Abstract: A Tibetan on Tibet collects the conversations of G.A. Combe with Paul Sherap. These conversations took place daily for one to two hours over a period of about 4 months. Sherap, after introducing himself and briefly telling the story of his life, spends the majority of these conversations describing the differing religious and cultural practices that he encountered in his travels in Tibet, India, and China. Though Sherap periodically returns to his biography, the vast majority of the text focuses on observations made during his travels, which are described from the third person perspective. While this gives the book an aura of objectivity, it greatly inhibits the reader from learning about his life. Sherap’s own background as a Christian convert further distances him from these observations, and one gets the sense that he is estranged from his own culture.
A Review of A Tibetan on Tibet
By G.A. Combe
This book is not first and foremost a biography. Rather it is G.A. Combe’s recollections of conversations with Paul Sherap (formerly Dorje Zodba). These conversations occasionally emphasized Sherap’s personal history but the vast majority are his expositions on various regional, cultural, and religious practices that he encountered during his travels (these journeys took him as far east as Shanghai and as far West as Lahore) in the company of different religious practitioners, traders, and nomads. It was Combe’s idea to publish these conversations, and the purpose of the text is simply to introduce a Western audience to the distinctly foreign and exotic practices found throughout the Tibetan region. Frequent reference is made to the use of human bones and flesh for ornamental and religious purposes as well as the rather grotesque rite of burial by heaven in which human corpses are consumed by ravenous eagles (93) and it seems clear that Combe/Sherap seek to capture the imagination of their audience.
Beyond the second chapter, in which Sherap describes the entirety of his youth in some twenty pages and a small section at the end of the book, it is actually quite difficult to find traces of him within the text. For the majority of the text, Sherap merely offers his observations. As Combe mentions in the preface, “Sherap’s personal adventures were related with singular detachment. He appeared as if gazing, a remote and disinterested spectator, at the events he was describing” (xii). To the extent that Sherap (or perhaps Sherap and Combe) is present within these expositions, it can only be gleaned from the occasional description regarding an endemic Tibetan practice to which he objects, belying his Western faith and education. Thus, in attempting to examine Sherap through A Tibetan on Tibet, one must rely heavily on a very small section of the book, and then scrutinize the remaining portion in search of his well-hidden voice.
Sherap was born in 1887 (the Fire Hog Year). He was of mixed birth, his father being Mongolian and his mother Tibetan. His mother had wanted him to become a lama, but she died when Sherap was only eight and his father passed away the following year (22). After their untimely deaths, Sherap went to live with his sister, but in Sherap’s words “she was not caring very much for me” (22). After staying with her for another year, Sherap ran away in hopes that he might connect with his uncle, who lived in Sikkim as a businessman (22-23). In Sherap’s recollection his interest in Tibetan Buddhist practice waned from a rather young age. As with any biography, the reader must brood upon the accuracy of such a recollection. In light of Sherap’s conversion to Christianity, approaching his revelations with skepticism seems especially important.
En route to Sikkim, Sherap traveled with a few different groups. His first traveling companion was a lama. He described this experience only briefly and with some contempt: “Daytime he gave me plenty things to carry and he was not very kindful [sic]” (23). After a few weeks he ran away and fell in with nomads who he found much more agreeable. In his travels with their caravan, Sherap met a different lama who treated him with much more respect than the former, and journeyed with him the rest of the way to Lhasa.
Upon his arrival in Lhasa, Sherap’s lama companion encouraged him to join Drebung [sic: Drepung] Monastery under the tutelage of yet another lama. Though Sherap had little interest in doing so, as he was still set on connecting with his uncle in Sikkim, Sherap ultimately acquiesced to the wishes of the lamas. Sherap hated monastic life. He found the constant study boring and believed his gegen to be greedy and a bad lama. In describing life in the monastery Sherap states “he [the gegen] woke us before daybreak to make us read prayer books and, when he went out, he locked us in, just like a prison” (25). Sherap ultimately escaped the monastery, and continued his travels to Sikhim.
Though being trained as a lama certainly offered the learner a high degree of respect within Tibetan society, it is easy to imagine how this training, if coerced, could be truly unpleasant. That said, Sherap’s explanations should only be understood as his own perspective. Unfortunately it seems that Combe took Sherap’s analogy and ran with it. In Combe’s footnote on the same page he defines the term “Draba” as “a general appellation for all inmates of monasteries, whether they have taken orders or not” (25). Combe’s own biases are usually more subtly embedded within the narrative but in such a translation his disapproval is obvious. Determining whether these judgments are borne from his conversations with Sherap or are evidence of his Western background is more difficult. Nevertheless, in assessing the value of this work, both Sherap and Combe’s biases must be kept in mind.
Sherap continued towards Sikkim during which time he fell in with a muleman who actually knew Sherap’s uncle, known only by his nickname Balou. He traveled with the muleman the rest of the way to Gangtok (in Sikkim) and upon arrival discovered that Balou had died sometime previously (26). Sherap was taken in by a friend of his uncle’s and was eventually sent to live and study at a small palace alongside his cousin under a lama from Tashilhunpo. Having a difficult time with the heat in Gangtok, they were both moved to the high mountain Rudmik monastery. A few weeks after reaching Rudmik, a rash broke out on Sherap’s face. An American missionary named Cheddard was staying on the mountain at the time and gave Sherap medicine that healed his rash. Cheddard also gave Sherap a Tibetan translation of The Gospel According to St. John telling him “this is a small sickness [the rash]; but your soul is very sick; it will be difficult to cure” (28). This marks Sherap’s introduction to Christianity. He later studied at a Swedish mission in Darjeeling learning the gospels, Tibetan, English, and Hindustani among other subjects. It was during this time that he was Baptised as Paul (29). It should be noted that Sherap never becomes hostile to Buddhism per se; he simply looks upon it with skepticism.
Though years aren’t expressly mentioned, his studies must have taken place around 1910 because shortly afterwards the Chinese revolution broke out and Sherap was hired as an interpreter for Chinese troops escaping from Tibet (30). Through a series of complications, Sherap was never paid for this work. The remaining story of his youth includes two wives, work as a translator, his meeting with Padma Rinchen, and an encounter with his brother (a hermit lama of the Nyingmapa sect). All were summed up in about four pages. The Chinese revolution is one of the few world historical events mentioned in the text. Since dates are never used, moments like the Chinese revolution must be relied on as markers to situate Sherap’s life and experiences within a larger historical context. Unfortunately these markers are few and far between.
Absent from my discussion of this text is a detailed description of Sherap’s travels with Padma Rinchen and his lengthy observations on the various people’s he encountered along the way. Suffice it to say that in the case of the former, Sherap’s stories further demonstrate his distance from traditional Tibetan belief and religious practice. A brief anecdote in reference to their visit to the Bodhgaya temple may be an adequate replacement, as in my opinion it accurately depicts the tone of Sherap’s description of their travels: “In the temple my lama…kowtowed so many times and so hard that he got a big lump on his forehead. I also knelt with him and kowtowed. No, I didn’t get a lump” (157). Sherap is not so removed from Tibetan traditions that he refuses to kowtow, but his enthusiasm for it is less than total, as he finds humor in the thought of Padma Rinchen’s excessive devotion to his faith.
As is mentioned previously, Sherap as a character is absent from the majority of the text. Moreover, there are no characters in these expositions at all. Instead, Sherap isolates the practices of specific regions and their corresponding social groups, substituting any actual people he may have encountered with amalgams. Though these descriptions are impressive in their detail, Sherap physically and emotionally removes himself from them. It is therefore difficult to extract any biographical information from these chapters. Combe and by extension the book’s main purpose, it seems, is to introduce an ignorant Western readership to the exotic and sometimes “barbarous” region that is Tibet, and to lend credence to these introductions through the use of a Tibetan pundit, a term that Sherap used to describe himself (x). As a result the book’s value, as either a biography of Sherap or an exposition on Tibetan culture, is debatable.