The Final Photo of Gendun Chopel

Go Sherab Gyamtso



Gendun Chopel’s photo taken soon before his passing




FROM THE TIME I learned that this was the final photo taken of Gendun Chophel, I’ve felt a special affinity for it. Every so often, I’ll take a long hard look at this photo. In times of sadness, in particular, I’ll even look at it a few times a day. Each time I find myself gazing over it, I feel like I’m hallucinating and find myself in the photo, sitting beside the bed. It even feels as if, in this hallucinatory world, Gendun Chophel’s words of sadness actually touch my ears. They hit my chest with a shivering cold and, time and time again, I find myself choked up.

Ah yes, when I listen closely though, those are not hallucinations at all. From the edges of the photo, you can hear the crystal-clear sound of Gendun Chophel’s final days, his hardships, and his broken heart all conversing together. From the edges of the photo, sorrowful melodies can be heard—songs of despair sung by a man glowing with light as he is banished to the next life by this world of darkness.

Take a look. Gendun Chophel seems as though he’s lost something as he stares nakedly back at humanity with eyes of hopelessness. What sort of inexplicable secrets might have been hiding behind the light of his tired eyes or in the wounds on his face? What sort of unforgettable things might have been lingering in his heart at that very moment; things that could not be ignored for a man who was not long for this world.

Yet, still I wonder, when this photo was taken, was he not just a bit tipsy? You get the sense that his half-closed eyes are muttering all sorts of random nonsense. But there is no doubt that in the heart of this wise man, whose mind was never drunk even if his body was, all the scenes of our ill-fated Tibetan people, from beginning to end, are present with a vibrant clarity. And there is no need to mention how vivid all the events and circumstances that led to his life’s long dance of sadness must have been for this sublime individual.




TO BE HONEST, this man with his back propped up against a pillow and his robes splayed open is certainly not the Gendun Chophel who ordinarily dressed in high quality, yellow-gray[1] Tibetan robes; nor the Gendun Chophel who wore rounded spectacles, gleaming brilliantly on his face, and whose eyes flashed with light rays of intelligence. This is the “crazy Gendun Chophel” who spent all day trembling and shaking in a half-asleep, half-awake state. With his belt sagging off his robes, he dedicated his time to booze and placed his hopes in inebriation, casting away every last aspiration and joy that had kept him alive.

When you consider that, how can you blame him for going crazy? Back on the mother’s breastbone that was his homeland of Tibet, his little light of hope grew ever dimmer while the craggy cliffs of darkness grew higher and mightier. When that happened to him, his mind fractured into cracks of pain that absolutely no one could even begin to describe. Especially since others had stolen and destroyed his “little estate” that he’d spent his entire life assiduously gathering—that is, his writings he had accumulated with buckets of sweat as he arduously traveled across all the empires in the four directions. For such a man, each day that he had to live out and remain in this world must have been an unbearable torment!

Within the short span of fifty years, this man had opened new doors through which political histories that accord with the norms of human intellect could come into being for the people of the Tibetan plateau. Transcending the biases of sectarianism, he walked a path that brought into existence a previously unseen window, one through which we can view ourselves with impartiality. He constructed a platform upon which the courage of critical thinking in “getting to the bottom” of Tibetan religion and culture could come into being for the first time. Taking into account the changes of time and transformations of place, he stressed over and again the importance of having the vision to ascertain one’s own individual path. And yet, who understood this? Who even listened to see if they might understand?

There was no way they would have listened to him. On one stormy evening, howling with frost, wind, and hail, his Tibetan brothers and sisters, whom he had held tightly bound in the knots of goodwill and love for his whole life, threw him into prison—he who had “brought a little honor to the king and citizens of our Land of Snows with his own ability.”[2] Without mercy, they gave him fifty lashes.

Biting his lip as he tried to endure such terrible abuse, Gendun Chophel now realized that there was nothing to do but place the entirety of his hopes in the future. To preserve the lifespan of his writings, he sent a covert message to Horkhang Sé[3] saying, “I entrust my little estate to you.” Though he had shed tears in hopes of saving his writings, it was nevertheless beyond Horkhang Sé to protect the entire “estate.” The butchers of civilization unscrupulously grabbed the stacks of texts that this humble scholar had spent his entire life collecting and reduced the majority of them to smithereens.

The fact that a large quantity of his writings had been utterly annihilated was made known to Gendun Chophel as he languished in the dungeons. This terrible news was an iron sickle that immediately slit open his heart and severed all his hopes. At this, he picked up the bottle with a single stroke of the hand.

“One of the world’s rarest emerald vases has been shattered on the rocks,” he remarked upon getting out of prison. “What’s to be done now? I’ll just keep on like this for the time being,” he said, mouth trembling. From then on, he went on an insatiable drinking bout, consuming liquor to no end. All day and all night…

Gendun Chophel has gone. His photo remains. Those wounded eyes of his, staring out with suspicion and fright – they, too, remain.




Though sixty some years have passed, even now, the world is still the world just as before. Tibet too is still Tibet just as before. The one thing that has changed is that Gendun Chophel’s residences, the Nangtse Shak and Tseshol prisons,[4] no longer house any people in them. They have long since been turned inside out and become playgrounds for rats. Every so often, when the sweet-talking Chinese tour guides enter the old buildings and so eloquently explain how dark the old days were, the rats hidden in the walls listen and are deeply touched. They almost, just almost, shed a tear.

Now there are many new concrete prisons that are all the more fortified and spread out than the old prison buildings. There are more people than before who get to taste technologized lashes and be tormented by having their “emerald vases smashed against the rocks” in their native land. But, forget about them finding a bit of liquor to drink. They say they cannot even catch a whiff of it.

As I find myself taking another glimpse at that photo, there is Gendun Chophel laughing away. Looking completely wasted…


Written at Dargye Monastery


(This essay was originally published in Tibetan on We Chat. For original Tibetan version see, Shes rab rgya mtsho. Rang lam rang ʼtshol. Par thengs dang po. 1 vols. Pe cin: Krung goʼi rtsom rig gyu rtsal lha tshogs dpe skrun khang, 2017, p. 268-274.



[1] The colors yellow and gray often refer to monastics and lay people respectively, given the color of their garbs. It could be that the author is hinting at Gendun Chophel’s roles in both walks of life.

[2] This quote is from the colophon to Gendun Chophels White Annals, an unfinished work on the history of the early Tibetan empire. The full stanza reads as follows: “With the pure radiance of affection for one’s own people/ Naturally arising to remain in the center of my heart/ I have, as best I could, brought a little honor/ To the king and citizens of our Land of Snows with my own ability.”

[3] Horkhang Sé or Horkhang Sonam Palbar was a member of the Horkhang family, an aristocratic family of old Lhasa. There were many times where he helped out Gendun Chophel in significant ways throughout his life. For more on his life and connections with Gendun Chophel, see “Horkhang Jampa Tendar” translated by Lauran Hartley:

[4] Nangtse Shak was the city court of Lhasa and central jail.


Go Sherab Gyatso is a Tibetan monk, writer and reputed scholar who has written over 10 books which demonstrate his erudition in Tibetan traditional education as well as the history of science, western philosophy, and modern political theories.