An inter­view with

Géza Bethlenfalvy

Pos­i­tion & Affil­i­ation: Pro­fess­or Emer­it­us of Tibet­o­logy at Eötvös Loránd Uni­ver­sity (ELTE), Bud­apest
Date: April 15, 2017 in Bud­apest, Hungary
Inter­viewed by: Imola Atkins (con­duc­ted in Hun­gari­an and trans­lated by Imola Atkins)

Cite this archive

Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies. (2021, Decem­ber 2). An inter­view with Géza Beth­len­falvy. Retrieved 30 Janu­ary 2023, from
“An inter­view with Géza Beth­len­falvy.” Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies, 2 Dec. 2021,
Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies. 2021. An inter­view with Géza Beth­len­falvy. [online], Avail­able at: [Accessed 30 Janu­ary 2023]
Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies. “An inter­view with Géza Beth­len­falvy.” 2021, Decem­ber 2.

Dis­claim­er: The views and opin­ions expressed in this inter­view are those of the inter­viewee and do not neces­sar­ily rep­res­ent the offi­cial pos­i­tion of the Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies project.


List of Acronyms: GB= Géza Beth­len­falvy, IN= Inter­view­er

Inter­view con­duc­ted in Hun­gari­an. Trans­lated by Imola Atkins.


University and life in Hungary in the 1950s and 1960s

IN:      When was your admis­sions interview?

GB:     At about the begin­ning of the 1950s. I was born in ’36, so ’46, ’56. Some­time in the middle of the 1950s.

I took my end of school exams in ’58, I think. I was born in ’36, or I don’t even know when. No, I was born in a dif­fer­ent way. Anyway.


IN:      Did com­mun­ism make your admis­sion to uni­ver­sity more difficult?

GB:     They did­n’t want to admit me at my inter­view because I came from a fam­ily of landown­ers, and not from a work­ing-class fam­ily. Because of that they did­n’t accept me. Mean­while I had already worked for two years, I worked as a hos­pit­al port­er. We ended up in Moson­mag­yaróvár. My moth­er was from Moson­mag­yaróvár and we went back there because we could­n’t go up to Felvidék (Hun­gari­an term for the area of present-day Slov­akia, which used to be part of Hun­gary). I don’t know when this was, I don’t know these dates any more.


IN:      What was the atmo­sphere like at the uni­ver­sity then?

GB:     Mixed, it was all sorts. They did­n’t accept me eas­ily, but then I did get into uni­ver­sity. I was admit­ted to the Rus­si­an Faculty.

Soon after I met Józ­sef Vekerdi in the corridor—the per­son who accep­ted me—and he asked me what I was doing. I said that I am study­ing Rus­si­an. And he said, “Have you not tried some­thing else as well?” I said, “Sure, I went to see the Chinese Faculty—I did­n’t really like it—and also the Arab­ic Fac­ulty.” And he said, “Why haven’t you gone to the Indo­logy Fac­ulty?” I said because there is no Indo­logy. And he said, “Just go anyway”.

The Indo­logy Fac­ulty was approved on 23rd Octo­ber 1956 (the same date as the Hun­gari­an revolu­tion, an import­ant date in the minds of Hun­gari­ans). So I came into being on that meet­ing. I went to see [János] Harmatta—who was the head of the faculty—and he admit­ted me to Indo­logy. Well, I was the only Indo­lo­gist for years. They even kicked me out two years later from the uni­ver­sity because my friends and I got up to all sorts of mischief.

In ’57 we walked along the same road as the stu­dents in ’56, [we] walked along the Kiskörút (small ring road in Bud­apest) and across the bridge and then to the Radio. “We’re going to the Radio: Join us if you are Hun­gari­an!” They were shout­ing this from a truck. So I went to the Radio. Then when they shot someone, I took him away. I had worked in an oper­at­ing theatre before, so I took him, band­aged him up, then I went home. Any­way, this was what happened in ’56. There were all sorts of things.


IN:      Was there lots of turmoil?

GB:     Of course. That’s right. The Rus­si­ans also came in then. First the Hun­gari­ans, they shot into the air. But the Rus­si­ans were already in the crowd, too. At the Radio there were men from the AVO (Hun­gari­an State Pro­tec­tion Author­ity), they were the ones who shot into the crowd. And then they hit someone, and I took that per­son into the uni­ver­sity. That was also where the Human­it­ies Fac­ulty is today. I just went in at the back, band­aged him up, and then I went to the Eötvös col­lege. I lived there at the time. Do you know where the Eötvös col­lege is, where it was? Above Moszk­va square. Not Moszk­va, some­where up there.


IN:      Was it dif­fi­cult to con­tin­ue your studies?

GB:     It was. It was dif­fi­cult. But for­tu­nately, I always managed.


IN:      When did the events start to calm down?

GB:     This was under [János] Kádár, was­n’t it? Kádár came in, then he calmed down the events a little. But he was­n’t exactly a decent bloke either. And in the end, it was only at the begin­ning of the 1980s—end of the 1970s, begin­ning of the 1980s—that everything calmed down.


IN:      Could you also feel that things had changed at the uni­ver­sity, too?

GB:     Of course, one could already fore­see that. Change had to take place at the university.


IN:      What kind of changes?

GB:     It got a little bet­ter. At the uni­ver­sity there came a pos­it­ive change. In the 1980s ser­i­ous changes took place, at the very begin­ning of the 1980s. I was already there then. Lajos Ligeti was my boss. Then I went abroad. Ligeti did­n’t like it that we trav­elled, but I still went to Mon­go­lia, first. And then later, one year later, to India, and at that time to teach Hun­gari­an in India. I taught Hun­gari­an in India.


IN:      To whom?

GB:     Who­ever applied. Not many. One of my stu­dents is still here. He works at the embassy. He got a schol­ar­ship from me. He mar­ried a Hun­gari­an girl here and now he lives here. He’s called Sharma Bhushan.


Research and travel in Mongolia

IN:      When did you first go to Mongolia?

GB:     I first went there in the begin­ning of the 1970s. I’ve been many times to Mon­go­lia. Mon­go­lia also plays an import­ant role for me. At that time in Mon­go­lia com­mun­ism was still big, but people were Buddhists at heart.

I was inter­ested in the Buddhist things in Mon­go­lia, so I used to vis­it the base­ment of the academy’s lib­rary, where there were Buddhist books. There was a place called dzah where one could buy any­thing, because this dzah was a kind of flea mar­ket. And there was a sec­tion where one could buy Tibetan books, too. I bought the Tibetan books there in Mongolia.


IN:      Did you start to study these on your own?

GB:     I star­ted to study them, yes. I was already work­ing with Tibetan then. Ligeti liked that I was inter­ested in Tibetan, and I did that.


IN:      Was it Ligeti who first sug­ges­ted Tibet­o­logy to you?

GB:     Yes. I star­ted to engage with Tibetan ser­i­ously. I nev­er learned Mon­go­li­an prop­erly, only Tibetan. Ligeti wrote a cata­logue of Mon­go­li­an books, and in that the Sanskrit names of each book also appears—the Tibetan and Sanskrit—and the Sanskrit names had many mis­takes. And so, he was very happy that I was at the fac­ulty, because I was an Indo­lo­gist and I could cor­rect him. So this was also a thing.


IN:      What was his main field?

GB:     Ligeti’s? Mon­go­li­an.


IN:      Right. And did he have a big influ­ence on Mon­go­li­an studies?

GB:     He was a very import­ant Mon­gol­ist. That’s right.


IN:      And you could help him with the Sanskrit?

GB:     He was­n’t famil­i­ar with Sanskrit. I cor­rec­ted his mis­takes in Sanskrit in his cata­logue because I gradu­ated in Indology.


IN:      Were you the only Indologist?

 GB:     At first I was alone, but there were oth­er Indo­lo­gists. Later there were Indo­lo­gists, of course.


IN:      Who did you learn Indo­logy with?

GB:     The Indo­logy Fac­ulty exis­ted. János Har­matta was the head of the fac­ulty and Csaba Töt­tössy was, who also already knew Sanskrit, and the two of them taught me when I was alone. Then later there were oth­er Indo­lo­gists, too. But at first it was them, the two of them taught me.


IN:      When did you switch from Russian?

GB:     I stud­ied Rus­si­an for two years. I took the basic exam and passed. But by then I was only doing Hun­gari­an and Indo­logy because I took care of the Rus­si­an. That was­n’t some­thing import­ant for me. I liked it, and I still have Rus­si­an lady friends. In Mon­go­lia Rus­si­an was very use­ful, I could talk to people in Rus­si­an there. I did­n’t know Mon­go­li­an. I nev­er learned Mon­go­li­an properly.


IN:      What was it like going to Mon­go­lia for the first time?

GB:     It was a great exper­i­ence. It was­n’t easy but I man­aged to go. There were times when I went, and also came back, by train. The jour­ney took many days: it was five days or six days to Moscow and from Moscow two days by train. It was quite a ser­i­ous jour­ney. First like this, then later we trav­elled by air­plane. That was easier.


IN:      Were there occa­sions when you did­n’t travel alone?

GB:     It happened occa­sion­ally, but not with my girl­friends. Most of the time I trav­elled alone when I went to Mongolia.


IN:      What kind of Tibetan books did you find in those markets?

GB:     Prop­er Tibetan books. I can show you some if you’re interested?


IN:      Please.

GB:     This is the Tibetan writ­ing, rJe btsun dam pa kun dga’ chos legs kyi etc. You can read this. Kun dga’ Chos legs kyi rnam thar: the bio­graphy of Künga Chölek. This was [Sándor] Csoma’s teach­er, Künga Chölek.


IN:      Amaz­ing!

GB:     These are quite spe­cial. And these are hand­writ­ten texts.


IN:      And is this from Mongolia?

GB:     No. I bought this in India around the area where Csoma lived and worked. I brought it from India. If you like you can take a look at it.


IN:      Thank you.

GB:     Be care­ful.


Research and travel in India, links with Sándor Kőrösi Csoma

IN:      Did you meet people in India who were asso­ci­ated with Csoma?

GB:     I did­n’t meet Csoma. He was dead by then.

Of course, I met people who lived there. For example, Sangyé Punt­sok, his grand­child is alive. Sangyé Punt­sok taught Csoma, he was his teach­er. And his grand­child still lives there. We became friends.


IN:      Where is this?

GB:     It’s in Ladakh. This area is called Zans­kar. Zans­kar is where Csoma lived and worked, and these people also live there.


IN:      Did you com­mu­nic­ate with them in Tibetan?

GB:     No. In Eng­lish or something.


IN:      They under­stood English?

GB:     I had learned Hindus­tani, the Hindus­tani lan­guage. Hindi, the Indi­an lan­guage. I learned that, so the way Indi­ans talk to each other.

I spoke with them either in Hindus­tani or in Eng­lish. Who­ever did­n’t know Eng­lish I spoke with in Hindus­tani. I can­’t speak Tibetan; I can only read it and I under­stand it. I have a dic­tion­ary. But I can­’t speak [it], I nev­er learned the spoken language.


IN:      Did you learn Hindus­tani while you were in India? 

GB:     I had learned that. I already star­ted learn­ing [it] here. I had already begun study­ing Hindus­tani at the Indo­logy Fac­ulty. There was a teach­er here who knew Hindus­tani well. Then one year he also joined the uni­ver­sity, Árpád Debre­ceni, and I learned Hindus­tani from him, here at the uni­ver­sity in Hungary.


IN:      What is this writ­ing about?

GB:     This is about the life of Sangyé Punt­sok, who was Csoma’s teach­er. It was writ­ten after he had already died.


IN:      Where was this kept? Who had it?

GB:     There people don’t throw these things away. Once they write it, they’ll keep it. I was able to buy it from someone. It’s not so easy, but because they saw that I was inter­ested, and I gave money…


IN:      That helps.

GB:     They sold it. But this one, for example, I think I bought at a mon­as­tery. The place it was writ­ten at had more cop­ies and I bought this one.


IN:      It’s very nicely written.

GB:     The title is: Jét­sün (rje btsun), ven­er­able; lama (bla ma)—that means excel­lent per­son; Künga Chölek. That is his name, Künga Chölek.


IN:      So he was a fam­ous teach­er presumably?

GB:     Yes. Künga Chölek was a man of good repute. An Eng­lish­man called [Wil­li­am] Moor­croft got to know Csoma. And Moor­croft recom­men­ded him to Csoma because this teach­er had pre­vi­ously been to Tibet, so he knew that this will be a good per­son for Csoma. This is how they got together.

Moor­croft was a very excel­lent man. He was also a doc­tor. He wanted to go to Tibet but could­n’t because the bor­der was closed. And Csoma could­n’t go there either. He went that way because he wanted to go to Mongolia—through Tibet—where the ancest­ors of the Hun­gari­ans lived—somewhere around Mon­go­lia, some­where in the south, to the east, west of Mon­go­lia. But he could­n’t go across Tibet because Tibet was closed off right up until now. And Moor­croft wanted to cross, too, but he could­n’t either. So, he came back and after­wards he went to Kolk­ata and lived there, Csoma.


IN:      How long did he live in Kolk­ata for?

GB:     10 or 12 years. Not just in Kolk­ata, he trav­elled around. He walked to Kolk­ata on foot and lived there for quite a while. He looked at the Tibetan manu­scripts and sor­ted them. This was in the begin­ning of the 1800s. Csoma was born in 1784. So it was already the first dec­ade of the 1800s, when he was there.


IN:      So he had­n’t learned Tibetan when he was back here, but star­ted then?

GB:     Well, he learned Tibetan from, what’s his name. Moor­croft told him to, and then he learned, and made the first dic­tion­ary, a gram­mar book, and wrote essays on Tibetan literature.


Studying Sanskrit and Tibetan at University

IN:      Did you study from any of those? I mean, when you were at uni­ver­sity were those books still in use?

GB:     At uni­ver­sity I learned Sanskrit.


IN:      Of course.

GB:     Later when I was trans­ferred to Ligeti he said that he wanted to use Sanskrit and that I should also learn Tibetan. He did­n’t really know Tibetan, but he said I should learn. So I stud­ied it for half a year. After that I was teach­ing it.


IN:      You stud­ied the books Csoma wrote? or were there others?

GB:     No. All sorts wrote books. I did­n’t really have an interest in Csoma then. I got this much later. One could learn Tibetan.


IN:      And how, or from what?

GB:     Well, from Tibetan books. There are loads of books.

This is a writ­ten lan­guage, so based on the writ­ing one can read these. So we have yowa mé zhin (g.yo ba med bzh­in)this is one word. This is the let­ter ‘o’. This is how you read it. And Csoma made the first dic­tion­ary of this—a ser­i­ous dic­tion­ary. Well, people had already made dic­tion­ar­ies before him—various Itali­ans who had been to Mon­go­lia or China—but Csoma made the first big dic­tion­ary. I’ll show you.

Well? Third let­ter in the Tibetan alpha­bet. Post­pos­i­tions, etc. Have a look. He did­n’t do it quite right, poor Csoma, because he did­n’t know how to spell Tibetan. He arranged the dic­tion­ary accord­ing to the first let­ter of the word, but that’s not neces­sar­ily an import­ant let­ter, so he did­n’t do it right. But they made an index for it.

I don’t know if you know, but ‘essay’ means a study to a dic­tion­ary. Tibetan and Eng­lish. Pre­pared by Alex­an­der Csoma de Kőrös, defen­ded by his assist­ant Sangyé Phunt­sog. This is a cur­rent edi­tion but it’s exactly the same—inside it’s the same. This is the same only it’s there in Tibetan, too: Kőrösi Csoma Sándor, and here is Sangyé Phunt­sok. Here it says, “Pre­pared by Sangyé Phunt­sog and assisted Kőrösi Csoma.”


IN:      Yes. Have you been read­ing or work­ing on this recently?

GB:     I haven’t looked at this recently. It was with the Csoma related things.


Cataloguing the Urga Kangyur (Bka’ ‘gyur)

IN:      Are you work­ing on any­thing Tibetan related now?

GB:     No. Occa­sion­ally it hap­pens that I write some­thing on Amrita [Sher-Gil] (a Hun­­gar­i­an-Indi­an avant-garde paint­er) or the Brun­ners (Erzsébet Sass-Brun­­n­er and her daugh­ter, Erzsébet Brun­ner, were Hun­gari­an paint­ers who trav­elled to India)—whatever they ask. Now I’m already 82. I’m old. I don’t write books any­more. Books I’ve already writ­ten in the past. I’ll show you one of them which hap­pens to be right here.

The Kagy­ur (Bka’ ‘gyur) is their holy book, the Bible, and Urga is Ulaan­baatar. Urga, that was its old name. Urga Kagy­ur. Sangyé kyi dökyi chokyi yigé (Sangs rgy­as kyi ‘dod kyi chogs kyi yi ge), this is the Tibetan title.

There’s an explan­a­tion to it—to know what’s what; who did what. Arja Dhar­ma­raja, this is the Sanskrit title. Pakpa chö (Phags pa chos), this is the Tibetan. And there it says which oth­er cata­logues also has it. Tohoku: that’s a fam­ous cata­logue. So, it’s like this.


IN:      This must have been a lot of work.

GB:     It was a lot of work, yes. I had to go through all of them—I don’t know how many.

Here are the Tibetan titles. I’ll show you: Here I put Index of Tibetan Titles. I did it just like the Tibetans so you can find the Tibetan. 1082nd, 332nd. These are the Tibetan titles, Sangyé Dor­jé (Sangs rgyes rdo rje). Then here you have Mis­takes, which, where there are any, I wrote in the back. This is the karchak (dkar chag), [it] means bib­li­o­graphy, and I had a look at it, and I copied this out from here. These have the same ones, but I changed this. It isn’t that easy. And then I added this and that. Lokesh wrote some kind of an intro­duc­tion or after­word to it. Lokesh Chandra. Iden­ti­fic­a­tion of type­less texts in the Chinese Tip­itaka.

This is a cata­logue and there was anoth­er there in Mon­go­lia. A Hand-list of the Ulan Bat­or Manu­script of the Kan­jur Rgy­al-rtse Them-spans-ma. I wrote this, too. This is just an intro­duc­tion to it: how it came about. This Kagy­ur cata­logue is about 200 years earli­er. The cata­logue also describes this one. This Urga was one of the last Kagy­ur edi­tions. This was writ­ten by a mas­ter who lived earli­er, in the 1700s.

These all are Tibetan can­on cata­logues above. These are dic­tion­ar­ies and the like, manu­als, dic­tion­ar­ies, Tibetan lit­er­at­ure. The cata­logues of vari­ous Kagy­urs. I com­pared these. It’s not so easy to make such a Kagy­ur catalogue.


IN:      I see now it must have been a huge job.

GB:     This is also a job. I worked on it for a year, or two. I don’t know.

There’s a huge [amount of] mater­i­al out there. The Kagy­ur is made up of around 110 or 130 volumes of books. The cata­logue only brings the titles. There are about 1000 volumes and there are some that are two pages, there are some that are 30 pages, there are some that are 100 pages. So vari­ous books that are indic­ated here by a title, but one does­n’t know how many pages they con­sist of. The whole Kagy­ur is about, as I said, it’s a very ser­i­ous collection.


IN:      Right. On what is this based?

GB:     They [had] already made a Kagy­ur cata­logue. They made a cata­logue in Ulaan­baatar, they had one. There were more places with com­plete col­lec­tions like this. The Urga Kagy­ur was prin­ted in 1912, and then they prin­ted more of the Kagy­ur, and earli­er, even earli­er, there were oth­ers, too. So there are vari­ous Kagy­urs. Kagy­ur means the Bible.

The 1912 print: that was when the Kagy­ur was prin­ted, and the cata­logue of that is my work.


IN:      When it was prin­ted was there no sys­tem­at­ic list made about what it contains?

GB:     No. The Kagy­ur is def­in­ite, it’s arranged in terms of con­tent. First there are the dis­cip­lin­ary rules, then there are vari­ous top­ics, e.g., tan­tras. That’s the last one, the tan­tras. They are sor­ted this way.

First there is the Vinaya, which is the dis­cip­lin­ary rule. Then comes—you can see it in my cata­logue, too. Parchin (phar phy­in; para­m­ita), this is a fur­ther chapter of the Kagy­ur. Pel­poché (phal po che), this, too, this is the Dodé (mdo sde; sut­ras). These are the parts of the Kagy­ur. Sherchin (sher phy­in; Pra­jñāpāram­itā). 14th volume. Dül­wa (‘dul ba; Vinaya), this is the first volume. Then in this Dül­wa there are I don’t know how many volumes. 12 volumes, 13 volumes. Then comes the Sherchin, Parchin, and at the end here is the Gyübum (rgy­ud ‘bum). Gyü is tan­tra.

The Kagy­urs are put togeth­er this way, so accord­ing to top­ic. And the sense in which, say the Vinaya, the first volume, is spoken by the Buddha him­self. The oth­er ones are spoken by God knows who. You’ll learn the ins and outs of Tibetology!


Teaching at Delhi University and memories of Lokesh Chandra

IN:      Do you know Lokesh Chandra?

GB:     I know him well. He’s still alive. In India. He’s about my age, or a year older than me, or two. I don’t know. He does­n’t work very much now.

When I first went to India, the first thing I did was find him. And, well, I’ve been to his place many times, and we are good friends, I can say this. Well, we aren’t friends, but actu­ally he helped me, and he pub­lished the books. He’s a big book-pub­­l­ish­er. He’s pub­lished around 700 volumes of books. This is the 600th volume. He pub­lished mine as well. Only the Kagy­ur cata­logue, and he wrote a fore­word to it to make it even more interesting.

I met him when I was out there. He hardly speaks any­more but he’s fine. He lives with a girl, who is a very young lady, and now she does the things. His wife died very early. He had a wife, but she died very early on. He has one or two Kagy­urs him­self. He’s been to Mon­go­lia, and he’s been every­where where one needs to go. He’s been here in Hun­gary, too.


IN:      So, at Del­hi uni­ver­sity he was…

GB:     I also taught at Del­hi Uni­ver­sity for six years, Hun­gari­an. I was the head of the Del­hi Hun­gari­an Insti­tute for six years. There’s a Hun­gari­an insti­tute there (Hun­gari­an Centre), and I was also the head of that for six years, later, from 1994 to 2000. Before that, again for around six years. Not dir­ectly, in between I came home.


IN:      Did there devel­op a good rela­tion­ship between the Hun­gari­an uni­ver­sit­ies and the Indi­an universities?

GB:     There prob­ably is some relationship—it’s not very import­ant. There are per­son­al rela­tion­ships. So no, there isn’t that kind of a rela­tion­ship. There’s not a spe­cif­ic rela­tion­ship, but Hun­gari­ans go out there and they also come here. Here, too, there’s an Indi­an-Tibetan teach­ing at the Human­it­ies Fac­ulty. There are those who’ve settled here and live here. And there are Indi­ans, I’ve already men­tioned Sharma Bhusan, he stud­ied Hun­gari­an with me, got a schol­ar­ship, mar­ried a Hun­gari­an girl, and now he works at the Indi­an embassy. And there are people like this, so there are vari­ous relationships.

And my ex-wife, who I was with first in India. I have two older 40-year-old chil­dren with her, and grand­chil­dren. She lives in India, and now she teaches Hun­gari­an. She was here not long ago, and we get on very well now as well. Only we divorced along the way, and I mar­ried some­body else.


IN:      What was it like work­ing there?

GB:     Mixed. Some­times I had two stu­dents, some­times three, some­times 30. So it var­ied like this. Now they teach at two places. My wife—my ex-wife—teaches at the uni­ver­sity and the Hun­gari­an Insti­tute. There is a Hun­gari­an course there, too, and some­times there are 30 people, some­times 50, some­times four. So not that many but still there are some.


Academia under communism

IN:      What was it like being in the aca­dem­ic world dur­ing communism?

GB:     It was­n’t easy, but yes, that also happened. You should­n’t be ask­ing this from me because I was­n’t a good sort dur­ing com­mun­ism. They did­n’t like me because, how do you say it, we came from a bad fam­ily dur­ing the time of the com­mun­ists, so they did­n’t want to admit me to uni­ver­sity and all that. There was this kind of dif­fi­culty dur­ing com­mun­ism, but then acci­dent­ally, due to luck, I man­aged to get in any­way. I even got a good job. You could do everything, in com­mun­ism there were also very nice people.

Mon­go­lia, of course, had a strict com­mun­ist regime, under Rus­si­an influ­ence, but the people were Buddhists still, and, well, they were very kind and they helped. Here, too, they did­n’t admit me to uni­ver­sity for two years. I worked at vari­ous hos­pit­als and here and there, but even­tu­ally they did admit me, through luck and I don’t know what. So, one needed some kind of luck for everything. But I had acquaint­ances who nev­er got into uni­ver­sity, it did­n’t work out. Dur­ing com­mun­ism if someone was­n’t a good per­son then that was very bad for him. So com­mun­ism was a sys­tem like this.

I’ve just been read­ing this book, the chief com­mun­ist, György Aczél, who was a big boss, how kind he also could be. So it depends on people, and, well, one does­n’t neces­sar­ily man­age to meet good people, but you might hap­pen to meet a good per­son. So in com­mun­ism also there were very diverse things. In Rus­sia, too, [Nikita] Khrushchev was a good guy, but occa­sion­ally he also did atro­cit­ies. One could­n’t pre­dict, that was the whole thing.

There were all sorts of things. Com­mun­ism could be used. If some­body was an evil per­son he used it, if he wanted to elim­in­ate some­body, he elim­in­ated them.


IN:      Later you became a mem­ber of the Hun­gari­an Academy of Sciences?

GB:     I did­n’t become a mem­ber of the academy; I was­n’t an aca­dem­ic, no. I don’t know why that’s there, but it does­n’t mat­ter. I worked for one of the groups at the academy. Ligeti was an aca­dem­ic. He was the second per­son at the academy: he was a ser­i­ous person.


IN:      You taught at Eötvös Lóránd Uni­ver­sity (ELTE)?

GB:     I taught at Eötvös Lóránd Uni­ver­sity. There, too, I worked in an aca­dem­ic research group. Ligeti could­n’t employ me prop­erly either, because I was­n’t a good enough comrade.


IN:      Ah, so there were such things?

GB:     Of course. I was­n’t a good com­rade, so they slagged him off for employ­ing me. “Why did you employ this Beth­len­falvy?” He said: because I wanted to employ him. And he did­n’t let them fire me. They admit­ted me—he admit­ted me—and then a guy asked him… came to him and said, “did­n’t you read, Pro­fess­or, his bio­graphy?” He said: it does­n’t mat­ter, I’ve already accep­ted him. I’m not mak­ing changes. I’ve admit­ted him, so that’s it. He could do it because he had quite a high pos­i­tion at the academy, but I was­n’t admit­ted to the academy, rather a research group of the academy.


The Kőrösi Csoma Society

IN:      And the Kőrösi Csoma group?

GB:     Soci­ety. Kőrösi Csoma Soci­ety. I partly foun­ded it.

Any­way, I’m not a pro­fess­or either. I was invited to teach in Vienna and there they wrote in front of my name: Pro­fess­or Beth­len­falvy. I, too, write it like this, ever since. But I was nev­er a professor.


IN:      Did you have many students?

GB:     I had some, yes. In Vienna, too, here and there. Even in India I had many.


IN:      When was the Kőrösi Csoma Soci­ety established?

GB:     I don’t remem­ber exactly. It was when I was there with Ligeti—when I was already at the uni­ver­sity, we estab­lished the Csoma Soci­ety then. We pub­lished vari­ous books, and now, too, books are con­stantly being pub­lished. Kőrösi Csoma Lib­rary: that also I might have estab­lished at some point. The first volumes I pub­lished myself.


IN:      Did this soci­ety include people com­ing togeth­er to have discussions?

GB:     We had meet­ings. Every month we had a meet­ing: Tues­day at five. The meet­ings were then, Tues­day at five. This took place monthly except for in the sum­mer. It was advert­ised, and the mem­bers were invited. Any­body could come, but the mem­bers got invites. This was the Kőrösi Csoma Soci­ety. Not Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, we left that out because that would be too long. It was Kőrösi Csoma Society.


IN:      So this was inde­pend­ent of the university?

GB:     It was inde­pend­ent. It was a sep­ar­ate circle, but the people were at the uni­ver­sity. It’s there now, too, at ELTE.


IN:      And the Kőrösi Csoma award?

GB:     What? I got an award?


IN:      In 1991.

GB:     I don’t know why I got it. Well, because it had to be giv­en to some­body, and so they gave it to me.


Research and travel in India (part II)

IN:      What was it like in India for the first time? Has it changed a lot?

GB:     It has changed a lot, yes. I’ve been to India many times. Twice for six years: once I was teach­ing, once I was a dir­ect­or. But I’ve also been out there once or twice since.

The very first time I only went for three months. I always received grants. One could apply for these, and then if you received one then some­body paid for it—I could nev­er pay for my travel costs. One always had to apply to depart­ments, to this and that, one could apply some­where. And with vari­ous ideas. Once I went to make a film with a guy, Bonta—we applied for that—and then I don’t know who gave money for that, so that the travel costs of the two of us there and back were paid for. And then we could be there for two months, or one month, or a week, or some­thing. And we went to Zans­kar, in the Him­alay­as, to vari­ous places, and this guy Bonta was film­ing there, too.


IN:      Did you make many friends dur­ing these trips?

GB:     I made friends, of course. One always meets people and gets to know some bet­ter, oth­ers less well. There are excel­lent people. There’s a lady called Kapila Vat­syay­an, who by now is around 100. She was also one of these people. And at times Lokesh Chandra helped me. One gets to know vari­ous people, and then you do some­thing in order for there to be some­thing. They are also inter­ested in being friends with some­body who they can do things with, who they can be with.

When I was out there as dir­ect­or, I always used to invite vari­ous people: Hun­gari­ans, Indi­ans etc. We organ­ised exhib­i­tions at our place. I organ­ised an exhib­i­tion at the insti­tute for the Brun­ners. Indira was­n’t alive by then, of course, so with them I did­n’t have this kind of rela­tion­ship. Indir­a’s hus­band remained in India. I wanted to go to see him, but by the time I was able to go he also was­n’t alive.

The per­son who gave me these pictures—his name is there—became a good friend. He has pic­tures of Indira; he has pic­tures of Amrita; pic­tures related to Amrita—because his wife was Amrit­a’s young­er sis­ter. So, loads of pic­tures ended up with them, which they partly, or mostly, gave to the Indi­an museum. They did­n’t give any to Hun­gari­an museums, sadly. How­ever, the Brun­ners I mainly dis­trib­uted, togeth­er with Kapila. Half of the remain­ing Brun­ner pic­tures ended up in India, half in Kan­iz­sa (a town in south­west­ern Hun­gary where the Brun­ners were from). So now they are there. Now there’s a dir­ect­or who does­n’t look after them, so if you write about the Brun­ners I would be happy if you wrote some­thing nice about them. Because now in Kan­iz­sa they don’t really look after them. They have 500 or 600 pic­tures. There are three rooms full with these pic­tures but the rest are in the cel­lar, or in an attic some­where hidden.


IN:      Why don’t they look after them?

GB:     Because the Túri György Museum now has a dir­ect­or who isn’t an art his­tor­i­an. I don’t know what he was before. He’s not inter­ested in the Brun­ners. Yet the many beau­ti­ful pic­tures are there, but, well, he’s not inter­ested in them. This is the sad situation.


The International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS)

IN:      What were the first Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­ation for Tibetan Stud­ies (IATS) con­fer­ences like?

GB:     They were good. Gen­er­ally, all con­fer­ences depend on who is invited, and how well they are invited, and how good the com­pany is. So con­fer­ences are gen­er­ally good.


IN:      What were they like? how did they develop?

GB:     The later con­fer­ences were bet­ter than the earli­er ones. But it depends on the people you man­age to invite and how good they are. The Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­ation for Tibetan Stud­ies, the IATS, this was a good group, and there were all sorts.


IN:      What was it like rep­res­ent­ing Hungary?

GB:     Good. Yes, every­where one had to rep­res­ent, but that aside, things depended on how good the con­fer­ence was.

People came from wherever we could invite them, and if we knew them well it was espe­cially good. We invited people from India, Mon­go­lia, Eng­land, Amer­ica, from wherever there were Tibet­o­lo­gists. And then they came, if they came. They hap­pily came to Hun­gary because we made the con­fer­ence cheap. And we told them how much they had to pay and for that they get lodging and for how long they can stay. Bud­apest is a nice city, they came happily.

To India also. At the Hun­gari­an Centre, too, we organ­ised con­fer­ences, exhib­i­tions, or music­al events. There were vari­ous Hun­gari­an musi­cians out there, so if we invited a good musi­cian then there was a good audi­ence. I was there for six years, so dur­ing that time I man­aged to find one or two good people.


The legacy of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma

IN:      How much was the memory of Kőrösi Csoma alive in people’s minds?

GB:     This is an import­ant thing. Csoma is an import­ant fig­ure in India, too. So luck­ily there are those who remem­ber him, but not that many. In Kolk­ata or in Zans­kar there are many who know who Kőrösi Csoma is, so that’s very serious.


IN:      Was it a sur­prise that many knew who he was?

GB:     It was­n’t a sur­prise because I also saw to it that they know.

Kőrösi Csoma did a lot for him­self; he trav­elled every­where, and he per­formed well. He was in Kolk­ata for 10 or 12 years, and in Zans­kar. Even now there are people who know his work well. They pub­lished his book, dic­tion­ary, his gram­mar. All of Csoma’s works were pub­lished in four volumes: the dic­tion­ary, the gram­mar, and one volume that con­tains only his stud­ies, it com­pares vari­ous stud­ies that he wrote on all sorts of things. Csoma worked a lot. And this is alive because he did­n’t write stu­pid things, but import­ant things, so the four volumes that were pub­lished now have everything in them—very basic things.


IN:      Was it pub­lished here in Hungary?

GB:     Yes.


Family and background

IN:      And as a child you did­n’t have any…

GB:     Well, no. I did­n’t care for Tibetan.


IN:      And in the fam­ily, or…?

GB:     There was­n’t any­thing like this in the fam­ily. My moth­er was a high school and primary school teach­er at Moson­mag­yaróvár. And my grand­par­ents (the Görgey fam­ily) they sim­il­arly wer­en’t involved with things like this.

My fath­er died when I was eight and my moth­er brought us up. She moved to Moson­mag­yaróvár and fled in 1945 to Aus­tria, and from there she could­n’t go back to Fölvidék, luck­ily. There was a group who went back to Moson­mag­yaróvár and we went back there, too, and I grew up there with my moth­er. She raised me, or us, the three of us. She had three chil­dren. My old­est sis­ter is still alive, my broth­er died last year, and I was the youngest.


IN:      As a child could you feel the effects of World War II?

GB:     Of course, very much so.


IN:      In what way?

GB:     In every way. We fled from the Rus­si­ans. We were afraid that the Rus­si­ans were com­ing from Szepess­ég. My moth­er came down by train to Brat­is­lava and from Brat­is­lava we went to Aus­tria, and then there the Eng­lish freed us. But after­wards the Rus­si­ans came in, and then, for­tu­nately, there was a divi­sion of the Óvar Academy who also fled there and who came home, and they brought us with them—three chil­dren and my mother—to Moson­mag­yaróvár. But until then we felt everything. It was very difficult.

The war was­n’t easy. My moth­er was­n’t a Nazi, but we wer­en’t friends of the Rus­si­ans either. We had to be scared of the Rus­si­ans, that they rape every­body, etc. The Rus­si­an army was rather mon­strous. We had to hide my sis­ter, we had to dress her in boys’ clothes, because if the Rus­si­ans caught her they would imme­di­ately rape her. The end of World War II was very tough. But luck­ily, we came back to Óvár—not to Slov­akia, from where they would have kicked us out—and there it was very good actu­ally. We man­aged to get a flat there and we lived there well. I went to school there. But my bio­graphy had me as a rich, or a child of a land-own­ing fam­ily, and they noted these things in those days.

Dur­ing com­mun­ism it was very well doc­u­mented who I was, and it was­n’t pos­sible to just get admit­ted any­where. They did­n’t admit me to uni­ver­sity for years. I had very good con­nec­tions, my mother­’s broth­er was an influ­en­tial per­son at Szeged. He said, come to Szeged. I went for my interview—they did­n’t admit me. And then I got in in the way I told you, acci­dent­ally. I got accep­ted to the Human­it­ies Fac­ulty. They did­n’t admit me for two years. And then Ligeti admit­ted me but then some­body came to him and said, “You admit­ted this, did you not look at his bio­graphy?” and he said, “I said that I’d accept him, I’ve admit­ted him.” And then I stayed there with Ligeti, so it was a hard battle.


*** End of inter­view one. The second inter­view took place the fol­low­ing day***



Early interest and research in Buddhism

IN:      I’m inter­ested in what you said yes­ter­day that you went to Mon­go­lia because you wanted to learn about Buddhist things. Who did you first hear about Buddhism from, and what kind of teach­ers did you meet?

GB:     Here?

IN:      Well, here and also in Mongolia.

GB:     One must come across Buddhism quite early on, in fact. Because if one is inter­ested in India then one is inter­ested in reli­gions, espe­cially Hinduism and oth­ers. The Buddha him­self is a very inter­est­ing figure—and Buddhism an inter­est­ing reli­gion. So, I had no choice but to be inter­ested in that, too, already at uni­ver­sity. And then later when Ligeti admit­ted me I star­ted to be inter­ested in Mon­go­lia and Mon­go­li­an Buddhism.

Buddhism had an import­ant role in Mon­go­lia, although then, of course, it was­n’t that import­ant because the com­mun­ists were in power. But people were basic­ally, from a reli­gious per­spect­ive, Buddhists. So, I star­ted to engage with all this more ser­i­ously there. When I went to the lib­rary of the academy and went down to the base­ment the whole Buddhist can­on was laid out there. A former Buddhist priest was look­ing after it, and I was allowed to have a look at these things—the manu­scripts and things I saw there—and ask ques­tions about what is what and why etc. So I got more inter­ested in Buddhism.


IN:      Were there monks there then?

GB:     Then there wer­en’t people who they regarded as holy, but there were those people who were high-rank­ing priests. And later from among these they regarded some as holy. But I don’t know what the mean­ing of the word holy is, I don’t know what holy really means. They regarded them as all sorts, but we can roughly con­sider them holy.


IN:      Did these monks live in a mon­as­tery then?

GB:     They partly lived in mon­as­ter­ies, partly some­where out in the fields. The main mon­as­tery, which was in Ulaan­baatar, in Urga, was spared. There were two or three oth­er import­ant places like this where holy people lived in the past. These were quite far away in Ulaan­baatar. One had to go there in order to get to know them, and to meet people like this there, too.

IN:      Did the people you met there give you a dif­fer­ent pic­ture of Buddhism than what you had before in Hungary?

GB:     No, they did­n’t give a dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Nat­ur­ally one gets to know the writ­ings bet­ter, then the pic­ture changes. I had a very good friend in Ulaan­baatar, too—later he became a very good friend—who by now they regard as a holy person.


IN:      What is his name?

GB:     Now I can­’t, I’ll remem­ber his name shortly. In any case there were these vari­ous holy people. He’s a very good, I learned a lot from him. This was an excel­lent per­son who had his own lib­rary. It was a Buddhist lib­rary and then when I got to know him and could go there to his flat, I could see these manu­scripts and wood­b­lock prints. There and also in the academy’s lib­rary, where I was work­ing. There, too, the boss was a sort of Buddhist priest.


IN:      Did they learn this in monasteries?

GB:     No, they came to this through fam­ily her­it­age, so this lived in them. There wer­en’t any mon­as­ter­ies by then, there were hardly any mon­as­ter­ies. And the mon­as­ter­ies did­n’t neces­sar­ily teach this; rather the mon­as­ter­ies might have been speak­ing exactly against Buddhism, because the com­mun­ist gov­ern­ment encour­aged them not to really advert­ise Buddhism.

IN:      Which branch of Buddhism did they represent?

GB:     They were mainly adher­ents of tan­tric Buddhism. Tan­tra, that’s a kind of reli­gion, which is very tough, and they were primar­ily adher­ents of tan­tric Buddhism. Not only tan­tra, all sorts of oth­er kinds of Buddhism also came into the mix. These books are not only about tan­tra. There is the Vinaya, which are the life rules, then vari­ous oth­er things, so there were also all sorts. And they rep­res­en­ted vari­ous Buddhist schools.


IN:      And you learned these prac­tices, too? Buddhist meditation?

GB:     Well, no. I did­n’t learn that, but one had to know what med­it­a­tion is. And they told me, and I also had to learn this—what a med­it­at­ive some­thing is like. It’s not that spe­cial. So med­it­a­tion, yes. This is a form of think­ing. A deep form of it.


IN:      Do you prac­tise med­it­a­tion now?

GB:     These days I don’t prac­tise it. But we did do med­it­at­ive prac­tices here in this room, and one or two of my friends—five, six, 10 of us gathered, we sat down, and I held a little med­it­a­tion ses­sion. Anoth­er did Chinese med­it­a­tion; he explained Chinese things, and so we did that, all sorts.


IN:      Did people came from Mon­go­lia to Hungary?

GB:     They didn’t come to vis­it me, but there were—there are Mon­go­li­ans here in Hun­gary, too. They did­n’t come here. This med­it­a­tion we held here ran in Hungarian.


IN:      What kind of meditation?

GB:     Quite a simple med­it­a­tion, not spe­cial meditations.

IN:      How did you address these Mon­go­li­an priests?

GB:     I don’t know Mon­go­li­an, so I spoke with them in Rus­si­an. And then Rus­si­an was still a very, Mon­go­lia was under Rus­si­an occu­pa­tion. By now most of them speak Eng­lish. One can speak with them in Eng­lish. I can­’t speak in Tibetan either, nor am I famil­i­ar with the Mon­go­li­an spoken language.


IN:      But did they know Tibetan?

GB:     Yes, of course.

IN:      And they spoke Mon­go­li­an at home among each other?

GB:     Of course. As we are speak­ing in Hungarian.


IN:      So they helped you read the texts and…

GB:     And also what the text was. By then I knew Tibetan, so I already knew what these were—which book is about what. And as I said, I obtained most books from the flea mar­ket, the dzah. That had a sec­tion with only these kinds of things. It had a spe­cific­ally Buddhist sec­tion where there were statues, pic­tures, and books. And those selling them knew what these were, so I asked them what this was and what it is good for.


IN:      And then did you, for example, meet the Dalai Lama?

GB:     The Dalai Lama. Later, of course, I met him, but not in Mon­go­lia. He arrived in India flee­ing from the Chinese. I met the Dalai Lama sev­er­al times. I went to Dharam­sala and vari­ous places. I did­n’t meet him that often. When we first met, I asked for a five-minute audi­ence, and we spoke for two hours. There I was one of the first to arrive from a com­mun­ist coun­try. Then Hun­gary was still a com­mun­ist coun­try, and he was inter­ested in how we were man­aging with the communists.


IN:      In Mon­go­lia did you meet oth­er lamas?

GB:     I met vari­ous lamas and Mon­go­li­ans who were involved with Buddhism, and they them­selves col­lec­ted books and knew what the essence was. I met many of these.


IN:      How many years did you spend in Mon­go­lia altogether?

GB:     I first went out there for only three months, then I went there more times. And I trav­elled around Mon­go­lia. Mon­go­lia is three times as big as France. It’s a very big coun­try, but the first times I went out there only 300,000 people lived there. They lived in these little tents, and we went to the coun­tryside with these little Rus­si­an jeeps, which one could rent, and the driver knew a lot and took me to wherever I wanted to go.


IN:      There were teach­ers and friends who you returned to visit?

GB:     Yes, there were those who I met with reg­u­larly. Not in the countryside—there there were hardly any—but in Ulaan­baatar there were. I had friends in the coun­tryside, too, but not that many. Big coun­try, small population.


IN:      What texts did you read?

GB:     Bio­graph­ic­al texts, the lives of people, saints. Not only these. Basic­ally, I also read tan­tric texts, which were about med­it­a­tion as well.


IN:      Do these describe how the med­it­a­tion should be done?

GB:     Not exactly. They are primar­ily about indi­vidu­al people who do the med­it­a­tion, describ­ing what they do, how they do it. It isn’t spe­cific­ally didact­ic in teach­ing med­it­a­tion, rather these books were about people who engaged with these kinds of things. And it was pos­sible to read them—to dip into these books, too.


IN:      Did you teach these in Hungary?

GB:     What I knew I presen­ted. I did­n’t know much, but the little I did know I presen­ted. One must prac­tise. Med­it­a­tion is a prac­tice. It’s not a teach­ing, not a text, the text isn’t its essence, but rather a prac­tice: how we med­it­ate. I’m won­der­ing about something—and then the mas­ter some­times inter­rupts that he’s been think­ing about this, about what the essence of the mat­ter is, tan­tra, how inter­est­ing this tan­tra is.


IN:      Was there a par­tic­u­lar kind of med­it­a­tion or some par­tic­u­lar text that you were espe­cially inter­ested in?

GB:     I was inter­ested in loads of texts. If you go to the lib­rary there are many kinds of texts. On the one hand bio­graph­ic­al texts—somebody’s bio­graphy, the life of a saint—or there are oth­er kinds of texts, the­or­et­ic­al texts. All kinds of texts exist. I tried to learn what one could about these, and also to presen­ted it.


IN:      Did you trans­late these into Hungarian?

GB:     I did­n’t trans­late these texts into Hun­gari­an, but they are available—some are avail­able in Hun­gari­an. I did­n’t trans­late the tan­tric—the Tibetan—texts, although there were some, I think, which I trans­lated. I don’t remem­ber by now what I had to trans­late, but mainly what was rel­ev­ant to Kőrösi Csoma. He was a mas­ter who reached there and lived among these people, and he trans­lated a huge num­ber of texts, Kőrösi Csoma. When I work on him there is always some­thing Tibetan as well in that. He is the edit­or of the Tibetan dic­tion­ary. He wrote a Tibetan gram­mar and stud­ies. He wrote a basic book on the can­on, too; what the can­on con­sists of, what is con­tained in it, what kinds of texts are in it. He was com­pet­ent in Tibetan and used Tibetan fluently.


IN:      Where are these books now?

GB:     They were pub­lished in four volumes. There’s a volume that con­sists of stud­ies. There’s the gram­mar, the dic­tion­ary and there’s a volume which has his own stud­ies in. He describes what one needs to know—what he knew, what he learned here and there. So it’s basic­ally writ­ten down in these books what one has to do.


Research and travel in India (part III)

IN:      When you later trav­elled to India, did you learn oth­er kinds of things, too?

GB:     In India my luck was that there were many hol­i­days. The chil­dren, the Indi­an stu­dents, did­n’t like to study; they went on strike, and when they were on strike, I could go wherever I wanted to, because I could call the uni­ver­sity by phone to ask when the teach­ing would start again. So, I could go to vari­ous places in India. There was a place I liked to go to. And I went to Ladakh, to Zans­kar, where Csoma lived, and I went to vari­ous places in India. I went down to South India, too, to Kolkata.

India is a very broad thing, and, well there is Goa, that’s a sea­side area south of Mum­bai where the Span­ish lived—that used to be a Span­ish area, not Eng­lish. I went down to Goa eight times, and one could have a very good hol­i­day there, let’s say, but also study. The flats were by the sea­side and vari­ous people were there. We had a friend there who lives in Goa. We used to go down around Christ­mas, and he also came down then, oth­er­wise he lived up in the Him­alay­as. I used to talk a lot with him and all sorts of things like this.


IN:      Was he a monk, too?

GB:     No, he was just an ordin­ary Indi­an who was inter­ested in Tibetan. He had a wife, and he also had a child. He was­n’t some kind of a monk, but he was inter­ested in these things, and he also lived there, and I learned one or two things from him, too.


Meeting the Dalai Lama

IN:      How did you first meet the Dalai Lama?

GB:     I called his office and said that I’m here, I’d like to talk with him. They said, “OK, you can have five minutes.” And then we talked for two hours, because he, too, was inter­ested in what he was hear­ing from me. And I, in turn, heard all sorts of things from him that I was inter­ested in. We talked about all sorts of things. I was ask­ing him about what things he teaches—what the essence of his teach­ing is in Dharam­sala. There he has a huge lib­rary with Tibetan books, where I used to go. I, too, could go there and have a look at the books that are there.

In:       Did you often go back to Dharamsala?

GB:     I did go back. I did­n’t always meet the Dalai Lama, of course, only some­times. Alto­geth­er maybe twice, or three times definitely.


IN:      And did the Dalai Lama also explain the mean­ing of some texts to you?

GB:     Well, not texts. Rather, we spoke gen­er­ally about Buddhism: its essence, what the whole thing is about, what this Buddhism is for. We spoke about these things, but we did­n’t look at indi­vidu­al texts, rather we spoke in gen­er­al terms, what the Buddha actu­ally wanted. Ori­gin­ally, of course, the Buddha was­n’t a teach­er. He was just a think­ing being, the Buddha, in truth—what is there, what the essence of life is, these things. And the Dalai Lama, too, tried to get to know this, and every­body who engages with this.


IN:      And what did he say?

GB:     I don’t remem­ber. He said all sorts of things.


IN:      Was it a spe­cial feel­ing meet­ing him?

GB:     It was an inter­est­ing exper­i­ence, of course, because I wanted to meet him, and I knew that this is an import­ant per­son. And so it was a great exper­i­ence, in fact, that we could come togeth­er and talk. But mainly he was the one ask­ing. I was­n’t the one ask­ing him.


Research and travel in Mongolia (part II)

IN:      Did you enjoy Mon­go­lia or India more?

GB:     Both places. I very much liked to travel in Mon­go­lia, too. That was my first East­ern trip. I went to India later, one year later. Mon­go­lia was also good in the sense that a col­league of mine had gone out there before me. He was there for three months, and then I went out, also for three months. And it was in Mon­go­lia that I first truly came across the Buddhist texts. Because I went to the academy’s library—the academy then was a com­mun­ist academy, but the Buddhist books were also there, down in the cellar—and they let me look at them as much as I wanted to. And there was a former lama there who was look­ing after them, so it was very good to be there in Mon­go­lia and have a look at these books. This was­n’t the only nice thing about it—this was good, too—but that then I could go to the coun­tryside and there there also were these mon­as­ter­ies. This was very good. I really liked Mon­go­lia. But India, too, I can say that. I was in India for much longer, but Mon­go­lia was the first place in the East I went to, and it was very good.

Once we went to the coun­tryside by aero­plane. We landed on a big plain, in the Gobi Desert, as the plane was land­ing it wobbled left-right because the cows were there, and we were not allowed to hit a cow. There was­n’t an air­port, but this is a big desert and there were many cows there, and the aero­plane tried to land so that it would­n’t hit a cow. And then finally we man­aged to land. Then we got out and we walked around the area. The coun­tryside is very beau­ti­ful there. We could also go to a high­land: There is a high­land next to the Gobi, where one can also go to, and we went there, and every­where. It was very beautiful.

IN:      Did you also meet nomads?

GB:     Nat­ur­ally. There are nomads, they live in these tents. These are called ger—the tents are ger—and they lived in those. Those in the Gobi lived in these gers, and there wer­en’t that many people. A few people were there, and I asked them then to show me what’s around the area, and they came with me and showed me. They were very decent every­where. Mon­go­li­an people are more decent than rur­al Hun­gari­ans. They are like Hun­gari­ans, we brought this from the East—this Hun­gari­an kind-hearted­­ness, which we have in Hun­gary. And, well, they do this.


IN:      Do they keep animals?

GB:     They have anim­als, yes. They keep vari­ous anim­als, which they have graz­ing in the fields. There are vari­ous anim­als: cows, all sorts, horses and this and that.

IN:      And they still have them now?

GB:     Of course. But by now Ulaan­baatar is the big city. Every­one goes up there instead, and they live there nicely. Less people live in the coun­tryside by now, but nat­ur­ally there are people there, too.


IN:      Was it easy to com­mu­nic­ate with them?

GB:     Yes, with those who knew Rus­si­an. There were those among them who knew—generally they did. Because then Mon­go­lia was under Rus­si­an occu­pa­tion, so they had to know Rus­si­an, but the simple peas­ants did­n’t neces­sar­ily. But there were many who did.

Reflections on career, biggest challenges, and contributions

IN:      Did you write a book or some account of these experiences?

GB:     I did­n’t really write. I might have writ­ten some­thing, I don’t know. I wrote about Mon­go­lia itself, and about Kőrösi, and about these things, of course, I wrote a lot. I showed you the cata­logues, the Kagy­ur cata­logue. I stud­ied those thor­oughly. Their holy book is the Kagy­ur. I did a cata­logue of that, in which all their writ­ings are writ­ten down in detail, like the Bible. There are more than 1,000 writ­ings in a Kagy­ur. And I went to the coun­tryside. There was a very excel­lent per­son there, too, who also did a cata­logue earli­er, at the end of the 1700s, and they kept this in the coun­tryside. But they brought it to Ulaan­baatar, and I man­aged to doc­u­ment that cata­logue there.


IN:      Then I guess you had to look through all of the texts?

GB:     Of course, nat­ur­ally. One must know what is in the Kagyur—what kinds of texts there are. One can mostly know this. It has the Tibetan, the Sanskrit, too, so one can mostly know what are in the vari­ous Kagy­ur parts: in the Vinaya, which I men­tioned, is the dis­cip­lin­ary rule; the tan­tra—that’s the longest part, and that con­tains the med­it­at­ive prac­tices. Tan­tric Buddhism, that is the longest part—that has all sorts of texts. Tan­tra is an import­ant thing in Buddhism. Tan­tra is an import­ant part in the whole of Buddhism. These are prac­tic­al parts—they are about prac­tic­al Buddhism. Tan­tra is a part of Buddhism—of the prac­tices of Buddhists: tan­tric prac­tices, med­it­a­tion, etc.


IN:      When you taught about these things in Hun­gary, how was it received?

GB:     I did­n’t teach in wide circles. Rather, I gen­er­ally only taught among friends. But luck­ily by now there is the Buddhist Col­lege, and all sorts of schools like this, where they teach these. So, this is a very ser­i­ous step for­ward in Hun­gary with regards to the under­stand­ing of Buddhism. One can know a lot without being a Buddhist or going to Mon­go­lia. The books are already here, one can have a look at them, read them, learn Tibetan. So one can very eas­ily access this. And at the Buddhist Col­lege many people already know these things.


IN:      Did you con­trib­ute to the found­ing of the Buddhist College?

GB:     I did­n’t con­trib­ute. I did­n’t take part in this. They did that them­selves. But there were people among them who I was friends with.


IN:      Did people come from Tibet or Mon­go­lia to found the college?

GB:     There were vari­ous people who did things like this, and I was friends with them as well. Some used to come to the Human­it­ies Fac­ulty and they learned Tibetan as well there. There were also those at the Buddhist Col­lege who learned Tibetan or Chinese at the uni­ver­sity, and then went to the col­lege and taught there. So, it’s not neces­sar­ily only at the Buddhist school that one can learn these vari­ous things that are needed. For example, lan­guages; one could learn these at ELTE, at the Tibetan Fac­ulty, Mon­go­li­an Fac­ulty, Indo­logy Fac­ulty, and many learned them. There’s Fer­enc Rúz­sa, an excel­lent Sanskrit­ist, and he knows all kinds of things—Tibetan, too. He’s an excel­lent per­son and he might also teach at the Buddhist College.


IN:      And in Mon­go­lia the lamas or priests who learned these things in their family—how long have they had this tra­di­tion for?

GB:     This is a 700-year-old tra­di­tion. This tra­di­tion was nat­ur­ally there in the fam­ily, so this tra­di­tion lived on. It was­n’t allowed to live on, because the state was com­mun­ist and the Rus­si­ans did­n’t like it, but it still lived among the people, and it very much existed.

I was walk­ing along the street and there’s this lama sit­ting there and a lady next to him ask­ing him what will hap­pen to her and what one can do. The lama asks her when she was born and what she’s done etc. and explains to her that. So quite simply people also come into con­tact this way, and this per­son had once been a lama, the one who was explain­ing that to her.


IN:      What was the most inter­est­ing and the most dif­fi­cult thing you worked on or studied?

GB:     Tan­tra itself, a very dif­fi­cult thing. This is a ser­i­ous sci­ence, to put it that way. It’s not easy to under­stand this. Meditation—that’s not easy; how you can do it, how you must do it, what you must do. Ganden Mon­as­tery was the main mon­as­tery, and next to it there was a little area of the city, and there, too, lived those lamas who wer­en’t really lamas any­more, and they were liv­ing there. I used to vis­it them, too, there, and there was an excel­lent lama who became my friend, and he explained all sorts of things to me. And there are the vari­ous Mon­gol­ists, Mon­go­li­ans, who know many things and explain many things to one.


IN:      How do you think you’ve influ­enced Hun­gari­an Ori­ent­al Stud­ies and Tibet­o­logy as such?

GB:     Tibet­o­logy is a part of Hun­gari­an Ori­ent­al Stud­ies, but only one part of it, and not a main part. There are the Indo­lo­gists, there are the Tibet­o­lo­gists, there are the Mon­gol­ists; these don’t all work on Buddhist things. They only work a bit on this and that. But the Buddhist Col­lege focusses on this as such, so that’s the chief res­ult of the study of Buddhism in Hun­gary, what goes on here. But Buddhism isn’t only stud­ied there; in Szeged, and in oth­er places, too, there are vari­ous schools where they teach this, and there are schol­ars who work on it, and they do it very well.


A message for future generations of students and researchers

IN:      My col­leagues, or friends, have cre­ated this pro­ject so that it might be of interest for future Tibet­o­lo­gists, and so that they know about the devel­op­ment of Tibet­o­logy. What advice do you have for them?

GB:     They should study the bio­graphy of Kőrösi Csoma! And then they’ll find out how dif­fi­cult Csoma is—he did­n’t live an easy life—and how he got to know Tibetan and Buddhism. It’s inter­est­ing in itself that Kőrösi Csoma—as an example and as a person—who wanted to dis­cov­er the Hun­gari­ans, dis­covered Tibetan lit­er­at­ure instead. By the end he wanted to go towards Dar­jeel­ing, he set out that way and wanted to reach Inner Mon­go­lia. There are those areas around there where the Hun­gari­ans might have lived. The ori­gin of the Hun­gari­ans is some­where there, vari­ous tribes live west of Mongolia.

I showed you this pic­ture, I had this teach­er in Ude who knew all sorts and taught me all sort of things. So Ude also is an inter­est­ing place, and Hun­gari­ans go there, too. They go every­where now, and they are also in China. Buddhism is very import­ant in China, too. Of course, by now not as a reli­gion, not as a faith, but as a stud­ied thing; the study of Buddhism is very import­ant for the Chinese, too. If they want to under­stand the Tibetans and their own people, they have to study Buddhism, as well, which is a fur­ther form of knowledge.

You’ll be able to put togeth­er a little report out of this, what we have dis­cussed here. Feel free to leave out everything you don’t find interesting.


IN:      It’s been very interesting.

GB:     Well it was­n’t inter­est­ing enough, but maybe something.


IN:      How did it feel that it became more and more popular—that people star­ted enga­ging with Buddhism in more and more places?

GB:     Buddhism is a, I don’t like to use this word, reli­gion, but it’s a con­vic­tion which isn’t rigid like Chris­tian­ity or Islam—it does­n’t have such strict rules, rather it’s more of a way of life. And med­it­at­ive way of life, so this makes Buddhism pop­u­lar in many places. They also teach things like this at the Buddhist Col­lege. Have a look at the Buddhist College!

IN:      OK, I’ll take a look.

Additional info

Books, exhibition catalogues

Tibeti könyvil­lusztrá­ciók. Bud­apest 1972. (Illus­tra­tions of Tibetan block-prin­ted books)

Bid­pai és Lok­man indi­ai históriái. Bud­apest 1972. (Indi­an his­tor­ies of Bid­pai and Lokman)

A Painter’s Pil­grim­age. Del­hi 1978. Papers on the Lit­er­at­ure of North­ern Buddhism Presen­ted at the Kőrösi Csoma Memori­al Sem­in­ar, April 11, 1977. Depart­ment of Buddhist Stud­ies, Uni­ver­sity of Del­hi, Del­hi, 1979. 71 pp. (co-edited with Sanghasen Singh)

A Cata­logue of the Urga Kan­jur. Del­hi 1980. India in Hun­gari­an Learn­ing and Lit­er­at­ure. Del­hi 1980. Charles Fabri, Life and Work. Del­hi 1981.

A Hand-list of the Ulan Bat­or Manu­script of the Kan­jur Rgy­al-rtse Them-spangs-ma. Bud­apest 1982.

India mag­yar szem­mel. Bud­apest, 1987. (co-edited with Ildikó Puskás) (India as seen by Hungarians)

India varáz­sa – The Lure of India. Nagykan­iz­sa 1988.

Tiszta Élet Öröm. Tihany 1989. (Pure Life Joy)

Enchanted by India: Ervin Baktay,Life and Works. Del­hi 1992.

Dreams and Vis­ions. Del­hi 1999.


Cham­an Lal: Gip­sies. For­got­ten Chil­dren of India. New Del­hi, 1962. (review) Acta Ori­ent. Hung. 1964, pp. 358–360.

Az ázsi­ai nyelvek átírásának kérdé­sei­hez. Mag­yar Nyelv 1964:2, pp. 213–217. (To the prob­lem of tran­scrib­ing Asi­an languages)

Three Pañcatan­tra Tales in an Uned­ited Com­ment­ary to the Tibetan Sub­hāśit­ar­at­nan­idhi. Acta Ori­ent. Hung. XVIII (1965), pp. 317–338.

Lokesh Chandra, The three hun­dred gods. (review) Acta Ori­ent. Hung. 1965, pp. 392– 395.

The Subhashitar­at­nakosha, HOS 42,44. (review) Acta Ori­ent. Hung. 1965, pp. 395– 396.

Venger­skie raboty po ori­ent­al­istike 1959–60. Nar­ody Azii i Afriki, Moscow, 1966, pp. 161–168. (Hun­gari­an works in Ori­ent­al stud­ies 1959–60) Edit Tóth. Acta Ori­ent. Hung. XIX (1966), p. 395.

Tibet­isztikai tan­ul­mányúton Mon­góliában. MTA I. Oszt. Közl. 25 (1968), pp. 386– 392. (On a Tibet­o­lo­gic­al study trip to Mongolia)

S. N. Sen: A Bib­li­o­graphy of Sanskrit Works on Astro­nomy and Math­em­at­ics, New Del­hi, 1966, (review) Acta Ori­ent. Hung. XXI (1968), pp. 259–261.

M. Taube: Tibet­ische Hand­s­chriften und Block­drucke, I–IV. (review) Acta Ori­ent. Hung. XXI, 1968, pp. 386–389.

Vedashas­trasam­gra­hah. (review) Acta Ori­ent. Hung. XXI, pp. 260–261. Aus­s­prache des Tibet­ischen bei den Khalkha-Mon­golen. Acta Ori­entalia Havni­ensia, Kop­pen­ha­gen XXXII (1970), pp. 37–44.

The Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan ver­sions of the tale “Hare and lion”. Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies, Bud­apest 1970, pp. 93–102.

A Tibetan Cata­logue of the Blocks of the Lamaist Print­ing House in Aginsk. Acta Ori­ent. Hung. XXV (1972), pp. 53–75.

The Pañcatan­tra in Hun­gary. Acta Ori­ent. Hung. XXVII (1972), pp. 127–129.

The Author­ship of the Pañcatan­tra. Acta Anti­qua XXI (1973), pp. 267–271.

Rep­res­ent­a­tion of Buddhist hells in a Tibeto-Mon­gol illus­trated block­print. Alta­ica Col­lecta, Wies­baden 1974, pp. 93–130. (co-author: Alice Sárközi)

Egy múlt­száz­adi fanyo­ma­tos könyv a a lamaizmus pok­lairól (Hells of Lama­ism in a 19th c. block­print) Művész­et 1975, No 8., pp. 21–23. (co-author: A. Sárközi)

Lamaista pokolképek (Lamaist­ic Hell-pic­tures) Keletkutatás 1975, pp. 87–115, (coau­thor: A. Sárközi)

Alex­an­der Csoma de Kőrös in Ladakh. In: Pro­ceed­ings of the Csoma de Kőrös Memori­al Sym­posi­um. (BOH, XXIII) 1978, pp. 7–27.

On the Sub­hāśit­ar­at­nan­iddhi (Echoes and Con­cep­tion). In: Papers on the Lit­er­at­ure of North­ern Buddhism Presen­ted at the Kőrösi Csoma Memori­al Sem­in­ar, April 11, 1977. Depart­ment of Buddhist Stud­ies, Uni­ver­sity of Del­hi, Del­hi, 1979. 71 pp. (ed. by Sanghasen Singh–G. Beth­len­falvy), pp. 24–37.

Bla-ma Bzhad-pa and the Rdzong-khul Gompa. Acta Ori­ent. Hung. XXXIV (1980), pp. 3–6.

Megjegyzések egy indi­ai tan­ulók problémáit figyelembe vevő mag­yar nyelvkönyv előkészítéséhez. In: Mag­yar Nyelv külföl­dieknek. Az V. Mag­yar Lektori Kon­fer­en­cia any­aga (szerk. Giay Géza és Rusz­inyák Márta). Bud­apest, 1981, pp. 64–66. (Somes notes on the pre­par­a­tion of a Hun­gari­an course­book with con­sid­er­a­tion to Indi­an learners)

The Satagatha Attrib­uted to Vararuci. In: Tibetan and Buddhist Stud­ies Com­mem­or­at­ing the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alex­an­der Csoma de Kőrös. (ed. by Louis Ligeti) Bud­apest, 1984, pp. 17–58.

Mag­yar tudósok indi­ai munkássága. In: India mag­yar szem­mel. Bud­apest, 1987. (ed. by Beth­len­falvy Géza and Puskás Ildikó), pp. 58–61. (Activ­it­ies of Hun­gari­an research work­ers in India)

A Kőrösi Csoma Sándor kérdés. In: Kőrősi Csoma Sándor emlékkönyv. Kovászna (Románia) 1992, pp. 127–134. (The ques­tion of Alex­an­der Csoma de Kőrös)

Megjegyzések Csoma és Moor­croft barát­ságáról és a kora­beli nyugat-him­alá­­jai gaz­dasági és politikai eseményekről. In: Kőrösi Csoma Sándor emlékkönyv. Kovászna (Románia) 1992, pp. 156–164. (Some notes on the friend­ship of Csoma de Kőrös and Moor­croft and on eco­nom­ic­al and polit­ic­al events in the con­tem­por­ary West­ern Himalaya)

Új levéltári for­rások Kőrösi Csoma indi­ai útjáról. In: Kőrösi Csoma Sándor nyom­dokain. Kovászna (Románia) 1993, pp. 42–50. (New archiv­al sources on the trip of Csoma de Kőrös in India) Lehet‑e még újat mondani Kőrösi Csoma Sán­dorról? In: A szol­gadiák. Széc­sény 1993, pp. 43–50. (Can we say any­thing new about Alex­an­der Csoma de Kőrös?)

Notes on the Roma. IIC Quarterly (New Del­hi) Sum­mer 2000, pp. 69–80.

Out­line of the artists’ life-jour­ney – List of awards – List of pub­lic­a­tions – List of import­ant exhib­i­tions. In: Deams and vis­ions, an exhib­i­tion of paint­ings by Eliza­beth Sass Brun­ner and Eliza­beth Brun­ner. Indira Gandhi Nation­al Centre for the Arts, New Del­hi 2000, pp. 41–85.

The Janus Face of Ori­ent­al Stud­ies. In: Alex­an­der Csoma de Kőrös (1784–1842) Pion­eer of Ori­ent­al Stud­ies in Hun­gary. Sem­inars at the Uni­ver­sity of Del­hi and the Hun­gari­an Inform­a­tion and Cul­tur­al Centre in memori­am of the 150th Anniversary of his death, April, 1992. (ed. by Sat­inder Kumar Vij–Imre Lázár) New Del­hi, 1992, pp. 3–8.

Con­tem­pla­tion on the Occa­sion of Releas­ing a Book on the Life and Works of Ervin Bak­tay. In: Hun­gari­an Schol­ars on India and Indo­logy. Lec­tures at HICC New Del­hi (1989–1991). (ed. by László Nyusztay) New Del­hi, 1992, pp. 33–36.

© Liszt Insti­tute Hun­gari­an Cul­tur­al Centre Delhi

© Liszt Insti­tute // Hun­gari­an Cul­tur­al Centre Delhi


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