Kazi Dawa Samdup, and Tibet in the Twilight Zone

Kazi Dawa Samdup and Walter Evans-Wentz, photographed circa 1919.

Kazi Dawa Samdup and Walter Evans-Wentz, photographed circa 1919. Wikipedia

By Laden Tshering Samdup

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 14 November 2016

In the first half of the 20th century CE, the unthinkable happened: Tibet was invaded by Communist China, and this “Heaven on earth” was transformed into Dante’s Inferno. Tibetan people and Tibetan civilization were subjected to untold cruelty and miseries which continue to this day. Nobody, least of all the Tibetans, could have foreseen such a disastrous turn of events. But someone somewhere was aware that such a thing would happen, and “His invisible hand” was already working overtime in the fringe areas of Tibet to ensure that all was not lost.

It is uncanny and inexplicable that just a few decades prior to the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Tsampa Norbu, a Bhutanese Kagyu guru, should be struck with a strong desire to acquaint the West with Tibetan Buddhism, a thinking contrary to the Lhasa fiat of keeping Tibetan Buddhism a closely-guarded secret, and a transgression and defiance unheard of in the Lamaist order. Furthermore, the Lama was an ascetic living in a remote region of Bhutan, was not conversant with any European language, and perhaps had no idea whatsoever about the West.

Kazi Dawa Samdup [1868-1922] was of the Guru Tashi clan of Minayak House of the Kham region of Tibet which settled in Sikkim since 13th century CE. Samdup would get an opportunity to be educated in Darjeeling and attain the mastery of the rare combination of three languages — Tibetan, Sanskrit and English — and he would become a disciple of Tsampa Norbu. It was to him that Tsampa Norbu delegated the responsibility of dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism to the West.

“The invisible hand” also reached to far-off America, where Dr Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz [1878-1965) of Stanford University became the third Chosen One in this surreal Game of Throne. Evans-Wentz was made to leave USA for the UK and Oxford University to delve into Oriental Studies. He developed a strong desire to unlock the secrets of Tibetan Buddhism and as a result arrived in Darjeeling in India in the year 1919. There, as fate would have it, he struck up an acquaintance with Kazi Dawa Samdup. The two collaborated, and their first work was published by Oxford University Press in 1927: The Tibetan Book of the Dead; or, The after-death experiences on the Bardo plane, an English translation of the Tibetan funeral liturgy Bardo Thodol. This book took the western literary world by storm as the first reliable translation of Tibetan Buddhist scripture. Its substance appealed, and created a sensation in Western intellectual circles. By 1950, it had been retranslated and republished in almost all European languages. It received acceptance in the scientific community when Dr Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and founder of Analytical Psychology, wrote a preface to its second edition and admitted that he found inspiration for his work from this book.

Other groundbreaking literary works of Dawa Samdup with Evans Wentz and others include: Tibet’s Great Yogi, Milarepa: A Biography from the Tibetan; Being the Jetsün-Kahbum or Biographical History of Jetsün-Milarepa, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, or Seven Books of Wisdom of the Great Path, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation; or, The method of realizing nirvana through knowing the mind, and Shrichakrasambhara Tantra: A Buddhist Tantra, edited by Kazi Dawa Samdup, published by Sir John Woodroffe.

Kazi Dawa Samdup went on to play other notable parts in Tibetan history. He was interpreter to His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama when he visited India in 1910. He continued with his labour of love for Tibetan language, and in 1919 published an English-Tibetan dictionary, and in the latter part of his life worked as a professor of Tibetan language at Calcutta University. He died in Calcutta in 1923.

Pragmatically speaking, these pioneering Classics of Tibetan Buddhism written by Samdup and Wentz truly prepared the groundwork for reception by the world of the Tibetan exodus that would follow a few years later. These works of Samdup and Wentz had already internationally acquainted them as wise and compassionate people, to be treated with respect and reverence and maybe, thereby, to a great extent helped the Tibetan Diaspora to be accepted by people of different castes, creeds, and religions, and to settle in places all over the world. Today, Tibetan monasteries are found in every corner of the world. Millions of foreigners have adopted Tibetan Buddhism, making it a religion not restricted to the Himalayas and Tibetans only, but of the world and mankind. The work of Norbu, Samdup, Wentz, and “the invisible hand” is truly amazing.

As I write this article, I am trying to adopt a rational approach in drawing conclusions, but however hard I may try I am simply unable to dismiss the above-mentioned chain of historical events and timings as mere coincidence. My mind continuously urges me to enter the twilight zone and believe that there is after all something more than meets the eye. A belief that there is a “Compassionate Being” beyond our dimensions that Tibetan Buddhism is able to evoke and please, whose “invisible hands” protect us. At the same time many questions and doubts linger in my mind, and I draw solace from the words “have faith”.

Times have changed, and the then helpless Tibetans exiles have now come of age and garnered the strength and wherewithal to make a fight back. The Chinese government’s savagery has been curtailed substantially compared to the past, and they are able to carry out their program inside Tibet only surreptiously. And even then, they are made to face vehement protests of the outside world orchestrated mainly by the Tibetan Diaspora and their well-wishers. Liberation of Tibet is surging ahead slowly but surely through the path of non-violence with minimum damage.

It is said that Shalngo Nimpenjo, father of Kazi Dawa Samdup, was the Abbot of Ging Gonpa, which was originally based in the Chowrasta area of Darjeeling. But Nimpenjo was forced to shift his Gonpa from there by the then British colonial rulers due to complaints by the Christian Missionaries that their schools were being disturbed by the noise and din of the Gonpa. Nimpenjo felt so humiliated over the incident that he met with an untimely death. So Kazi Dawa Samdup must have obtained a lot of personal satisfaction from being instrumental in giving so much international fame and acclaim to Tibetan Buddhism. His, perhaps, was the last laugh. We await ours.


Copyright © 2016 Laden Tshering Samdup Published in Tibet Sun Posted in Features » Tags: , , ,