Wisdom out of the box

Wisdom out of the box

August 17, 2011 6:30 pm UTC

By Lhendup Gyatso Bhutia | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

My grandfather is a distant memory. Tall, dark-skinned, a little hunched, he spoke only Tibetan and Nepali. We did not spend much time with each other, but I still remember that every morning he woke me up and took me to our chausham (prayer-room).

There I was made to clasp my hands and touch with my head a wooden box, about four feet by two. After this little act of obeisance, I was free to go and play. The day he passed away, he did not have the strength to come and rouse me from my sleep. But someone else called me in and made me pay my respects to the box.

And then one day, the box was opened. It contained a bunch of antiquated papers, all neatly stacked and without any binding. They featured writings in Tibetan, with tiny drawings of people in meditation. It was called Lam remd (roughly translated as ‘stages to a path’) and contained prayers (to help attain enlightenment).
Unlike most other Tibetans, my grandfather Abo Kunga did not come to India in 1959, when the Dalai Lama took refuge in India.

He came as a tradesman in 1945 to Kalimpong, which was then a small hamlet by a river in what is now northern West Bengal. He made the journey sometimes on foot, sometimes on mule, carrying silverware and wool atop 11 mules, traveling sometimes for two weeks at a stretch, surviving on yak cheese, dried meat and tsampa (barley flour that, with a little warm water, could make for a quick meal). This 10 day long trip that sometimes stretched to 14 was undertaken every month, and the trade was so good, he not only rented a house and a stable, he even brought my grandmother.

And then in early 1950, China invaded Tibet and they could never return.

When news reached of the invasion, I’m told the first thing my grandmother prayed for was not her house in Lhasa, nor her relatives, but for the book of Lam remd she owned in Tibet. But relatives who sneaked out of Lhasa brought bad news: the book had been destroyed in a fire. She did not cry on hearing that; instead she gathered enough money to travel to Dharamsala, get a reprint of an original Lam remd, and seek out the Dalai Lama to bless it. She died when my father was only 15, and the book was passed on.

When the Dalai Lama stated last year that a “cultural genocide” was taking place in China, he could have as easily been speaking about the genocide of these Tibetan books. Many of them were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s when monasteries and libraries were burnt; some were lost while the Tibetans were fleeing the marching Chinese, and many more were simply lost in the march of time.

As a matter of fact, there are ten kinds of Tibetan books, the more important ones being on Tibetan medicine, Buddhist religion and philosophy, architecture, grammar (of Sanskrit and Tibetan), and translated works of Indian scholars on Buddhist philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. Their content is invaluable, as Sonam Topgyel, assistant librarian at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) in Dharamsala explains. “Some extremely important Indian works were lost forever when the Nalanda University was destroyed by the Turks,” says the librarian of one of the world’s largest libraries containing Tibetan books. “But these are still available in Tibetan translation,” he adds. But these works, till now preserved in Tibetan, now risk being lost forever, if not lost already.

There is, however, a significant attempt going on to find these books and preserve them. At the forefront of this endeavour is a Mormon from Utah by the name E Gene Smith. He is a leading Tibetologist, the founder of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC) in New York, and the subject of a new documentary, Digital Dharma (that has been directed by veteran television and documentary filmmaker Dafna Yachin) which is almost ready for release. The TBRC has more than a 1, 00,000 Tibetan books, making it the largest collection of Tibetan literature outside Tibet.
Since 1968, Smith has been travelling across the world, collecting these books for preservation. And he has also helped reprint them, so that each one of these books is now not locked up in some dingy corner awaiting disintegration, but has a hundred other copies. This way, he hopes, the culture of a nation will not become a passing memory.

But of late, he has started a new project: digitising these books. About 8,000 volumes of these books, ranging from religion to medicine, have now been uploaded on the internet. “We reprinted the books so that more people could access them. But imagine the reach when you upload it on the internet!” Smith says.

Along with this project of preserving and maximizing the reach of these books, Smith is also busy with what he calls a project of “giving back”.

Five years ago, the LTWA in Dharamsala, along with many other monasteries and libraries in Chinese-occupied Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, India and Central Asia received a hard disk, containing 300 GB of different Tibetan prayers. That small hard disk, no bigger than the size of their fists, contained, to the utter amazement of many monks, content that could dwarf many a library. But a recurrent trouble bothered them. “They didn’t get strong enough anti-viruses, and the computer kept crashing,” says Smith.

It wasn’t the first time Smith had faced a problem. When he had first started reprinting Tibetan books, the Tibetans themselves weren’t happy. “Tibetan books are not like the ones we use. They are not bound and are long. The first set of reprints was like our modern notebooks and centrally bound, and most did not like this. I rectified this issue, by simply getting them bound from the top,” adds Smith.

Similarly, he solved the problem of the viruses too. Since last year, these libraries and universities, 70 till now, have been receiving brand-new Apple Macintosh computers that are more virus-resistant and have a storage capacity of 400 GB. Topgyel of LTWA says, “It is so much easier to use the Mac to read these texts. We don’t have to go through large libraries to find the relevant information.”

Widely acknowledged as a saviour of Tibetan culture and literature, Smith believes his task is still incomplete. “Several thousands of Tibetan texts are still lost across continents. What we have accomplished is nothing more than retrieving a solitary drop from the ocean,” says Smith.

As for me, my parents discarded a lot of old belongings when we shifted home a few years ago. But the book in the box still remains. And I still clasp my hands and touch my head with it. Not because it is religious, but because it tells me who my grandfather was and where he came from.