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A Home for the Tibetan Mind: The Legacy of Gyatsho Tshering

July 2, 2009

Phayul Wednesday, July 01, 2009
by Rebecca Novick

When the young Gyatsho Tshering approached the Tibetan government with the
idea to build a library he was told that he was crazy. "They said, 'This is
impossible. You're just dreaming.'" Tshering could see their point. "But I
am a dreamer. I just go on trying and trying."

Gyatsho Tshering (1936 - 25th June 2009) Gyatsho Tshering (1936 - 25th June
2009) It was 1967, during the early and challenging days of exile. The
re-established Tibetan government, overwhelmed and under-funded, was
struggling to provide for 100,000 traumatized and penniless refugees,
flooding over the Himalayas fleeing the Chinese occupation. But Tshering had
his sights set further than the immediate needs of food and shelter.

Tibetan Buddhist texts had been arriving in the sub-continent across Tibet's
borders since 1959-carried on the backs of these same refugees. Tshering was
profoundly impressed by how many people, only able to bring with them what
they could carry from their homes, chose to rescue dharma objects from their
altars; pechas (Buddhist texts) statues and thangkas (sacred scroll
paintings) rather than items of monetary value.

Tshering was deeply concerned that the millennium-old heritage of Tibetan
wisdom was being destroyed by Communist forces in Tibet. Inspired by the
stories of the great library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt built to house
the knowledge of the world, he wanted to create a safe repository to
preserve "the skill of the Tibetan mind." He finally took his "impossible"
dream to His Holiness the Dalai Lama who gave the project his blessing. "He
was very pleased," Tshering recalls. "He said, 'Why not? Go ahead.'"

But there were a few considerations. Firstly, there was no money. "We didn't
have any funds," said Tshering. "Not one cent. Not one penny." During visits
to the West, he would always try to bring up his vision with potential
supporters. He was repeatedly, if politely, turned down, with the
explanation that the library would be a religious rather than educational
establishment. But Tshering refused to become disheartened and he eventually
found an ally in the Catholic Church that understood the importance of
religious archives. "They were very generous," he said. After this, other
funders gradually began to come on board.

The texts that managed to survive the punishing conditions of high altitude
passes and a rugged month-long trek in the packs of Tibetans dodging Chinese
bullets, formed the library's very first collections which can still be seen
today. Manuscripts were landing on Tshering's desk battered and torn, with
missing pages and passages smudged beyond recognition from snow and rain. It
was clear that the challenges went far beyond those of cataloguing and
archiving. This was first and foremost a restoration project.

A team of the most learned Tibetan scholars was assembled-monks who had
spent decades studying in the great monastic institutions of Tibet. "It had
been part of their study to commit many of the texts to memory," said
Tshering. They worked from dawn often into the late hours of the night,
filling in the missing parts of the texts by hand with nothing but their own
memory as a reference.

Gyatsho Tshering expressed his regret that with the computer-age Tibetan
calligraphy is fast becoming a lost art. "Tibetan calligraphy has power. It
has energy. That is something that I miss. But what can we do? The times
have changed."

The manuscript restoration team lived without electricity in shacks that
before them had housed cows. "We were living hand to mouth, but we didn't
care. We spent whatever we had that day even though we didn't know what we
would eat tomorrow." Lamp oil was considered more precious than food. "Every
day was a day of excitement for us because every day we discovered a new and
rare manuscript."

Gyatsho Tshering's most vivid memory of that time was the support that he
and his team received from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. "He would personally
take the time to come down and encourage each one of us."

The construction of the library building began in 1969 and took four years
to complete and became known as the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
But just as it was mostly the contributions of ordinary Tibetans who filled
its shelves, it was the contribution of the poorest and most disenfranchised
Tibetans that stood out in its construction.

In those days, many Tibetans were literally carving out a living on road
crews in the harsh North Indian mountain states, sleeping and eating in
dust-filled tents, and earning a meager 3 rupees a day. Many of these
workers put aside one rupee and donated it to the construction of the
library. Others even took unpaid leave to come to Dharamsala to volunteer as
laborers on the building project. Said Tshering "They built it as if it was
for themselves. That was very moving."

As the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives began to gain international
recognition acquisitions started to arrive not just from Tibet but also from
Mongolia, Germany, and America. Private individuals began donating their
personal collections, including a number of gifts that had been given to
them or their family members by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Tibetan scholars
and academics from around the world began making regular visits to
Dharamsala to the library that was becoming renowned for its rich and
comprehensive collection of authentic Tibetan texts. Tshering recalled
people like Jeffrey Hopkins, Robert Thurman, Stephen Batchelor, Alan Wallace
and Alexander Berzin who went on to become seminal figures in the Tibetan
Buddhist movement in the West. "I remember every one of them," he said

Today, the Tibetan Library houses the entire collections of Tengyur and
,i>Kangyur-the complete Indian commentaries on the Buddha's sutras and the
Tibetan Buddhist canon respectively. Every evening you can find Tibetans,
generally the older ones, ambling clockwise around the building, rolling
prayer beads through their fingers. "Wherever you find the collection of
Tengyur and ,i>Kangyur, you will find people doing circumambulation around
them," noted Tshering. "Whenever they feel sad, whenever there is someone
sick in their home, or when they want to find consolation, they go to the
library and pray."

"The library was a pioneering institution in many ways. We started a thangka
painting school, a woodcarving school, a philosophy school. We had the cream
of the scholars. Each one of them was a specialist in some field of Tibetan
learning." The original idea was for the library to house only written
works, but Tibetans were arriving with so many statues, and other religious
artifacts that Tshering saw the need to also incorporate a museum. "To
outsiders it's a museum, but to Tibetans it's something living."

Tibetans going back and forth from Tibet in the 60s and 70s were often
requested to look out for missing parts of key manuscripts that made up the
monastic curriculum, and without which monks could not complete their
studies. Although they risked arrest and imprisonment for bringing such
items out of Tibet, to Tshering's knowledge no one ever got caught. He
believed that there are still many important texts and documents languishing
in drawers and file cabinets in Tibet, some that could prove politically
"sensitive" for the Chinese authorities who have no interest in seeing them
made public.

Born in 1936 in Gangtok, Sikkim, a country where Tibetan Buddhism dominates,
Gyatsho Tshering grew up with a love of Tibetan culture, particularly its
literature. "The attitude of the Tibetan people towards Buddhist philosophy
was very different to now," he observed. The generation of which he was a
part, was in his view motivated by a purity of purpose and a sense of
altruism that's becoming harder to find in the Tibetan community. "Nobody
thought to extend their hand to outside help," he said. "We all thought, if
we don't do it, who will do it for us?"

Tshering served as the director of the Tibetan Library from up until 1998,
after which he moved to the United States because he said, "I needed some
rest". He also wanted to have more time for his personal spiritual
practice-an ironic reversal of the West-East trail that has led legions of
Westerners to seek spiritual opportunities in Asia.

"I feel very satisfied that I was able to do something that was very much of
benefit not only to Tibetans but also to people around the world. I'm a very
lucky person in that I led a useful life. I have no regrets. When I die, I
will die in peace."

Gyatsho Tshering passed away at the age of 73 on 25th June 2009.
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