Tibetan Studies > News for Tibetan Studies & Tibetans > Tsering Gyalpo Obituary
On Saturday 27 June, early in the morning, our friend and colleague Tsering Gyalpo unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack. He died in his apartment in Berlin – at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he had been active since last autumn as a Fellow and member in a “Tibet Focus Group” together with Guntram Hazod and Shen Weirong.
His sudden death has profoundly affected us all. But above all, we first think of his family, and our deepest and most heart-felt condolences go out to Tsering’s wife and their two children.
Tsering came from a nomadic family in western Tibet, where he grew up as the fourth of nine children, before his parents sent him to Lhasa for further education. From here his education led him to Beijing, with studies at the Minzu University and the Ethnology Department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. From 1994 he occupied a leading position at the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences (TASS), Lhasa, where for the last 15 years he served as director of the Religious Department of this institution. He greatly influenced the research work of this institute, and the gap he leaves within the whole TASS will be enormous.
From 1995 he was involved in a number of national and international teaching and research programmes, with Guest Professorships at universities in China, and as a research associate at several prominent foreign institutes – in Vienna (1996, 1998, 1999/2000, 2010, 2011), Virginia (2001), Harvard (2004) and Princeton (2006). Widely known are the books, where he essentially participated as co-author or collaborator – text and ethnography-based studies on medieval Central Tibet (2000, 2005, 2007). Similarly important are his numerous later studies (in Tibetan, several also trilingual Tibetan/Chinese/English) related to the history of Western Tibet (2006, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014).
From 2001 Tsering increasingly dedicated himself to his West Tibet (stod mnga’ ris) research, especially related to the Kingdom of Gugé (10th–17th century CE). He often verbally stated that his aim was to reveal as much as possible of the cultural heritage of his West Tibetan homeland to the world during his lifetime. He considered that this treasure belonged neither to Tibet nor to China, but to the whole world. This was the standard he set for his own work; it might even be said that this was his central message as a Tibet researcher.
There was something quite unusual in Tsering’s approach as both a researcher in general and a field researcher in particular: he was a gentle door-opener; in fact, with him many doors opened as if by magic. The range of his findings is enormous. A number of these are known from his publications, but much more material is still unprocessed, and we know from discoveries in West Tibet which have not yet been recorded – such as collections of unique texts from monasteries whose evaluation would require a multi-annual project. His last work, which will be published this year, is related to an exceptional discovery in Southeast Tibet where Tsering stayed for an extended period in 2014: a monumental, four-mete high stone relief of the Buddha Vairocana with his entourage, a work from the late 8th or early 9th century.
Most recently, in Berlin he worked on a book project on Zhang Zhung, based on chapters in Pandita Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s Nyi ma’i rigs kyi rgyal rabs skye dgu’i cod paṇ nyi zla’i phreng mdzes. Tsering’s approach to Zhang Zhung was characterised by a rather critical attitude towards contemporary Zhang Zhung studies in Western, Tibetan and Chinese works. Many of them were pure fables, he used to say, or more prosaically: “Zhang Zhung is (like Bon) a pot which everything that is found in the highlands, which appears to be old and is not instantly explainable, is thrown into.”
He was emotionally closely connected to the history of his homeland, and the fact that he adopted for himself the author’s name “Guge Tsering Gyalpo” is simply an expression of this pride. His maternal grandfather came from the small district called Gu ge (not far northwest of Tholing), after which historically the famous Buddhist kingdom is named.
Tsering was exceptional. Apart from his special talent for getting access to new historical material, his enormous lexical knowledge, and so on, all those who knew him and worked with him emphasised his unique character: humility, generosity and openness. But there was much more. His entire being was one of infinite warmth, and an almost childlike purity. This exceptional combination of characteristics also made it easy for him to develop an immediate rapport with everyone, as well as with worlds not familiar to him. Here at the Institute for Advanced Study, an elite institution where the humanities and life sciences meet, he was immensely popular from the very beginning. And, with ease, he led the wondering Fellows into the fascinating world of his homeland.
With Tsering Gyalpo a pearl of the Tibetan Studies community has gone from us, but even more so a pearl of a human being.
I personally will miss you infinitely, Tsering Gyalpo-la; at the same time I’m so thankful that our paths crossed, that I could learn from you, laugh with you and that you have shown me, and many others, how great people can be!
Institute for Social Anthropology, Austrian Academy of Sciences and Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna