Dhondup T. Rekjong shares the story of Geshe Tenzin Tsepak, a Tibetan monk who witnessed the destruction of Tibetan tradition within the early Nineteen Eighties and performed a component in its rebuilding and revival.
In 2017, whereas pursuing my grasp’s diploma on the College of British Columbia, I met Geshe Tenzin Tsepak. At the moment, I solely knew of him as an extraordinary Tibetan Geshe-la at Tsendok monastery in Vancouver. Just a few years later, I realized of his astonishing journey from Labrang in jap Tibet to India within the early Nineteen Eighties and requested him to take a seat down with me for a collection of interviews about his travels and monastic research.
Tenzin Tsepak was among the many first Tibetan monks to reach in India in 1982 and the primary of the newcomers to earn a Geshe Lharampa diploma, the equal to a Ph.D. within the West. To me, his story is a residing treasure for understanding existence inside Tibetan cultural establishments within the early Nineteen Eighties. On the time. Tibetans have been rebuilding monasteries whereas in India the Tibetan authorities in exile was making an attempt to maintain Tibetan tradition in a international land. Tenzin Tsepak witnessed each the destruction and eventual rebuilding of Tibetan tradition within the post-Cultural Revolution interval. He was a part of the preservation and reconstruction of Tibetan Buddhism in India and past.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a decade-long interval of political and social chaos in China attributable to Mao Zedong’s use of the Chinese language plenty to reassert his management over the Communist occasion. For Tibetans, it was a damaging pressure that massively affected faith, language, and tradition, leaving indelible scars in particular person and collective Tibetan reminiscences.
Tenzin Tsepak doesn’t converse a lot except you ask him. His solutions are all the time brief and exact, interrupted by a bout of coughing every so often, therefore why a cup of tea is all the time at his facet. He’s a humorous man who usually laughs when sharing an fascinating a part of his narrative. In what follows, I let him narrate his experiences from Labrang to India. I’ve supplied temporary historic introductions to every step of his journey.
—Dhondup T. Rekjong
Geshe-la was a younger boy in his hometown, Chentza, through the Cultural Revolution — one of the damaging tragedies that occurred after World Battle II. Throughout this era, Tibetan scriptures and cultural websites have been burned down, thrown into rivers, and in any other case banned or destroyed. There should not many Tibetans who documented that interval and even fewer left who witnessed the historic calamity firsthand. Geshe Tenzin Tsepak was certainly one of them. Proper after the Cultural Revolution, so-called new liberal insurance policies adopted by the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Chinese language Communist Celebration Congress in 1978 partially relaxed the Celebration’s restrictions on Tibetan non secular life, giving some Tibetans the leeway to rebuild their cultural websites from scratch. In 1980, Tenzin Tsepak determined to depart residence for Labrang.
Once I was 20 years outdated, I didn’t know what I needed do with my life. My uncle was a monk in Labrang earlier than the Cultural Revolution, and a few kinfolk in my village inspired me to take the identical path of monkhood.
Taking their inspiration, I left residence for Labrang, however I didn’t go there immediately. I went to a neighboring city known as Sangkok to see my uncle, who was staying at his patron household’s home. This household had sponsored his research at Labrang monastery earlier than the Cultural Revolution, and even bravely hid him at their home throughout that darkish interval. He was overwhelmed to see me and particularly joyful as a result of I hoped to turn into a monk below his steering.
On the time, Labrang monastery was closed, however we believed it will reopen quickly due to the brand new political local weather in Beijing. After two months with my uncle’s patron household, we left for Labrang, however once we bought there, there was no indication that the monastery would reopen. After nearly 20 years, everybody there hoped to see the re-opening and to renew their monastic research. The previous monks, now of their outdated age, have been ready for the senior non secular masters and lamas to make a proper announcement.
We stayed at my uncle’s pal Aku Dulha’s place, which was within the higher area of the valley. He labored for the native authorities, however deep down he was very Buddhist. He was one of many first individuals receiving official paperwork previous to sharing them with the native Tibetans. Consequently, my uncle and I have been the primary individuals to listen to new political information. Trying again, I imagine there have been many Tibetans who seemed to be working for the federal government in public however have been preserving Tibetan tradition of their non-public life.
On daily basis, new arrivals have been pouring into Labrang to affix the monastery, however they weren’t carrying monk’s robes. I heard that there have been many Chinese language authorities officers spying on Tibetans within the valley and reporting again to Beijing — they even warned the federal government to delay re-opening the monastery as a result of they thought the inflow of monks would carry the “outdated society” again, endangering the brand new socialist society they’d launched.
From Aku Dulha, I heard a comic story in regards to the letters of warning they despatched again to Beijing. In Beijing, Panchen Rinpoche was the pinnacle of the central Spiritual Affairs Division. He and his colleagues obtained these complaints, however they didn’t share them with the Chinese language leaders. Consequently, the letters despatched by officers in Labrang didn’t disrupt the re-building.
In the course of August of 1980, whereas ready for the re-opening, senior monks secretly began to obtain transmissions, empowerments, and teachings from some outstanding lecturers, reminiscent of Aku Jigmey, Aku Palden, and Aku Luchoepa. Additionally they secretly assembled to carry out the restoring vow ceremonies. Underneath Aku Jigmey, I took each my novice and full ordination oaths in secret.
Someday, initially of 1981, one of many senior lamas, Alak Gongthang Rinpoche, made an announcement about recruiting new monks. He requested us to get permission from our native governments earlier than becoming a member of Labrang monastery. I went again residence to get a letter.
He later mentioned that they have been solely allowed to recruit 50 monks along with the senior monks. There have been already greater than 200 new monks who needed to affix the monastery. Amongst these 50 monks, 5 monks have been chosen by every of the 5 monastic faculties and 25 have been chosen for the talk faculty. Once I wasn’t chosen, I used to be unhappy and discouraged, however Alak Gongthang suggested us who didn’t get entry to apply the next 12 months. He mentioned that those that weren’t chosen shouldn’t return residence or put on monk’s robes, however as an alternative keep and research within the valley.
The monastic land was distributed amongst the senior monks to re-build their homes. There have been round 100 senior monks at Labrang at the moment. My cousin and I made a decision to construct a home for my uncle, whose residence had been destroyed through the Cultural Revolution. It was not possible even to identify the ruins of the outdated home. It took us nearly 4 months to construct a brand new home for him with lumber we bought in a neighboring village.
Taking a look at bodily buildings in Labrang, there was barely something left of the monastery aside from the six fundamental faculty halls — the Debate Faculty, The Decrease Tantric Faculty, The Higher Tantric Faculty, Kalachakra Faculty, Medical Faculty, and Hevajra Faculty. All of them regarded intact from outdoors. I solely had the prospect to go to one. Once I went to go to the Kalachakra Faculty meeting corridor, I discovered that the inside was stuffed with Tibetan woodblock prints and Buddhist canons, however nothing else. Particularly, a wall of woodblock prints was piled up, one upon one other, the place usually monks would sit in rows, and some statues may very well be seen within the inside area of the corridor.
These woodblock prints and Buddhist canons grew to become an incredible assist in later efforts to protect Tibetan tradition. I heard from the senior monks that earlier than the Cultural Revolution, the pinnacle of the monastery, Jamyang Shepa, requested the monks to pile up all of the woodblock prints in the principle monastic faculty halls. I feel he predicted the destruction to come back from the east.
There weren’t many spiritual actions on the monastery whereas I used to be there, though the re-opening was progressing. My uncle normally went to prostrate to the statues of earlier incarnations of Jamyang Shepa early within the morning, after which attended the morning prayers and spent the remainder of his day studying Buddhist scriptures. My uncle was finding out Vinaya on the time. In contrast to him and different senior monks, those that have been incarnate lamas have been very busy giving empowerments, initiations, and teachings day by day. Preserving the Buddhist lineages and teachings was their first precedence after the Cultural Revolution.
Ready to be admitted felt too lengthy for a younger monk like me, however my uncle requested me to be affected person. In September 1981, we heard that Panchen Rinpoche was coming to Labrang. It was his first go to to the monastery, however it was very brief. He publicly confirmed the political leisure of spiritual research and inspired monks to follow brazenly. His go to gave senior monks and lamas some braveness to be extra lively and journey restrictions have been relaxed throughout Tibet.
In 1981, after Panchen Rinpoche’s go to, my cousin and I made a decision to depart Labrang for Lhasa. Once I was at Labrang monastery, my uncle usually instructed us about how superb the monastic research and tradition was on the nice monasteries there, reminiscent of Sera, Depung and Ganden. He mentioned that the perfect college students there don’t even take off their belts at night time as a result of they “burn the midnight oil.” My uncle’s admiration of Geluk monasteries in Lhasa and Panchen Rinpoche’s brief go to impressed me to depart Labrang for Lhasa in October 1981.
Underneath a Tent in Ganden
Issues weren’t fully settled in Lhasa when Geshe-la arrived there in November 1981. Within the historic capital of impartial Tibet, Tibetans have been in a bardo of concern and belief within the early Nineteen Eighties, regardless of the Chinese language Premier Hu Yaobang’s go to to Lhasa. He led a Working Group of the Celebration Central Committee (PCC) that inspected Lhasa from Could 22 to 31, 1980 after which made his well-known announcement of a six-point plan to resolve lots of the social, financial, and political issues confronted in Tibet. It was one factor to make liberal commitments and one other to implement them for the good thing about Tibetans.
My first impression of Lhasa was that there have been no monks within the Barkor. My cousin and I have been the primary monks from Amdo lots of the locals had seen — they known as us Amdo Lamas. They got here to the touch our robes and requested us to bless them, having not seen monks for nearly 20 years due to the calamity, seeing us provoked their feelings and historic reminiscences. Barkor was largely a residential space. There have been only a few eating places with retailers and only one that served Amdo delicacies. There have been many Amdo butter retailers, however no pilgrims.
We went to go to the Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace. We have been allowed to go to solely Jowo and two chambers in Potala; different rooms weren’t but open to the general public. Throughout our go to to the Jokhang, the Amdo butter retailers queued in a separate line as a result of that they had sacks of butter to supply.
We went to affix Ganden monastery, however the scenario there was past creativeness. The rebuilding work hadn’t even began but. There was principally nothing purposeful besides a number of monastic halls, which have been fully locked and restricted to go to. All the previous monk homes have been in whole destruction. I may solely see some broken partitions that have been nonetheless standing below the chilly blue sky. We noticed some monks doing prayers below a tent, which lined the ceiling of a ruined home; solely two sides of the home have been constructed. There was a small alter within the center and a few worn mattresses laid round for the monks to take a seat on. Many monks have been propitiating the guardian deity of Ganden, Dharma Raja Yama. There have been greater than 20 monks from Kham, a few of which with out robes as a result of they have been making an attempt to scrub up the ruins. Their chief Gen Gawo was variety to us. Trying again, the scene jogs my memory of Indian railway stations the place extraordinary people relaxation and sleep throughout nights whereas ready for his or her trains.
Gen Gawo inspired us to remain if potential. He instructed us that Ganden is Tsongkapa’s seat monastery and Amdo monks have been chargeable for it throughout that tough time. On the monastery web site, there have been two issues to do: be a part of the prayers below the tent or assist clear up the ruins.
Since there was nothing to check or follow on the monastery, we went to go to different sacred locations reminiscent of Tashi Lhunpo and Sakya, strolling in all places on foot. Within the halls of Tashi Lhunpo monastery, the photographs of communist leaders Marx, Engels, Stalin, Lenin, and Mao have been displayed. I used to be completely stunned as a result of it was nothing like in Amdo. I assumed there was extra political restrictions in Lhasa however on the similar time, I felt displaying their photos was a strategic transfer to forestall additional destruction.
Whereas in Ganden, we did some prayers below the principle tent through the day and at night time slept below one other tent shared by 20 monks. All of us got here there hoping to proceed our research and await the reopening of the monastery. Ready was our solely hope, as a result of in contrast to in Labrang there was nothing prepared for us to proceed our research. Ganden was extra broken than the Sera and Drepung monasteries in Lhasa.
In Lhasa throughout that point, it was not possible to speak about His Holiness the Dalai Lama or India, whereas in Labrang these conversations have been held brazenly in public. Lhasa was nonetheless too traumatized to even point out the identify of H.H. the Dalai Lama. If I speak about it to you, you may really feel frightened — the scenario was very completely different. Nevertheless, Tibetans have been carrying chubas, and there have been a number of extraordinary Chinese language within the Barkor. Since nothing was established at Ganden, my buddies and I mentioned going to India amongst ourselves with out letting the others know.
Since Ganden monastery wasn’t but revived, Geshe-la and his buddies determined to go to India.
In 1979, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother Gyalo Dhondup met Chinese language chief Deng Xiaoping within the Nice Corridor of the Individuals in Beijing, opening a brand new chapter in Sino-Tibet relations. Consequently, between August 1979 and June 1980, the Tibetan authorities in exile dispatched 4 fact-finding delegations to Tibet. The Sino-Tibet border wasn’t but open for Tibetans to go to their kinfolk inside Tibet or to come back to India, however there have been some constructive expectations.
We had no thought learn how to attain India. We didn’t have a map or a information and even anybody from whom to hunt recommendation. We determined to go to Mount Kailash to see whether or not we have been capable of finding a option to cross the border from there.
After a number of days of touring, we stopped at a restaurant in Shigatse. We ordered a big platter of momos, devoured it instantly, and ordered one other. Whereas we have been ending the second plate, we ordered a 3rd. Three patrons entered; all have been wearing a method that we hadn’t seen earlier than. I whispered to my buddies that they may have some details about India due to their international look. We agreed to supply them our third order of momos. Since I used to be the eldest, I introduced the momos to them and instructed them that we have been full as we had two orders already. They have been delighted to simply accept our momos. They requested me in regards to the group and I instructed them that we have been monks going for pilgrimage within the neighboring areas of Lhasa. I requested them the place they have been from, and so they mentioned they have been from India and going to Amdo. I used to be joyful to listen to their Amdo dialects and felt an instantaneous connection.
One among them requested me whether or not I had any plans to go to India. I lowered my voice and mentioned sure. He appeared joyful to listen to that and requested his pal to attract a easy map for me. His pal took a serviette and drew a curved line and put three dots on the road. He drew a mountain, a stupa and a temple round every dot. He mentioned they signify Mount Kailash on the border, Boudhanath stupa in Nepal, and Dharamsala in Northern India. He instructed me we simply want to recollect these three names to be able to get to India safely.
He defined how we wanted to inform those who we’re going to Mount Kailash. Once we bought there, he mentioned, we must always inform those who we’re going to Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu, and from there we must always say that we’re going to Dharamsala. I used to be completely relieved by his recommendation. His easy map was eye-opening to all of us.
Earlier than arriving at Mount Kailash, we stopped at a selected village. The village head hosted us for the night time. Earlier than we left the subsequent morning, he introduced to his villagers that we have been Amdo lamas. The villagers got here to us within the morning asking for blessings. We had nothing with us besides our provisions and a few books. To meet their needs, I tore the quilt fabric off our books and divided it into small items, which I distributed; they have been overjoyed. A few of them even put the little items on their heads to obtain blessings.
Throughout that point, the border safety wasn’t that restrictive. Our last cease in Tibet was Nyalam, which was a day lengthy hike from Dam. We crossed the bridge in Dam. Curiously, we didn’t notice that we bought into Nepal till we met the Nepalese military on the different finish of the bridge — they instructed us that we have been in Nepal. We instructed them that we’re heading to Boudhanath stupa, and so they didn’t cease us.
After two months travelling on foot, Geshe-la and his buddies arrived in Kathmandu in 1982. The political scenario in Nepal was relaxed and the nation was supportive of Tibetan points, an perspective which didn’t final. From 1959 to 1989, the Nepali authorities acknowledged Tibetans crossing the border as refugees. Though the King of Nepal stopped permitting Tibetan refugees to settle completely in Nepal after their diplomatic rapprochement with China in 1989, below an off-the-cuff “gentleman’s settlement” with the United Nations Excessive Commissioner for Refugees, Nepal continued to allow the “secure passage” of refugees to India till 2008.
In Nepal, with a Tibetan businessman’s assist, we safely arrived at Chapel bus station. I used to be stunned by the Nepalese rickshaw drivers there.
In Tibet, we frequently wave to drivers to cease their buses and automobiles, though there have been few in my city. In Nepal, the rickshaw drivers waved to us. So, we thought using was free on this nation. I requested my buddies to leap on a rickshaw, and a Tibetan lady additionally joined us. Once we reached the Boudhanath stupa space, the motive force requested us to pay, however we didn’t have a single penny in our pockets. I requested the Tibetan lady to assist us and defined her our scenario. She was joyful to cowl the price and helped us to search out our host monastery, Samten Ling.
We have been allowed to remain on the monastery for nearly every week. Throughout that point, we visited Boudhanath stupa, Swayambhunath, and different sacred websites within the Kathmandu valley. The monastery was very useful and made our keep joyful and enjoyable.
I keep in mind that there have been not many Tibetans within the Boudhanath stupa space. There weren’t many buildings across the stupa, like there are at the moment. Simply outdoors of the stupa was a farming space, however every thing else was just about empty. Once we went to the Boudhanath stupa space, Tibetans checked out us with curiosity. I assumed that it was the primary time that they had seen newcomers from Tibet.
The abbot of the monastery introduced us to the Tibetan Bureau workplace. There was no Tibetan reception heart in Kathmandu but. A employees member got here out and instructed us that certainly one of their feminine employees members was going to India, and he or she would take us there along with her. We weren’t requested to register or do any paperwork. Within the later years, newcomers from Tibet needed to register on the reception facilities in Nepal and India.
Assembly H.H. the Dalai Lama
Once we arrived in Dharamasala, there was once more no reception heart. We have been put in a authorities official’s condo and requested to have our meals on the employees kitchen of the Tibetan authorities at Gangkyi.
The minister of safety Alak Jigme was our fundamental advisor. We principally did every thing below his steering. Alak Jigme mentioned that Tibetans in exile hadn’t had an opportunity to see Tibetan individuals inside Tibet for nearly 20 years – we have been the primary arrivals, and due to this fact an incredible useful resource for figuring out the scenario of Tibetans below China.
He organized for us to fulfill His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The members of the His Holiness’s non-public workplace have been overjoyed to see us. I used to be unable to know every thing the His Holiness mentioned, however he was sharing our tales with others within the viewers. I assume Alak Jigme already knowledgeable him every thing we had instructed him in regards to the scenario inside Tibet. The assembly was emotional and inspiring.
His Holiness requested us to come back to his smaller assembly room after the general public occasion. Within the absence of his secretaries, we spent nearly half-hour with him and shared our tales and views of life inside Tibet. His Holiness requested whether or not we have been going to remain in India or return to Tibet. We mentioned we want to keep. He requested whether or not we want to be a part of a faculty or a monastery; we mentioned monastery. Then he requested which monastery, we mentioned Ganden. He then inspired us to go to South India. We have been extraordinarily relieved and joyful.
The following day, we requested Alak Jigmey whether or not there was a chance to take our novice and ordination oaths once more in entrance of His Holiness. In our presence, he phoned His Holiness and so they mentioned our scenario. Alak Jigme instructed us that His Holiness would name again and ensure a date for us. Inside a couple of minutes, His Holiness phoned. We have been overjoyed and excited.
Whereas we have been in Dharamsala, we despatched a letter to Gen Gawo in Lhasa, who had been useful to us at Ganden. He circulated our letter round Lhasa. We later heard the information from Tibetans who arrived in India after us that the letter confirming our arrival in Dharamsala and our viewers with His Holiness opened a door for a flux of latest arrivals from Tibet. We even heard about our letter from monks who adopted us years later. I feel that possibly our letter to Gen Gawo in Lhasa was one of many main components that gave braveness to Tibetans, notably monks, to come back to India within the early Nineteen Eighties. That political/non secular migration continued till round 2008.
Underneath A Storehouse
When Geshe-la arrived in South India in 1982, the monasteries have been but to be constructed. One of many challenges that the Dalai Lama’s authorities confronted in India was sustaining Tibetan monastic research in a brand new nation, with solely the sky and earth as their buddies. The Dalai Lama nervous that the scholarly traditions of Tibet’s nice monasteries could be misplaced except the monks and nuns may proceed their schooling. He negotiated with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to ascertain a nonsectarian academic establishment for 1,500 monks and nuns in a former British jail camp in Buxa Duar, a distant space of West Bengal. Many of those students and college students met at Buxa for the primary time and stayed almost ten years earlier than checking out everlasting locations to construct monastic establishments. Thus, Buxa performed an necessary function within the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism and its transmission all over the world. The primary batch of monks departed for South India in November 1969, when the Karnataka state authorities gave them land for 2 massive settlements.
At Ganden, the monks have been assembling and doing their prayers below the roof of an area storehouse. The again of the storehouse was stuffed with piles of dried corn, and solely the entrance facet was utilized by the monks. I don’t keep in mind whether or not we had a correct alter. The one monastic attribute was the steeple of the storehouse.
There was a plan to construct the monastic corridor, and instantly after our arrival, began constructing it. Inside two years, the primary monastic corridor was established. There was a saying amongst the monks throughout that point that our monastic corridor was “constructed by deities, not monks” due to our poor scenario.
There was no systematic schooling besides morning prayers and night research. Through the day, we labored within the discipline rising corn and rice. The method of farming was lengthy; we wanted to plough the sphere after which degree the tough earth, then plant the rice and harvest it, after which separate the rice from chaff. I as soon as calculated the variety of days we bought per 12 months to check — every year we had lower than 4 months to check through the first few years.
Our monastery had extra senior monks and fewer younger monks. I feel there have been round 150 monks in whole at the moment. We additionally suffered from a poverty of books. Once we have been finding out the commentary of Pramanavartika, we shared one guide between the higher class and decrease class in keeping with what chapters we have been studying.
In 1985, H.H. the Dalai Lama got here to South India to provide a Kalachakra empowerment. On the instructing, H.H. inspired the native Tibetans to assist the monks; H.H. jokingly mentioned the native Tibetans have oily faces, in contrast to the monks, whose faces have been dusty. From then onwards, we started receiving donations from the locals and past.
Donations helped the flourishing of Buddhist research at Tibetan monasteries in South India and past. Geshe la achieved his Geshe Lharampa diploma in 1999 after finding out the core texts, reminiscent of collected matters, paramita, madhyamaka, abhidharma, and vinaya, for nearly 20 years. Amongst the newcomers, he was the primary monk to obtain the Geshe Lharampa diploma. Different newcomers who additionally achieved this diploma, obtained it both from the division of faith in Dharamsala or the Dalai Lama. None of them had carried out the 6-year examination. Nevertheless, that particular diploma was later deserted fully.
After his diploma, Geshe-la taught Buddhism in South India and different elements of Asia for a few years. He moved to Canada in 2016, the place he at the moment awaits everlasting resident papers.