Tibet’s Suffering: Visiting lama survived 20 years in Chinese jail

Worcester Magazine (Jan. 2000)

The flight into exile of one of Tibet’s most revered religious leaders this month once more highlights the continuing suffering of the Tibetan people under China’s 50-year occupation.

The Karmapa, head of one of the main branches of Tibetan Buddhism, arrived in India on Jan. 5, after a seven-day trek across the Himalayas. The 14-year old boy is recognized as the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa, a religious figure second only to the Dalai Lama in the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism.

Ugyen Trinley Dorje had been a virtual prisoner inside the ruins of his monastery at Tsurphu north of the Tibetan capital Lhasa, one of more than 6,000 monasteries and temples devastated by the Chinese in past decades. The final decision to flee was apparently prompted by China’s failure to live up to its promise that the Karmapa would be allowed to travel abroad and that his exiled teachers would be permitted to visit him in Tibet.

“This has enormous political implications for the Chinese because they were using him to demonstrate that there is still religious freedom in Tibet,” says Janet Gyatso, Ph.D, professor of Buddhist studies at Amhert College. “This shows just the contrary, and must be infuriating the Chinese.”

Tens of thousands of monks and nuns have been executed since China invaded in 1949. Hundreds of thousands of other Tibetans have been imprisoned.

Among those was H.E. Garchen Rinpoche, considered one of the most important lamas in the Karmapa’s Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Garchen Rinpoche, who will be visiting Worcester next week, spent 20 years in a Chinese labor camp. During that time, he continued to secretly study and practice with other senior lamas imprisoned with him.

Escaping to Tibet since his release from prison in 1979, Rinpoche (an honorary title that means “precious one”) has undertaken the reconstruction of monasteries in the Kham region of Tibet, and founded a monastic college, two boarding schools for nomadic children, and a Dharma center in Arizona.

Like many lamas, he emerged from imprisonment expressing compassion, rather than hatred, for his Chinese captors. That concept — transforming suffering into compassion — will be the topic of his Worcester talk.

Meanwhile, details of the Karmapa’s escape are still sketchy, but the 14-year old boy and four attendants reportedly left their monastery on Dec. 28, walking for seven days across the fierce mountain terrain.

“His Holiness is now finally free!” officials of the Karmapa’s U.S. monastery in Woodstock, N.Y., announced in an email to his American followers on Jan. 5.

Tibetans believe that high lamas such as the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama and Garchen Rinpoche consciously choose where and when they will be reborn. In 1992, a note left with a senior aide by the 16th Karmapa led monks searching for his reincarnation to the then-seven-year-old son of a family of nomads in eastern Tibet.

Control over the most senior figures in Tibetan Buddhism is an important element in China’s attempts to legitimize its occupation of Tibet. That has produced the bizarre situation of an atheistic Communist regime jousting with Buddhist monks over who is the “authentic” incarnation of dead lamas.

To head off any future Chinese claim that they control him, the Dalai Lama last year announced that his next incarnation will not be born in territory under Chinese control.

But beyond the politics, the Karmapa’s escape has been both a spiritual victory for the Tibetans, and a reminder of their ongoing pain.

“It is a great joy for all the Tibetan people,” says Lama Lobsang Dorga, a Brookline-based monk who himself fled Tibet 10 years ago.

To sit with him paging through a photo book of Tibet is to vicariously touch that country’s suffering.

“That is my cousin,” he says, turning to a page of portraits of political prisoners. “And that was my neighbor.”

“I was there that day,” he says of a series of images documenting a protest in Lhasa that ended in bloodshed. “He was a brave man,” the lama adds, pointing to a man being dragged away by Chinese troops.

He shakes his head sadly: “There were many brave men.”

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  1. […] it becomes really aggravating,” Rinpoche said. As proof, he offered the oft-told story of Garchen Rinpoche, a Kagyu master who spent 20 years in a Chinese prison during the Cultural Revolution. Rather than […]

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