History Lessons




Photo memorial designed by Christophe Besuchet


It’s a year now since my dear friend passed away. Although I have become, by default, the unofficial obituary writer in the exile Tibetan world, I could not, at the time then, bring myself to perform the necessary honors for my departed friend. In fact I was not able to write a single blog for a whole year.

But a heartwarming plethora of articles and posts by Elliots friends and students immediately filled the internet. First of the block was Carole McGranahan of U Col,  Tenzin Dorje of NYC, Tenzin Tsundue from Dharamshala and Thupten Anyetsang of Bloomington. In Tibetan we had memorials from Bhuchung D.Sonam Lukar Jam, Rabsal la, and in Chinese from poet/activist Tsering Woeser la in Beijing, and human rights activist Dan Hong Tang. A website was set up with all these posts and epitaphs, and also a wonderful video of Elliot’s life created and narrated by his daughter Coline.

I think I may have experienced that particular writer’s block as Elliot was not only my “BFF” (as some of his students teased him) but also as we had a “bucket list” (if I may be forgiven another pop-culture expression) of projects we were going carry out in our golden years. We only managed to accomplish the first thing on our list which was buying retirement apartments at Jackson Heights (“the Momo capital of North America” according to Elliot) a few blocks from each other.

So readers will understand why I’m still in the dumps, even a year after my friend’s passing. But as Elliot’s lomchö or one-year anniversary has come around, I suppose I should snap out of it and give my friend the proper send-off he deserves. Incidently, the shipchu-shigu or the forty-ninth day ritual (the period for the consciousness to pass through bardo) is regarded as a religious rite, while the lomchö is the occasion for friends and family to get together, raise glasses and remember. So to put myself in the right frame of mind I lit a chomé lamp, poured by myself a large rouge and watched a talk of his on YouTube.

Quite by happy chance I came across a series of lectures that Elliot had given at Trace Foundation, the last one as recently as 2016, some months before he died. The series was entitled: The History of Tibetan Civilization: A Talk Series with Elliot Sperling. Elliot is in fine form here. Its just as if he were sitting across the table at the Hotel Tibet Restaurant or Little Tibet in New York, glass in hand, holding forth on his theory of how from the many different tribes, kingdoms and ethnicities on the plateau, the Tibetans had emerged as a distinct people and a conquering force “after the smoke and dust had settled” – in a way like the Arab Empire.

I think that for friends, students and colleagues a most congenial way of observing the lomchö anniversary would be to watch these videos preferably with a glass in hand. As I mentioned earlier he is excellent form with his jokes, asides and innumerable digressions which brings our dear departed friend back to us in the here and now.

But course, above everything else, the history itself is spot on. I have always regarded Elliot as one of the foremost inji historian on Tibet of his generation, and all of you who watch these videos will, I am convinced, come around to agreeing with me.

The History of Tibetan Civilization

Part 1: Categorizing and Understanding its Different Periods

Part 2: Tibet: From Empire to Fragmentation

Part 3: Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism Beyond the Plateau: Tanguts, Mongols, and Chinese

Part 4: The Rise of Ganden Phodrang and Sprouts of Modernity

I recommend you don’t start from the first video as the audio is poor and might put you off. Start from the second and you will be hooked. You can go back to the first afterwards.

No summarization of the contents is necessary. The subtitles speak for themselves. But towards the end of Part 2 the talk gets into territory where Elliot’s scholarly prowess is particularly highlighted. Elliot tell us that even after the fragmention of Imperial Tibet, the prestige and memory of the empire survived in many outlying areas. He gives a number of interesting examples, one being the Tsongkha kingdom in present day Gansu province. He tell us that Chinese sources mention a young child, a descendent of the imperial line, being brought from Central Tibet and being enthroned as the ruler of Tsongkha. Sung dynasty accounts refer to him as fú érzi or “son of the Buddha”. Elliot uncovers the correct translation in the “Chinese Tibetan version” of Geshe Chodrak’s dictionary where it is simply translated as“gyalsay” or in Tibetan, “royal son” or “prince”.

Elliot’s outstanding mastery of Classical Chinese and Classical Tibetan languages gave his numerous valuable insights into Tibetan history a uniqueness and originality – always grounded on solid primary and secondary sources. His spoken Tibetan though fluent betrayed his New York origins. He tended to speak quickly, especially when he became excited. In the lectures Elliot apologizes on a number of ocassion for this shortcoming.

When Elliot was studying Tibetan in Dharamshala, he would practice his conversational skills in the evening with the old palas who drank at the friendly but admittedly grotty changkhangs on the Bhagsu road. As much as he enjoyed talking and arguing with Tashi Tsering la, myself and other young people in Dharamshsla, all of us invariably reverted to English with Elliot, which did not serve his greater scholarly purpose. He was also on a limited budget.

Unfortunately Elliot contracted hepatitis, probably from the chang, and became very ill. All of his friends pitched in to see him through it, with Namlha Takla, Kunsang Paljor, and myself bringing him hot water and meals. Doctor Yeshi Dhonden though in the end probably saved him with his bitter but potent medicines.

Elliot went back to Indiana and finished his Phd dissertation, Early Ming Policy toward Tibet: An Examination of the Proposition that the Early Ming Emperors Adopted a “Divide and Rule” Policy toward Tibet, in 1983. “The dissertation has been widely acknowledged as the most influential study on the subject.” He won the Macarthur “Genius” award, and  returned in triumph to Dharamshala where he made a large contribution to the Tibetan Library. He also came up to TIPA to see me and and gave a generous donation to the Insitute.

After that he always insisted on picking up the tab at the Hotel Tibet restaurant, forcefully arguing with us that we were refugee beggars (kyapchoe pango) while he was now an Americian capitalist (ari matsae ringlu). Elliot also helped me out personally, sending me the specialty books I needed but couldn’t get in India: on Communism, China, Russia and Stalinism, which were necessary for my research and writing. Aside from his knowledge of Tibetan and Chinese what distinguished Elliot’s appreciation of the Tibetan issue was his wide reading of European history, knowledge of Stalinism and Russian dissidents and their works. His French was excellent and he also had some Russian which helped. All this helped him avoid those elementary ideological pitfalls that some self-described historians on Tibet (eg. Goldstein, Grunfield) and many Western academics in those days could not, particularly when it came to its later iteration in Maoist China.

At the same time Elliot was fiercely critical of Dharamshala’s favored writers on Tibetan history as Michael Van Walt, who in his book “The Status of Tibet” (paid for entirely by the exile government) claims that Tibet’s patron-priest relationship with the Yuan and Qing was a viable system and that Tibetan lamas gave the Mongols and Qing rulers religious instructions and spiritual legitimacy while in return they received military protection and rich gifts from the Khans, but also acknowledgement of Tibet’s independent status. Elliot has effectively refuted this self-serving political theory of the Tibetan religious establishment in numerous papers and article. He also does an effective job of it in his lectures.

Elliot gives a succcinct synopsis of this controversy in his New York Times op-ed of 2008, which should be the last word on the subject. “Here are the facts. The claim that Tibet entertained only personal relations with China at the leadership level is easily rebutted. Administrative records and dynastic histories outline the governing structures of Mongol and Manchu rule in Tibet. Tibet was not independent during these two periods.” But Elliot also makes it clear  that Tibet was never made a part of China but was a protectorate of the Mongol and Qing Empires. He concludes emphatically. “Tibet was not “Chinese” until Mao Zedong’s armies marched in and made it so.”

Elliot was no armchair revolutionary. He spoke out openly against the folly of the exile leadership for giving up the freedom struggle. Even the presence of His Holiness did not deter him. At an international conference on Tibetan history in New Delhi Elliot was asked to give the concluding address where he told the many Tibetan students from JNU and Delhi University present “… that passionate as non-Tibetan scholars might be about Tibetan Studies, this is not our patrimony… It is for your generation to grasp the wealth of your inheritance or to let it rot. Tibet is assuredly a nation; Tibetans are assuredly a people.” Elliot stressed that the legacy of Tibetan history belonged to the Tibetan people, especially the younger generation, and not necessarily to high officials and high Lamas. On the dais alongside him were Sikyong Lobsang Sangay and the Dalai Lama.

Most of us know how Elliot worked tirelessly for the release of his friend, the Uyghur scholar, Ilham Tohti, so much so, that in 2014 at Beijing airport he found himself dragged by PSB officers into a back room for an interrogation. They then marched him back to the same United Airlines jet that he had flown in on, despite the fact he had arrived with a valid visa. There is a photograph (that I cannot locate) of him proudly holding up his passport with the cancellation stamp on his visa. I might be getting paranoid here but when I first heard of his death Chinese State Security sprang to mind. Elliot had no medical problems and swam and exercised regularly. I suggested to his daughter Coline to request the police to perform a thorough autopsy, including blood work.

Whenever anything had to be done of freedom and Rangzen you could count on Elliot to be there. A few photographs of his earlier participation in such organizations as the Rangzen Alliance in 2001.

1st Rangzen Alliance Planning Meeting, 2001: Lhakpa Tsering, Thupten Norbu (Taktser Rinpoche), Jamyang Norbu, Elliot Sperling, Lhadon Tethong, Thupten Tsering, Lisa Keary.

and also Elliot’s participation in the Boycott Made in China campaign in 2002 at New York City.


His last involvement was with the Tibetan National Congress. He attended the first conference and subsequently joined the organization. His contributions were many, not only in regular financial donations but in allowing his apartment to be used for TNC meetings. He also helped the members of the local TNC chapter as well as SFT and others in New York, with discussions and talks, and clearing up their many questions on Tibetan history and politics.

Last year, when the police returned his wallet to his daughter, a dog-eared TNC membership card was discovered inside. He was proud of it, in particular the number 14 on the card. He told me that with old time Communists in Russia there was a cachet to having membership cards with single or double digit numbers, that proved how early on one had joined the Party.



20 Replies to “History Lessons”

  1. Thank you Jamyang la for never giving up on what you truly believe in. བོད་རང་བརྩན

  2. Tibetan Lu Xun, While you were hibernating, CCP torjan horse and her Tibetan cohort hijacked Tibetan media. Help lead to oust them. Resistance within is strong.

    Here is news many may be interested. I heard, Kalden Lodoe has snatched the post of director of RFA Tibetan Service, of course with the help of its chief Libby Liu. Although I heard majority of the Tibetan staff objected to this and wrote to BBG and RFA senior staff but to no avail.
    The post was not advertised and more qualified journalists in RFA itself as well as outside were not given any chance. Remember crooked Kalden Lodoe and Libby Liu initially kicked Ngapo Jigme years ago without any rhyme or reason and this time they forced out Tenzin Tethong. What the concerned Tibetan citizens can do and specially in the US is to write of BBG and US Congress to stop this corrupt practices and stop using RFA as Libby’s fiefdom on US tax dollars. Also Tibetan citizens must write to Gaden Phodang to stop this special relationship with Libby and Kalden, so that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s honor is not damaged further for these crooks are interested only in keeping their fiefdom intact with US tax dollars pretending to have blessings from His Holiness for their nefarious works and the top US officials would not dare to remove them from their posts.
    Tibetans who are concerned about how just a tiny few independent news organizations in this world must survive do everything possible to reverse this abnormally.

  3. Jamyang la,

    While thanking your for resuming your much awaited blog with a heavy heart on the subject of the choice of the topic (ES), it is heartening to see that the the first entreat by Tsering Tashi about what is going on Radio Free Asia. I do recall your blog did carry extensive coverage on radio station after its first director (Ngobo) was fired not be heard again. Wondering what this spineless guy is upto?.

    I am now checking what has stransfered at RFA is true, which shows the extend of extensive and unchecked abuse of power by Libby-Kalden-Gadden Phodrang collusion (I am sorry to say that, but after knowing what horrible things have and is happening beneath Gaden Phodrang his own pedigree Lama Tenzin Dhonden and allies (not yet named)is true, the pandora box is opening).

    I was alerted that Libby and Kalen were or are in Dharamsala, celebrating the coupe with His Holiness while Sikyhong LS is on a self-aggrandizement tour to South Africa on American passport.

    We need some one to confirm Mila Rangzen’s report that LS has shamelessly ordered former Tibetan diplomat Chudak Koran, and currently North-American Chitue Pema Chazostang to nominate him for Nobel Peace Award, and the Templeton Award respectively.

    While we can wait on that, what is happening or has happend at RFA is terrible. This will bring utter shame to the Tibetan cause which the American governemnt is funding. If CTA fails to over see what this USA-Tibetan venture, the future of free press an free speech is doomed.

    I friend told me that most of the currently employees (broadcasters) are eagerly waiting to retire or resign. While it is one thing to blame ourselves internally, there are those seriously suspect that there is China’s outreach at RFA.

    One hopes and prays that the American government will see the day of the light and put RFA Tibetan Service in over before it is too late.

    That is all for now.

  4. What happened to your blog? Its been inactive for long. Happy new year to you and all your followers. Rest in peace your friend, Elloit Sperling.

  5. Thank you Jamyang la. You are who you are – for ever Rangzen like the principle of “ the ultimate dependent origination/Rten Ching ‘Brel Bar ‘Byung Ba mThar Thug”, the Ultimate Nature, never changing reality, when it comes the Core Tibetan Issue. Unfortunately, you are also one of the the most misunderstood Tibetan intellectuals. Why don’t you seek a one to one personal audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It should help mitigate people’s illusion. The time is NOW or NEVER. This is my sincere advice.

    On the other front – Yes, I also wish to sincerely caution Kalden Lodoe, Tenzin Dhondhen and other Zimchung Namgyal Senior and Junior Monks, as well as some of the Namgyal ex-monks working in close contact with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. “Please stop manipulating His Holiness the Dalai Lama” for your personal gains. Enough is enough. The whole world is watching, observing and sensing something is definitely wrong. Should you continue to do so your dirty politics part, then a lot of shit news is going to be out in public. Many are ready now. I have personally requested some to show restraints. So, please be fair, honest and preserve your true integrity as Tibetans. No more dramas now. This is the age of technology – Facebook, YouTube, WeChat, What’s Up and so on…. Please stop your dirty games dragging the name of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is my sincere plea. You guys will be responsible if things explode and goes beyond control. The sanctity of the institution of Dalai Lama is significantly – NOW and EVER. His Holiness is Tibet. Tibet is His Holiness…….

  6. Tsepak Rinzin la, I have lots of respect for you. But this time, I warn you, you better watch your words. How dare you scold Kalden Lodoe and Lama Tenzin Dhondhen! These two are Apple of two important monks – Kushok Paljor and Kushok Lopsang Gawa’s eye, who, we are now told has messianic hold on our Chenrizig!

    Tibet can go to dust. Patriots’ blood get soiled. But these two thuk-sey can do no wrong. If you think, I am kidding, then I dare you, ask Kalon Tri-sur Khewang Samdhong Rinpoche or ask Ngari Rinpoche. Even some are saying our Jamyang Norbu la is staying mum for a good reason.

  7. White la! Common…….why use a pseudo name for youself. That means you have a hidden agenda. Respect is not always white when it becomes so called, “confirmed bias.” Please check if you are under this umbrella or not. We have a long long history of subverting thinkers and intellectuals….. I was simply making a strong plea and I am not alone. You need to Watch this again:

  8. Tsepak Rigzin la, The choice for us is to open our eyes and see things for ourselves. Or the option is still believe that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is God and hence can make no mistakes.

    Since most of us believe His Holiness is God and how can people manupilate a God?

    But sadly, by now, majority of self – aware Tibetans and Tibet supporters know that two people closely associated with Chenrizig, dralok Kalden and Crooked monk featured in International press are the two most corrupt, immoral person one can find in Tibetan community. Many pretty women in our small community will tell you that Kalden Lodroe has approached them and offered photo-op with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Of course, the intention of this sex starved rascal is easily understandable!

    But since we are all true followers of His Holiness, we should ignore this fact and should imagine that these two immoral people are some sort of dakinis! His Holiness the Dalai Lama can never be so wrong!

    Even after international expose, we hear that Lama Tenzin Dhondhen is back at Gaden Podrang first with a group of Vietnamese Buddhist and then with two American politicos. And Kalden Lodroe stole the Directorship of RFA Tibetan Service.

    We are left with nothing but say Jai Ho Gaden Prodrang. Jai Ho Samdhong Lama. Jai Ho two monks in Zimchung flushing His Holiness’ fame and glory slowly down the drain.

    I hear you Tsepak Rigzin la. Like you, I am a true follower of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Today, I am not just disappointed but disgusted at how these crooks have become so powerful that our Chenrizig has to dance to the tunes they play, by meeting the people they wanted or supporting the cause they cooked up. OMG!

    I don’t understand how the patriot in JN can bury his head and stay quite when even pygmies like Thokmey is crying fire! fire! Where is redemption? Show me the path? I want to be true follower, but not blind follower. Help me Buddhisattavas!

  9. White la! But who are you? What is your real name? Why are you hybernating like a snake? One thing. I am glad you got it right! I cannot and shall not give up on Holiness the Dalai Lama – Never, Ever!!! However, I am also not at all ready to submit myself blindly to all, to say the least – cronies, cychophants, politicians and crooks surrounding His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Those, who only take personal advantage at the cost of delivering honesty, truth, moral ethics and say, “I am only carrying out His (ཁོང་གི་) message to public.” They get audience (གཟིམ་ཆུང་མཇལ་ཁ་) anywhere, anytime they want. Furthermore, I mean, we have no dearth of preachers of His Holiness’ message, but only a very few true practitioners. I can also say, for sure, Jamyang Norbu la is not an Anti-Dalai Lama, but surely, has some disagreements with some of His Holiness’s political views on Tibet. So what?When I say this, should this mean, I am an ardent supporter of JN or JN is an Anti-Kundun? In fact, I am an ardent supporter of the Truth – the poor Truth, the shabbily impoverished Truth. JN stands for Truth. Is this JN’s sin? Is this JN’s betrayal? Is this JN’s treachery? Should not be so for JN right? Why should people preach and practice cold shoulder on JN? Especially, my guess is, JN la hasn’t so far received any personal teachings, let alone tantric from His Holiness. So, why mix religiosity or pure vision (དག་སྣང་). Also, let us not think only JN la has the responsibility to dig into all Tibetan craps. I know, ultimately, it is up to an individual – to decide whether to segregate or not his/her religiosity and politicity. The question here is, however, could we afford to ignore our Tibet, our Dalai Lama, our history, our ethos? Let us point our index finger in a clenched fist to ourselves..ha…ha..and ponder. Thanks!

  10. ” I am glad you got it right! I CAN NOT and SHALL NOT give up on Holiness the Dalai Lama – Never, Ever!!! ”

    I might have got it right. Are you sure you got it too? Like the professor said in the opening remarks of beautiful YouTube you posted, your/our/ Tibetan yak herders faith towards His Holiness may remain unshaken, but has the answer to your faith remained the same?

    Who are the losers here: morals, truth, honesty, TIBET, TIBETAN people, -the real Tibetan people. གསུང་རྒྱུ་བླ་མས་གསུངས་ཡོང་། མཛད་རྒྱུ་བླ་མས་མཛད་ཡོང་།

    My thinking on this issue is totally different from you, Jamyang la do not need to change the spot of his tiger skin. His will shine bright in the annals of Tibetan struggle, irrespective fake and false posturing of our witless community now. His children and all those who get to associate with him will forever be proud of their father/friend or mentor.

    But will the crooked emissaries of His Holiness let His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s legacy survive the moment of light, once He is gone?

    Won’t the shallowness, greed and people who symbolizes the exact opposite of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s life-time of teaching not betray the hypocrisy?

    Isn’t this the whole reason of your first post to begin with? Also, isn’t it the core teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that disciples should not close their eyes and follow their lamas blindly, but investigate the wheeling and dealings of his or her Lamas?

    If we apply the same standard to His Holiness, does His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s embrace of these two shadowy crooks as His thuk-sey pass the smell test ?

    JN will testify to the fact that His Holiness the great 13 Dalai Lama did yoemen service for the future of our nation, but the moment He passed away, thanks to crooks and chamchas that surrounded him, it evaporated within a span of few years. They say, history not only repeat itself but also rhymes. I fear we are witnessing the same here, if Gaden Prodhang does not wake up from this death-embrace by dralok Kalden Lodroe and Lama Dhondhen. I shed tears as I write this from Kathmandu, Nepal. It is a wail of my weak, feeble heart, not of a snake hibernating! I wish patriot in JN could take a 10th March pledge here to do this house cleaning for our nation.

  11. Tsepak Rigzin la, you wrote the following in your post:

    “By the way not all apples are always good. some apples can be bad. One bad apple is good enough to ruin all apples in the bag.”

    I have a question for you. Why is it that Gaden Prodang likes bad apples so much? Why is Gaden Prodang allergic to good apples? May be people like you with དག་སྣང་can better explain this? All your words. Not mine.

  12. Tsering Dorji la. I wasn’t questioning Gaden Phodrang at all. I was hitting at the cronies, cychophants, crooks surrounding His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They are the apples – can be good or bad. Pl. don’t get me wrong. Secondly, your question – Why Gaden Phodrang likes bad apples so much? Ask me not this, rather, ask yourself or ask Gaden Phodrang. It is your question and way of thinking not mine. I uphold my དག་སྣང་ for Gaden Phodrang, and fundamentally, དག་སྣང་ is a sacred private and personal outlook. It’s a deeply religious conviction not even a religiosity on an individual level.

  13. O.K. Then, please tell the poor, wretched, misguided folks like us whose faith is shaken like the butter lamp in a storm, how do you,”uphold your དག་སྣང་ for Gaden Phodrang,” that most of us all agree is infested with ” the cronies, (S)cychophants, and crooks” ?
    We all agree what Sogyal Rinpoche did is wrong. We are all grateful to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for berating the deeds of Sogyal Rinpoche. But when it comes to Kalden Lodoe and Temzin Dhonden, why the standard is so different?

    It will be very helpful if you do a YouTube video on this difficult but important issue for us faithful or wanting to be faithful to keep our དག་སྣང་ ? I think Scholars like Geshe Thupten Jinpa and you owe us some explanation for all the གུས་ཕྱག་we bestow for your scholarship.

  14. Tsering Dorji la. “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” So, no need to get your faith དད་པ་དག་སྣང་ shaken easily by events around us in this messy world. Truth takes it’s own time of maturation. I respect your concerns and sensibility though. Words of Oscar Wilde synchronizes perfectly with this issue, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

  15. Tsepak Rigzin la: Where is ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་སྤྱན་ when you end up always trusting the wrong person. May be the topic of research for the next Science and Mind should the psychological reason behind fondness of the Buddhas in Gaden Podrang for morally depraved person like winner of who wants to be millionaire monk Lama Dhonden and Dralok Kalden Lodroe now enthroned as Director of RFA?

    Whole reason of putting Dralok Kalden is to defang Tibetan media from snooping and talking too much. Media may be castrated but in this day and age who has castrated Tibetan scholars? At least, I appreciate your calling wolf! We are in a slippery slope position now. I have one word: Damn with such དད་སྣང་། Jamyang la has a better word, it is called ” Reality and Illusion” !
    Chenrizi should have a reality check! HE is always ending up trusting the wrong people, be it Juchen or LS or two worthless thuk-sey named above.

  16. This platform is a for sometimes, a parched earth. But I keep coming back to salute true patriots here. I post here for the audience of two. One, hoping that JN will write and other hoping Gaden Podrang cronies will come here looking what JN has written and then take notes of what is being said and hopefully will inform Holy father of how the public feel.

    Tsepak Rigzin la, why do you advise people from writing and then yourself come out here and wail? This question is with reference to your post where you write that ” I have personally requested some to show restraint ” Why?

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