“Karma, I guess”: The American lama who saved Tibetan literature


Extraordinary man, extraordinary mission.

Yesterday’s email brought news of a death, and a name that won’t be known to many outside Tibet. E. Gene Smith, a Utah-born Mormon who traced his lineage to founder Joseph Smith, became a rebel of a different kind — a man charged with an extraordinary mission: to save the Tibetan canon, almost single-handedly.  He has been called the greatest Western scholar of Tibetan literature, the most important person behind the Tibetan collections in university libraries across the U.S.  In India, he is regarded as an important lama. Lisa Schubert, who had been a director at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, which had housed his collection, called him “a savior of civilization.”

He died at his Manhattan home, of complications related to diabetes, in December.  He was 74.  A public memorial service is planned for Saturday, February 12, at 2 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  (The New York Times obituary is here.)

Here’s what I wrote about the mild-mannered hero on March 12, 2004, for the Times Literary Supplement:

… when a Tibetan lama, the scholar Deshung Rinpoche, came to teach at the University of Washington in 1960, Smith converted to Buddhism and studied Tibetan – linguistically an endangered species since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s. A few years after Smith began studying the Tibetan canon, the lama suggested that he leave for India, to find and publish the most important works of Tibetan literature before they were lost forever.

The lama’s charge has been Smith’s life work. He became an indefatigable collector, eventually gathering well over 12,000 books of poetry, medicine, history, biography, and, principally, Buddhist religious texts, including hundreds of books long missing and presumed destroyed. His collection, spanning ten centuries, is said to be the biggest in the West, if not the world. Some of the titles: the funeral rites of Kublai Khan, on Tibetan wood blocks, printed sometime between 1294 and 1304. A complete set of the biographies of all the Dalai Lamas, from the fourteenth century to the twentieth. Or the tales of Gesar, King of Ling.

With Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche in 2008

The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center has guaranteed the library a kind of immortality by digitizing it.  About 14,000 volumes — more than seven million pages — are available on its website. (Some film clips from a documentary about his efforts are here.)  The site gets more than 3,000 visitors daily.

But the founding of the library was anything but high tech:

The way he did it was “absolutely legendary”, according to a colleague. He had to gain the trust of monastic officials and others. He consulted the Dalai Lama. He was respectful and remarkably sensitive. Had he not taken on the task, it’s unlikely that it would ever have happened. No one else could have done it. The amount of material involved is staggering, says Smith. More Buddhist literature exists in Tibetan than in any other language. For instance, the Kanjur, or words of the Lord Buddha, takes up 102 volumes, not counting commentaries and sub-commentaries. Moreover, each Tibetan sect has its own traditions, its own literature.

Until 2001, this astonishing collection was housed in Smith’s six-room duplex in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Stacks and stacks of Tibetan books covered surfaces and floors in every room but the kitchen. (He slept on a bed sandwiched between bookshelves.) “I have no kids”, the genial collector had told a reporter. “I didn’t have to send them to college. So really, all the money went into books.”

What led him on the gentle, modest, and slightly rotund scholar on his daunting quest?  “Karma, I guess,” he said.

gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha…

Postscript on 2/10:  Still thinking about Gene Smith.  He was a lesson for me in forbearance.  Certainly, as a firsthand witness to the destruction of Tibetan culture, he could have been harsh, but he only reminded me mildly that the Chinese had destroyed their own culture as well.

This paragraph of my piece had attracted the most attention:

We often talk about the extinction of languages and cultures; obviously, the computer era offers unprecedented opportunities to reverse this process, and the remarkably enterprising and industrious Tibetans may show us how. They may be about to present us with a linguistic miracle on the order of the twentieth-century resurrection of Hebrew as a living, spoken language. Hebrew provides another analogue: the indestructibility of the reproduced, written word is what kept the culture of the Jews, alone in their region, alive and intact for millennia, especially since their strict interpretation of the Decalogue prohibited more perishable kinds of art, such as sculpture and painting. Only one copy of the Torah had to be rescued for an unlimited number to be reproduced from it, all alike in literary value to the original, in spite of conquest and displacement. If all that exists in Tibetan literature is online and downloadable, it becomes virtually indestructible – unlike the fragile, ethereal tangkas that line the walls around Smith’s offices, where electronic reproduction can only give a whiff of the original.

I am less confident than I was than about the immortality of an online culture.

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2 Responses to ““Karma, I guess”: The American lama who saved Tibetan literature”

  1. Ray Pun Says:

    Gene was an amazing person; he offered so much wisdom, advice and suggestions to anyone interested in Tibetan studies/research. He lived in an extraordinary life. I had the honor of meeting up with him one afternoon for lunch to discuss the future of Tibetan collections in American libraries. It was a very fruitful discussion that I will never forget.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Ray, Your comment got lost in a spam folder, so pardon the delay in posting. Thanks for offering your comments (and any elaboration would be welcome!) – I, too, will never forget my afternoon with him.