As intellectuals, writers, and scholars of religion, I believe we must begin our effort at the level of the individual in creating an environment that is conducive to multiculturalism and pluralism as it is an imperative condition for building a brighter future for both our religious and secular cultures.
— Go Sherab Gyatso, General Knowledge & the Path (2011)
Go Sherab Gyatso, also known as Gosher, is a prominent Tibetan writer, a passionate educator, and a fiercely outspoken public intellectual. In October 2020, Gosher was detained for the fourth time. He was held in incommunicado detention for over a year before being handed a 10-year prison sentence in a secret trial in December 2021. In August 2021, the Chinese government issued a response to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that denied his “enforced disappearance” and stated that Gosher was suspected of “inciting secession.” Unlike other persecuted Tibetan writers and intellectuals from Kham and Amdo, Gosher was arrested in Chengdu (Sichuan) by secret security personnel from the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and the recent verdict was issued in Lhasa. However, Gosher’s current whereabouts still remain undisclosed.
Go Sherab Gyatso (sgo shes rab rgya mtsho) was born on September 9, 1976, as the youngest child of Gonguntsang in Khashi village, Ngawa. His mother often recounted that there was some other good news on the day Gosher was born and it was, as she put it, the day the “the old donkey” (Mao Zedong) died. Gonguntsang was a powerful household in Middle Ngawa before the 1950s. Gosher’s maternal grandfather, Thutob, was a minister of the Meu kingdom, one of the few independent Tibetan polities in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands in the early twentieth century. His paternal grandfather, Godrug, was also a minister who ruled over a few communities under the same kingdom. Gosher’s father, Gongun Tsundue, also worked for the Meu kingdom before it was dissolved with the advent of the PLA military rule in the early 1950s. He was a leader of the “Hongcheng” (the Red Guards Unit of Chengdu) faction in Ngawa that initiated a revolt against the Party by shutting down communes, breaking into prisons, and freeing prisoners in 1968. Tsundue fought alongside around 300 local Tibetan militia and engaged in guerrilla warfare and resistance in the rugged mountains of Ngawa and Meruma. Returning from Lhasa to Ngawa, he distributed documents declaring Tibetan independence in 1989. Subsequently, Tsundue fled the country. He lived in exile until his death in Nepal.
At the age of ten, Gosher entered Kirti monastery, the biggest monastery in southern Amdo, as a novice and began his elementary monastic education. Early on, his intelligence shone through with his ability to commit several pages of foundational Buddhist texts to memory in a single day. In 1998, at the age of 22, he was arrested by the local police. After a year-long detention in Barkham, he was sentenced to three years under the charges of displaying a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, during the annual prajnaparamita debate ceremony. Gosher was taken to Maowun (Ch. Maoxian) Prison in Wenchuan, Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan. There Gosher was put to work in both agricultural and textile units of the “correctional industry.” He met a well-read inmate from whom he learned Chinese and borrowed books. As he would recall later, this was a silver lining amidst the dark clouds of his prison days and a notable moment in his intellectual life. Gosher was first exposed to western philosophy in Maowun Prison; a subject he would continue to study and explore in his later academic pursuits.
Echoing Shokdung‘s expression, in the year when “earth and sky shook and divided” (i.e 2008) in Tibet, Gosher was in Lhasa, the epicenter of Tibetan uprisings that spread like a wildfire across the Tibetan plateau. He was studying at Sera monastery under the famous Geshe Dadak after a brief time at Drepung monastery. The practice of “sojourning” at various monastic institutions is a common convention in Tibetan monastic education. Like hundreds of monks who were arrested and sent to “reeducation camps,” Gosher was detained for nearly a year in Golmud (Qinghai) before transporting back to Ngawa (Sichuan). His academic pursuits at Sera monastery were permanently suspended as he was prohibited from entering the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Gosher returned to his original monastic institution, Kirti monastery, where he began to devote his time to giving instructions on various theological and philosophical texts as well as to writing. Following the massive uprisings of 2008 across Tibet, Ngawa became a hotbed of political dissent and resistance with a spate of self-immolations in protest against the Chinese state. Monks of Kirti monastery initiated this drastic form of protest that spread across Tibetan regions. In May 2011, on his way back to Ngawa from Ziling (Ch. Xining) after meeting with a publisher, Gosher was detained again and taken to Chengdu. He was held in detention for no clear reason for several months.
Author & Public Intellectual
Gosher is the author of over 10 books that have gained him a substantial following from both inside and outside Tibet. They serve as a testament to his outstanding scholarship and influence in the Tibetan literary and academic realm. Gosher’s works not only demonstrate his expansive erudition in Tibetan traditional education but also his deep engagement with the history of science, western philosophy, and modern political theories. Gosher is said to have just finished two book manuscripts before his arrest in late 2020, but the whereabouts of those manuscripts remain unknown.
Gosher came to prominence with the publication of Wake Up in 2007. Written when he was only 31 years old, Wake Up is a serious engagement with the questions and quandaries concerning the future of Tibetan Buddhism, language, and culture in an increasingly multicultural and pluralist world. It created a shockwave in the Tibetan intellectual world. His second book, General Knowledge & the Path (2011), expands on many of the themes addressed in his first and presents a series of focused deliberations on the nature and norms of Tibetan monastic administration and education. It argues why and how monastic institutions must reform certain traditional institutions and practices to accommodate changing social circumstances. He is deeply concerned by the growing depopulation of monasteries across Tibet engendered by a combination of socioeconomic changes and state policies. Other works like Across the Himalayas and The Path of a Noble Being are commentaries on Gendun Chophel’s Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler and Je Tsongkhapa’s A [Treatise Giving] Good Counsel, a poetic autobiography. Gosher is also an enthusiastic translator of scientific thought and western philosophy. His Reflections in a Changing World (2019) includes translations that range from On Avoiding Foolish Opinions by Bertrand Russell as well as an essay by Zhou Guoping on the classic chicken and egg problem. One of Gosher’s recently disappeared manuscripts is believed to be a translation work on the history of modern science.
Prior to Wake Up, Gosher was an obscure character in spite of the fact that he had become a political prisoner at the age of 22. He earned his reputation among his classmates at Kirti monastery as a brilliant debater quite early on. The training in disputation and dialectical discourse in the debating courtyards (chos ra) of Kirti certainly served him well. Gosher is today one of the most acclaimed public intellectuals in Tibet, and his eloquence and oratory skills cannot go unnoticed. Salon-style conversations like A Sunday Chat demonstrate Gosher’s personal commitment to intellectual engagement and exchange. He has toured and spoken at numerous monasteries and universities across the Tibetan plateau lecturing on a wide range of topics from Buddhist philosophy and monasticism to Tibetan culture and language. Gosher is unique among Tibetan intellectuals in that he can converse in Central Tibetan and Drokay dialects which allows him to engage with Tibetans not just from Amdo, but also from Kham and Central Tibet. His humble and open-minded personality appeals to students and young writers, encouraging them to carry out close engagement with concepts like “universal values” (kun khyab rin thang) and democratic liberalism (dmangs gtso rang dbang) with Gosher. Dabha’s MA thesis, “A Study of Gosher and His Academic Thoughts” (Tibet University, Lhasa), clearly indicates Gosher’s influence and authority as an author, educator, and public intellectual.
Note: This introductory essay is written by Palden Gyal who is a PhD candidate at Columbia University. His dissertation project focuses on the practices of governance, the political and institutional history of Tibetan communities in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands in the context of Qing imperial expansion over Inner Asia and frontier histories.