders around the world to ensure there are always backups available. But for Smith, the real key to preservation of the teachings lies with the Internet. “Often the lamas come to the U.S. and they are not able to teach because they don’t have the texts they need. If one of their students has access to one of the university libraries that have the PL 480 collection, they’re okay. If not, he’s denied access to the texts he needs,” Smith explains, indignation rising in his voice. “It’s their tradition!”
By housing the texts on the TBRC’s Web site, lamas and scholars alike will have instant access from anywhere in the world. “This is a real democratization of Tibetan studies. This is the way scholarship should be,” says van der Kuijp, who serves on the TBRC’s board. “It doesn’t matter whether your institution has a ten billion dollar endowment or zero endowment. This evens out the playing field.” But before that field can become level, a mountain of texts must be digitized, which requires an equally large mountain of cash, something in short supply at the TBRC. While the need for funds is ever present, Smith remains committed to making Tibet’s religion and culture available to all who want it, regardless of their ability to pay.
Scanning of the most precious texts—some of which are themselves hundreds of years old—has mostly been done by volunteers in the U.S. to avoid the risk of damage or loss during shipping, but increasingly the work is being done by Tibetans in India. In addition to the massive job of digitizing its own collection, the TBRC is involved in a project in partnership with Bönpo religious leaders to scan the major texts of that indigenous Tibetan religion, which is closely related to Tibetan Buddhism, as well as other projects to create e-books of major Tibetan biographical and historic manuscripts.
Smith’s role in saving the sacred literature of Tibet means that he is now viewed as a crucial resource by some of the leading lamas of Tibet.
“Thank you very much for sending the copy of the Hevajra tantric teaching, which is very clear and bound very well,” Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang, head of the Drikung Kagyü lineage, wrote earlier this year. “I would also like to have any of your lists of Hevajra tantra teaching from Marpa and Ngogpa tradition.”
“It is really wonderful that you are able to do such a great service toward the preservation of the Buddhadharma in Tibet,” Penor Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma school, said in a letter to Smith. “If you can computerize and publish [it], I have most of Karma Chagme’s collected works.”
This continuous flow of manuscripts is critical. Though Smith’s collection is vast and unrivaled, he estimates that it comprises no more than ten to fifteen percent of the total number of writings by the Tibetan masters. There are still countless texts to be saved. To handle them, the TBRC is moving into a larger space in a new center for Tibetan art and culture being developed by Shelley and Donald Rubin in New York City.
Ask him a question about some obscure event in Tibetan history or subtle point of interpretation about the teachings of an obscure lineage, and Gene Smith can talk for hours. Try to get him to talk about himself, and he is as self-effacing as the lamas among whom he has spent his life. “Why does anyone do anything?” he responds, when asked how he chose this path. “It appealed to me. Maybe it’s karma.”
Did he ever imagine, as he headed for the University of Washington back in the early sixties, that he would spend his life immersed in the literature of the dharma? “Oh yes. No doubt.”
Would the texts have disappeared without him? “Sure.”
And how does it make him feel to know he helped preserve the very literature of Tibetan Buddhism? “It gives me satisfaction.” It is only when the focus turns to the texts themselves that he again becomes effusive: “They are the essence of the different forms of attainment. I’m interested in almost all of them. I can’t practice them,” he adds modestly, “but I can make them available to all and sundry.”