December 19, 2010
Gene Smith passed on December 16, to the profound regret of the international community of Tibetans, Tibetan historians and scholars, and Buddhists around the world.
A true pioneer in Tibetan Studies, Gene dedicated his life to preserving the rich literary heritage of Tibet.
Smith was born in Ogden, Utah to a traditional Mormon family. His educational background included attending a variety of institutions including Adelphi College, Hobart College, University of Utah, and the University of Washington in Seattle.
In Seattle, he studied with Dezhung Rinpoche and members of the Sakya Phuntso Phodrang family, who had been brought to Seattle under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation grant to the Far Eastern and Russian Institute. He studied Tibetan culture and Buddhism with Dezhung Rinpoche from 1960 to 1964 and spent the summer of 1962 traveling to the other Rockefeller centers in Europe to meet with numerous Tibetan lamas.
In 1964 he completed his Ph.D. qualifying exams and attended Leiden University (in the Netherlands) for advanced studies in Sanskrit and Pali.
In 1965 he moved to India under a Foreign Area Fellowship Program (Ford Foundation) grant to study with living exponents of all of the Tibetan Buddhist and Bönpo traditions.
He studied with Geshe Lobsang Lungtok (Ganden Changtse), Drukpa Thoosay Rinpoche and Khenpo Noryang, and H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. During these years he also traveled extensively to the borderlands of India and Nepal.
In 1968 he joined the Library of Congress New Delhi Field Office. He then began a project which was to last over the next two and a half decades: the reprinting of the Tibetan books that had been brought into exile by the Tibetan Diaspora.
He became field director of the Library of Congress Field Office in India in 1980 and served there until 1985, when he 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 1997 he retired from the Library of Congress. He briefly worked as a consultant for Trace Foundation for the establishment of the Himalayan and Inner Asian Resources in New York, an organization dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of Tibetan literature.
In 1999, together with Leonard van der Kuijp of Harvard University, Smith founded the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC). The resultant library has become the largest collection of Tibetan literature outside of Tibet.
In 2001, Wisdom Publications published Among Tibetan Texts, Smith’s collection of essays, which he had written – as introductions to Library of Congress reprints of Tibetan texts – years before while living in Delhi. In fact, these introductions were already well known before the publications of the book: They had circulated since the early 1980s amongst students and researchers and had acquired a kind of cult status.
Smith’s work is the subject of a forthcoming documentary called Digital Dharma. Below is a small clip from that upcoming film:
On a personal note, I first met Gene in the winter of 2001 in Boston, in the offices of Wisdom Publications, where he was serving as Executive Editor. It was a celebratory occasion. The late William Hinman (who was one of Gene’s staunchest benefactors) and I had recently returned from an extensive trip in southern Tibet, including a visit to the Khampa town of Derge, home of one of the oldest and most important printing presses in Tibet. Hinman was now in Boston to gift Gene with several extremely rare texts that he had purchased at the Derge monastery.
At the same meeting, I pitched my book Buddha’s Warriors, which resulted in a contract from Wisdom. In the end, I turned down the contract and went with Penguin instead, but I will always regret having missed the opportunity to work with Gene, who would have served as my editor.
On that day and during later encounters with Gene in New York, I always marveled at his wry, earthy way of looking at things. He was the consummate intellectual and yet he conducted himself without the slightest hint of self-importance. His dedication to preserving Tibetan literature – his goal was to digitalize everything that had ever been written in Tibet – was absolute and unflagging until the end.
He was a true friend of Tibet and, as a source of inspiration, will be missed all over the world.
A public memorial service for E. Gene Smith will be held at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, at 1047 Amsterdam Ave. at 112th St., New York, NY on Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 2:00 PM. Interested parties can contact email@example.com for further information.