Lion's Roar

Profile: Death of a Pioneer

The famous Buddhist scholar Herbert Guenther passed away on March 11, in Saskatchewan, at the age of 88. “Engagement with what matters” was his motto.

By Steven D. Goodman

The famous Buddhist scholar Herbert Guenther passed away on March 11, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, at the age of 88. He was a pioneer in the English translation of the rich traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism, and particularly Mahamudra and Dzogchen. He was also a man who lived life to the fullest: “Engagement with what matters” was his motto.

Born in the seaport town of Bremen, Germany, Guenther developed an early interest in Chinese and Sanskrit languages, and went on to receive doctorate degrees in Indic Studies at the universities of Munich and Vienna. After teaching in Vienna, he and his wife, Ilse, moved to India in 1950. He taught Russian language and literature at the University of Lucknow, and then took up a post at the Sanskrit University at Varanasi, where he specialized in Mahayana Buddhism (often teaching in Sanskrit).

For the next 14 years, Guenther lived and taught in India and began to have contact with the living traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. During the summer breaks he would travel to the mountain regions of Himachal Pradesh, where he studied with KagyŸ lamas and learned about Vajrayana Buddhism, particularly Mahamudra. He told me he often had to cross dangerous mountain streams to gain access to the rocky heights of his teachers’ remote hermitages. He usually had to haul paper up there so he could copy by hand the precious manuscripts he studied.

When the Tibetan Diaspora began in 1959, Guenther had the opportunity to study with lamas from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He developed a keen interest in the Nyingma tradition, particularly Dzogchen, and quickly gained a reputation within the Tibetan refugee community as a true spiritual friend, one who honored their cultural traditions.

The fruit of his early tantric studies was published in Varanasi as Yuganaddha: The Tantric View of Life (1952). He soon published his translation of a Tibetan manual on Mahayana Buddhism, Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation (1956), and in the ensuing year his Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma established him as a leading authority on the Pali and Sanskrit sources for “Buddhist psychology.” In 1964, he left India with his wife and two young daughters, assuming the chair of the new Far Eastern studies department in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

In North America he continued to work with Tibetan teachers, especially with Tarthang Tulku, through the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley, and with Chögyam Trungpa, through the Naropa Institute in Boulder. Beginning in 1975, his years of Dzogchen study bore fruit in the masterful translation of Longchenpa’s trilogy Kindly Bent to Ease Us. His subsequent works reflected his growing interest in systems philosophy and the new sciences (Matrix of Mystery, The Creative Vision, and From Reductionism to Creativity).

Even after retirement, Dr. Guenther continued to research and publish. In fact, he was always at work—his approach to study and research was like an aerobic workout. I fondly remember our four- to five-hour Tibetan sessions, from my days as a graduate student, and our hiking adventures in the Colorado Rockies, when he once remarked about the altitude: “The curious thing is, the higher I am the better I feel.”

Steven D. Goodman

Steven D. Goodman

Steven D. Goodman studied under the noted Buddhist scholar Herbert Guenther, receiving a PhD in Far Eastern Studies in 1984. He went on to be awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship at Rice University to study Tibetan mystical poetry. Today, he is the program director of Asian philosophies and cultures at California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. His new book is The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening. He passed away on August 3, 2020.