Translated & updated from the French ‘In Memoriam’, offered by the French Association for Tibetan Studies (SFEMT) in Paris (http://www.sfemt.fr/in-memoriam-gegen-chenmo-dogon-sangda-dorje-1945-2020/, published on 07/10/20) and authored by Sangda Dorje-la’s former students and colleagues: Rachel Guidoni, Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, Françoise Robin, Heather Stoddard, Nicolas Tournadre, and Alice Travers.
Dhogon Sangda Dorje was Professor of Classical Literature at the University of Tibet from 1985 until his retirement in 2009. His Manual of Poetry. A Feast for the Eyes and Mind, published in 1992, became the principal handbook in the universities where Tibetan is taught in the PRC.
He passed away at home in Lhasa, on 21st September 2020 at 11.20pm (Lhasa time), after a long illness. The departure of this eminent figure of classical Tibetan culture is a great loss for Tibetan studies. His erudition in poetry and poetics, literary composition, music, dance and calligraphy and history, and his generous kindly way of imparting theoretical aspects of these fields of traditional Tibetan culture will be remembered by his numerous students, including those who had the opportunity of attending his lectures on classical poetry at INALCO, Paris, during the two years he spent there (1992-1994). Furthermore, his immense erudition was not confined to the theoretical aspects taught at the university. He was well known for his own living performances of music, dance and song, especially the Lhasa Nangma tradition. Furthermore, his generosity in supporting research students is legendary, including several French Tibetologists, starting with his two years of teaching poetry at INALCO, Paris, invited by Prof. Heather Stoddard, director of Tibet Studies at the time. Together with his wife, Thubten Lhamo, he always gave a warm welcome to his former students when they came to visit him in Lhasa.
Gen (Professor) Sangda Dorje as he is widely known, was born in 1945, the son of Dhogon Wangdu Sonam & Shokhang Tsering Drolkar. He spent his childhood in Lhasa. Before the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama, his father’s ancestors, the noble family Dhogon, were powerful local chiefs (sde-pa), with land in the district of Nyemo and a history going back to the 9th century CE. Following their integration into government service under the Ganden Podrang of the Dalai Lamas, the Dhogon familly became Gerpa (sger-pa), that is landed nobility who in the early 20th century CE still owned seven fiefs of different sizes, of which the largest was in Nyemo.
From ten years of age, Gen Sangda-la attended the well-known private school at Nyarongshar in Lhasa, and between the age of eleven and fourteen he studied grammar with Lama Thupten Yarpel, his private tutor, who was an ecclesiastical government official at the Tse Lobtra, a passage indispensable for any future lay or ecclesiastical government servant. Sangda-la took other lessons with private tutors in diverse subjects.
At fourteen years of age he entered government service precociously yet briefly as a lay official (drung-khor), but in the wake of the popular uprising in Lhasa in March 1959, and the end of the Ganden Podrang government, he went to live on the family estate in Nyemo, where he worked as a teacher in the local primary school. The palace, or rather fortress, where his family had lived since the end of the Tibetan military empire of Pugyal, during the reign of Darma U’idumten (Lang Darma), mid-9th century CE, was a grand building of several storeys high, with a huge library where traces of the swords of the Dzungar Mongols who invaded Central Tibet in the early 18th century CE, could still be seen on the heavy wooden door. The building directly overlooked a deep ravine, and Sangda-la remembered how its foundations were fully anchored into the rock using ingenious anti-seismic architectural technology that had allowed for its survival into the mid-20th century CE. Years after its destruction – along with countless other historic religious and vernacular buildings – Gen Sangda-la still marvelled at the prowess and sophistication of traditional Tibetan architects.
In 1969, he married Langtong (Glang mthong) Thubten Lhamo (1945-2019), with whom he had three children. They stayed for seventeen years in Nyemo before returning to Lhasa.
From 1980 onwards, Gen Sangda-la was employed as Professor of Tibetan at the Teachers’ Training College of the Tibet Autonomous Region, before being appointed professor of Tibetan Literature in the Department of Literature and Culture of the Tibet University in 1985, the year of the university’s foundation in Lhasa.
In 1993, Tibetan studies in France had the honour of creating close links with Gen Sangda-la, thanks to the retirement of Dakpo Rinpoche from his post at INALCO. Seizing the opportunity of Sangda-la’s presence in France, Heather Stoddard, then director of Tibetan Studies, invited him to teach his main subject, Tibetan poetry and poetics at INALCO.
When he arrived in Paris, his celebrated Snyan ngag slob deb. Mig yid dga’ ston, (Manuel of Poetics. A Feast for the Eyes and the Mind), had recently been published, so we – students and teachers – had the privilege of receiving detailed fascinating analyses of the great 1,300 year-old tradition of poetic writing in Tibet. The manual became the main reference for universities teaching Tibetan poetics in the PRC. Notably, he gave us delightful examples of different structures ranging from poems with one single syllable per line, up to thirty syllables per line. An astonishing feat.
His patient resourceful attempts at communicating the rich and complex subject of Tibetan classical poetry to a mostly French class of students with little more than two years of study of the difficult Tibetan language, created warm memories for all those who attended. During his sojourn in Paris, he organised several evening sessions devoted to Tibetan classical poetry, and at the same time he entertained his colleagues and students with music. After he returned to Lhasa, in 1994, several of us would go to visit him and his family and benefit from his skilful guidance. Indeed one excellent result of his stay in Paris, was the final redaction, with the renowned linguist, Prof. Nicolas Tournadre, of the Manuel du tibétain standard, translated into English as The Manuel of Standard Tibetan, Language & Civilisation, Snow Lion Publications, 2003. The English version of this manual has become the principal study tool for learning spoken Tibetan worldwide.
As a born teacher deeply concerned with the transmission of knowledge to the next generation, during his whole career and on top of his teaching duties, he tutored numerous research students who were welcome in his home even after his retirement in 2009. In 2006, he was awarded the highest academic distinction in the PRC for his professional career, as an Outstanding State Professor by the Ministry of Education in Beijing.
Several photos of Gen Sangda-la at the blackboard published on internet bear witness to his teaching activities:
During his retirement, Gen Sangda-la continued to give conferences on Tibetan poetry as well as philology, some examples of which can be found online. He was also appointed member of the committee of experts for the creation of Tibetan neologisms and standardised terms.
He was also often invited to cultural TV programs in Tibet to discuss Tibetan language and culture. Here is Gen Sangda-la on Khampa TV, in the educational program ‘Chad ‘khrid sgron me (The lamp of teaching)
GEN SANGDA-LA: CLASSICIST & ARTIST
In his youth he studied music with several different masters including a Muslim musician known as Drokhang (Gro-khang) Pola. Sangda-la’s maternal uncle was Shokhang Sonam Dargye, a great specialist of the history of Tibetan arts and music, expert in the Nangma tradition of song and music originating in Western Tibet (Nang-ma stod-gzhas), popular during parties and picnics in Central Tibet in the 19th & 20th centuries CE. Gen-la was very attached to this music and he would often play the Tibetan luth (sgra-snyan) and the two string Tibetan piwang (or spike fiddle) in concert with other Nangma musicians. He liked to play in what he considered to be the most authentic contemporary Lhasa style.
A recording by Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy in 1997, of the Nangma (Snang-ma Lha-yags zhol-pa) in which Sangda-la is playing the luth.
He also enjoyed performing traditional dances, notably one from Kham in Eastern Tibet, known as ‘the peacock drinks water’ that he executed with certain grace.
Poetry and calligraphy were integral elements of his life. He loved to compose poem games known as kunkhor (kun-’khor) or Magic Patterns, that can be read in all directions. A circular kunkhor in Sangda Dorje’s own calligraphy, entitled “Supreme” (mchog), combining his calligraphy and one of his poetic games.
“The world” (’Jig-rten), a poem of his composition and in his calligraphy, on traditional paper.
Sangda Dorje’s calligraphy: “Tashi Delek” (Congratulations!)
Gen Sangda-la published numerous research articles in Tibetan literary and academic journals, and wrote many remarkable poems. His wide knowledge and integrity were admired by all as can be seen from the many tributes published in Tibetan media online. As an outstanding intellectual, he was a member of various institutes and federations. For example he was member of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Federation of Writers; researcher for the Federation of Arts and Culture of the TAR; member of the Academic Committee of the TAR; director of the group responsible at state level, for teaching Tibetan language and literature in Institutes of Higher Studies (including universities) in the PRC.
Many of his books were frequently re-published in new editions:
Snyan ngag slob deb, mig yid dga’ ston (Manual of Tibetan Poetics. A Feast for the Eyes and Mind). Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1992, 3rd edition 2006.
Nicolas Tournadre & Sangda Dorje
Manual of Standard Tibetan (English translation by Charles Ramble, foreword by Matthew Kapstein). Boulder: Shambhala, 2003.
Manuel de tibétain standard : langue et civilisation. Introduction au tibétain standard (parlé et écrit). Paris : L’Asiathèque, 1998, 2nd edition 2010.
In collaboration with Gawa Pasang (dGa’ ba pa sangs):
Bod kyi yul srol rnam bshad (On Tibetan Customs). Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 2004, 3rd edition 2018.
Snyan-ngag legs-bshad gter ‘bum (A Clear Exposition of the Art of Poetry. One Hundred Thousand Treasures). Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2010, 2nd edition.
Tibetan Honorific Speeches. Zhe-sa’i lag-deb blo-gsar dga’-ston. Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 2002, 5th edition 2015.
Rdo-dgon gsang-bdag rdo-rje’i dpyad- rtsom phyogs-bsgrigs (Collected Essays by Dhogon Sangda Dorje). Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2012. In 6 parts: Composition in verse; magic poetic games; prose; short stories; popular literature.
Most recently he wrote a novel entitled Mdza’- gcugs kyi mi-tshe (A Life of Compatible Love). Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 2020.