Gene Smith (1936-2010)
August 17, 2011 7:58 pm UTC
Gene Smith was a unique, kind and unforgettable human being who did so much in his life to help preserve and disseminate the vast heritage of Tibetan texts that began to come out of Tibet after the Chinese invasion of the 50’s. I only met Gene three times myself, once when he was in Delhi in the 70’s, and twice more recently in New York where we shared some warmth, humor and wine together. But it was always so evident from the many Tibetan scholar and translator friends of mine how modest and incredibly generous Gene always was with his knowledge and time, and how openly he responded to everyone who sought his advice or help.
Gene was born in Utah in 1936, to a Mormon family whose ancestry included Hyrum Smith, the elder brother of Joseph Smith, the founded of the Mormon religion. He studied Mongolian and Turkish at the University of Washington-Seattle, where he met the Tibetan Sakya scholar, Deshung Rinpoche, with whom he began to study Tibetan language, literature and history. He soon became quite fluent in both classical and colloquial Tibetan, but further study was hindered by the lack of available texts. So Deshung Rinpoche suggested that Gene should go and find some Tibetan texts himself.
In 1964 Gene studied Sanskrit and Pali in Leiden, Holland, then traveled to India in 1965 on a Ford Foundation grant to begin writing his PhD thesis. In Delhi Gene encountered refugees who were fleeing from their homeland of Tibet, some of whom were great scholars who brought their most important block-printed texts and manuscripts with them. At this time the US Library of Congress had a reciprocal arrangement program with the Indian government, whereby India repaid its agricultural loans to the US in the form of humanitarian aid, such as newly published books, which could then be distributed to libraries in America. Perceiving a unique opportunity to preserve, print and publish the large amount of Tibetan texts that were then coming to his attention, Gene took a job at the New Delhi Field Office of the Library of Congress in 1968, serving as the director of this office between 1980 and 1985. During these two decades Gene became the custodian for literally thousands of important and often rare texts from all the Tibetan traditions, supervising their editing, copying, printing and distribution to many US University Library collections, which have now become the resource for virtually all Tibetan scholastic research in the modern world.
In 1985 Gene was transferred to Jakarta in Indonesia, where he ran the Library’s Southeast Asian program until 1994, when he was assigned to their Middle Eastern Office in Cairo. In 1997 he took early retirement from the Library of Congress and returned to the US with his own large collection of Tibetan texts. Here he first served as a consultant to the Trace Foundation, before moving to Cambridge, MA, where he worked as the acquisitions editor for Wisdom Publication’s scholastic series ‘Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism’. Then with the generous support of the Donald and Shelley Rubin Foundation he helped establish the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre in New York in 2002, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. During this period the TBRC library became a principal resource for Tibetan studies and research, with Gene unstintingly providing free information to all who sought it, regardless of their status as university professors, geshes or tulkus, or as ‘free radicals’ – the latter covering most of the friends we held in common. And in many respects Gene was a free radical himself, for he followed his own heart and intuition with a passion that was outside of any academic framework. He didn’t end up writing a thesis on some profound or obscure doctrine of the Tibetan religious canon, he chose to preserve it instead. He was one of those rare people who knew it was nobler to preserve other people’s great things than to do little things of one’s own. However, he did write many insightful introductions to the texts he published, some of which have been assembled into an anthology entitled “Among Tibetan Texts”, a simple title for a rich and meaningful life.
At the Nyingma Monlam Chenmo prayer festival held in Bodh Gaya, India, in January 2010, representatives from over three hundred Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan unanimously honored Gene Smith with an award for his lifelong dedication in preserving the literary and spiritual heritage of Tibet. He also several times received the Library of Congress Award for Meritorious Service, including the Distinguished Service Award in 1997. At the time of his death, the University of Leiden was preparing to award Gene an honorary doctorate degree, as he had never actually completed the PhD degree that he began there in 1964, although academically he had achieved this many times over. A documentary film about Gene and his work, called ‘Digital Dharma’, is currently in production.
Gene died from heart complications at his home in Manhattan on December 16th 2010. He was 74 years old and is survived by his three sisters, his colleagues at the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre in New York, and by the innumerable Tibetan scholars and friends who knew him so well for his generous and kind heart, his gentleness and humility, his patience and his smile. People often asked Gene what had compelled him to do what he had done. His answer was simple: “Karma, I guess.”
As a postscript, my friend Mike Gilmore recently told me he was once talking with Zenga Rinpoche, one of Tibet's most respected and learned lamas who worked alongside Gene in their New York TBRC office, when the subject of newly-recognized Western incarnations of Tibetan Lamas (tulkus) came up. In response Zenga Rinpoche said: "If people want to know what a Western tulku is really like, they should look at Gene Smith."