The Economist Obituary of E. Gene Smith 1/13/11

The Economist Obituary of E. Gene Smith 1/13/11

July 21, 2011 3:20 pm UTC


Jan 13th 2011 | from the print edition  

WHEN he visited the monastery of Menri, in the foothills of the Himalayas, in 2008, Gene Smith took a tiny gift for the abbot. He told him to wear it as an amulet round his neck, to ensure that all was well. Menri Trizan sports it today with his crimson robes: a memory stick, containing hundreds of pages of Buddhist scriptures.

At other monasteries, up and down the remote hillsides and the steep valleys, Mr Smith made a present of portable hard drives. A bulky, jacketed figure among the swarms of shaven heads, making an untidy namaste with his chunky Western fingers, he handed over devices, no bigger than the palm of a hand, which contained 10,000 books. Where for centuries monks lifted their pecha texts from decorated bookshelves and read the loose leaves across their knees, they now stare into laptops, contemplating the works Mr Smith has scanned for them.

Some might sigh over the intrusion of the modern world. Not Mr Smith. He first went to India, a student seeking rare Tibetan books, not many years after Tibet’s uprising against the Chinese occupiers in 1959, when the country’s monasteries—in effect, its libraries—were ransacked and destroyed. Not only books were burned, but also the carved wooden blocks from which they were printed. Fleeing Tibetans tried to save the texts, the repositories of 1,500 years of thought and prayer, by trussing them on yaks, but the loads often fell into rivers and ravines. They strapped books on their own backs; but when they arrived in exile the corpus was scattered and damaged, and much of it lost.

Over five decades, Mr Smith made it his business to put Tibetan literature back together. He did it more or less single-handedly, fired by his love of the language and the culture and aided by a brain that rapidly became an encyclopedia of lineages, sutras, lives of lamas, and the history and ownership of every book he came across. Expatiating in serene but fearsome detail to friends in his rooms in Delhi, or Boston, or New York, all of them piled floor-to-ceiling with cloth-wrapped pecha, he could instantly find a page anywhere to illustrate a point. Though people considered him a teacher, he was always a librarian, with a librarian’s love of catalogues and connections; but his Buddhism added to that a reverence for the transmission of texts, on which all spiritual progress rested.

He found two ways to save the books, both ingenious. First, for 20 years, he used a food-aid programme called Public Law 480, under which America sold surplus wheat to third-world countries and then used the local-currency payments for humanitarian ventures. Mr Smith, working after 1968 as a field officer in India for the Library of Congress, reckoned his mandate under PL480 extended to buying books. Armed only with fistfuls of rupees and with letters of introduction from his Tibetan teacher, Deshung Rinpoche, to various lamas, he trawled through Indian libraries and then travelled into the hills. There, though still fearful of exposing their treasures, exiled Tibetan monks showed him the texts they had; and, with the money he gave them, printed more. In the end the PL480 programme saved 8,000 books, each of which was printed in 20 or so copies for American centres of research.

Yet all this depended on Mr Smith’s encyclopedic knowledge to find, assess and edit the books; and, as time went on, digital technology proved even more efficient. In 1999 Mr Smith set up the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre, first in Boston and then in New York, and set about putting his 12,000-volume collection, the largest anywhere, online. By his death he and his team had scanned 7m pages of text and had made CDs of files, such as the 110-volume kangyur, or teachings of the Buddha, which were too huge to download. As for the books themselves, he left them to a university in China: the place where, despite everything, he felt Tibetan Buddhism would eventually flourish again.

Did he ever suppose, he was asked once, that he would spend most of his life immersed in Buddhist dharma? He replied, “Sure.” It was by no means so sure when he was born, in Ogden, Utah, into a Mormon family distantly linked to Joseph Smith, the founder. His connection with Utah soon faded, however, as he studied Sanskrit and Tibetan and became a Buddhist under Deshung Rinpoche’s influence. Though he was never a monk, there was a monkish look about him: the balding head, the frank, kindly eyes, the life spent in rigorous discipline among ancient texts. Friends noticed, too, his fascination with terma, tiny texts in shell-like casings that were buried and dug up again to speak wisdom to later generations, and drew joking parallels with Joseph Smith’s discovery of the Mormon golden tablets.

The porcelain cup

Amid the extraordinary complexity of his chosen subject, Mr Smith kept a childlike simplicity. He did not talk about himself or what he believed in, save books. He was sceptical of the reincarnation-claims of some of the lamas and tulkus he met. But he was deeply moved when he gave one child lama a precious porcelain cup that had been used by Deshung Rinpoche, and found that the child recognised it as his own. In such small things he placed his faith; as in a memory stick, worn round the neck, preserving everything.


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