Saturday, December 18, 2010

E. Gene Smith - An Anecdote

That's him on the right, at a library in Cambridge,
examining a Tibetan pecha

I hope you know Tibeto-logic is not a personal blog, and I would just as soon keep it from becoming about moi. But today circumstances demand that I make this one exception and tell a personal story in memory of E. Gene Smith who left this life just two days ago.

Gene was legendary for his prodigious memory of Tibetan bibliography. Of course, an essential part of his story is that he headed the New Delhi office of the Library of Congress and its effort to preserve Tibetan Literature for many years... but anyway, the legendary status was not without good reason, I can tell you... and in fact I will. And he was always openhandedly generous with his knowledge and other resources, as many besides myself will tell you. About how many persons could you truthfully say, "What he had he shared"?

In 1998, I went with my wife on a side trip down from Harvard to Yale to visit J., the resident Buddhologist in that place in those days. For entertainment, weighing the alternatives, he thought we would have the most fun in the Beinecke Rare Books Library. When we got there he ordered up from the stacks a number of Tibetan books, including a few boxes of uncataloged materials. One book was so big the librarian couldn't lift it, so she had to call upon a strong young man to wheel it out to us in the reading room on a cart. I found several things of interest to me, but one of the most intriguing items in the boxes was a cursive manuscript made up of exceptionally narrow leaves, but with the front leaf, the one that would have contained the book’s title, missing. I could tell soon enough from its content that it was a Tagtab (Brtag-thabs) text, a fairly rare genre of Tibetan literature, one that resembles pariksha texts in India (there is a similar genre in classical Arabic literature). It described such things as saddles, horses, helmets, swords, teacups and so forth. These connoisseur's handbooks, if we may call them that, have hardly ever been noticed outside Tibet himself, despite their inestimable importance for cultural studies.

Back at Harvard Square, I had a supper appointment with Gene that very night. At the time his incalculably huge collection of Tibetan books was housed in nearby Somerville. Before the food arrived at the table, I decided to tell him about my great find in New Haven. No sooner had I started to describe the manuscript than — to my utter consternation — he told me nearly everything there was to know about it. He told me its title, the name of the person who once owned it (J.F.W.), the monastery where it was kept before then, the name of the author, the probable date (1536 or 1476 CE?) given that the author was a student of the 7th Karmapa hierarch (1454-1506 CE). But what astounded me almost as much as all this detailed knowledge about something I had assumed was my own original discovery was the news that he had never actually seen the manuscript with his own eyes. He had long tried to persuade the owner to let him publish it — he had heard about it from a former Lhasa noble who had actually seen it, but Gene had never seen the book himself.  The only thing new I could tell him, the one detail he didn't yet know, was that the former owner had meanwhile donated the manuscript to Yale.*

(*This bit of information about the text's present location has since been added to that wonderfully useful database of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre ( at TBRC Work RID: W30393. The author's name is Cha Jamyang Tashi Namgyal — Bya 'Jam-dbyangs Bkra-shis-rnam-rgyal. Chances are very good that the library system in Yale is still entirely unaware that it exists in their collections...)

I write this mainly as a way of finding an outlet for my personal grief. Gene was an irrepressible character who will remain forever irreplaceable. If you want to read a moving tribute, read what Matthieu Ricard has written at his blog page. Now that we've gotten this far into the 21st century, it’s even possible to find an endless stream of messages on Twitter.  If you are a Tibetan reader you can find a story, with added comments including many tributes to Gene, at the Tibetan-language site Khabda.  

I am not sure what Gene would want exactly, let alone what his family would wish, but I can only recommend from my own side that if you would like to honor Gene's memory, do something to honor his vision. One thing you could do, among others, is donate something for the movie that is being made about his life by Digital Dharma. Another even more obvious choice would be to give something to the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center he founded. 

The funeral is tomorrow, in case you find yourself in the New York area, but a more public memorial service is planned for the near future. A tribute page has appeared overnight on the internet, here.  

There is a blog entry at Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar.  More tributes and anecdotes have appeared at H-Buddhism and H-Asia. I also just noticed these words by Tim McNeill of Wisdom at Buddhadharma.  The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives has an obituary. There is another tribute by Jeff Watt... one by Ariana Maki...

A Door in the Library of Congress

I recommend watching the video of Gene Smith's presentation of a "mini-Mac" hard drive containing scans of 4,000 Tibetan books to Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche at Bka'-rnying Bshad-sgrub-gling ("Isle for the Teaching and Accomplishment of Kagyu and Nyingma Teachings") in Bodhanath, Nepal at this webpage.

Postscripts (Sept. 24, 2012):

A little behind on my reading — and who isn't? — I noticed only just today that the manuscript that features in this blog has now been publicized in an appendix to Donald J. LaRocca, et al., Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet, The Metropolitan Museum & Yale University Press (New York & New Haven 2006).  You can find a Tibetan-script edition of some parts of it, and even a photograph of the colophon page with the authorship information.

The movie about Gene is now out, and I've heard it has been shown in NYC.  I hope to see it before long.


  1. Gene was one of the kindest and most generous men I ever met. I am not sure I ever lived up to his expectations of what I could accomplish, but he left me with some of the more indelible memories of my life. He taught me a great deal about how one could live one's life in these chaotic centuries. I only hope I can use the rest of my time here a fraction as effectively as Gene did.

  2. I just noticed a new story in The Economist for yesterday.

    It's here.

  3. Oh, and this story, from The Telegraph comes with a nice photo of Gene with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

  4. I recommend this video to gain an impression of what Gene was like. He was always patient to answer questions, didn't reply with pomposity or piety, and never demanded any particular level of knowledge. If someone simply demonstrated an interest, it was more than enough reason for him to share what he thought and knew, but be aware that the questioner in this video was very evidently a Tibetologist.

  5. Thanks so much for this remembrance Dan. So many stories. So deeply missed. Gene also admired your work very much. Many wishes, M.s.

  6. Tributes to Gene


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