Filed in Tibetan, History

The Man who Saved Tibetan Buddhism

Remembering Gene SmithNoa Jones

Wisdom Collection

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The job presented an enormous opportunity for Gene, which he turned into his life’s work. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard set entire libraries of sacred Tibetan texts on fire. The loss was staggering. Some libraries took weeks to burn. Not only Buddhist texts went up in flames but also encyclopedias detailing ancient cultural practices for everything from medicine and science to ethics and aesthetics. What wasn’t destroyed had to be kept hidden. Rare texts were buried, tucked into sleeves, wrapped in burlap, stored in damp boxes, sunk in rivers, and otherwise dispersed in the chaos. Gene wanted to see these surviving cultural treasures collected, restored, preserved, and catalogued. His new position at the Library of Congress gave him the means to do it.

As a U.S. government official, Gene received the keys to a flat in the Golf Links neighborhood, and he opened his door to the Tibetan diaspora. Though his official duty was to oversee the completion of computer romanization schemes for various Asian languages, he was keen to use his position for an even greater good. He skillfully employed U.S. Public Law 480, also known as the Food for Peace Act, to fund a text preservation program and immediately put out the word that he was paying top dollar for the right to copy Tibetan texts.

The refugee community began to come out of the woodwork—not just Tibetans but Sikkimese, Bhutanese, and Nepalis—with their precious pages, often just a fraction of original collections. They would bring the original manuscripts and blockprints to Gene. If the text was not available in a Western collection, he would purchase as many as 20 copies. This would allow the publishers, often lamas, to print many more copies, which would be distributed to the Tibetan community for the cost of the paper. The rest of the copies went to the Library of Congress and other academic libraries participating in the program.

Meanwhile, Gene’s house became a lama crash pad. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche stayed with him whenever he came to New Delhi. “I collaborated with the Bhutanese Embassy on such visits because my house was neutral when there were political problems between the Tibetans and the Bhutanese,” Gene told me. “I would turn the house over to Rinpoche and his party. It was such an incredible honor.”

The lamas were impressed and even a little awed by Gene and his knowledge, not just in Tibetan but in Sanskrit and Pali as well. “Some Tibetans used to say that he must have been a Tibetan in a past life and come back as this white man,” said Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, who was a young tulku living in India at the time. “There was one Lama Phutse who was very well known for his grammar, and even he was intimidated by Gene.”

Though he eventually left India, Gene’s campaign to catalogue Tibetan texts went on for the next 25 years. In 1985 he was transferred to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he continued his work in text preservation. “I was quite happy to be transferred, because I had developed too large a network of responsibilities in India as a government official,” Gene recalled. “But I could easily return to India to see my teachers from nearby Jakarta.” In 1994 he was assigned to the Middle Eastern Office in Cairo. In 1997 he took early retirement from the U.S. Library of Congress and moved to New York.

But he didn’t stop working. In 1999, Gene and his friends founded the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center with the goal of creating the world’s most comprehensive digital library of Tibetan Buddhist and cultural literature. All the texts that he had helped save were now to be scanned, formatted, and made available to anyone who wanted them. Since its founding, TBRC has digitally archived more than seven million pages of Tibetan texts. Now monks from any Tibetan Buddhist lineage— from even the smallest monasteries—can plug in a TBRC hard drive loaded with Buddhist texts and access their most profound practices and teachings. I’ve witnessed the delivery of these hard drives—a little box that contains the entire canon, passed into the hands of an abbot. It takes a moment for the monks to realize what a treasure it is, and then a wave of appreciation washes over them. Those moments are what Gene’s life was about. “If it wasn’t for his effort, we would have lost so many texts,” Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche said. “It’s had a domino effect on the preservation of dharma. If these texts weren’t available, then we wouldn’t have the benefit of study, initiations, and transmission. He has singlehandedly done this.”

Just weeks before he passed away, Gene went to Nepal to meet Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche to discuss their latest collaboration, a project called 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, which is putting in place a 100-year plan to translate the Kanjyur and Tengyur (the Tibetan Buddhist canon) for the first time. It’s a visionary project designed to preserve the authentic buddhadharma even through the darkest aeons.

It was because of this vision that the Nyingmapa were honoring Gene in Bodhgaya. The ceremony was scheduled for the afternoon of January 22. The day opened with a chill, a fog, an inscrutably white sky. Amid a throng of pilgrims, we circumambulated the temple, led by Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche. More than 13,000 monks and nuns were chanting the Manjushrinama-samgiti as we walked, 160 verses and mantras of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Then Orgyen Tobgyal interrupted the chanting to introduce Gene. Thousands of eyes squinted with curiosity. Who is this white man? Why are they interrupting the puja? But as Rinpoche explained who this great man was, their curiosity was satisfied, and a respectful silence was followed by genuine applause.

Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche joined us on the west side of the temple, under the Bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment. As thousands more watched, Rabjam Rinpoche presented Gene with a giant bronze gong, the Sambhota Award. A long line of lamas, tulkus, and khenpos approached with white silk scarves, placing them around Gene’s neck one by one. Several stopped the procession to personally thank him for all he had done. Gene listened closely, always interested to hear how the TBRC system was being used, if there were any glitches, if they needed anything else from him. By the end of the procession he looked like the abominable snowman, the lumbering walk, the hundreds of white scarves draping his body. It was hot; the fog had burned off, and the sun was beating down.

I scrambled ahead to see if there was a place to sit at the next stop. All I could think about was how the great man’s shoes were on the other side of the temple, and how there were so many steps to climb back up to the outer kora, and how Gene had probably had enough of the pomp. When we finally connected with our footwear and made it to the rest area, Gene looked exhausted and pale. I wanted to make it better, but there was nothing I could do. As we parted the next day, I felt the awkward grasping feeling I get when I say goodbye to my guru. It was the last time I saw him.

I selfishly wish that Gene had been more selfish, that he had taken better care of his physical health so that we could have all benefited from his presence just a bit longer.

Noa Jones writes fiction and nonfiction. Her article “Where the Buddha Woke Up” (Tricycle Summer 2010) was selected for Best Spiritual Writing 2012 (Penguin Books).

Image 1: Gene Smith at his home in New Delhi, India, in 1981 (Photograph © 1981 Rosalind Solomon,
Image 2: Photograph by Sean O’Dwyer
Image 3: Photograph by Amy Johnston

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