Gene Smith dedicated his life to preserving Tibet’s literary heritage, and played a key role in its survival. In December he passed away, at the age of 74. Janet Gyatso remembers the man and his historic contribution.
Gene Smith was an academic maverick and preeminent pioneer of Tibetan Studies who singlehandedly preserved for posterity the vast heritage of Tibet’s texts on philosophy, history, and culture. For decades, he had been recognized by scholars around the world as the de facto dean of Tibetan Studies and held in the highest regard due to his extraordinary accomplishments in protecting and sharing Tibet’s imperiled literary treasures and his dedication to making Tibetan literature universally accessible. Smith had extensive knowledge of Tibetan religious history, and provided generous assistance to scholars worldwide for more than forty years.
Ellis Gene Smith was born in 1936 in Ogden, Utah, to a traditional Mormon family, and realized his stunning intellectual achievements without the usual institutional support or positions. His father was a scientist working in a federal guided-missile program, one result of which was that the family moved around a lot. After high school, Smith received a congressional appointment to the military academy at West Point, which he never took up. He went instead to study briefly at Adelphi College, Hobart College, University of Utah, and finally at the University of Washington in Seattle. There he met one of the greatest traditional Tibetan scholars of the twentieth century, Ven. Deshung Rinpoche Kunga Tenpai Nyima—the tutor to the head of the Phuntso Phodrang branch of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism—who had been brought to teach at Washington during the sixties. During this time, Smith began his comprehensive study of Tibetan literature and history, rapidly becoming fluent in both colloquial and classical Tibetan, and absorbing much of Deshung Rinpoche’s encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm for Tibetan intellectual history. In 1964, Smith completed his Ph.D. qualifying exams and travelled to University of Leiden in the Netherlands for advanced studies in Sanskrit and Pali. In 1965, he went to India under a Foreign Area Fellowship Program grant from the Ford Foundation to prepare for writing his doctoral thesis.