Obituary: Dungkar Losang Trinley

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The Independent Online
China's much-vaunted "liberation" and "modernisation" of Tibet since 1950 is a process in which no more than a handful of Tibetan intellectuals have played a significant part, and these few have retained their positions only through the exercise of deft diplomacy and the sacrifice of most of their principles. Tibet's accredited representatives under Chinese occupation are reviled and attacked to this day, by the Communist party as "rightists", and by Tibetan exiles as "collaborators".

Dungkar Losang Trinley was one of those figures. He attained excellence in the monastic system of traditional learning as a young man, embraced the constructive synthesis of Buddhist philosophy and modern scientific method, and later emerged from the phenomenal destruction and chaos of the Cultural Revolution as Tibet's leading historian, and a coherent and committed advocate of modern Tibetan-language mass education. He inspired a generation of young Tibetan students in the "minority nationalities" institutes of higher education during the "liberalisation" of the 1980s, but lost favour with China's leaders after the re- intorduction of "leftist" assimilationist policy in Tibet in 1992, a movement which currently seems prepared to annul his main hopes for the future.

Born in 1927 in the south-eastern district of Kongpo, Dungkar Losang Trinley was recognised as the eighth reincarnate Rinpoche (or Lama) of the nearby dung dkar ("white conch") monastery at the age of four, and entered the great monastery of Sera shortly after. By the age of 20, he was appointed disciplinarian at Lhasa's prestigious Lower Tantric college, and 10 years later in 1957, on the eve of Tibet's final capitulation, he graduated as a Geshe Lha-ram-pa, the highest degree in monastic education. He is said to have been able to memorise every night as many pages of loose-leaf text as could be pierced with a single needle, and to have developed expertise in such "lesser sciences" as poetics and astrology, in addition to the canon of Buddhist philosophy and logic.

In 1958, he was sent to work in higher education in mainland China, to begin teaching an entire generation of young Tibetan aristocrats and religious dignitaries: he thus escaped involvement in the 1959 Lhasa uprising and its brutal suppression, but shortly thereafter he denounced the "old society", gave up his vows and married.

The ex-Rinpoche remained at the Central Institute of Nationalities in Peking until the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, when many Tibetans of his status were sent back and required to perform manual labour in the countryside. He spent much of the period 1966-76 digging dykes and canals in the Tolung valley near Lhasa, where he was subjected to vicious "class struggle" like everyone else, but is also remembered by colleagues for unheroically denouncing others, a stigma which stayed with him to his death.

Reprieve came after Mao's death, and by 1978 Dungkar had married his second wife Pema Yu-dron, and returned to Peking as lecturer and researcher in Tibetan studies. Over the next five years he brought a number of historical studies to completion, including The Merging of Religious and Secular Rule in Tibet (1981; published in English in 1991), a critique of the traditional theocratic state, for which he is best known, and imparted his enthusiasm for the rejuvenation of classical learning through Marxist and social scientific methods of analysis to a new generation of students, including the now prominent US-based journalist Tse-ten Wangchuk Sharlho and the east Tibetan poet Dondrup Gyal.

Although Dungkar offended many compatriots with his study of Tibetan history based on "class struggle", a closer examination reveals a serious historical work, clothed in the garb of political acceptability, but nonetheless uninhibited by the taboos traditionally imposed on historiography. Later, even the exile government acquiesced to its publication. Similarly, students recall that his classes were packed to capacity once it was learned that Dungkar was given to making devastatingly frank judgements on Sino-Tibetan affairs, expressed as barbed comments, the humour of which apparently helped him escape censure.

One of the only people who actually read Marx in Tibetan translation, Dungkar was totally committed to the transition to modernity chiefly to ensure the survival of Buddhism and classical Tibetan culture. He reportedly once remarked that he had taught himself Chinese - largely from the study of Mao's Little Red Book - just as a lame dog will jump a high wall to escape its persecutors.

Others remember that, when Chinese students attended his classes, he would give long discourses on the evils of intellectual theft; he apparently put years of study into the newly accessible Dunhuang manuscripts dealing with Tibet's imperial past, but little of the work was ever published under his name.

Dungkar's return to Lhasa in 1983 coincided with the high tide of Tibetan cultural reconstruction in which he was an important figure. One of his central aims was realised the following year with the establishment of "Tibet University", of which he was appointed vice-principal and professor of history.

In 1987 he was awarded the honour of Guojiajijiao ("National Scholar" in Chinese), apparently sealing his career with official approval, but the re-awakened aspirations of those years proved short-lived: following the suppression of nationalist protest in 1987-89 and the growing international confidence of the regime, Tibet policy turned decisively in favour of mainland immigration and rapid industrialisation after 1992, and the promotion of the Tibetan language and education was replaced with official mistrust and contempt. An unsolicited honour proffered by the International Association of Tibet Studies in 1992 seems to have further weakened his acceptability to the party.

At a talk during his visit to the United Kingdom in 1992, he declared, "All hope in our future . . . and the protection of our heritage depends upon bi-lingual higher education. Without educated people in all fields expressing themselves in their own language, Tibetans are in danger of being assimilated. We have reached a crucial point."

In 1995, he resigned from the Committee on Tibetan Language, whose own status was greatly reduced, and the following year his National Scholar award is believed to have been (unusually) withdrawn. Refusal to participate in the 1995 dispute over recognition of the eleventh Panchen Rinpoche as well as the current "Patriotic Re-education" campaign in Tibet's monasteries further soured relations with his political masters. The fact that no official obituary has yet been published would seem to confirm this.

Many conservative compatriots of his generation will remember Dungkar as a collaborator, and even a coward, but for those who knew him better, colleagues and students, he was a person of unusual conviction, courage and kindness. Behind the politically acceptable facade was a scholar and teacher whose informed concern for his people and his country remained unchanged throughout his life.

He passed away at a dark hour in the struggle for Tibetan cultural identity, and we can only pray that Dungkar Rinpoche, despite his dismissal of the institution of reincarnation, will swiftly return to continue his efforts.

Matthew Akester

Dungkar Losang Trinley, Tibetan scholar: born Kongpo, Tibet 1927; recognised 1931 as Dungkar Rinpoche; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Los Angeles 21 July 1997.