Obituary of E. Gene Smith

This obituary, just released by the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), reminds us of the many amazing contribution and achievements of Gene Smith. It has been posted on H-Buddhism by Matthew T. Kapstein, Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies, The University of Chicago Divinity School; Directeur d’études, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris.

(Click here to read Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s message on Gene Smith’s passing)

Ellis Gene Smith, outstanding pioneer of Tibetan Studies and an academic maverick who singlehandedly preserved for posterity the enormous heritage of Tibetan texts on philosophy, history and culture, died at his home in New York City on December 16. The cause is not determined but likely is connected to a series of heart-related incidents suffered on a recent trip to South Asia. He was 74 years old.

For decades, Smith has been universally recognized among scholars of Tibet around the world as the dean of Tibetan Studies. This undisputed and splendid reputation in the field is due to Smith’s extraordinary accomplishments in the preservation and dissemination of Tibetan literature; his unparalleled knowledge of Tibetan religious history; his dedication to making Tibetan literature universally accessible, particularly for Tibetans; and the unstintingly generous assistance that he has provided to scholars around the world for more than forty years.

At the time of his death Smith was Senior Research Scholar of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, an on-line digital library and bibliographical resource for the study of Tibetan literature, which he founded with the help of friends and patrons in 1999. At the heart of this collection of Tibetan works, which has been disseminated to university libraries around the world as well as to countless Buddhist monasteries in Asia, are the manuscripts and blockprints that Tibetan monks and scholars brought out on their backs as they fled the Chinese Communist invasion of their country starting in the 1950’s. Smith was in India at the time and recognized the enormous importance of this literary heritage pouring out of Tibet. He quickly mobilized the resources, personal connections with Tibetan teachers, and institutional structures to publish, preserve and catalogue these works. He has continued these labors down to the present, later making connections within China as well as continuing those in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim to arrange for the publication of hundreds of collections and single rare works of Tibetan literature. At TBRC Smith has furthered that contribution by using his unparalleled bibliographical knowledge to catalogue the torrent of texts coming out of Tibet over the last half century in terms of their history, authors, and contents.

Gene Smith, as he is commonly known, realized his stunning intellectual achievements without the usual institutional support or positions. He was born in 1936, in Ogden, Utah, to a traditional Mormon family. His father was a scientist working in a federal guided missile program, one result of which was that the family moved around a lot. After high school, Smith received a congressional appointment to the military academy at West Point, which he never took up. He went instead to study briefly at Adelphi College, Hobart College, University of Utah, and finally at the University of Washington in Seattle. There he had the fortune to meet the great Tibetan scholar Ven. Deshung Rinpoche Kunga Tenpai Nyima, the tutor to the head of the Phuntso Phodrang branch of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. and one of the greatest traditional Tibetan scholars of the twentieth century, who had been brought to teach at Washington during the sixties. Smith began his intensive and comprehensive study of Tibetan literature and history at that time, quickly becoming fluent in both colloquial and classical Tibetan, and absorbing much of Dezhung Rinpoche’s encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm for Tibetan intellectual history. In 1964 Smith completed his Ph.D. qualifying exams and travelled to Leiden for advanced studies in Sanskrit and Pali. In 1965 he went to India under a Foreign Area Fellowship Program (Ford Foundation) grant to prepare for writing his doctoral thesis.

In India Smith found himself uniquely qualified to bring together hundreds of Tibetan refugee scholars streaming out of Tibet at that time – often carrying no other possessions than their precious books on their backs – with the publishing industry of India. The latter was then involved in a special, ingenious arrangement with the United States Library of Congress under the PL480 program, whereby India paid back loans to the United States in the form of books, which were then distributed to participating libraries in the U.S. Recognizing an unprecedented opportunity to exploit this program to preserve and publish the massive and often unique copies of virtually all of Tibet’s literary heritage then coming out of Tibet, Smith took a job in the New Delhi Field Office of the Library of Congress. He went on to demonstrate great initiative, creativity, and genius in contacting all sects and groups of scholarly Tibetan refugees, identifying thousands of rare and important manuscripts, and arranging to have them edited, copied, and published.

This work with the Library of Congress in Delhi thus represented an unparalleled venture in culture preservation and documentation, and it depended entirely upon Gene Smith’s masterful combination of organizational skills and intellectual insight. The upshot was that American university libraries became stocked with massive collections of indigenous Tibetan literature, collections which have become the basis for all Tibetological research in the United States.

Not only did Gene Smith oversee this massive preservation and publication venture, he also wrote countless knowledgeable introductions to these publications, providing the modern world with virtually its first systematic glimpse of Tibetan history in detail. These famous introductions, now published as an anthology entitled Among Tibetan Texts, have been the mainstay of Tibetological research around the world since the early 1970’s, and demonstrated Smith’s enormous knowledge of the field, far exceeding that of any other non- Tibetan scholar in the world (and most Tibetan scholars as well). He has thereby provided the first – and only — detailed guide map to the teachers, schools, institutions, meditative traditions, rituals, lineages, patrons, literary practices, genres, bibliography, philosophical ideas, religious practices, and arts and crafts of Tibetan religious and political history.

After serving as field director of the Library of Congress Field Office in India from 1980 to 1985, Smith was transferred to Indonesia. He stayed in Jakarta running the Southeast Asian programs until 1994 when he was assigned to the LC Middle Eastern Office in Cairo. In February 1997 he took early retirement from the Library of Congress and returned to the United States, bringing with him his own extensive library of Tibetan materials. He served first as a consultant to the Trace Foundation for the establishment of Himalayan and Inner Asian Resources (HIAR), and then relocated to Cambridge, MA where he joined Wisdom Publications as acquisitions editor launching the Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism series, in order to provide a forum for publishing outstanding new contributions to scholarship on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism and to make accessible seminal research not widely known outside a narrow specialist audience.

While at Wisdom Smith still had the unflagging energy and enthusiasm to develop new and innovative means to make his unique knowledge and literature available to present and future generations. With the help especially of David Lunsford, Smith proceeded to establish the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center. With the support of the Donald and Shelley Rubin Foundation, he moved TBRC to New York in 2002 where he could make this library accessible to students and scholars. This library quickly became the premier site for Tibetological research in the United States, if not the world, which it remains until today.

During this entire period, continuing to the moment of his death, Smith has freely provided extensive bibliographic information to virtually every Tibetologist in the world today. Given that there are very few catalogues, indices, or other critical apparatus to this extensive body of Tibetan literature, it is no exaggeration to say that our Tibetological knowledge would be a bare shadow of what it is today had Gene Smith never existed. He has remained the first resource that scholars of Tibet consult for information, and the material he has provided has become the backbone of the large majority of Tibetological doctoral theses and books that have been completed to date.

Representatives of more than 300 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, India, Nepal, and Bhutan unanimously nominated E. Gene Smith for a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the preservation of the Tibetan literary and spiritual heritage. The award ceremony took place at the Nyingma Monlam Chenmo international prayer festival in Bodhgaya, Bihar, India, January 22-23, 2010. Smith also received the Library of Congress Award for Meritorious Service on several occasions, including the Distinguished Service Award in 1997.

At the time of his death, the University of Leiden in the Netherlands was arranging for a ceremony to award to Gene Smith an honorary doctoral degree, which he had never completed despite his many years of outstanding academic work.

Gene Smith is survived by three sisters living in the United States, the dedicated staff at TBRC, and by countless academic scholars around the world. The latter are not only indebted to Smith for his enormous generosity in sharing his encyclopedic knowledge with them, but will miss him as a most kind-hearted and warm friend. Smith is held in the highest regard by the Tibetan religious scholastic community as a great visionary and saint in providing a way to preserve the massive literary heritage of Tibet.

Prayer services are currently being held for Gene Smith by the leading lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist world in India. A public memorial service is being planned for early February in New York City; interested parties may contact for further information, as well as instructions on how to make a memorial donation in order to carry Gene Smith’s work at TBRC further.

For further information on this obituary, contact:

Jeff Wallman, Executive Director, Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center []

Leonard van der Kuijp, Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University and Chair of the TBRC Executive Board[]

Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University and member TBRC Executive Board []

Posted: 20 Dec 2010