An interview with
Position & Affiliation: Indologist and Tibetologist at the University of Bonn
Date: August 17, 2019 in Bonn, Germany
Interviewed by: Daniel Wojahn (conducted in German and translated by Daniel Wojahn)
Transcript by: Marlene Erschbamer
Upbringing and early student days
Dear Dr. Helmut Eimer, thank you very much for taking the time to be interviewed for the Oral History of Tibetan Studies project. Can you tell us how your academic career has begun? What influenced you in your youth?
I graduated from a humanistic school in 1956. It was a traditional school, the Gymnasium Phillipinum, in Marburg. Of course, I received a humanistic education there, including classical languages. New languages were also taught, but that was only a minor matter. And I asked myself – or had to ask myself –, “What do you actually want to study?” I had also been told that you could become an engineer, specializing in papermaking or something else. The family – what was left of the family – wanted me to become a doctor. Then I thought about it: papermaking would have brought money, but I could not have done it because of my medical condition. I could not become a doctor either. I saw what it meant to be a doctor because I lived in a doctor’s household with my mother’s sister. Since my next oldest brother was studying in Hamburg, I also had to go there for economic reasons. There we could share a room.
I considered—this had long been my career aspiration—to become a librarian for academic libraries. Classical philology is very useful for that. That was appropriate at the time, and as the ‘icing on the cake’ I wanted to orient myself towards linguistics. Indo-Germanic studies were incredibly interesting. It was not called Indo-European at the time, but Indo-Germanic. There were no direct Indo-Germanic studies at the University of Hamburg. And I thought to myself Sanskrit is one of the most important languages for the whole field, you do that. I then went to the Indology department, enrolled, and met Dr. Frank Richard Hamm.
I took my first lessons with him, and when I re-enrolled in the second semester, he said, “Herr Eimer: I am now offering a Tibetan course. Would you like to take it?” Mind you, the Tibetan language—many Sanskrit texts are not preserved in Tibetan, only those related to Buddhism—that was not his field. I was hooked and signed up for the Tibetan language course, which, by the way, was also attended by Professor Alsdorf, the full professor of Indology in Hamburg.
Studying Tibetan in Hamburg with Dr. Frank-Richard Hamm in the 1950s and 60s
That was in 1956?
Yes, in the winter of 1956/57.
So, how did we learn Tibetan? Letter by letter. We pronounced each letter of the Tibetan word: bsgrubs, ’bras, and so on. Dr. Hamm probably knew spoken Tibetan too, at least to a limited extent, but this was not part of the curriculum. He taught us that the entire language system worked in this way. I then took extra courses with him and struggled terribly in Indology. In Indology, you have the subsidiary subjects of Pāli, Vedic, and so on, up to Prakrit. I learned all these languages. I studied them all solidly and honestly and struggled through them. So, it was not without difficulties. Several languages. At times I even had some Old Iranian on top of that. And then I did a bit of Chinese as well. That was just too much.
Anyway, after nine semesters, in 1961, I asked my good Dr. Hamm what I could do for my doctorate. At that time, there was no Magister, but only a doctorate for purely scientific subjects. You had to have three subjects. That was no problem. Dr. Hamm and Professor Alsdorf decided together what I should study. They gave me three suggestions:
- Butön’s directory of texts translated from Indian to Tibetan
- Bodhipathapradīpa by Atiśa according to Tibetan sources with commentary
- Udānavarga vivarana with commentary, which, however, was immediately dropped. This is more than a full volume from the Tanjur (bstan ’gyur)!
It was incredibly long to edit such a text according to the rules I knew from Classical Philology and school. It was simply too much. Too much material to cover. With today’s methods, one would have read it briefly and then paraphrased the content. That would have been possible, but I was not prepared for that nor was my training.
Then I got involved with Atiśa’s Bodhipathapradīpa with pañjikā (commentary), studied it and gradually permeated it, left and right and diagonally, as one does. However, I did not arrive at an outcome that seemed worth pursuing either to me or my good Dr. Hamm, who later became a professor. Of course, the demands were very high. Precise textual criticism, textual analysis, and so on; Indian parallels and that’s where it becomes quite criminal, the amount of work you have to do!
I then followed Hamm via a temporary stop in Berlin to Bonn. Of course, a completely new world! I was an assistant in Berlin and was also an assistant here in Bonn. Since Hamm treated me as if I had the master’s degree that was introduced at that time, I was able to get a better salary level, i.e., that of the assistants, to be able to get by at all.
Relocation to Bonn University
How many hours per week did you work there?
Twenty-five hours. That was the normal workload. You could have done 12.5 hours, but that was not enough. You otherwise had to have a big wallet in your pocket. It was then off to the “Bonner Arbeitsmühle” (rat race). Professor Hamm had to become accustomed to being a professor here in Bonn, which was more demanding than in Berlin. I also had to get used to working here. I did not really get on with my doctorate either. Finally, the Collaborative Research Centre (Sonderforschungsbereich) “Material Culture of Tibet and Mongolia” was formed, and I was told: “Well, Herr Eimer, you go to Sweden and work on the Sven Hedin manuscripts there!”
Fieldwork in Sweden and doctoral thesis
That was during your doctoral phase?
Before the doctorate. But after the master’s degree. I had done my master’s in 1967 with a thesis on Buddhistische Begriffsreihen als Skizzen des Erlösungsweges nach tibetischen Quellen.
Then I went to Sweden. Three trips, a month each time, and of course during that time, I was not able to compile a catalogue, at least not one that could be called a proper catalogue with colophons and everything. I made a hand list. However, it was already 300 pages long! And, very interestingly, not only for historians but also for researchers of folk religions: It contains approximately 500 small folk texts. Among other things, also something quite adventurous, which I only understood decades later: “A prayer for the rebirth of a spiritual man.” But this prayer was nothing more than a silent, secret protest against Soviet power in Mongolia during the rebirth of the last Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu. Extremely interesting! But you have to keep airing and revising such a text until you get it right.
At that time, I realized that nothing could be done with Bodhipathapradīpa with pañjikā. But it still had Atiśa’s life story attached to it. And here in Bonn, I had the opportunity to obtain a lot of material about Atiśa’s life. Even Professor Hamm, who occasionally travelled to London, got things for me. Then, all kinds of scholars came here. One kept hearing about new discoveries. Finally, no less than about 40 different sources of Atiśa’s biography were available to me. I have briefly characterized them, in addition to the usual assisting tasks. I did not teach but did a lot of teaching assistance work in our Indology and Central Asia seminars. I continued to collect materials on Atiśa, especially his biographies.
And one day Professor Hamm became ill. He then died in 1973. Shortly before that, he received me for a talk about my progress. And I told him, “I have this and that and other things about Atiśa,” and he said, “Well, go ahead!” Four months later, Hamm passed away and Michael Hahn succeeded him as professor of Indology and took over the supervision of my doctoral thesis. With some limitations, he then helped me a lot to bring the workload down to a manageable level.
Hamm died in November 1973, and in March 1974, my dissertation was completed because I had all the material at hand. We always had methodological seminars at the Collaborative Research Centre. I learned a lot about methodology there, a lot. For instance, you must include the source-critical approach in addition to the text-critical approach. At that time, at least, nothing was known about this. I asked various colleagues, also historians, both students and assistants, and they all did not know much about these theories and methods, let alone that they went back to the 1920s or even earlier.
So, I struggled through it and received some positive reprimands from colleagues at the Collaborative Research Centre (laughs). I don’t mind saying reprimands. In any case, the work on Atiśa was completed. It then took me two or three years to finish the book edition. This was much more difficult in the past. There were no computers. You had to write everything with a typewriter. And woe betide you if a sentence had to be changed. Subsequently, the entire page had to be retyped.
Copying the Lhasa Kanjur
The whole page?
Yes, it had to be redone. They could not take anything over, etc. The technical requirements… I have practically witnessed the technical revolution. First, we had to have the original manuscripts. Then you copied them. Then you could microfilm them, but this was terribly expensive. Then, you could copy them using a Xerox machine. That was much cheaper. And finally, they could be scanned. Incidentally, I was responsible for a Xerox copy of the entire Lhasa Kanjur on film in the late 1960s. There exists also a booklet of mine about the process. That was a lot of work, of course. I had to make heavy use of my good Tibetan informant Pema Tsering. Because I understood the spoken Tibetan so badly, I could not continue on my own. Of course, I should have started with spoken Tibetan. But I could not, and I have not learned it to this day.
Were you in Lhasa at the time?
No, in Bonn. The filming took place in Marburg an der Lahn according to a scheme I had worked out and in consultation with Professor Hamm. The holdings of the German State Library were partly stored there. I think that was the case until 1973. And the filming took place in very small rooms. And then the corrections had to be checked. And we did that under my supervision. I once spent a week in Marburg.
And when you say that was a special procedure, what do you mean by that?
It was a procedure where a) the film and b) the copy flow had to be calculated. The question was always: is there enough money? We put a lot of work into it and made at least four copies of the Lhasa Kanjur, which are now in different places around the world. One here in Bonn, one in Rikon, Switzerland, one in Hamburg, I think, one in Canberra, Australia and one in Seattle, USA. And another one somewhere in Japan. So, there were more like five or six.
At that point, the Atiśa biography was completed. After the Atiśa biography project, I edited the Bodhipathapradīpa, but without the commentary. And this is the first edition or the first attempt to do something like this. I think this was one of the first editions after so many textual witnesses, there were 14, I think. And that enabled me to do what is necessary in the case of editions of classical Tibetan texts. You have to try to understand the tradition. You have to try to find out how the sources diverged. How are they connected? What happened there? One will rarely come to a final conclusion. But at least I had presented the first approaches.
Publishing Atiśa’s biography and observations about the Tibetan printing culture
And where did this idea come from?
I had prepared the text in the same way as I had done for my dissertation. And then I simply added a new translation. I made a few mistakes in that one, I must admit. In any case, it is an edition about which a reviewer once wrote: “Eimer has achieved what is not common in Buddhist studies: a reliable book” (laughs). That sounds harsh. Very well.
At that time, I still had in a drawer all the preliminary work of my Atiśa biography project, which I then released in two more volumes as a synoptic text. That was a crazy idea of mine, but I think it was still the right thing to do. In it, I put together the pieces of text and some fragments from the four main sources and show how they were patched together in the historical tradition. It was copied over and over again. Slightly modified. You can then see how it changes. I was also able to prove that the early Kadampas had a dialect that deviated from the standard Tibetan dialect if you can even call it that. Professor Ulrike Roesler has now proved that the dialect goes back to Phenpo (’Phan po), the area around Reting (Rwa sgreng). So, I had completed that.
Then, on Walther Heissig’s instructions and to save my skin, I wrote an awful lot for the Collaborative Research Centre – I was put through the wringer a few times, to put it that way – even then. Smaller writings here and there.
And another thing, a thread I left unfinished earlier: In Stockholm, at the Etnografiska Museet (Museum of Ethnography) – we were also in Uppsala and my wife was there to help me – I learned something about printing techniques. How do you print in Tibet? With woodblocks, well, okay. How do you correct the printing plates? You cut them out and glue them back in. But what do you do when a whole page has to be reprinted? How do you make a wooden printing block? I asked myself these technical questions and found out that you would not put the mirror type directly on the printing block. Nobody could do it. Everyone said, “It’s impossible!”
Yes, but how do you get the letters on the block? Technology. What do you print with? With which colours? Red, but mainly black. So, carbon black was used. And soot was also very practical for ink. Then you wrote with ink on a sheet of paper. And what did you do with the sheet? Oh, horror! You stuck it with the writing side on the wooden block. The first act. And keep the whole thing a little damp. Yuck! And then you pulled it off and the soot particles that were stuck to it now migrated onto the wood. Now you could carve. You need to understand this technique to understand how printing and reprinting was done in Tibet.
We hear about the canon editions of Derge. A thousand copies! The poor wood! It cannot stand it. A second set of printing blocks was made in China, the Yongle edition of 1410. It was read everywhere. Then, in 1606, the Wanli edition. 1684–1692 under Kangxi, then later a second edition. This counterproof method was used again and again, and the same blocks were used. This means that the prints have identical typesets.
And this procedure was not only applied there. I have observed with the Stockholm prayer printing blocks, of which thousands were made, that this was common practice. But you can see the differences in the very small variations. It shifts. Sometimes a letter does not read properly, and so on. I recognised all these typographical things in Sweden and published my findings repeatedly. The first publication appeared in 1970 under the title “Satz- und textspiegelidentische Pekinger Blockdrucke in tibetischer Sprache”. Nonsense, everyone would say! There is a reason for that (laughs).
Editing the Rab tu ’byung ba’i gzhi (Pravrajyāvastu)
Anyway, I wrote a lot about it and then, in addition to the Collaborative Research Centre, I started working in project groups and on specific projects. One of these projects was Professor Hamm’s on the Rab tu ’byung ba’i gzhi (Pravrajyāvastu), which had not yet been printed and was to be published in the Collaborative Research Centre. After Professor Hamm passed away, I received his materials and the assignment from the Collaborative Research Centre: “Finish it!”
Text? Translation? No, I only prepared the text. I had set out to do that, but I had a lot more up my sleeve than the material Hamm had compiled. And I had realised that we have different “Beijing prints”. In other words, the Beijing prints are not the same. They differ, and they have been altered by pasting in pieces, erasing, and so on. If you pick up a reprint from Japan, skim it and look at the typeface, you will find that it is a most veritable graveyard of changes! There is no other way to put it. It’s a bit drastic, but you have to realise that.
I took on the Hamm project and found that my good teacher – who was very ill – made a series of blunders towards the end of the collation. Therefore, my previous experience with the Rab tu ’byung ba’i gzhi (Pravrajyāvastu), which we had read and discussed in class many years ago, was very important to me, and he had kept giving me references to the tradition and what he had understood up to that point. But he had only got as far as the distribution of the tsheg. That’s where he’d already got started. And then I finished this edition. It was very extensive this time—I don’t know how many text witnesses there were, but in any case, it was quite an extensive collection. That was all we had at the time. Nowadays in Vienna, you have many more local canons. We knew nothing about the role of these local canons and their connections. At that time, we knew nothing about it. We only had the Putrak (Phug brag) and that was a quite peculiar collection. And yet that is as true a local canon as it gets.
After that, I immersed myself in canon research and spent years on it. During that time, I presented at the Orientalists’ Day in Berlin on the printing technique I mentioned earlier. After my presentation, I thought, “Well, nobody understood that!” (laughs).
When was that? Do you remember?
I can’t tell you exactly. It must have been around 1980. After the lecture, an older gentleman suddenly approached me. It turned out to be Ernst Waldschmidt. He said, “If we had known what you were going to tell us, Herr Eimer, many things would have been different!” (laughs) I thought that was very nice! And then I continued to tinker with all things Kanjur. I revised the catalogues. I followed the old motto of the Mongolist Walther Heissig: “When something comes at you, you have to shoot!” There is no other way. And I really tried hard to do that. And without the help of my wife, many things would not have been possible. She proofread the texts for me and that alone is incredibly important.
Memories of the academic life at Bonn University
You mentioned that scholars from abroad came to Bonn time and again. Can you give us some names?
Basically, almost the entire crème de la crème of the 1960s and 1970s. First of all, Nicholas Poppe, Denis Sinor and then Rolf Stein from Paris. Hugh Richardson. A magnificent man whom I admired very much and with whom I stayed in contact for a long time, and from whom I also learned a lot. Then from China, Professor Wang Yao, who studied Old Tibetan. I even had to be his teaching assistant so that he got everything he needed.
Professor Wang Yao was invited as a guest lecturer?
That’s right. Our next guest was Edward Conze from Buddhist studies. He was also here. And from Japan, various gentlemen came to visit. The ones I remember best were Jikido Takasaki and Akira Yuyama. But also younger Japanese [scholars], such as Takayoshi Matsumuro and others. Some of them only came for a short time to look at certain items. Many people like András Róna-Tas or Uray Géza came from Mongolian studies and Hungary in general. From Yugoslavia came Radoslav Katičić, an Indologist, whom I also had to assist. That was also part of my job as an assistant, by the way. Taking care of all these people.
Ah, this was after my time as an assistant, but the wonderful Alex Wayman came along! Ah, that’s a nice story! Alex Wayman knew some German. He was standing in front of the Beethoven Monument on the Bonn market square and had a student with him as a guide. And there he read the inscription on the monument: “Geb. zu (Bonn). Geb., that’s the abbreviation for being born. But what does Zoo mean?”
Another story from Wang Yao during one of his classes, “Do you know what the word Purong (phug rong) means? Purong means dove.” The translation ‘dove’ is not common in German. Usually, it is rendered as ‘pigeon’. He said, “Dove, do you know it? You don’t know it? Here, in the market, there are doves. People in the market feed them, which means they eat them”. (laughs)
I would like to ask something about Pema Tsering. I know from Heissig’s account that it was common to work in tandem at that time, wasn’t it?
Yes, of course. I wrote several essays together with Pema Tsering. One important essay was about the The’u rang mdos ma, a text about small evil spirits, which turned out to be interesting for Religious studies. Because no one had written about it before. Then I also wrote other essays with Pema Tsering. I also collaborated with Loden Sherab Dargyab. We also had Jampa Lobsang Panglung here in Bonn. He was an editor and therefore didn’t write too much. He wrote something together with Walther Schubring about the content of a chörten (mchod rten) or something like that. It was quite normal to do that together with Tibetans. However, I could only collaborate to a limited extent because of my poor knowledge of the spoken language.
Memories of various academic conferences and the importance of letter-writing
Did you also meet Helga Uebach in Bonn at that time?
No, but at the conferences. I attended at least 15 conferences during that time. The first conference was the International Seminar for Young Tibetologists in Zurich in 1977.
My lecture was the first European lecture on Atiśa. It was preceded by a Tibetan lecture. I was able to attend all the IATS (International Association for Tibetan Studies) meetings held in Western Europe until 2009 in Königswinter.
The German Orientalist Conference was also one of the conferences I attended. Here in Bonn, there was the Bonn International Altaistic Conference (BIAK). These were small workshops. That was very interesting. I once gave a lecture there on the subject of “The fear of being reborn as a pig”.
And how was the lecture received?
It was received quite favourably. (chuckles)
What was the atmosphere like at these conferences?
Very personal. No more than 50–60 people, not as big as today’s mega-conferences. Although there is a need for that too. You just have to get together. Through the conferences, I also got to know all the important representatives of Tibetology.
Another aspect that shaped my work a lot was letter writing. For one thing, the letters contained questions about primary sources and materials. At that time, it was much more difficult to get these. Then I often received enquiries from younger colleagues. Amy Heller once asked me for materials I had come across by chance, and I generally provided materials when we had them in Bonn. This was based on reciprocity. The liberal attitude we maintained over the decades was tremendous. You knew they would make an effort to process the material in a meaningful way.
I wrote down a few more things that I want to share with you for the interview: the matter of describing primary sources according to the basic system of textual criticism. This is the reliable description of the manuscript source used for block printing, together with proof of its origin.
The most important aspect is the classification of the manuscript in the framework of the tradition, i.e., the exact analysis of the different readings, and the verification of the same, which is very important and can also be shown, for example, in the dkar chag texts, it also plays a role, especially in Buddhist texts, the block printing—all matters of classical philology. Some of my editions that can perhaps be seen as an introduction to text-critical work are the Bodhipathapradīpa, the Byang chub lam sgron ma, then Rab tu ’byung ba’i gzhi, the edition of the pravrajyāvastu, and the whole branch of local canons, and finally Sa skya legs bshad. I had announced long, long ago that the Sa skya legs bshad were forthcoming—it was to be done together with Prof. Hahn, but he died before the edition was ready, but I had shown it to him just before he passed away.
These were Sakya Pandita’s Legshé with an annotated translation?
Only the text edition. Just the text. But that is already a work of over 200 pages. Because you have to pursue every possible reading, you have to list them, try to classify them, and then you also have to give a complete overview.
The importance of one’s teachers
After your undergraduate studies in Hamburg, you decided on a philological career and then immersed yourself in various fields of interest?
Classical philology, extended by linguistics. When Indology and Tibetology just seemed too demanding and I also had to deal with other areas, I dropped Latin but kept Greek and did my master’s degree in Indology, Tibetology and Classical Greek with Professor Hamm. For my doctorate, I then took Classical Greek and did Oriental Art History. I could do Oriental Art History more or less off the cuff because I had already studied all these things with Professor Alsdorf. Alsdorf taught Indology not only through the texts. He familiarised us with Indian realities, showed us the realities of antiquity, but also asked questions like, “What used to happen when the sahib wanted to sleep at night, and it was hot?” Someone had to pull a string and a curtain was drawn across the room, creating a movement of air that worked like an ancient fan. Who could know such a thing? You have to learn that from a good teacher. Alsdorf had a versatile teaching style in this respect.
And through exposure to these languages, you then developed an interest in Buddhism?
As far as Buddhist studies are concerned, I must honestly admit that I was very much influenced by Professor Hamm. Hamm wanted to do his Habilitation [a postdoctoral lecture qualification] in Pāli and had already begun preparatory work, but then something came up and so we ended up doing a lot of Pāli. I could read Pāli better than English. The Pāli-Jātakas—those were wonderful bedtime reading. Do you know some of them?
During my undergraduate days I translated a lot of Jātakas from Tibetan into German in class. They are indeed wonderful stories!
Yes, I had the Jātaka collection in Viggo Fausböll’s edition. There are 500 of them and it was easy to read through them, which was very nice.
Because of Hamm, I was very attuned to Pāli Buddhism, and that’s why my master’s thesis is also based on Pāli Buddhism and is perhaps a little thin in the realm of the Mahāyāna. But in the Mahāyānic realm, the issues that are important in Pāli Buddhism do not play such a crucial role. The conceptual groups in the philosophy of Pāli Buddhism more or less recede into the background. You need the Four Noble Truths, of course, otherwise, it doesn’t work, but you move beyond that. In this regard it is important to distinguish the different patterns of formation in the different groups of concepts, these are the kind of themes I chose to work on. And the whole purpose is to point out that you have to find formal arguments to pursue the question, “Which is the earlier version?” And there are some passages in the older texts of Pāli Buddhism that contain something quite modern; where you have something different from the normal interpretations of the same conceptual field. So, I was influenced by Pāli Buddhism through Professor Hamm. But of course, I also engaged with Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Indian elements in Tibetan culture
Do you think it is important, to be able to immediately recognise these Indian elements as such in Tibetan culture or in Tibetan scriptures?
Yes! In fact, you have to do that. I mean, it would be disingenuous not to. Just as we have to be aware of the extent to which we depend on Roman influences here in our culture. Our language needs a lot of Roman, not to mention Greek, that’s another thing. So, it’s not a matter that is directly inherent, but Greek has been grafted on by scholars over time. With the Tibetan language, we must always be aware of the underlying principles. Otherwise, we will not understand what the Tibetans, or rather the Tibetan translators, have understood. We have to look over their shoulders, so to speak.
My wife and I worked very closely with Prof. Hans-Joachim Klimkeit for a long time. Together we revised a small book series for him, the Arbeitsmaterialien zur Religionsgeschichte. The first publication was my master’s thesis, which was included in it. But then we published another dozen books and were thus in very close contact with Professor Klimkeit. We also passed on a lot of sources, information, etc. to each other. In general, I always had regular contact with many colleagues – colleague is an exaggeration in Klimkeit’s case – with many experts, and I maintained that. My letter files, if they still existed, would be incredibly thick.
The importance of Sanskrit and classical-philological methods in Tibetan studies
You have already alluded a little to the fact that the discourse has shifted. Your background is traditional classical philology, but through your work on the Kanjur, you have also found that historical considerations of sources are equally important?
Yes, that is also important. I think that is an additional concern. Textual criticism is the basis for textual work, but we also need to take a source-critical approach to textual work and examine where, for example, these texts are first attested in their existence. Because the Kanjur was not forged together in a flash by a council, but it grew together. And then there are different levels. Over time, if we devote enough time and energy to getting a clearer picture of how the canonical collections came into being, we will probably come to that conclusion too. So far, almost nothing is known about this.
But what is recorded in the Dkar chag ’phang thang ma, the 8th/9th-century catalogue? Which texts are listed there? I have now completed a publication with the help of my colleague from Göttingen, Dr. Sieglinde Dietz. I prefer not to write anything alone because I am too weak. She is also a great specialist and knows the Tibetan language very well. I had first found a text from a collection of smaller manuscripts that are also in the Quasi Kanjur, the local canons, and this text is also in the Bka’ gdams glegs bam, only the editor of the catalogue for the Glegs bam had not recognised it—could not recognise it! I was also able to identify a Turfan fragment as belonging to the text, so the matter was clear: the text has been in use in Tibet since the 9th century. I suspected that there was a certain Pāli text, a Madhyamaka text, as a common basis. In any case, it was possible to show that with the help of the Ldan dkar ma, if you can interpret it correctly, you can see the movement of texts. This is not in the Kanjur, only in the local canons, but how does it grow? Well, these are the little questions I ponder from time to time.
Was that also the zeitgeist? Were you aware that this kind of research method was gaining importance? Were other researchers also doing research like this at the time?
No. My intellectual development is, I think, quite solitary, and all this thinking grew out of my classical philological background. For example, I read Aeschylus in the study group at school and had already learned the basics of Greek studies. And from my academic teachers, especially Prof. Hartmut Erbse, who was later here in Bonn, I learned that you first read a text superficially, but then think about its possible underpinnings. The story of Lysias— do you know Lysias?
Lysias is a Greek logographer. He wrote court speeches. And in one of the seminars, I attended with Professor Erbse, he said, “Look at this text, analyse it.” At first, I didn’t understand anything. I absolutely did not understand what was going on. Two gentlemen are fighting over a boy. “Who is in the right?” you ask yourself as a reader of this story. One or the other? In the end, I realised, but only after very careful analysis, that these are two scallywags arguing. They are two – well, how to put it – crooks. But you have to look very carefully at a text, right down to the last comma. And that is exactly what you cannot do when you read a text for the first time.
On the other hand, that’s why I had difficulties with the Bodhipathapradīpa in the beginning. Every time I read a text, I thought, “What is this?” And that is also how I managed to identify the story behind this little text from Stockholm, this prayer for the rebirth of a Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu, that this was an outcry against the Sovietisation of Mongolia. In the 1920s, you know, that was a very bad time, it was these circles of Mongolians who opposed it and so on. That falls into the same category. You just have to look at the whole thing down to the last shred, and sometimes this kind of reading proves helpful.
Cooperation with Tibetan research assistants
Regarding the readings, did working with Pema Tsering, for example, help you? And what did that look like on a practical level? The two of you sat together and read?
No, I asked, “What does that mean? Can you explain it to me in detail? What area does this fall into—into the spiritual? Would you write it down for me?”
For a while, I also had Mari Tulku as an assistant, but only for a very short time. We wrote things down for each other because I couldn’t follow the spoken language. And then we would look at these notes afterwards and work through them.
Did they write it down in Tibetan or German?
I got the Tibetan from the Tibetans and then wrote down the German translation, or they often didn’t translate it for me but hinted at what it was.
In which language?
In German or Tibetan, depending on how it suited. And you have to add something to that. It was a process that went back and forth very laboriously. And sometimes even Pema Tsering got stuck on certain details.
But I blame myself for that. That was because of me. I know for a fact that someone like Dieter Schuh, for example, who can speak Tibetan really well, or one of the younger people who can speak Tibetan fluently; they can associate it with something and then become insiders. I am not an insider; I depend on the individual words. I learned Tibetan by the letters. That was the disadvantage of this kind of interpretation. But that was the advantage of textual criticism. Because in this way I can see what is going on. Nowadays, when I have a text, a manuscript, I still fiddle with it, but I can’t really work on it anymore—and it contains an awful lot of archaic descriptions. You ask yourself, “Is this real?” Or is it imposed, manoeuvred—which happens from time to time? So, you check, you ponder, and there are different ways to move forward. You have to look for a new approach each time.
Observations about textual transmissions
I think you definitely had the advantage of knowing both Sanskrit and Tibetan. I suppose that’s very useful for canonical texts, is it not?
That is absolutely necessary for understanding the texts or determining whether the place of a word in a sentence is actually correct. But for textual criticism itself, you do not need it so much. If you are reconstructing Sanskrit from Tibetan, that is one thing I have opposed in at least two, if not three articles, because I have suddenly found verses from the Bodhipathapradīpa in Sanskrit manuscripts, or colleagues have pointed them out to me. The Bodhipathapradīpa consists of some 200 lines, and I think there are Sanskrit bits in [*of?] about 40 of them. The difference is quite enormous. I have also pointed out in several places that the text explains why this is the case. Sanskrit has a fixed metre. If you just type the Tibetan equivalent [into your translation] and then make a sentence out of it, the metre is out the window. And so, restitutions of Sanskrit texts from Tibetan, I consider extremely problematic.
Now, if the text is a canonical text consisting of verse fragments, a typical sutra like the Prajñāpāramitā explaining the individual concepts, then you have standard forms and they are correct, they should be accurate. But as soon as it’s not in standard form, that’s it! By the way, I have also pointed this out to Professor Hahn on several occasions. There are also things like the risks of error in writing. You know the normal script, dbu can. You know cursive script (dbu med) and you know abbreviations and contractions—you know all that. There are cases where an abbreviation or a contraction is resolved differently and then it is something completely different!
(He notes something on a piece of paper…) Read it, please.
What does that mean?
To the fire?
You could say that. If you read it as a compound word, it’s med par, “non-existent” or else, another possibility, mar me “butter lamp”—different resolution techniques, just for one syllable, isn’t that nice?
You have to know that too. It can happen even to a skilled Tibetan. These are the risks of error and so on. I have always tried to emphasise that these can be crucial for the transmission of the texts. Especially for the transmission of poetic texts that we have in Buddhism – there are many of them – also in the canon and elsewhere. And you can play around with that as well. I once discussed this example with Prof. Hahn. He also found it quite amusing.
Travels in Europe
Have you ever travelled to India, Mongolia, or similar countries?
I am in very poor health. I often had difficulties as a child. But I have travelled as far as the Hellespont, to Greece. That’s where I had my experiences. I went on a journey to hear how Modern Greek is spoken and how Greek relates to Ancient Greek—to understand it. I travelled through Greece as a tramp. I was able to do that. But I have never left Europe and never will. I have been invited to Japan several times. I know it could work out, but it doesn’t have to. Before I get too involved…I haven’t done any travelling in that sense.
Where have you travelled to in Europe? Also to Switzerland?
Yes, I have travelled there. I know Central Europe. I was in Vienna, I was in Hungary at the Csoma de Kőrös conference, I was in Sweden three times in one month, in Norway, England, and France: in the Musée National and the Musée Guimet – there is a block print of the different Dhāraṇī in Mongolian, Tibetan and so on. I took a photo of it on the windowsill of the museum – it was gruesome. Herr Eimer sometimes does funny things…I was very technically proficient. And I also went to Spain, all the way to Barcelona, by bus over the Pyrenees, I managed that.
Notes on the Tibetan exile community in Germany
What were your impressions of Switzerland at that time? I ask because the Tibetan independence movement has received some attention from the media nowadays or in the last few years in Germany as well, especially on 10 March. And I can only imagine that when you came to Bonn in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the Swiss exile community was just beginning to structure itself, to organise itself—did you notice anything of that? Perhaps also in Bonn?
Here in Bonn, there was the German-Tibetan Cultural Society, but there is also the Association of Tibetans in Germany—I don’t know to what extent it is active. I know about the Tibet Initiative in Berlin, but nothing more. Tsewang Norbu, who worked for a while in the library in Bonn, is now one of the leading people in the Tibet Initiative.
That’s right, Tsewang Norbu was the leader of the Tibet Initiative in Berlin until 2018.
I was not involved much. The Tibet Initiative gets its annual donation from me, what it needs it gets from me. They protested at the time when I was involved in the exhibition in Essen. I worked on the catalogue at the request of a colleague from Cologne.
Which exhibition was that?
“Tibetische Klöster öffnen ihre Schatzkammern”. The Tibetans were a little annoyed that I had worked on the catalogue. And then in 1996, I organised the exhibition “Wisdom and Compassion: 1,000 Years of Tibetan Buddhist Art”, which was great! Of course, Robert Thurman was there, he did a good job!
I was also in touch with people in Australia, which meant that Bonn was pretty central at the time, but of course, we lost that over the course of five years, especially with the transition from Frank-Richard Hamm to Claus Vogel. Vogel sort of held the fort. But then Walther Heissig dropped out as the driving force. Neither Prof. Klaus Sagaster nor Prof. Michael Weiers were able to compensate for this. Weiers certainly achieved a lot professionally, Sagaster too, but then Michael Hahn went to Marburg. Hahn was tremendous scientifically and administratively; he had many contacts in Japan. Unfortunately, the contacts he had with Japan are now slowly crumbling away. I myself have not been able to make any new contacts because I don’t speak Japanese either. And you have to consider: I am in poor health. That’s why I can only work to a very limited extent, but I still sit in front of my desk. Because all the things I have written, you don’t just write them on the side.
A question we ask each of our interviewees: What has your career in Tibetan studies given you personally? How has it enriched your life?
Enriched in that I have seen from time to time that the work I do is useful. That was my main goal because I have seen many people doing anything without anything coming out of it. My work has some impact—at least I hope so. I got feedback a few times; I told you about the meeting with Herr Waldschmidt. Then I once had a presentation that was very important for me: We convened in Wellen near Vienna and a separate event was announced with the title “brief communications”. I was working on the Kanjur at the time, and I thought to myself, “Why don’t you present something in front of the whole team and see what they have to say about it?” A slide projector and coloured pencils were available. I presented the development of the Kanjur tradition. The individual contributions were limited to 10 minutes.
In just 10 minutes?
Can you imagine that? Afterwards, people were very pleased and went on to coffee or dinner. That was one of the great highlights I experienced. Of course, I received a lot of other feedback. But for me, the most important thing is that there are a few people who can call themselves my students – a small handful – and who are still loyal to me, at least most of them.
Who exactly do you mean by that?
For example, Frau Petra Maurer and so many others. The Bonn Indologists from those years know me. I could see that I had done something useful, even if the subject as such is somewhat ridiculed by the public for its usefulness. You know that yourself (laughs).
What interested you most about your work? And what has kept you most busy or challenged you? What was the biggest challenge?
Understanding these things, this culture, what the text is telling me and what I can make of it. What comes out of this narrative? I see that there is a lot of Chinese in these texts, they are also Central Asian, but there are unmistakable Indian traits that indicate that they have an Indian starting point. Whether my readers understand that is the other question. And sometimes it is a wonderful thing to understand an Indian word anew from the understanding of the Tibetan or Chinese translators. That happens rarely, but it is a joy.
Our project is aimed at present and future students who want to study Tibet, Buddhist culture and similar topics. What would you like to give these people to take with them? Do you have a message for them?
The most important thing is and remains to learn the language intensively and, unfortunately, also to deal with the Indian background. Because without India there would be no Buddhism. Because even the late tantric traits of Tibetan Buddhism or the tantric branch, or whatever you want to call it, often have an Indian, a deeper background. And that’s what you need to understand when you explore this region. Tantric Buddhism is so diverse and unfortunately, you cannot just access it through Sanskrit, you also have to know the modern dialects, which Per Kværne, whom I hold in high esteem, has also done with the Caryāgīti manuscript in Apabhraṃśa with Tibetan commentary, and then, of course, the Jain culture, you also have to know about the Jainas! What is Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, what is the ancient Mahārāṣṭrī language? You have to take a very broad view—there is just too much to know. Wherever you start and go a little deeper, you eventually find that. From the point of view of Tibetan studies, you need to have a really good command of spoken Tibetan, which I never learned, and also a solid knowledge of Sanskrit, which is easier to achieve now than when we were students.
Thank you very much!