February 23, 2009

Myriad Shades of Mysticism

(By Shevlin Sebastian, The New Indian Express | February 22, 2009)

Long ago, a Tibetan monk dropped his cloak to enjoy sex – and spirituality, too. In 'The Angry Monk', French director Luc Schaedler profiles the life and career of the little-known Gendun Choephel, one of the foremost writers and thinkers of Tibet in the 20th century.

One day, in 1917, when a teenage Gendun Choephel was in the room of an elder monk at the Drisha monastery in Rebkong, he dropped a cup. Fearing that the monk would scold him, he stepped out, located a cat, put it in the room and locked it. The senior monk had no option but to put the blame on the cat for the mishap. This was Gendun's precocious intelligence at work. Not many people know that Gendun had been the foremost thinker and writer in Tibet in the 20th century. What set this monk apart was that he was also a libertine. He drank, smoked marijuana, and slept with women.

All this and more was revealed in the movie, 'The Angry Monk', directed by Frenchman Luc Schaedler, which was shown in Kochi recently by Design & People and Friends of Tibet, in association with Open Eyed Dreams. "It is essentially a road movie where the director retraces the footsteps of the monk taken during the course of his life," says Sethu Das, president of Friends of Tibet.

At 17, Gendun joined the Drepung Monastery's Gomang College in Lhasa. But, within a matter of months he fell out of favour with his teacher Geshe Sherab Gyatso. Says writer Topden Tsering: "Gendun attacked the monastic texts and also argued with his teacher. An exasperated Gyatso began calling him, 'Madman'.

Soon, Gendun left the monastery and earned his living by painting portraits, for which he had a knack. His life changed in 1934, when he met Rahul Sankrityanan, 40, an Indian scholar and freedom fighter. They travelled together to salvage rare Sanskrit scriptures from the monasteries situated in southern Tibet. All this is shown in the film in a documentary style, but the images are striking and beautiful.

Following this trip, Gendun accompanied Rahul back to India in 1937, and would spend the next 12 years in India, in places like Varanasi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Kalimpong, imbibing the culture and traditions of an ancient country. He also made a brief visit to Ceylon. And, perhaps, in a first-of-its kind experience for a Tibetan monk, Gendun also explored his sexuality.

It was in Kolkata that he grasped all the opportunities that the city offered, thanks to its thriving red-light district: Sonagachi. Golok Jigme, an 85-year-old monk, who had been Gendun's travelling companion, says, in the film, "Gendun was proud of his ability to sleep with four or five prostitutes in an evening and to get roaring drunk in the process."

One result was a book called, 'Tibetan Arts of Love - Sex, Orgasm and Spiritual Healing'. In the introduction, Gendun wrote: "As for me - I have little shame I love women. Every man has a woman. Every woman has a man. Both desire sexual union. If natural passions are banned, unnatural passions will grow in secrecy. No religion or morality can suppress the natural passions of mankind."

In a review in Amazon.com reader T. Short says, "This book has unflinching details, is well-written and thorough. Somehow, it is more accessible than the Kama Sutra."

Gendun went on to write numerous books, which included a travelogue, a guidebook, an English translation of a Tibetan tome on the history of Buddhism and Tibetan translations of Indian classics like the Bhagwad Gita and the Ramayana. He also wrote numerous articles and essays for the Kalimpong-based 'Tibetan Mirror'. In 1993, Sethu, of Friends of Tibet, went to Kalimpong to see the office. "Through broken windows and scattered furniture I could see the ruins of a small room which was once a gathering place for activists and individuals," he says.

It was in Kalimpong that Gendun became the member of the Tibetan Revolutionary Party. This act would have a fatal repercussion on the monk, because when he returned to Tibet some months later he was accused of being a Communist and plotting to overthrow the Tibetan Government. He was sent to jail and remained there for three years. Released in 1949, he was a physically and emotionally broken man. He died in 1951, just days after the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet and annexed the country.

The audience in Kochi, though small, watched the film with intensity. "I never knew such a monk existed," says social worker Jiss Victor. "Gendun was enjoying life, but at the same time he was chronicling his experiences. Since I hardly know anything about Tibet, it was an informative film."

Says architect Kunjan Garg: "I liked Gendun a lot - especially his drinking, womanising, wandering and irreverent ways. He tells us that life is not to be observed from somewhere high above, but to be experienced in its fullest, most material, even filthiest forms."

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