An inter­view with

Helmut Eimer

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:

  1. Butön’s dir­ect­ory of texts trans­lated from Indi­an to Tibetan
  2. Bod­hipath­apra­dīpa by Atiśa accord­ing to Tibetan sources with commentary
  3. 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.

M‑E‑R, mer.

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.

Concluding questions


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!

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