Utah native, Tibetan book collector Smith dies

Published 29.12.2010 12:22
Updated 19.01.2011 10:16

Ellis Gene Smith, the son of a Mormon family from Ogden, Utah, who is believed to have compiled the largest collection of Tibetan books outside of Tibet, has died in New York at age 74.

The New York Times reports that Smith died Dec. 16 at his Manhattan home. The cause of death was not released. But Jeff Wallman, executive director of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center in New York, said Smith had had diabetes and heart trouble in recent years.

Smith and a small group of friends founded the center in 1999. It holds nearly 25,000 books dating from the 12th century, including many of the seminal texts of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as secular works on a range of topics.

Smith was a scholar who became so interested in Tibetan culture that he converted to Buddhism as a young man and began acquiring the books. He was known for his vast knowledge of Tibetan literature and his passion for saving it.

His effort saved the books from isolation and destruction and made them accessible to scholars and Tibetan exiles around the world.

Tibetan is one of four great languages in which the Buddhist canon was preserved, David Germano, a professor of Tibetan studies at the University of Virginia, said last week.

"In addition to the scriptural canon," he said, "there were histories, stories, autobiography, poetry, ritual writing, narrative, epics - pretty much any kind of literary output you could imagine."

The canon was threatened after China invaded and occupied Tibet in the 1950s. Refugees who fled smuggled some books out, but the Chinese destroyed many others.

"With the close of the Cultural Revolution, you essentially lost much of the Tibetan Buddhist literature," Germano said. "It was lost to the war; it was lost to the destruction of the monasteries, libraries and collections of books in Tibet that were systematically sought out and burned during the Cultural Revolution."

The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center has started to digitize its collection and make the texts available over the Internet.

"The idea is to deliver the tradition back to the owners of the traditions," Smith told the Buddhist magazine Mandala in 2001.

Smith was born on Aug. 10, 1936, to a Mormon family that traced its lineage to Hyrum Smith, the elder brother of Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith.

After attending several colleges, he stayed at the University of Washington, where he studied Mongolian and Turkish and earned a bachelor's degree in Far Eastern studies in 1959.

As Smith began working on a doctorate degree, he started studying Tibetan with a visiting lama, Deshung Rinpoche, but was limited because of the lack of available texts.

"We had no Tibetan books," Smith told The New York Times in 2002. "Deshung said: 'Go and find them. Find the important books and get them published.'"

It became Smith's mission.

"Without his vision, many of us in the field would not be doing what we're doing," Leonard van der Kuijp, a professor of Tibetan and Himalayan studies at Harvard, said last week.

Smith is survived by three sisters, Rosanne Smith, Carma Wood and LaVaun Ficklin.

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