Leslie S. Kawamura


Reflections on the Life of Dr. Herbert V. Guenther

On March 11, 2006 Dr. Herbert V. Guenther, one of the most important and respected of the early Eastern scholar/translators, passed away at the age of 88.

Born March 17, 1917 in Bremen, Germany, he was fascinated from a very early age by the cultures of South
Dr. Herbert V. Guenthereast and Central Asia. His extraordinary talent for languages became apparent early on and when he was only nine years old he studied Chinese under the tutelage of a Chinese engineer, and at the age of ten he was teaching German to Russian sailors in exchange for Russian language lessons. His daughter Edith summarizes his extraordinary talents in the following words:

“He haunted the Asian section of Bremen’s Ethnographic Museum and devoured any books he could find on the exploration and history of those areas….”

He attended the Alte Gymnasium in Bremen; in addition to the regular curriculum of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, he studied Sanskrit by himself from grammar books someone had given to him. The list of languages would grow exponentially, until it was easier for family members to answer the question, “What languages does he know?” by replying, “That’s more easily answered by listing the ones he doesn’t know.” By the time he began his studies at Munich University he read both Chinese and Sanskrit fluently and had written some papers on Sanskrit topics. For this reason he was allowed to study not only Vedic Sanskrit and Iranian Studies but also Pali, Prakrit, and Sinhalese. 

Between 1943-1950 he taught at Vienna University. Around 1948-49, the “Renazification” in Austria began: old Nazis returned there and political tensions ensued; thus, Europe was in the throes of instability. Dr. Guenther felt unease and restlessness, and he also believed that a good Sanskrit scholar had to go to India and live there for some time, otherwise one simply would not know enough. In short, owing to the political climate and his strong desire to learn, Dr. Guenther and his family ventured out towards the East. 

Dr. Guenther and his family stayed in India for more than twelve years, first at Lucknow University, where he taught Russian (and carried on his research work, including in Tibetan), and from 1958 until 1963 at the Sanskrit University in Benares (Varanasi), where he served as Head of the Department of Comparative Philosophy and Buddhist Studies. In 1962, Dr. Guenther accompanied his wife and two daughters back to Vienna, but Dr. Guenther returned to India later, just before he began a tour around the world. It was at this time that Professor Leddy from Saskatoon contacted him and asked him to become a professor in Saskatoon after his world tour. He arrived at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, in 1964 where he established the Department of Far Eastern Studies (now dissolved and replaced by the Department of Religious Studies) and served as its Department Head. After twenty-one years of service, Dr. Guenther retired in 1985. 

Among his earliest students were Jim Valby and Leslie Kawamura, and following them many students from Canada and the United States graduated with either their M.A. or Ph.D. degrees. He was able to attract students who wanted to study Buddhism but not necessarily in its traditional interpretation, because Dr. Guenther’s approach to the study of Buddhist texts and principles required not only an accurate understanding of the language in which they were written (i.e., Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, or Mongolian) but also the ability to interpret the texts so that the author’s intention came alive in the translations and interpretations. Consequently, we can credit Dr. Guenther for introducing into the Buddhist academic world an interpretation of the Buddhadharma that was not necessarily sectarian in interpretation. His publications moved from the traditional literal style that tended to be “dry as dust” (Dr. Guenther’s favorite expression) to one which was dynamic and apropos of the human situation. 

When he taught at the Sanskrit University in Benares, he delivered his lectures in Sanskrit; however, his stay in India did not focus only on Indian Buddhism, but also on Tibetan Buddhism, because at that time there were more than thirty outstanding scholarly lamas, refugees from Tibet, at the Sanskrit University, and he was able to converse and exchange ideas with them. Among the Tibetan and Mongolian lamas who very much influenced him were: His Holiness the Dalai Lama; Trijang Rinpoche (Khri-byang Blo-bzang Ye-shes Rin-po-che), tutor to His Holiness; Kathog-on Tulku (Ka thog ‘on sprul-sku), an incarnate lama; the Abbot of Bodhgaya, Tado Tulku (Dar-mdo sprul-sku); Thubten Lhundrup Lekzang (Thub-bstan lhun-grub legs-bzang); Tarthang Tulku (Dar-thang sprul sku), Head Lama of the Nyingma Meditation Center and Nyingma Institute in Berkeley, California; and many others. It was through encounters, exchanges, and discussion with such learned teachers (mkhan-po) and reincarnate lamas (sprul-sku) that Dr. Guenther gained many insights into the living tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

But that was not all, because while in India, each spring when the snow on the mountains began to melt, the Guenthers began their annual trek up the Himalayas towards Tibet. The family would join one of the trading caravans that crossed the Rohtang Pass from Manali to Lahaul, and stay either as guests of the local ruler or at Shashur Gompa (monastery). There he hand-copied, word for word, line by line, in exact facsimile, original texts. It was from such a hand-copied text that we produced the book Mind in Buddhist Psychology (1975). I must say that his handwriting of the Tibetan texts was much more legible than his everyday handwriting that stood at the foundation of almost all of his written publications. 

Dr. Guenther’s interest was certainly focused on Buddhism. In the earlier period of his life it was in Pali Studies. It was at that time that he wrote Das Seelenproblem im älteren Buddhismus (The Problem of the Soul in Older Buddhism) (1949) and Der Buddha und seine Lehre (The Buddha and His Teaching) (1956). However, even though he was well-trained in Pali, he was interested in other aspects of the Buddhist tradition, for in 1952 he already had published The Tantric Way of Life, which was certainly one of the earlier texts in Tantric Studies. After the publication of Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma (1957), a book which most novices in Buddhist Studies have read and which reflected much of Dr. Guenther’s expertise as a certified Jungian psychologist, his interest became almost exclusively and totally focused on Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular on the Nyingma school of thought. I stated “almost exclusively and totally” because in spite of that strong interest, Dr. Guenther never lost sight of his favorite forms of humanistic studies: Asian art and poetry. These were never forgotten and in fact they promoted his style of writing found in books such as The Royal Song of Saraha (1969) and in his articles such as “Mind, Space and Aesthetic Awareness.” 

His personal library is filled with sources written in Tibetan, Chinese, Sanskrit, French, German, Mongolian, Japanese, and whatever other languages are used to express Buddhist ideas, and with books on art, science, biology, and any other scientific subjects related to Buddhist studies. The list is impressive, but the most important works are his unpublished research materials on the Tibetan books he had read. Tibetan texts written by great teachers have been copied meticulously and accurately, with page and line references, and these have been collated according to topics. Volumes of Dr. Guenther’s works written by him in minute and dense handwriting, topic by topic, with numerous references to texts under each entry, stand in his study as expressions of the fruits of Dr. Guenther’s years of steadfast concentration on his studies. 

There is much more to be said about this outstanding, kind-hearted, and learned scholar, but it would be a grave oversight if I did not mention something about “being Dr. Guenther’s student.” Dr. Guenther was something like a dynamo that starts out rather slowly and winds up to its top speed. Whenever we studied together, and sometimes it was for some eight hours straight, I would end up being totally exhausted and he would end the session by saying, “… now that we have just warmed up….” This indicated his intense interest in seeing his students through, and perhaps he had to spend so much time with me simply because I was unable to keep pace with his mental energy. I remember clearly when after one of those sessions he handed me a volume of the Peking Tibetan Tripitaka and requested me to find a particular word in the book. It was a Friday, but I figured that if I did not begin reading through the book as soon as I got home, there would be no hope of my meeting him on Monday with the answer. I read, and I read, and I read all weekend, but alas I could not find the word he wanted. Sheepishly I returned to the University on Monday to quietly say, “I could not find it!” He smiled and said, “Of course not, it is not in there!” 

Out of great compassion and with a touch of humor Dr. Guenther gently but firmly urged his students forward on their studies. Many students both within the university context and outside have benefited from his deep and profound knowledge. His innovative approach to the study of Tibetan Buddhist texts has influenced many students and will probably continue to do so even in his absence, because his warmth and mind will stay alive in the words that he has left for us to read—Down and Up Again (the title of his “electronic” publication).

I would like to acknowledge and thank Mrs. Edith Kimbell and Mrs. Dr. Ilse Guenther for their willingness to share much of the information that appears in this article.

Leslie S. Kawamura
Department of Religious Studies
University of Calgary