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This story by Bart Jackson was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 10, 2000. All rights reserved.
A Mother’s Truths of Tibet
by Bart Jackson
A month before his birth, I had a dream in which
two green snow lions and a brilliant blue dragon appeared flying about
in the air. They smiled… showing His Holiness the path to rebirth…
but never in my wildest dreams did I think that he would be the Dalai
doubtless will be packed with seekers and well-wishers in record numbers.
They will flock to hear the Dalai Lama’s nephew, Khedroob Thondup,
speak on his new book, "Dalai Lama, My Son: A Mother’s Story,"
a collection of Diki Tsering’s reminiscences gathered by Thondup and
his late sister, Yangzom Doma.
Princeton is one of 12 stops on Thondup’s book tour. The editors at
Viking Press have pounced on the book as an "absolute gold mine"
and apparently advance sales already boom beyond expectation.
Yet through this commercial and spiritual jubilation, one question
haunts me — Why? The collected maternal prose of the brilliant
Archbishop of Canterbury or Imam of Mecca would barely rival the ho-hum
interest of "Monica’s Story." So why Tibet, why the Dalai
Lama? What’s the obsession here?
Author Khedroob Thondup insists that our nation’s widespread Tibetan
enchantment is new. Thondup, 48, is a kindly, centered, serene go-getter
who studied business administration at the University of San Francisco
in 1969. In an interview in his hotel room in Manhattan’s Intercontinental
Hotel, shortly after his arrival in the U.S., Thondup is philosophical
about the changes he has seen. "At that time," he says, "you’d
mention that you were Tibetan and all anyone could answer was `Oh,
Shangri-La. Shangri-La.’ They couldn’t even find Tibet on a map."
During the 1970s, the Dalai Lama was consistently denied a visa to
visit to the United States. Major corporate interests, seeking to
curry favor and markets in China, lobbied effectively against this
"human rights troublemaker." But in 1979, His Holiness was
granted the visa and Thondup was the man who planned the trip.
"We arrived totally without money," he recalls. "I must
say I was really worried until I met the Mongolian community around
Princeton. They were so excited when I told them the Dalai Lama was
actually here, they gave us $5,000 and arranged for more funds and
favors. They were wonderful, but it remained Tibetans, Mongolians,
and Buddhists who attended his lectures."
Thondup feels that the real turnaround came after the Dalai Lama won
the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Perhaps. Such awards, meetings with
President Bush, audiences with the Pope, would account for some of
the international recognition. Yet the Dalai Lama is more than just
another leader of just another unfortunate land.
He seems to stand as proof incarnate that remote Tibet still bears
the wise fruit of its mystique. And the mystique is an old one. In
the early 18th century, a handful of Jesuits and mad Englishmen brought
back tales that sparked interest. In 1774, George Bogle traveled and
met the ninth Dalai Lama, and announced to Europe that he had discovered
"an amazingly honest and simple people . . . enjoying the happiness
which is denied to more polished nations!"
By 1904, the imperial Brits marched Colonel Francis Younghusband,
with fixed bayonets, into Lhasa (Tibet’s capital), to ram home the
unwanted blessings of "free trade." Sir Francis grouses endlessly
in his diary of "grubby monks" and dust and "filthy hovels,"
but his soldiers brought home stories of awe. And more importantly,
the expedition brought home photographs. The magnificent Potola Palace
rising out of Lhasa’s plain dwarfed Europe’s largest cathedrals. The
fire was lit.
From then on, the Mount Everest climbers, seeking access to the summit
by way of Tibet’s less icy, northern side, brought back scarcely believable
reports of what — and who — were "out there." And,
Hollywood, of course, was not about to let all this free publicity
go to waste.
So our awe has been well and historically fueled. Thus, perhaps, it
is not too surprising that seven years ago, this writer also fell
prey to the Tibetan mystique.
As our plane thundered out of JFK, my pen joyously scribbled notes
to capture its lure. "She is on our list — Tibet," I jotted.
"That fantasy list of places each of us craves to explore, but
none knows why. Before her, the very veil of the Himalayas enchants
the imagination and unfetters the soul. Tibet stands that mysterious
maid who hides behind snowy shrouds. She teases us with vague swirls
of windswept plains plodded by hardened nomads; terrifying peaks embedded
with lofty monasteries; of wise monks made wiser by furtive ritual;
of hermits in shallow caves who hold The Answer. And somewhere in
her remote bosom, she unfolds Peace."
Ten days later, my wife and I, high on Lake Namsto’s 15,000-foot plateau,
huddled in a nomad’s yurt, waiting for the snowstorm, altitude sickness
— and incessant doses of yak butter tea — to pass. Where was
the revelation now? Nepal would have been cheaper, the trek less bitter.
Yet no reality could blunt our romance. We, and most of America, were
To little Diki Tsering, born Sonam Tsomo, in 1901, the year of the
Iron Ox, in Amdo, Tibet’s northeast province, life seemed a glorious
Shangri-La. "My earliest memories are of a land Nature made a
plentiful paradise." Her days were filled with great family love
and hard peasant labor. From such an auspicious beginning, the reader
almost feels as if the romance will continue. That is, if you can
ignore the rigid Tibetan class system, the heavily taxing hand of
Ma Pu-Fan (the local, Chinese-backed warlord), the whimsical fiats
of oracles and lamas, all set in the crushing rigors of the mountain
Yet by age 16, Soman (the name means "fertility") was led
in an arranged marriage to an unseen husband in a distant village.
The lama fixed her with the married name Diki Tsering — meaning
Ocean of Luck. Stepping into her new life under her mother-in-law’s
thumb, the lama’s choice appeared ironic to say the least.
"I am a Buddhist… it is our belief that to live a full life,
it’s imperative to suffer," Diki reminds us, "it saves us
women from despair."
Buckets in hand, the new bride would line up at the well at 1 a.m.,
and at 4 a.m. she would begin making breakfast for the farm workers.
Mornings entailed sewing, cleaning, gathering fuel, making meals.
Then noon: a breath of fresh air as she carried lunch out to the men
and joined their labors in the fields.
Diki’s recollections and wisdom continue in short, easily read chapters.
Slowly, her simple reports build vivid pictures of Tibetan peasant,
monastic, and political life. Gradually, she demystifes Tibet, stripping
away many of our charming illusions. Here is no Shangri la-la land
with blissful folk bouncing twixt the lotus leaves. (It’s barley,
and it’s still harvested with a sickle.) Peace scarcely reigns supreme.
Not only have the Nepalese and British invaded, but the Chinese wage
endless games of war and sabotage.
Ah, you say, but the Tibetans themselves are pure of heart.
As recounted here, court intrigue ran rife in Lhasa. It was a society
so strictured and stratified that the Byzantines could take lessons.
Poisoning was a constant threat. The Dalai Lama’s regents refused
to relinquish power. Opposing factions claimed His Holiness’ reincarnation
tests were rigged and tried to insinuate their own candidate.
We are left with a truer and more human picture of a real people with
real struggles. And yet, as Tsering sweeps away the cobwebs of our
old illusions, we infer a new, more solid Tibetan enchantment. For
this writer, Diki’s stories reconfirmed that unshakable core of Tibet
faith I found on my own treks.
Tibetans are probably the most practical people in the world. They
are also deeply, universally, devoted to their faith. There is no
conflict. They use their faith like a hoe or any tool. They survive
based not on what they make, but on what they make themselves into.
Physically rugged; spiritually rich. Both Diki Tsering and her son,
His Holiness, portray enviable souls, despite not terribly enviable
As we talked, Khedroob Thondup was emphatic. He put fist to palm as
he stated, "We Tibetans are faith driven. The Chinese have torn
down our temples, disrobed our monks, shredded our sacred scrolls
and pasted them to their boot soles. But they cannot touch our faith.
Even they admit they cannot shake it."
In Thondup’s opinion, this is what we seek from Tibet. Buddhism within
Tibet is historically considered the religion’s most pure form. "Americans
and also Europeans are seekers," he says. "They see our Buddhism
as something new. You are people trying to better your lives."
Unlike Colonel Younghusband, America has been fortunate
to first taste the fruit before discovering the tree. In televised
lectures, visits, and even new books, like "The Art of Happiness,"
the Dalai Lama has shown us his wisdom, joyful spirituality, and enviable
serenity. This humble, smiling monk breezes among our elite like the
opening of a window. He won kudos from President Bush as "the
wisest man I have ever met."
Diki Tsering unfolds to us the tree from whence the Dalai Lama’s wisdom
comes. At first, it is abhorrent. Feminists will bewail the peasant
women caught in the clench of custom. Few men would relish moving
into the family compound where our bride and brood stood waiting on
the whims of father, lama, and oracle.
Yet throughout the reminiscences of Diki Tsering, affectionately known
as the Grandmother of Tibet, we find a strength, aided by a strong,
sophisticated culture. She died in 1981, having given birth to 16
children, 7 of whom survived infancy. She viewed herself always as
a mother first. Here truly was a proper vessel in which His Holiness
the 14th Dalai Lama could find rebirth.
Ever since 1341, the Dalai Lama has been the man selected to rule
Tibet. The title, "Dalai," means "ocean of wisdom,"
and implies tht he is the reincarnation, not only of his predecessor,
but of the original Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Instantly,
upon the death of the Dalai Lama, a search begins for the successor
whom His Holiness’ spirit has entered in the womb. The search is narrowed
by the pronouncements of the state oracle, deathbed dreams of the
failing Dalai Lama, and other portents.
When Diki Tsering’s son, born Lhamo Dhondup, was two years old, the
search party for the 14th Dalai Lama arrived, directed to the village
by the dream of the 13th Dalai Lama. The monks visited Tsering’s home
on three successive occasions. The third time, after the toddler picked
out, unprompted, items that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, the
monks deemed him the true reincarnation.
In 1979, two years before her grandmother’s death, Thondup’s sister,
Yangzom Doma, asked Diki Tsering if she could record her life’s story.
Diki remarked that she was "a tiresome old woman feverish with
rheumatism whose only companions were memory and reverie," but
she would be flattered. Yangzom worked and recorded until her death
in a car accident in 1983 when Thondup, as head of the family, took
over the project. His greatest regrets are the missing memories; as
Diki grew ill, the final few years before the 1959 escape to exile
Thondup recalls, as a child, sitting with his grandmother when she
came to live with his mother and father in Darjeeling. "Mola (grandmother)
was the rock of the whole family. She would sit me down and say `never
forget your traditions. Never forget you are peasant stock.’ To this
day I raise cows and sheep, I own a noodle factory. I am nephew of
His Holiness, but I remember."
One thing is certain. Khedroob Thondup’s own character
can use all the inherited and reincarnated strength it can get. As
a member of the Tibetan Parliament in exile, he has been negotiating
with the Chinese since 1985. He, as much as anyone, knows the fate
of Tibet and the Tibetans both in and out of their land.
Will the Chinese ever really abandon Tibet and return it to its people?,
"That’s a bit simplistic, don’t you think?" he replies. "The
first talks between China and Tibet began in 1979. Since 1985 I have
been personally negotiating. At least that’s what we would call it.
For the Chinese, there is no such thing as compromising. They label
our talks `Dozmen’ which roughly translates into `political struggle.’
There is a winner and a loser. They do not want to quit until you
holler `I give in.’"
When Thondup first began the talks, the Chinese officials would stand
up and scream lectures at the Tibetans for four solid hours. "I
couldn’t believe it," he says. "So I looked at my fellows
and we stood up and lectured them back for four hours. At night came
the round of banquets where they tried to get us drunk. They’d make
concessions and deny them in the morning. But slowly, very slowly
over the years, we have won many concessions. Internal travel has
now been achieved. Families can visit back and forth from the camps
to a great extent. So we must keep at it."
Resistance from within the country and world opinion all help, he
believes. But like any nation, the Chinese must be convinced of their
own self interest. It is good to re-open the temples because it attracts
tourists. It is not good to openly kill or enslave Tibetans in mines
for the same reason. Westerners do not want to watch their new spiritual
wellspring being muddied by Chinese boots.
But there are other methods to finally solve "the Tibetan problem."
Overpopulation is the major one. In Inner Mongolia (a southern strip
between modern Mongolia and Tibet that was annexed during the Manchu
occupation) there are now 11 million Chinese to only 3 million Mongolians.
This same population shuffle has been tried in Tibet to the point
where nearly half of Tibet’s 1.1 million inhabitants are now Chinese.
The foil to this plan is that the Chinese hate living in Tibet. "They
get sick; they have to be subsidized," says Thondup. "Only
government officials in Beijing seem to like this ploy."
Currently over 130,000 Tibetans live in surrounding areas outside
their land. Most are in refugee camps and settlements throughout India,
Nepal, and Bhutan. The number is leveling off and Thondup estimates
only another 5,000 will cross in the next year or two. He himself
lives in the Darjeeling settlement, in India, where he now runs the
Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center. He says the center is largely the
work of his mother, Chu Tan.
Thondup’s father, Gyalo Thondup, was Diki Tsering’s second eldest
son. The family decided that he should be educated in China where
he met and married Chu Tan. As Chinese incursions into Tibet increased
in the early 1950s, Gyalo realized that he, His Holiness’ elder brother,
must leave China. His mother warned him against returning to Tibet
with a Chinese wife, so he moved to India where Khedroob was born
Yet before Gyalo left Tibet, he performed one monumental service.
He freed all his serfs. Diki Tsering’s Tibet was filled with servants
benignly linked to the family, though some were bonded for generations.
Gyalo burned all their contracts and encouraged his aristocrat friends
to do likewise. "Reform was coming slowly to Tibet, well before
the Chinese," states Thondup.
As exiled Tibetans began to stream across the border, Chu Tan’s heart
went out to them and she initially took them in to her home. She saw
quickly, however, the futility of life in refugee camps and began
forging the Tibetan Self Help Center. From a founding staff of four,
the center now boasts 660 working members. Thousands have been taught
trades and entered into business.
In all of this, His Holiness the Dalai Lama remains both bulwark and
inspiration. And yet even he must get tired. He has been in exile
for 41 years now. He must battle the Chinese who grow ever more mean
and rigid in this stalemate. He has been maneuvered into announcing
that he is not seeking Tibetan independence ("For the time being,"
Khedroob Thondup assures me). And at age 66, even he cannot claim
the energy he once had.
"I think," his nephew told me, "that His Holiness has
had a very sad life. Yet he has accomplished so much in so little
time. And of this I am sure: For what he has worked — within his
lifetime — he will see a solution. This I know."
The nephew of Tibet’s Dalai Lama speaks on "Dalai Lama, My Son:
A Mother’s Story." Free. Monday, May 15, 7 p.m.
traditional carpets, garments, and other items made by Tibetans in
— Bart Jackson
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