Sherab Gyatso

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Sherab Gyatso b.1884 - d.1968

Name Variants: Dobi Geshe Sherab Gyatso ; Geshe Sherab Gyatso ; Jampel Gyepai Lodro ; Lubum Sherab Gyatso ; Pelden Dorje Dudul

Sherab Gyatso (shes rab rgya mtsho) was born in 1884, on the eighth day of the fourth month of the wood monkey year of the fifth sexagenary cycle, in Hordroba (hor gro ba) village in the Dobi (rdo sbis) area in eastern Amdo, in the vicinity of the birthplace of the Tenth Paṇchen Lama Chokyi Gyeltsen Trinle Lhundrub (chos kyi rgyal mtshan phrin las lhun grub, 1938-1989). He is said to be the only child of his father Lhalung Kyab (lha lung skyabs) and mother Lhalung Kyi (lha lung skyid).

At the age five, Sherab Gyatso matriculated in Dobi Monastery, Ganden Pelgye Ling (rdo sbis dge ldan 'phel rgyas gling), where he received monastic vows and began to learn to read and write. When he turned sixteen he moved to Labrang Tashikhyil (bla brang bkra shis 'khyil) where he began studies in Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan grammar and poetics under the instruction of Akhu Gungtang Lodro (a khu gung thang blo gros, 1851-d.1930), and the Fourth Jamyang Zhepa, Kelzang Tubten Wangchuk ('jam dbyangs bzhad pa 04 skal bzang thub bstan dbang phyug, 1856-1916).

At the age of twenty-one Sherab Gyatso entered Drepung monastic university, launching himself into the study of both sutra and tantra under the instruction of over thirty Buddhist scholars, including the well-known Chokdrub Karpo (mchog grub dkar po, d.u.) and Budul Tulku Lobzang Yeshe Tenpai Gyeltsen ('bul sdud sprul sku blo bzang ye shes bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan, d.u.). While in Drepung, he was said to have recited seven pages of traditional texts every day and to have made surprising progress. He earned the degree of Geshe Lharampa (dge bshes lha ram pa) at the age of thirty-three, after skipping several grades, thus earning a privileged reputation as an eminent scholar in Lhasa. He was also the debating partner of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (tA la'i bla ma 13 thub bstan rgya mtsho, 1876-1933). During the Monlam Festival of 1917, when he earned his degree, the Dalai Lama proclaimed him “Top Lharampa”.

Sherab Gyatso was also a student of the important Geluk hierarch, the Eleventh Tatsak, Ngawang Tubten Kelzang (rta tshag 11 ngag dbang thub bstan bskal bzang, 1886-1918), and later wrote his biography.

At of the age of thirty-four, at the command of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 13 thub bstan rgya mtsho, 1876-1933), Geshe Sherab Gyatso started to edit the works of Buton Rinchen Drub (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290-1364), completing the editing of twenty-nine volumes in six years. He also directed the edition of the Lhasa version the Tibetan Kangyur, beginning in 1921 and completing it within eight years. Apart from his these large undertakings, he also taught in Drepung and monitored the “debating exams” of the great three Geluk monasteries in Lhasa. He later served as abbot of Sera Je.

Geshe Sherab Gyatso had a great number of disciples, including Geshe Lharampa Kelzang Gyatso (dge shes lha rams pa skal bzang rgya mtsho, d.u.) and Geshe Zhongpa Tsultrim Gyatso (dge shes gzhong pa tshul khrims rgya mtsho, d.u.). In addition to his teaching activities in the monastery, he also taught poetics, grammar, and basic courses in Buddhism to lay people.

While teaching at Drepung Gomang College ('bras spung sgo mang) Geshe Sherab Gyatso taught Gendun Chopel (dge 'dun chos 'phel, 1903-1951), the famous Tibetan iconoclast.

He himself, however, appears to have been fairly partisan in his views. In an attack on the Nyingma pilgrimage practices of Pemako (padma bkod), he wrote that the guidebooks to the place were filled with lies that led people to their death.

Following the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, in 1933, it seems that Geshe Sherab Gyatso fell from favor with the Geluk hierarchy, and it appears that he was forced to leave Lhasa, going to China and Amdo. His fall from grace may suggest that he was a member of the group of fairly progressive lamas who surrounded the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who left Lhasa when the conservatives took control of the government. There is a record of Geshe Sherab Gyatso speaking favorably as early as the 1930s about the Communist Revolution in China, views that would certainly cause tension among the ruling conservatives.

During his trip to Nanjing, via boat from Calcutta, Sherab Gyatso met Gendun Chopel in the Pandara Lumba Hotel in Lower Chitpur. Gendun Chopel was then living in Calcutta, in self-imposed exile in India. The two argued about whether the world was flat or round; when Gendun Chopel insisted it was indeed round, Sherab Gyatso replied angrily "Than I shall make it flat!" Gendun Chopel spat on the ground and stated "If you say such things in China, not even a dog will come to see you, let alone a man!" at which point his teacher knocked him violently on the head. When other people in the room anxiously asked them to stop fighting, both assured them that as teacher and disciple they were accustomed to behaving in this way.

Arriving in China, Sherab Gyatso found employment and influence in the Nationalist and later Communist governments, beginning with posts at universities and other institutions. Beginning in 1937, he became the first Tibetan to be appointed to a Chinese university; he lectured in Tibetan at several major universities in China, including Beijing University, Tsinghua University, Zhongshan University, and Zhongyang University. He also taught at the Bodhi Society in Shanghai which had been founded by the Ninth Paṇchen Lama, Lobzang Tubten Chokyi Nyima Gelek Namgyel (lo bzang thub bstan chos kyi nyi ma dge legs rnam rgyal, 1883-1937) in 1934, and gave a three-week course of teaching on Geluk philosophy and history in Shanghai. He met a number of prominent Chinese Buddhist leaders active in the Nationalist government, and took part in rituals and assemblies designed to benefit the government.

His experience with modern Chinese education, both religious and secular, inspired Sherab Gyatso to reorganize Dobi Monastery's educational system according to modern principles. Returning to Amdo in 1939, he consolidated the monastic school with other local monasteries as the Dobi Monastic School. Local resistance was softened when enrollment in the school enabled locals to avoid conscription into the provincial warlord's army. In 1941 the Republican government's Ministry of Education officially recognized the school as the Qinghai Tibetan Buddhist and Chinese Language School. Students, who were a mix of ordained Tibetans and lay Tibetan and Chinese, studied both traditional monastic topics and Chinese and Tibetan languages. It was converted to a regular lower school when the Communists took control in 1951.

In the early 1940s he served as president of the Association for the Promotion of Tibetan Culture, and one of the executive directors of the China Association for the Promotion of Border Culture. From 1945 to 1949 he was an alternative member of the sixth supervisory committee of the Guomindang. During the Second Sino-Japanese War he served as a representative in the National Assembly and as Vice-Chief Representative of the Mongolian-Tibetan Assembly.

It appears that Geshe Sherab Gyatso twice attempted to return to Lhasa, in his capacity as representative of the Nationalist government, but was blocked by officials in Lhasa. British documents suggest that he was attempting to spread Chinese propaganda, carrying with him his translation of Sun Yatsen's Three Principles of the People (sanminzhiyi).

His enthusiasm for the Nationalist government appears to have waned, however. American scholar Gray Tuttle quotes his criticism of frontier policies, in which he states, "the main reason the Tibet problem cannot be completely resolved is because the [government] does not understand Tibet's internal conditions but thinks that it [mistakenly] understands them very well."

Sherab Gyatso's activity during the first decades of the People's Republic of China remain somewhat controversial; whether he remained in Tibet voluntarily or was prevented from leaving remains a matter of debate. As Heather Stoddard makes clear, he was an enthusiastic advocate of Communist activity, which appears not to have lagged until his death during the Cultural Revolution.

On May 6, 1950, as newly-appointed deputy Chairman of the PRC's Qinghai Provincial Government, Geshe Sherab Gyatso made a radio broadcast appealing to the people of Tibet to submit to the Communist State, warning that Tibet would be "liberated" by force if the Dalai Lama did not comply. He stated that British and American forces would not assist the Tibetans in resisting the Chinese and could not be trusted, and that under the new Communist state Tibet would be granted regional autonomy. According to historian Tsering Shakya, this appears to have been the last warning before the People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet.

After the establishment of the Chinese Buddhist Association in 1953, Sherab Gyatso served as vice-president, and then president. He was president until the events of the Cultural Revolution forced the Association to suspend its activities, in 1966. He also served Deputy for Qinghai in the National People's Council, from 1954 to 1964, and, during the same years, as President of the Chinese Buddhist Theological Institute. He was a member of the China-Asia Solidarity Committee, the Chinese People's Committee for supporting Egypt against aggression, in 1956, and the Chinese People's Committee for World Peace, 1958.

Sherab Gyatso traveled abroad six times; in 1959 he went as a delegate to the World Peace Council in Sweden; he went to Burma twice, in 1955 and 1960; Ceylon, in 1961; Nepal, in 1956, where he was elected vice president of the World Federation of Buddhists (to which he was reelected in absentia the following year); and Cambodia in 1961.

In 1968, Sherab Gyatso was attacked and beaten by Red Guards. He died of those injuries on the first of November of that year.

In 1982, following an official rehabilitation of his reputation, most of Sherab Gyatso's writings were collected and edited into three volumes by the Qinghai Nationalities Press.




Afkhami, Hamid Sardar. 1996. "An Account of Padma bkod: A Hidden Land in Southeastern Tibet." Kailash, vol. 18, nos. 3‑4 (1996), pp. 1‑21.15.

Blo bzang chos grags and Bsod nams rtse mo. 1988-1989. Rdo sbis dge bshes shes rab rgya mtsho. In Rtsom yig gser gyi sbram bu, vol. 3, p. 2083. Xining: Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang.

Bod rang skyong ljongs rig dngos do dam u yon lhan khang gi po ta la rig dngos srung skyob do dam so'o. 1990. Dge lugs gsung 'bum dkar chag. Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, p. 925.

Bstan pa bstan 'dzin. 2003. Rdo sbis dge bshes shes rab rgya mtsho'i rnam thar mdor bsdus. In Chos sde chen po dpal ldan 'bras spungs bkra shis sgo mang grwa tshang gi chos 'byung dung g.yas su 'khyil ba'i sgra dbyangs, vol. 2, pp. 280-293. Mondgod: Dpal ldan 'bras spungs bkra shis sgo mang dpe mdzod khang.

Don rdor and Bstan 'dzin chos grags. 1993. Gangs ljongs lo rgyus thog gi grags can mi sna. Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, p. 1001.

Goldstein, Melvyn. 1989. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 523-524.

Lha rams pa skal bzang rgya mtsho. 2010. Rje btsun dam pa shes rab rgya mtsho'i rnam thar. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang.

Mengele, Irmgard. 1999. Dge Dun Chos Phel: A Biography of the 20th Century Tibetan Scholar. Delhi: Peljor Publications, p. 140.

Mi nyag mgon po. 1996-2000. Klu 'bum shes rab rgya mtsho'i rnam thar mdor bsdus. In Gangs can mkhas dbang rim byon gyi rnam thar mdor bsdus, pp. 787-790. Beijing: Krung go'i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang.

Phun tshogs. 1998. Dge bshes shes rab rgya mtsho dang rdo sbis grwa tshang. Beijing: Nationalities Press.

Stoddard, Heather. 1988. "The Long Life of rDo-sbis dGe-bshes Shes-rab rGya-cho." In 4th Seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies. Helga Uebach and Jampa L. Panglung, eds., pp. 465-473. Munich: Kommission für zentralasiatische Studien.

Tsering Shakya. 1999. Dragon in the Land of Snow. New York: Columbia University Press. Pp. 37-38.

Tuttle, Gray. 2005. Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press.


Sonam Dorje
April 2011