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Meeting the Indiana Jones of Tibetan Buddhist Studies

March 5, 2013

I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew Kapstein, Ph.D. for lunch this past week, which was a luncheon, two years in the making. Professor Kapstein, currently Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Chicago, spends only one academic quarter a year here in Chicago. The rest of the year he is the director of Tibetan Buddhist Religious Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Over the past two years, we’ve been emailing back and forth attempting to meet up to hopefully discuss his work, Dolpo, and other items of conversation one might wish to pursue over lunch some Friday afternoon.

As I waited for Dr. Kapstein to arrive in the lobby of the Berghoff Bar and Restaurant in Chicago, IL (he chose the restaurant, not me.. though Berghoff was somehow quite fitting as it was also my college beer of choice), I went over in my head what I wanted to ask him about and what I wanted to tell him. I was very eager to dig into our conversation, to ask him questions about how he came across an entire collection of undiscovered Buddhist works by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche. Dr. Kapstein spearheaded the translation of the life’s work and hagiography of this very important figure in the history of Tibetan Buddhism and I was looking forward to hearing about his experience surrounding Dolpopa.


I imagined Dr. Kapstein as a sort of Indiana Jones of the Dharma/Buddhist translation world and I told myself to keep cool in chatting with him rather than volley a barrage of questions his way.

Once we were seated, we appropriately began by talking about beer as I mentioned that the same company that made Berghoff, made Huber lager, which they used to sell by the case at the Mifflin Street Co-op in Madison and that my compatriots and I preferred this, as we also got a small return on the bottles at the Co-op. Our conversation immediately took off from there as he also attended UW-Madison, for 1 year in the late 60’s before heading to India. He started talking about his experience in Madison, about Mifflin St. and the riots that occurred there during the Vietnam era.

Conversation drifted to a few of our mutual acquaintances. Norbu, my Tibetan teacher, he mentioned, was a huge help to the department when U of C was starting their Tibetan language program. We also talked about one of Dr. Kapstein’s former students, Jennifer Chertow, Ph.D., a colleague of mine who has been offering her advice to our project as her background is in medical anthropology. Dr. Kapstein oversaw her dissertation in which she studied the changing views and practices of local Chicago-area Tibetans in exile concerning death and dying.

I wanted to know more about how he got is start in acadamia and what led him to study Tibetan Buddhism and how he initially learned to speak Tibetan as currently, as I am struggling through learning Tibetan.

While he was in India, he travelled to Nepal to escape the heat of summer and ended up meeting Tibetan refugees living in Boudha. He found his way to the Solu Khumbu region, near Everest, and as he non-chalantly stated, he learned Tibetan by playing cards late in the night with drunken Khampas. (Khampas are Eastern Tibetans from the region of Kham, known for their reputation as wild warriors and horsemen.) He continued to describe that the biggest piece to have working in your favor if learning a foreign language is the environmental chess piece. With a difficult language like Tibetan, this is even more important to be enveloped in a language as opposed to only studying grammar from a book.

It was after this experience with the Khampas and the Sherpas in Solu Khumbu that he began his academic study of the language and religion, stateside, at UC-Berkeley. I appreciate it that his first contact and interest did not come as an academic endeavor, but from a genuine interest in the people, themselves.

I told him some stories about the people on the other side of the Himalayas, in Dolpo, as I shared my story of travelling there in 2010 and again in 2011. I told him about our growing project, the Dolpo School of Tibetan Buddhist Medicine, the health care needs of the Dolpopa, and how the Nakpa lineage of Tibetan medicine is fast fading in the face of change. We discussed some ins and outs of politics, socio-economic factors, and related issues that have led Tibetan medicine to its current predicament in the face of modernization.

We began to talk about Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche. Dr. Kapstein had spent a lot of time and effort in translating and compiling the life’s work of this infamous Tibetan master. Dolpopa, was in fact born in Dolpo, but at a young age, travelled to Tibet via the kingdom of Mustang. He was a contemporary to the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje and the two of them got along quite well.

Dolpopa was a controversial figure in Buddhism during this time period as he was a proponent of the Zhentong school of thought concerning emptiness and the nature of Mind. (see, Zhentong)

Before Dr. Kapstein uncovered Dolpopa’s complete life’s works and biography in Ngaba (Eastern Tibet), Dolpopa’s writings were unknown to the West and it was not even known if a complete collection existed. Kapstein caught wind that a monastery in Ngaba had a collection of Dolpopa’s works and subsequently found them. This mother lode of texts turned out to be Dolpopa’s complete writings, teachings and life story.

Once he realized what he had uncovered, he phoned Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center’s founder, Gene Smith, who was completely speechless on the other end of the line. Kapstein chuckled that Gene Smith was not one to ever remain silent, but the news of Kapstein’s find took away his words.

In my mind, discovering a lost text like this, is worlds better than uncovering any archaeological object, or anything else Indiana Jones ever found in his films (especially the glowing skull thing). Writings like Kapstein’s find, contain the teachings of a master in their own words, their pith instructions, as they wrote them down, themselves. I wonder what it feels like to discover such a treasure.

Meeting with Dr. Kapstein and hearing about his process of starting as a young man playing cards with Khampas and the good that came of his interest in Tibet, inspired me to work even harder at my own language endeavors and with our project in Dolpo.

Someday, once our school in Dolpo is finished and our students all graduated and treating hopefully hundreds of patients, it is my wish to be able to assist in translation work, perhaps even with Tibetan medical texts.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Norbu Samphell permalink
    March 8, 2013 1:21 pm

    It is a good piece. Prof. Kapstein is indeed a great scholar of Tibetan Culture. His books on Tibetan culture are great source of information on Tibetan ways and believes.

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