The Brilliant Scholar and the Scurrilous Letter

Once upon a time in Tibet, back in the 14th century…

…there was a brilliant young scholar called Ngagi Wangpo. He was one of the star students at the great monastic college of Sangpu. Ngagi Wangpo had decided to become a monk at the age of twelve, having lost his mother at eight and then his father at eleven. Studying at Sangpu, he quickly mastered a curriculum which included logic and the philosophical complexities of the Madhyamaka.

But his time at college was marred by the small-mindedness of his fellow students. Sangpu was dominated by students from eastern Tibet: Khampas. True, Sangpu was in Central Tibet, but Kham has always provided a high proportion of Tibet’s greatest scholars, and this was reflected in the student body at Sangpu. As a Central Tibetan, Ngagi Wangpo felt that he was treated as an outsider. So at the age of twenty-seven (in the year 1334) he decided to drop out. As he walked away from the college where he’d spent the last eight years, Ngagi Wangpo met an inquisitive monk who asked him why he was leaving.

When he told the monk how the Khampas at university had made his life a misery, the monk sympathized and encouraged Ngagi Wangpo to write something to publicize the behaviour of the Khampa students. Thinking this an amusing idea, Ngagi Wangpo took a single sheet of paper and filled both sides with a satirical poem. The poem was written as an alphabetical exercise with one line for each of the letters of the Tibetan alphabet. These were the first five lines:

Alike to the demons who roam the land of Kalinga,
Bandits of this snowy land are the Khampa tribe;
Come where they may, they tear the place down.
Desire, hatred and pride are the lands they roam;
Everywhere the clamorous Khampas gather there’s trouble.

ka ling yul du srin po rgyu ba bzhin//
kha ba can du chom rkun khams pa’i rigs//
ga ru gnas kyang grong rdal ‘joms byed pa’i//
nga rgyal chags sdang rgyu ba gzigs lags sam//
ca co’i rang bzhin nyon mongs khams pa’i tshogs//

At the end of the page he signed off with a brief colophon: “This was affixed to Sangpu Neutok by Samyépa Ngagi Wangpo. May it cause happiness to increase!” He then gave the page to the monk, who took it to Sangpu and pinned to the  throne in the main assembly hall. When it was found it caused quite a stir, but Ngagi Wangpo was already far away. (Those familiar with European history may be reminded of Martin Luther nailing his “ninety-five theses” to the door of the church at Wittenberg some 200 years later.)

After turning his back on a lifetime of study, Ngagi Wangpo adopted the wandering life, dedicating himself to meditation practice and looking for a guru. His search came to an end when he met a yogin called Kumaradza, who was living on a mountainside with a large group of disciples in flimsy tents. Ngagi Wangpo was accepted as a disciple and joined this motley crew of dedicated meditators, who pitched camp and moved to a new home every few months. Over the years that followed he learned the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) at the feet of Kumaradza. In the end he surpassed his own master, and wrote the definitive works on the Great Perfection. Ngagi Wangpo became one of the most famous Tibetans of all time, better known by his academic title Longchen Rabjampa, or for short, Longchenpa.

*  *  *

Now, you might think it unlikely that a rather complicated poem like this, not only constrained by an alphabetic conceit but written in nine-syllable verses containing a wealth of literary allusions, could be dashed off in the way the story implies. But let’s not forget who we’re talking about here: one of the greatest poet-philosopher-mystics in history (and not just the history of Tibet). One thing his voluminous writings show is that writing inspired poetry was second nature to Longchenpa. I for one don’t doubt that, spurred on by the frustrations that had just led him to drop out of Sangpu, Longchenpa could have sat down and written these verses in very little time at all.

I think we can also take the poem in the light-hearted manner in which it was intended, and remember that it came from a specific time in Longchenpa’s life. If regional tensions do exist in Tibet, as they do everywhere, there are also ways of transcending them. Since the transcendence of all boundaries is so eloquently expressed in Longchenpa’s other writings, I’ll conclude with a few verses from a poem that he dedicated to his guru Kumaradza:

I am a buddha, pure from the very beginning,
And so are the multitude of living beings in existence.
The terms “knowledge” and “ignorance”
Are both untrue, nothing but dream and illusion;
The nonduality of true and untrue, that’s the state of a buddha.

bdag dang sna tshogs srid pa’i sems can rnams//
ye nas rnam dag sangs rgyas yin pa la//
rig dang ma rig zhes bya’i tha snyad kyis//
srid par ‘khul pa rmi lam sgyu ma tsam//
‘khrul dang ma ‘khrul gnyis med rgyal ba’i sku//

*  *  *

Tibetan texts:

Rkyen la khams ‘dus pa ka kha sum cu, in Gsung thor bu, vol.I, pp.210-211. TBRC ref. W23504. Scanned from a reprint from the Derge blocks. (Quotation from p.210)

Bla ma dam pa kum ma rā dza la rtogs pa phul ba zhes bya ba bzhugs, in Gsung thor bu, vol.II, pp.352–357. (Quotation from p.353).


On the story of Longchenpa’s leaving Sangpu and writing the satirical verses, see:

Dudjom Rinpoche. 1991. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated and edited by G. Dorje and M. Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom Publications. (vol.1, pp.578-579)

And on the fascinating history of Sangpu, its abbots and colleges, see:

Leonard van der Kuijp. 1987. “The Monastery of Gsang-phu Ne’u-thog and Its Abbatial Succession from ca. 1073 to 1250.” Berliner Indologische Studien 3: 103-127.

British Barbarians, Tibetan Prophecies

You probably know about the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. Quite a few books have been written about it, though with the honorable exception of Patrick French’s biography of Younghusband, they tend to stick to the voluminous official and unofficial accounts published in English. This is a pity, because there’s no doubt that many Tibetans had strong feelings about Younghusband’s sacking of Gyantse and invasion of Lhasa. This came home to me forcefully when I read the Nechung Oracle’s pronouncement on the invasion while looking through the biography of the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso.

This massive biography, in two volumes, was written by Purchog Rinpoché (the tulku of the more famous Purchogpa who was the 13th Dalai Lama’s principle tutor). As a fairly traditional namtar or sacred biography it mostly deals with religious topics, but a foreign army marching into Lhasa could hardly be ignored. The biography tells us how  the Dalai Lama and a group of trusted advisers and religious teachers fled the advance of the British, leaving the throne-holder of Ganden monastery to negotiate a treaty.

One of the people fleeing with the Dalai Lama was the Nechung Oracle, a monk chosen as the medium or oracle for the deity Dorjé Drakden, who was consulted before any important decision was taken. I think the oracle at the time of the invasion was Orgyen Thinley Chöpel, a Nyingma monk from Central Tibet’s biggest Nyingma monastery, Mindrolling. (An interesting figure in his own right: in his youth he had travelled to Eastern Tibet, where he met one of the greatest scholars of the nineteenth century, Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo, and received from him a statue of Padmasambhava which was later housed in the Jokhang.)

Once the Dalai Lama, the Nechung Oracle, and the rest of the court-in-exile were a safe distance from Lhasa, the oracle was consulted, and he spoke in emotional terms of the invasion:

Urged on by spirits and demons,
The British, with their false God, their wealth and manpower,
Came to this Snowy Land surrounded by mountains
With their barbaric army.
These events, the like of which I’ve never seen before
Have broken the heart of this old devil.

The sense of shock and outrage felt by the Tibetans at the invasion of their sacred land is striking. The oracle had more to say, but I won’t translate any more of the speech here. I’ll put the full text in Tibetan below, and if you’d like to try your hand at translating more of it, please do, and let me know how you get on!

*  *   *

The better-known English-language sources on the Younghusband Mission do (it must be said) give us a lot more of the details behind the invasion. These sources include Younghusband’s telegrams to Curzon which were recorded in the “Blue Book” of official correspondence. The telegrams show Younghusband’s hawkish tendency and his frustration with the obstacles thrown into his path by the Dalai Lama. He writes:

The real opposition we are encountering is that of the Dalai Lama and his followers, the monks at Lhasa, who declare that they are concerned for the preservation of their religion, in other words of their priestly influence by which the Tibetans are at present strangled. The influence of the Chinese has vanished completely, the present weak Ambam being confronted with a young and headstrong Dalai Lama; nor is it likely to be revived when the new Ambam arrives at Lhasa (which he is expected to do in the next few days) as he is not supported by Chinese troops. To influence the Dalai Lama, therefore, we must rely on our own efforts. (Further Papers Relating to Tibet, p.1: telegram of 4th February 1904)

As a good imperialist, Younghusband suggests that his is a moral mission as well as a political one, a mission to liberate the Tibetans from oppression. After this, and many more telegrams, Younghusband got the permission to proceed on to Gyantse, and then as it became clear that the Tibetans had no intention of negotiating, to Lhasa itself. On the 13th July, Lord Curzon telegrammed the Secretary of State thus:

To-morrow the Mission will commence advance to Lhasa… We are authorising Younghusband to secure the signature of the Dalai Lama to Convention embodying terms finally approved, and to sign it himself, subject to ratification by His Majesty’s government. (Further Papers Relating to Tibet, p.31: telegram of 13th July 1904)

Naturally, the Dalai Lama had different ideas. As the British Army approached Lhasa, he decided to escape. His biographer explains his decision to flee Lhasa, stating that if he met with the British, peace terms would be made according to their discretion, and the rule of Tibet would be taken over by the British. He goes on to say that the Dalai Lama’s other reason for leaving Lhasa was to go and consult with the emperor of China — but in fact the Dalai Lama travelled to Mongolia, sending his trusted envoy Dorjiev to seek the help of the Russians, before travelling on to Kumbum monastery and then to Wutaishan, not arriving in Beijing until 1907.

*  *  *

As for Younghusband, after securing the trading agreements that had been the original reason for invading Lhasa, he and his army swiftly returned to India. In the next few months the British government (many of whom had opposed the invasion from the start) quickly took the treaty apart, reducing many of the gains Younghusband had fought for. As representatives of the Manchu court arrived post-haste in London and protested that the Tibetans were not allowed to sign treaties on without Chinese permission, a new treaty was drawn up, ratified by China and Britain (it was, of course, entirely ignored by the Tibetans).

The Younghusband Mission instilled a lasting fear among the rulers of China that the permeability of Tibet’s border with India could leave China wide open to attack. The weak and bankrupt Manchu court had been happy to ignore Tibet for the last century, but in the wake of Younghusband’s invasion they made Tibet one of their main strategic priorities. In 1908, mere weeks after the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa, a Chinese army occupied the city, and the Dalai Lama fled again, this time to India.

According to the 13th Dalai Lama’s biography, this was all prophesied by Padmasambava. The previous Dalai Lama (the 12th) Thrinley Gyatso is said to have received the prophecy directly from the Lotus Born himself. Padmasambhava told the 12th Dalai Lama that unless he took a wife, he would die young (he did), and  predicted the rebirth of the next Dalai Lama. He then spoke these words:

The king will roam foreign lands and a foreign army will come to Tibet;
You the ruler of Tibet will travel to the country of China,
And the ruler of China will send the Chinese army to Tibet.

*  *  *


1. Thub bstan rgya mtsho’i rnam thar (written in 1940, published in India in the 1950s). TBRC id: W3087.
2. The Blue Book, or, Cabinet and other confidential papers relating to Tibet, 27 February 1903 – 26 April 1905. B.P.13/41.(13.)
3. Patrick French. 1994 Younghusband: The Last Imperial Adventurer. London: HarperCollins.
4. Charles Allen. 2004. Duel in the Snows: The True Story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. London: John Murray.

*  *  *


1. The Nechung Oracle Lobsang Namgyal (1894-1945), from the Tibetan Album (who also have a brief biography). Note that this is not the Nechung Oracle who was consulted in 1904.
2. “A British outpost in Tibet watches for reinforcements” (Getty Images, retrieved from this BBC page on the Younghusband Mission).

Tibetan texts

The Nechung Oracles words, from the biography of the 13th Dalai Lama, vol.I, f.395a.1 (the translated section is between the asterisks):

hrī: slob dpon phyag na pad+mo yi//
sku tshe mi ‘gyur rdo rje’i khrir//
ngoms par bzhugs pa bka’ drin che//
*dam sri ‘byung pos rgyud bskul te//
lha log dbyin ji mi nor dpung//
gangs ris bskor ba’i kha ba’i ljongs//
hang shed dpung ngos ‘di nyid kyang//
mtshungs med kyi bya gzhag ‘di ‘dra la//
‘gyur srid na ‘dre rgan tsi t+ta ‘gas//*
‘di ‘dra rigs tsam rigs tsam yang//
nged dmar nag gnyis po sri zhu la//
‘bral med kyis mi mngon dbyings nas kyang//
snying dum bur gyur pa’i las ‘dra zhing//
yin kyang don g.yar dam rdo rje’i rgya kha nas//
‘gyur med kyi ‘phrin las ‘jug pa yang//
snga dus nas da lta’i dus ‘di bar//
bstan dang dga’ ldan chab srid//
slod dpon sku ‘phreng rim pa dang//
da lta’i slob dpon ‘di nyid bar//
sri zhu’i gnas la rgya ma grol//
mdud pa ‘doms shing ‘phrin las la//
nyin mtshams yug tu sku’i grib bzhin//
‘grogs pa’i ‘phrin las zhus zin na//
da dung de dang de mtshungs pa//
sri zhu’i bya gzhan phra rags rnams//
sngar bzhin ‘phrin las ‘gyur med zhu//
cung zad bstan dang sems can gyi//
dam tshig la rag bsod nams dman//

And Padmasambhava’s prophecy, from vol.I, f.384b.3-4:

rgyal po mthar ‘khyams mtha’ dmag bod la ‘ong :
bod rgyal khyod ni rgya yi yul du ‘gro :
rgya nag rgyal pos rgya dmag bod du gtong :

Buddhism and Empire IV: Converting Tibet


How were the Tibetan people converted to Buddhism? And who did the converting?

Tibetan historians always say that the conversion happened during Tibet’s imperial period. Butön, for example, says that that the Tibetans were converted to Buddhism when Songtsen Gampo set down the new royal laws based on the ten virtues of Buddhism. Other histories consider the real conversion to have been carried out a century later by the trio of Trisong Detsen (the emperor), Śāntarakṣita (the monk) and Padmasambhava (the tantric adept).

But sources that can be dated back to the time of the Tibetan emperors are not so clear about this, which has lead some modern scholars to argue that Buddhism at the time of the Tibetan Empire was a religion of the nobility, only found at the Tibetan court (see the comments to the previous post). Modern scholars have also argued that the adoption of Buddhism by Trisong Detsen and his successors was an act of international diplomacy. Buddhism, after all, was an international religion and many other major powers of the period — the Chinese empire, Central Asian city-states and Indian kingdoms — were Buddhist.

Then it would hardly have mattered whether the majority of ordinary Tibetans were Buddhists or not. The point was that Tibet should be perceived as a Buddhist country. So most Tibetans would have had little or no experience of Buddhism in the imperial period.

But was this really the case?

*  *  *

I’ve recently been looking at some of the early records of the Tibetan tsenpos to see whether any of them expressed the aspiration to convert the Tibetan people in general, and not just the nobility.

The second edict of Trisong Detsen (dated to 779 by Hugh Richardson) records the way in which Buddhism was made the state religion of Tibet. Looking very much like the official minutes of a meeting, it describes various discussion during which the court deliberated on how to establish Buddhism in Tibet, beginning with Trisong Detsen’s own account of how he was converted to Buddhism:

Then with the help of teachers of virtue I listened to the dharma was studied and the texts were brought before my eyes. Then I deliberated upon how the Buddhist religion should be practised and spread.

So, by his own account Trisong Detsen did want to spread Buddhism in Tibet. Along with that, he had some harsh things to say about the old religion:

At that time it was declared that those who followed the old Tibetan religion were getting everything wrong…

Among the old practices he disapproved of are painting your body red, casting spells on the government, and causing diseases and famine. Later the tsenpo convened another meeting, this time with lords from all over the Tibetan empire:

The minor princes under our dominion such as the Azha ruler, and the outer and inner ministers were consulted and a council was held. Together they considered in brief these things, first that trust should be put in the word of the Buddha; secondly that the example of the ancestors should be followed; and thirdly that help should be given by the power of the teachers of virtue.

So at this meeting everyone agreed to an empire-wide project establishing Buddhism, with a caveat that the traditional ways of the ancestors should be followed as well.

Further to that, a council was held about how the right path should not be changed, and how it could be increased. Thus an excellent summary of the dharma was made

What was this summary of the dharma? Earlier in the edict, Trisong Detsen explains the basics of Buddhism as the fact of impermanence, the inevitability of cause and effect (i.e. karma) and the need to practice the ten kinds of virtuous action in order to obtain a good rebirth. So the summary agreed at this meeting was probably something along those lines.

*  *  *

skarcung_colourBut Trisong Detsen’s recorded aspiration to spread the word of the Buddha has little to say about ordinary Tibetans. Let’s skip forward to the reign of Senaleg, in the early years of the 9th century. One of his edicts was preserved on the Karchung pillar, which survived almost undamaged right through to the Cultural Revolution, when it was smashed to pieces. This pillar edict is concerned with the appointment of senior Buddhist teachers to lead the religion in Tibet. It says:

But from the time when the tsenpo and his descendents are young until the time when they become rulers of the kingdom and thereafter, teachers of virtue shall be appointed from among the monks. By teaching religion as much as can be absorbed into the mind, the gate of liberation for the whole of Tibet, through the learning and practice of the dharma, shall not be closed.

Note here the apparently inclusive statement that “the whole of Tibet” will have access to the “gate of liberation.” This egalitarian sentiment is made even more clear further down the pillar:

And when for the Tibetan subjects from the nobles downwards, the gate leading to liberation is never obstructed and the faithful have been led towards liberation, from those among them who are capable there shall always be appointed abbots to carry on the teachings of the Buddha.

It seems clear enough that the phrase “from the nobles downwards” must include every Tibetan subject, however lowly.

*  *  *

S553Noble sentiments indeed, but how could such a project realistically be carried out? How do you convert a whole people to another religion? This is a big question, and I won’t try to answer it. In any case, as Matthew Kapstein has pointed out, this “conversion” took place over several centuries (or to put it another way, there were several “conversions”).

But if we travel now back to Dunhuang, from our little excursion to Central Tibet, there is a piece of evidence that might hint at how the grand project of converting the Tibetans to Buddhism was put into practice. There’s a scroll with a short summary of Buddhism in Chinese, called A Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Its colophon says (in Chinese):

At the sixth month of the water tiger year, send the letter with tsenpo’s seal of Great Tibet and the Sūtra of Ten Kinds of Virtuous Behaviour to every county, to be circulated and recited. On the 16th day of the latter eighth month this copy was made.

This scroll has been dated to 822, in the reign of the last great Buddhist Tibetan emperor, Ralpachen. I am tempted to join up the dots here from (1) the summary of the dharma made by Trisong Detsen’s council and agreed by all the local rulers of the Tibetan empire, (2) the aspiration firmly expressed by the edict of Senaleg that all Tibetans should have access to Buddhism, and (3) the order from Ralpachen’s court to send copies of a summary of the ten Buddhist virtues to every part of the realm.

Many questions remain (you might be asking yourself some already, if you made it this far). But I think we can glimpse a genuine aspiration expressed by the Tibetan emperors to bring Buddhism to all of the Tibetan people, high and low. And we can see one way this might have been carried out, by the copying of brief summaries of the dharma all over Tibet (which would then have been taught orally to the non-literate, presumably, though literacy seems to have been quite widespread by the end of the empire). This might have been enough to initiate at least the first stage in the conversion of the Tibetan people to Buddhism.

*  *  *


The pillar inscriptions quoted here are all to be found in the collections of Hugh Richardson (1985), Fang Kuei Li and W. South Coblin (1987) and now the volume edited by Kazushi Iwao and Nathan Hill and recently published by the Old Tibetan Documents Online Group (2009). The translations in this post are my own “provisional” ones.

The scroll mentioned here (Or.8210/S.3996) has been studied by Daishun Ueyama (1995: 314-323). The Chinese title is Da cheng jing zuan yao yi 大 乘 經 纂 要 義.

The issue of the conversion of the Tibetans has been treated from several different angles in Matthew Kapstein’s The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2000).

I’m also looking forward to reading the just-published Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet by Michael Walter (Brill).


The first two images are by Hugh Richardson, showing his Tibetan assistant taking rubbings from the Karchung (skar cung) pillar. The photos are (c) The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and can be seen, along with many others, at the wonderful Tibet Album website.

The scroll is Or.8210/S.553, another copy of the Summary of the Essential Points of the Mahāyāna Sūtras.

*  *  *


The second edict of Khri srong lde btsan (from Hugh Richardson, “The First Tibetan Chos ‘byung” in High Peaks, Pure Earth):

(p.97; 110b) de nas dge ba’i bshes gnyen gyis bstangs te chos kyang gsan / yi ge yang spyan sngar brims nas / sangs rgyas kyi chos spel zhing mdzad par bsgroms so / / de na bod kyi chos rnying pa ma lags la / sku lha gsol ba dang cho ga myi mthun pas / kun kyang ma legs su dogs te /

(p.98; 110b) ‘bangs su mnga’ ba rgyal ba rgyal phran ‘a zha rje la bstsogs pa dang phyi nang gi blon po rnams la bka’s rmas / bka’ gros su mdzad nas / gcig tu na sangs rgyas bcom ldan ‘das kyi bka’ lung la bsten / gnyis su na yab mes kyi dpe lugs la ‘tshal / gsum du na dge ba’i shes gnyen gyi mthus bstangs pa dang yang sbyar nas mdor brtags na / … de lam legs par ni ji ltar myi ‘gyur ched ni ji ltar che zhe na / chos kyi mdo ni legs su bgyi bas /

The Skar cung pillar inscription:

(ll.33–42): / / btsan  po dbon sras / / sku chu ngur bzhugs pa yan cad / / chab srId kyi mnga’ bdag mdzad pa man chad kyang / / dge slong las / dge ba’I bshes nyen bskos ste / chos thugs su cI chud chud du bslab cing / / bod yongs kyIs kyang chos slob cing spyad pa’I sgo myi gcad / nam du yang bod ya rabs man cad/ bod ‘bangs las thar par gzud pa’I sgo myi bgag par / dad pa’I rnams las thar par btsud de / / de’i nang nas nus pa las / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs rtag du bsko zhIng / / bcom ldan ‘das kyI ring lugs byed pa’I rnams chos ‘khor nas bya’o cog gI bka’ la yang btags ste / /

Two Tibetologists

Thomas & Tucci

A few years ago I came across this photograph in the archives of the British Library. It is a portrait of two early European scholars of Tibet: F.W. Thomas and Giuseppe Tucci. It was taken in 1955 by Tucci’s photographer and partner Francesca Bonardi. Before I saw the photo I wasn’t aware that these two knew each other, or that Thomas had ever travelled to Italy. The meeting of these very different personalities is a rather intriguing event.

Guiseppe Tucci (1894-1984) was arguably the foremost non-Tibetan scholar of Tibetan history and culture (such types are still known by the ungainly neologism Tibetologist, which like the similarly ugly Buddhologist is a term likely to cause faint mirth in the uninitiated) in the first half of the twentieth century.

tucciTucci was a natural linguist, learning Hebrew and Latin in his childhood, before turning to Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese. Tucci was an explorer, making several expeditions to Western Tibet in the 30s, where he collected the materials (manuscripts, paintings and statues) for his scholarly work. And Tucci was a prolific writer. Among his many publications the Indo-Tibetica series and the two huge volumes of Tibetan Painted Scrolls are still essential reading.

In early life Tucci was a supporter of Mussolini and the philosophy of fascism, and in 1937 he was sent by the Italian Government to Japan, to strengthen cultural ties between Japan and Italy. Here he lectured and published extensively on Zen, spiritual liberation, and the art of war. After his return to Italy and the defeat of Mussolini, Tucci abandoned this vein of work, and his interest in fascist philosophy and Zen, returning to Tibetan studies.

In the mid 50s, when the photograph with Thomas was taken, Tucci had just made two expeditions to Nepal and was about to embark of on series of archaeological digs in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. He was also very active in public life, one of his achievements being the founding of the Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (IsMEO) in Rome. Several brief biographies are available online (see the references below).

*  *  *

The career of Frederick William Thomas (1867-1956) was, in contrast, conducted in the universities and libraries of England. He was a student of classics, and then a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge at the end of the 19th century and a professor at Balliol College, Oxford in the 30s. These two Oxbridge stints bookended his job as librarian for the India Office Library, where he worked for thirty years. It was here, where he had the responsibility of sorting through the thousands of Tibetan manuscripts brought back from Central Asia by Aurel Stein, that Thomas found the raw materials for his most important scholarly work.

banburyThomas had little interest in the Buddhist materials from Dunhuang, and his work focused on early Tibetan history (letters, military communiqués and the like) and folklore. Most of this work was put together and published by Thomas after he retired to a cottage in Oxfordshire, where he worked in a damp and chilly study (at least he complained often in his letters that it was so). Here he put together his great 4-volume series of historical texts Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents from Chinese Turkestan, collected narrative texts in Ancient folk-literature from North-Eastern Tibet, and a study of the extinct Nam language (his equally pioneering work on the Zhangzhung language still remains unpublished).

The photo with Tucci was taken the year before Thomas’s death. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:

To his last years Thomas retained the lean and athletic figure of the strenuous sportsman. His manner was keen and affable, and he enjoyed speaking in learned company. He celebrated his retirement by undertaking a tour of India in 1938 which would have taxed the strength and energies of the most intrepid traveller. He retained the full scope of his great intellectual powers to the end, although deafness at the last diminished his social enjoyment.

*  *  *

Tucci is still, no doubt, the preëminent scholar of his time, but those of us interested in the early history and culture of Tibet still owe Thomas a great debt. It is a pity that his works are so difficult to find, apart from in the major libraries. As an attempt to make Thomas’s work more available, I’ve been trying to get his major unpublished and out-of-print catalogues up on the IDP website. You can see his work on the documents about Dunhuang from vol.II of Tibetan literary texts and documents here, and his unpublished card catalogue slips of the Tibetan manuscripts Aurel Stein found in the Tangut/Mongolian regions of Etsingol and Kharakhoto here.

I see these two figures in quite different settings: Tucci striding across the dry and desolately beautiful landscapes of Western Tibet, Thomas bent over his desk in damp, verdant Oxfordshire. Tucci, the scholar “in the field”, Thomas the “armchair scholar”. One thing they had in common was that they both published their major works before 1959, when when the Tibetan diaspora changed forever the relationship between Westerners and Tibetans, and the nature of scholarship on Tibet.

*  *  *

stamp(The stamp and postmark from the envelope containing the photograph, marked October 1956. On the back of the photo, Francesca Bonardi wrote: “Con tanti cari auguri dal Prof. Tucci e da.”)

*  *  *

Some online resources:

See also:
Gustavo Benavide. 1995. “Guiseppe Tucci, or Buddhology in the Age of Fascism” In Donald. S. Lopez (ed.), Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.