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Remembering Gene Smith
It is a daunting task, trying to capture a sublime being on the page. In fact, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, if someone is to compose a namtar—a sacred biography—the writer must have certain enlightened qualities equal to that of his subject. This is not a namtar, and I have none of his qualities, but nonetheless I will make an attempt to describe E. Gene Smith of Ogden, Utah, a very great man.
On the day Gene Smith passed away, December 16, 2010, the news reached me at a monastery in a remote part of east Bhutan. Even out there in the hills, the monks knew of him and felt the great loss—his reputation is golden and far-reaching like the sun. Please allow me some hyperbole here. Gene, subtle and humble, did things with his precious human life that cannot be overstated. Many say that he was the man who saved Tibetan Buddhism. And yet when I try to recall his face, I see him sitting at a cocktail party with a Sarah Palin mask perched on his head and a goofy, semi-toothless grin on his face. Gene didn’t take himself too seriously, but his life’s work has had enormous and serious consequence.
In January 2009, I accompanied Gene to Bodhgaya, India. It was his first trip back to the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment in more than 30 years and would be his last. He was on his way to accept an award from the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Twenty-six heads of the sect, representing over 300 monasteries, had convened and decided to present Gene with a lifetime achievement award for his work in serving Tibetan Buddhism through preserving and making accessible the literature of the tradition. The nominating committee included Chatral Rinpoche, Tsetul Rinpoche, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, Dzogchen Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Tarthang Tulku, Ladakh Choje Tulku, Sogyal Rinpoche, and many other masters of meditation. These lamas don’t routinely act with such coordinated unity. Gene was “terribly moved” by the news and graciously accepted their invitation to the ceremony, though his health was already failing.
Gene and I had arranged to meet at the new domestic terminal at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. I found him seated in front of McDonald’s near a group of Buddhist pilgrims and Indian businessmen, reading Sarah Vowell’s book The Wordy Shipmates, about an entirely different set of pilgrims, the Puritans who set out to establish the American colonies. He was sipping black coffee, looking ordinary as ever, very professorial with his wispy hair and tweedy jacket. His conventional exterior— the lumbering posture, the silly grin, the shuffling walk—seemed a masterful disguise to veil the highly accomplished bodhisattva that he really was.
He would have swatted me with his book if he had ever caught me saying something like that. Gene was humble beyond humble, humble without trying. I loved that he was reading American history and not some esoteric text. He was famously well-rounded in his interests, which made him all the more accessible. His sisters said that he had mastered the Romance languages and Latin by the end of high school and then spent his tuition money on parties.
A dense fog rolled in, shutting down all rail and air transport throughout the region, delaying our flight. It was a boon and a blessing to have three extra hours of his company all to myself, to listen to his amazing tales. Gene knew everything about everything, especially Buddhism–– not just Vajrayana but all schools, all sects, all forms. I only had to ask one leading question, and then out would come his fascinating yarns about lamas and yogis. At Gene’s memorial at St. John the Divine in New York City in February, anthropologist Charles Ramble recalled the first time he met Gene: three hours into a meeting that was meant to last half an hour, he was still “pestering” Gene with questions. He said all subsequent meetings for the next 20 years had the same flavor. He, like many of us, was completely “gluttonous” for Gene’s time. It’s a good word. Gene’s brilliance, his capacity to remember and recall, his willingness to engage—it was a feast.
Finally the fog lifted, and we were packed into a plane with seats fit for the hips of a fashion model. Gene didn’t complain for one moment, not even when we were parked on the tarmac for another two hours, cramped, girded by armrests. I wanted to protect him from all this, it seemed so unsuitable. It would have been easy to get him a seat in first class if I had put on a memsahib act. Do you realize who this man is? But I looked at him with a side glance, and I knew he would never have allowed me to make a big deal. His humility had a wrathful quality. As did his generosity (my attempt to pick up the tab for our plane snacks yielded a heart-stopping look of fury). So we sat tight and I felt the weight of my mission.
Once we arrived in Bodhgaya, I scurried around like a maniac, trying to appear to be useful. In the company of Gene, I suddenly found my efficiency had evaporated like ice in the desert. I had the pull of a fruit fly. The only benefit I brought to the situation was the fact that I had a working mobile phone, which he could use to call his friend Mangaram back in Delhi. The cheerless environment of our hotel seemed to have no effect on him; he carried the dignified, leisurely air of a retired general. Several other hotel guests detected that there was something special about him. There were quick bows and introductions and communication gaps.
I was itching to tell them the story.
In 1965—after completing an advanced study of Pali and Sanskrit at Leiden University in the Netherlands—Gene Smith moved to New Delhi on a Ford Foundation fellowship to study with living exponents of all of the Tibetan Buddhist and Bönpo (the religion of pre-Buddhist Tibet) traditions. During this time, Gene lived in a grand house as guest of the Indian Secretary of Education, Dr. Prem Kirpal. “I had become a member of his family,” Gene said. Which is not surprising: Gene was like everyone’s favorite uncle.
After the conclusion of the fellowship, his teacher Dezhung Rinpoche, whom he had met at the University of Washington, advised him to remain in India and study with Geshe Lobsang Lungtok (Ganden Changtse), Drukpa Thoosay Rinpoche, Khenpo Noryang, and the teacher who would become his chief guru, H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. So Gene stayed in India, and in 1968 the Library of Congress approached him to work at their New Delhi office.