Ogden native E. Gene Smith, Tibetan archivist and scholar, dies in Manhattan

By Margalit Fox

New York Times News Service

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 28 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

E. Gene Smith, a Utah native who through persistence, ardor and benevolent guile amassed the largest collection of Tibetan books outside Tibet, saving them from isolation and destruction and making them accessible to scholars and Tibetan exiles around the world, died Dec. 16 at his home in Manhattan. He was 74.

The cause was not known, but Smith had had diabetes and heart trouble in recent years, said Jeff Wallman, executive director of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, which was founded by Smith and a small group of friends in 1999.

Now at 17 West 17th Street in Manhattan, the center houses nearly 25,000 books dating from the 12th century. Besides containing many of the seminal texts of Tibetan Buddhism, the collection comprises secular works on a range of topics.

Smith, a scholar who became so enamored of Tibetan culture that he converted to Buddhism as a young man, was renowned for his seemingly limitless knowledge of Tibetan literature and his equally limitless fervor for saving it.

The center has begun to digitize its collection, making the texts accessible (in the Tibetan language and script) to anyone with Internet access. Almost 14,000 volumes — more than 7 million pages — are available on its website, tbrc.org, which receives more than 3,000 visitors daily.

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

Though Smith had neither an academic affiliation nor a doctorate, wherever in the world he happened to be living — in New Delhi, where he acquired Tibetan literature for the Library of Congress; Cambridge, Mass., where he started the resource center in his house, sleeping amid towers of Tibetan books; or New York — his home became a magnet for students, scholars, religious leaders and exiles who sought his expertise on Tibet's rich but little-known literary canon.

''The value of Tibetan literature is two things," David Germano, a professor of Tibetan studies at the University of Virginia, said last week in a telephone interview. "First of all, it's one of the four great languages in which the Buddhist canon was preserved." (The others are Chinese, Sanskrit and Pali, an extinct language of India.)

''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. So the second value of the Tibetan canon is it's one of the greatest in the world."

The canon was imperiled after China invaded and occupied Tibet in the 1950s. Though fleeing refugees managed to smuggle some books out, the Chinese destroyed a great 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."

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

After attending a series of colleges, Smith settled in at the University of Washington, where he studied Mongolian and Turkish, earning a bachelor's degree in Far Eastern studies in 1959.

Around that time, as he began work on a doctorate at the university, he started studying Tibetan with a visiting lama, Deshung Rinpoche, and was entranced. Further study was hindered, however, by 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.'"

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