Bhuchung K. Tsering

My thoughts on Mongolian spiritual leader Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa and Dalai Lama

Following the public appearance of the young 10th reincarnation of the Mongolian spiritual leader Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa at a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala on March 8-9 this year, a section of the non-Tibetan international media has been misreporting on it. In the process, quite a few of them have unfortunately provided a distorted perspective on the Jetsun Dhampa and the significance of the 10th incarnation.

The 10th Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa making the Mandala offering to H.H. the Dalai Lama on March 8, 2023. Photo: Tenzin Choejor/ OHHDL

First, a brief history of the Jetsun Dhampa institution. The first Jetsun Dhampa Lobsang Tenpay Gyaltsen (also known as Zanabazar) was recognized in the 17th century with the involvement of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Fourth Panchen Lama and came to be accepted as the spiritual head of Mongolian Buddhists. The subsequent incarnations may have been involved in predominantly spiritual matters, but the eighth incarnation came to be known as the Bogd Khan and also became the political head of Mongolia. While the first two incarnations were Mongolians, the next six have been born in Tibet. The Jetsun Dhampa was also recognized as the reincarnation of Taranatha, head of the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Following the Communist takeover of Mongolia in the 1920s and after the passing away of the eighth incarnation, the then-Mongolian government banned the recognition of the Jetsun Dhampa.

The 9th Jetsun Dhampa

The 9th Jetsun Dhampa

But the 9th Jetsun Dhampa Jampal Namdol Chokyi Gyaltsen was in anyway discovered in Tibet, having been born in 1932. When he was four years old, he was recognized by Radreng Rinpoche, who had by then become the Regent of Tibet after the 13th Dalai Lama passed away in 1933. But given the Mongolian political situation then, the recognition was not made public even though the reincarnation underwent his spiritual education. It was only after Mongolia became a democracy and its monastic emissaries went to India to request the Dalai Lama for information about the 9th Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa. Subsequently, His Holiness had this to say, “After Mongolia became free once more, I formally recognised and enthroned him where he lived in Madhya Pradesh” and the 9th Jetsun Dhampa’s public recognition took place on Jan. 13, 1992. As an aside, the 9th Jetsun Dhampa and I shared a train cabin at one time in 1993. We were in Sikkim for the Kalachakra Initiations that H.H. the Dalai Lama bestowed there and were returning to New Delhi by train. Following his public recognition, he was invited to visit Mongolia for the first time in 1997, eventually being settled in the country in 2010 and was given citizenship by the government. He passed away in Mongolia in 2012.

Although the Dalai Lamas in general have had a special relationship with the Mongolian spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama says his family had a close connection with the Jetsun Dhampa. In 2013, during a teaching in south India, he explained this by saying people in his birth region of Kumbum were in fact closer to Jetsun Dhampa than to the Dalai Lamas. While he was growing up in Lhasa, His Holiness told the gathering that he would often find the young Jetsun Dhampa with his mother when he went to visit his family.

After the 9th Jetsun Dhampa passed away in March 2012, His Holiness the Dalai Lama took part in a memorial prayer gathering held in Dharamsala then. He also composed a prayer for the Jetsun Dhampa’s speedy rebirth and also publicly mentioned his belief that the reincarnation would be born in Mongolia.

Those who follow the issue of the Jetsun Dhampa would know that for the next few years thereafter, the Dalai Lama continued to update the public about the Mongolian spiritual leader at teachings that he gave in different places.

During special teachings for devotees from Mongolia who had gathered in the Indian capital New Delhi on Dec. 4, 2013, the Dalai Lama gave a reading transmission of his prayer for the swift return of the Jetsun Dhampa. At the end of the same month, the Dalai Lama was giving a teaching at Sera Monastery in South India, where again he referred to the Jetsun Dhampa and the prayer he had composed, saying, “This prayer refers to his previous lives and makes the wish that he come back in Mongolia as a scholar able to teach.”

In December 2014, at yet another teaching requested by Mongolian devotees, this time in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama gave the reading transmission of his prayer for the swift rebirth of the Jetsun Dhampa. The Dalai Lama also “mentioned that he had encouraged him to take his next birth in Mongolia,” according to His Holiness’ website.

In 2016, on Nov. 23, during a visit to Mongolia, the Dalai Lama publicly spoke about the rebirth of the Jetsun Dhampa, telling the media then, “the boy is very young right now, so there is no need for haste in making an announcement. When he is 3, 4 or 5 years old, we’ll see how things are. Placing a small child on a high throne is not what’s important. What is much more important is that he is able to study and become learned so he will be able to contribute to the flourishing of the Buddha dharma.”

Dalai Lama addressing the media

The Dalai Lama addressing the media in Mongolia on Nov 23, 2016 on the Jetsun Dhampa, flanked by Mongolian monastic leaders. (Photo: Tenzin Taklha/OHHDL)

The Dalai Lama also outlined his special reason for his interest in the Jetsun Dhampa. He told the media in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar then, “Previous Jetsun Dhampas have been close to the Dalai Lamas in the past. I knew the 9th Jetsun Dhampa from childhood. As the time of his death approached, he asked me where and when he should pass away, which surprised me a little. However, during our last meeting, when he was already in poor health, I told him that it was important for him to be reborn in Mongolia. Considering the significance of his reincarnation and bearing in mind that he is a personal friend, I feel I have a responsibility to look after his reincarnation.”

Therefore, this is the background to the public appearance of the young 10th Jetsun Dhampa in Dharamsala in March. The occasion was a two-day Buddhist teaching on the Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara (part of the higher tantric practice) by the Dalai Lama that was requested by the main Mongolian monastery, Gandan Tegchenling, which is located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The 10th Jetsun Dhampa was among the 600 or so Mongolians who had arrived in Dharamsala for the teachings.

While it was certainly the 10th Jetsun Dhampa’s first public appearance, it was not an announcement of his recognition, as can be discerned from developments in 2016. This can also be seen from how His Holiness refers to the young reincarnation at the beginning of the teachings on March 8. His Holiness is seen reading from a note (whether by himself or by the organizers) placed on his table, “The reincarnation of (Khalkha) Jetsun Dhampa is here.” He then looks around and asks, “Where is he? Does he understand Ukay (central Tibetan dialect)?” His Holiness continues reading from the note, “He is here to receive the empowerment of Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara. The reincarnations of the Khalkha (Jetsun Dhampa) have been adopting the Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara as their main practice and so this is an auspicious occasion without having planned for it.”

Dalai Lama reading

The Dalai Lama reading from the note about the 10th Jetsun Dhampa’s presence at the teachings in Dharamsala on March 8, 2023. (Screengrab)

The reincarnation is later seen participating in some of the ritual procedures as part of the empowerment.

This was certainly a newsworthy story, given that the young reincarnation is the spiritual leader of Mongolian Buddhists. But there were a few distortions.

The Jetsun Dhampa is not the successor to the Dalai Lama, as some media reports implied, nor is he “traditionally one of the Buddhist leaders who recognize the Dalai Lama’s successor,” as another one contented. While making this latter misleading assertion, one news outlet even inserted just below it an ad for its own newsletter, ironically stating, “Don’t let yourself be misled. Understand issues with help from experts.” Neither conventionally nor historically have the Jetsun Dhampas had any roles in the search for the Dalai Lamas.

Yet another misunderstanding was that the Jetsun Dhampa was “the third most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism.” While Tibetan Buddhism is traditionally clear that the Dalai Lama is the supreme leader, there is no clear system that describes the hierarchy thereafter. The Tibetan government does have a system of classifying reincarnated masters into levels of ranks, made use also to determine seating during public events where the lamas might be gathering.

If the Mongolian Buddhists are the sources for this assertion of the Jetsun Dhampa being the third most important spiritual leader, then a possible reasoning could be from the particular history of the institution of the Jetsun Dhampas, whose initial establishment was connected to the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, the two most well-known Tibetan masters. But in any case this would not be the case for the overall world of Tibetan Buddhism.

As for the China connection, which some media outlets projected in different ways, in general anything connected to the Dalai Lama somehow seems to invite some sort of China context whether there is relevance or not. This is further fueled by the tendency of Beijing to go to any extent to reduce space for the Dalai Lama, and not because they have a stake in the Jetsun Dhampa. But the Jetsun Dhampa is connected to an independent nation of Mongolia, and if the Mongolian Buddhists have acceptance of the reincarnation, that is what is relevant. At best the Communist regime in China might only be in a position to sow confusion by causing internal dissension in Mongolia. It cannot claim authority over the recognition of Jetsun Dhampa, just as we cannot think of any China connection to the reincarnation of Zhabdrung Rinpoche, a prominent lama in the Drukpa Kagyu lineage in Bhutan. Zhabdrung Rinpoche was a Tibetan lama who settled in Bhutan some centuries back.

The 10th Jetsun Dhampa is significant because he symbolizes the aspiration of the Mongolian Buddhists for their spiritual renewal, a process that began following the downfall of the Communist regime there. This is the only relevant angle to the public appearance of the reincarnation. To me, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was only helping in the realization of this Mongolian aspiration, nothing more and nothing less.

My take on messages from the Tibetan National Uprising of 1959

Every year, we at the International Campaign for Tibet are involved in the organization of the commemoration of the Tibetan National Uprising anniversary on March 10 in all the regions where we have our offices. In Washington, DC one of the roles that we have is to address the rally before the embassy of the People’s Republic of China and the White House.

March 10 rally

Tibetan flag flying at the rally before the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC on March 10, 2023.

This year, on the 64th anniversary of the 1959 Uprising, I spoke at the rally before the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC. Before I continue, I should mention that this year we also had the Chair of the newly established House Select Committee on China, Representative Mike Gallagher, come to offer his support to Tibet. This is significant because the bipartisan Select Committee (whose full name is “The United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party”) is being looked upon as a committee that will provide a path for the future of the US-China relationship taking into consideration the current attitude of the Beijing leadership and the need to protect American interests. Tibet is a core issue in the US-China relationship as reflected in testimony before Congress by senior State Department officials and successive reports on Tibet negotiations by the State Department, which say, “the lack of resolution of these problems leads to greater tensions inside China and will be a stumbling block to fuller political and economic engagement with the United States and other nations.”

March 10 rally

Addressing the rally at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC on March 10 with a placard on political prisoner Go Sherap Gyatso with me.

Now coming back to my remarks at the rally this year, I outlined the following three messages from the 1959 Tibetan National Uprising.

First, the people in Tibet rose up to protect His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is not only the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, but also a symbol of Tibet. They understood the strong bond between His Holiness and the Tibetan people. Sixty-four years later, the Dalai Lama continues to be a symbol of the Tibetan nation and people, and we need to do what we can to support his vision.

Secondly, in 1959, the Tibetan people in Lhasa rose up because they saw a threat to Tibet, the survival of Tibetan identity, culture, language, religion, way of life, etc., at the hands of Tenda Gyamar (“Red China, Enemy of the Faith”). Sixty-four years later, the threat to the survival of Tibetan identity posed by the misguided Chinese policies, including the Sinicization of all aspects of Tibetan life, continues. It is a credit to the determination and courage of the Tibetans in Tibet, who continue to confront the assault from the Chinese leadership and look for space to preserve their identity. We Tibetans need to see what we can do to meet these challenges and to overcome them.

Thirdly, in 1959, the Tibetan people rose up in desperation without any clear support from the international community. There were efforts made to reach out to neighboring countries as well as the United Nations. Sixty-four years later, the Tibetan issue has become an issue for concern by the international community, particularly those working in the human rights field. The international community needs to do more. Today, we can see the concern, and rightly so, on Ukraine. Since the international community does not desire conflict, it should adopt a universal policy of providing concrete support to the Tibetan issue, too, so that peace can be restored to the region.

I concluded by saying that one action that the United States can take is to pass the bipartisan and bicameral Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act that is before the Congress.

Musing on the Tibetan National Anthem

March 10 every year is the day when Tibetans and friends of Tibet throughout the free world mark the anniversary of the 1959 national uprising that took place in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. That watershed in Tibetan history was followed by the complete and violent takeover of Tibet, marking the end of this chapter of the Tibetan nation. However, in the post-1959 period, there was the rebirth of a national identity among Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile.

In Tibet, this renewed identity is observed through more visible expression of their commonality in literature, arts, songs, etc.

In exile, in addition to the above, one manifestation of this is through the Tibetan National Anthem. Every Tibetan who went through schooling in Tibetan schools in exile would have sung the national anthem on a daily basis. Today, the anthem is part of the “curriculum” of all weekend schools for Tibetans outside of the Indian subcontinent. As for those who were beyond the school-going age when they arrived in India, whether in 1959 or the years thereafter, they would have heard it sung at almost every public occasion. The national anthem will be an integral part of the program for the March 10 Uprising Day commemoration. This reminds me of the time in Dharamsala many years back, when an elderly Tibetan would take it upon himself to lead the singing of the “Gyalu” (the term in Tibetan for National Anthem) during public events like incense-burning ceremony. The problem was that he would sing it in his own convoluted tune, but everybody somehow tolerated this.

There is an interesting story (explanation given later on why I use this term) on the origin of the singing of the national anthem by the Tibetan refugees in India, as related by writer Paljor Tsarong. His father, Dundul Namgyal Tsarong, was the one who was assigned to make this happen. To coincide with this year’s anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising Day, I am taking the liberty to post the relevant excerpt from Paljor la’s book, “The Life and Times of George Tsarong of Tibet, 1920-1970: A Lord of the Traditional Tibetan State” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).

Here is how it began: “It was early summer of 1959 when Shakabpa [Tibetan official and historian] stopped by and informed father that the [Tibetan] government wanted him in Mussoorie [the hill station town where H.H. the Dalai Lama was resettled then]. There the ministers told Father that they needed a recording of the Tibetan national anthem and asked father to look into it. There was a soldier of the Bodyguard Regiment who knew the tune, but obviously, no one brought any instruments during the escape. So, father went down to Delhi and found one which was very expensive. He was neither given any money for transport or purchasing the flute. In fact, all the expenses incurred in travels from Kalimpong [a town near the Tibetan border in eastern India] to Mussoorie came out of his own pocket. Traditionally, state officials were given an estate by the government and one was expected to fulfill certain obligations and do whatever the government ordered without specific compensation.

“Father, anyway had enough money, and the taxi trips to Mussoorie were not as long and taxing as it is today. The large and comfortable American six-cylinder Plymouths from Connaught Place got father to Mussoorie in five hours. Back in Mussoorie, father took the soldier to Charleville Hotel where there was a band. He asked the band leader if he could write the notations for the national anthem. He said he could and as the soldier played the tune the band leader wrote the musical score. Soon he was playing it back on the piano and changes were made where necessary. Then father asked him to have his band play it. Father was quite satisfied and he also taped it on his heavy Grundig tape recorder. The band leader then suggested a better band that was playing at a hotel in Delhi’s Connaught Place. Father went down to Delhi and returned with what seemed a good recording of the national anthem. The following year, on March 10, 1960, the first anniversary of the Tibetan uprising was held. The Dalai Lama, his officials and the people gathered at the school near Birla house. As the Tibetan national flag was raised and all stood up for the solemn occasion, father played the taped recording of the national anthem.”

Apparently, the bodyguard regiment in Tibet would play the Tibetan National Anthem in Tibet.

The text of the Tibetan National Anthem and its English translation are below. You can also hear the anthem sung by artist Tsering Bawa.

༄༅། །སྲིད་ཞིའི་ཕན་བདེའི་འདོད་རྒུ་འབྱུང་བའི་གཏེར།
གནམ་བསྐོས་དགའ་བ་བརྒྱ་ལྡན་དབུ་འཕང་དགུང་ལ་རེག །

The following translation in English by the Central Tibetan Administration:

The source of temporal and spiritual wealth of joy and boundless benefits,
The wish-fulfilling jewel of the Buddha’s teaching, blazes forth radiant light.
The all-protecting patron of the doctrine and of all sentient beings,
By his actions stretches forth his influence like an ocean.
By his eternal vajra-nature
His compassion and loving care extends to beings everywhere.
May the celestially appointed government achieve the heights of glory
And increase its fourfold influence and prosperity.
May a golden age of happiness spread across the three provinces of Tibet and the glory expand of religious-secular rule.
By the spread of Buddha’s teachings in the ten directions, may everyone throughout the world enjoy the glories of happiness and peace.
In the battle against negative forces may the auspicious sunshine of the teachings and beings of Tibet and the brilliance of a myriad radiant prosperities be ever triumphant.

The reason why I had to call the Dundul Tsarong reference a story is because unfortunately, there is no clear history on the origin of the Tibetan National Anthem.

In general, it is said that national anthems developed from hymns historically. France is believed to be the first country to have a national anthem when in 1830 La Marseillaise was adopted. Thereafter, it became common for nations to define national anthems.

Is there a similar history of the Tibetan National Anthem? Unfortunately, no.

Some say that a prayer for the seventh Dalai Lama Kelsang Gyatso (1708-1757) composed during his lifetime can be regarded as the first national anthem, as it was used as a hymn subsequently. This hymn is found in the “Autobiography of a Minister” (Kalon Togjoe) written by Tsering Wangyal Dokhar in 1762. The author was a minister in the Tibetan government during the time of the seventh Dalai Lama, and it is believed the hymn was composed by Pholhane Sonam Topgyal, a senior official then, to express his loyalty to the seventh Dalai Lama. It might interest readers to know that this very one-verse hymn is a prayer for the long life of the Dalai Lama and is recited even to this day, albeit with Kelsang Gyatso in the third line being replaced by Tenzin Gyatso, the name of the 14th Dalai Lama.

The text of the hymn is this:


In this land encircled by a fence of snow mountains
Is the place for source of all blessings and happiness
May Chenrezig, Kelsang Gyatso
Remain firm until samsara ends.

If this hymn can indeed be regarded as a national anthem, then it would be older than the French one. Be that as it may, it looks like by 1947, the tradition of national anthem was absent in Tibet, considering the following anecdotal evidence. It is said that the Tibetan delegates to the Asian Relations Conference held in the Indian capital New Delhi in March-April of 1947 had to improvise by singing a folk song popular in Lhasa then when they had to sing their national anthem at the conference.

Similarly, the Tibet Mirror newspaper, the only mainstream newspaper in Tibetan then, published from Kalimpong, in its July 1, 1948 (Vol. 16, No. 10) issue had a news item on “government song.” The report begins by saying that “all countries have a government that is sung at celebrations, after winning a war, and similarly, after public theatrical performances, cinema show and after the news is read on the radio.” It adds that “The Tibetan nation does not have such a tradition” but lately there is news about a song some Tibetans in Lhasa have begun to sing during parties that expresses gratitude to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the government. The Tibet Mirror commended this and hoped that the Tibetan government would in the near future adopt a national anthem.

Dundul Tsarong in an oral interview in 1993 for Melvin Goldstein’s book on Tibetan history says that a national anthem was composed around 1947 or 1948. Prior to that, Tibetans did not realize, but sang God Save the King anthem of Great Britain, he says. Tsarong is not certain who composed that anthem, but says he heard that Trijang Rinpoche, the junior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was consulted. However, some others assert that a national anthem was composed for Tibet in 1949 by Trijang Rinpoche at the request of an official, Khemཨེy Sonam Wangdu.

Some say that the current national anthem was in fact composed in exile by Trijang Rinpoche sometime in 1962. But given the above assertion by Dundul Namgyal Tsarong, there seems to have been in existence a national anthem in Tibet, at least a tune and music, in the period before 1959.

Unfortunately, we do not seem to have much evidence at this point of time to reconcile the differing assertions on the anthem. There is hardly any reference to it in the Tibetan history books, thus leaving the issue mysterious and inscrutable. The very little that is available is technically in the realm of the informal and conjectural, and also the information is incomplete. Given the importance of a national anthem in a nation’s history, this is a fertile ground for researchers out there.

In the meanwhile, those into music can try playing the Tibetan National Anthem from this music sheet that is posted online. I listened to it and it is almost there.

Tibetan National Anthem

What was the 13th Dalai Lama’s message to the Tibetan people?

On Feb. 13, 2023 I was invited by the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies & Engagement to participate in an online discussion on the anniversary of the 1913 proclamation by H.H. the 13th Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso, popularly known as the reaffirmation of Tibetan independence proclamation. You can watch the full session online here.

The 13th Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso

I am outlining here my presentation, in which I gave my take of the proclamation saying that it should not be seen in isolation but in conjunction with two other subsequent developments during the 13th Dalai Lama’s period, namely the 1913-1914 Tibet-Britain-China tripartite convention on Tibet in Shimla and the 1932 Last Testament by the 13th Dalai Lama. Accordingly, I laid out the following:

  1. What were the issues that were raised in the proclamation?
  2. The reason why the proclamation is important?
  3. What lessons should we learn from it?

What were the issues that were raised in the proclamation?

I mentioned that we needed to look at this proclamation in the context of the 13th Dalai Lama’s experience of British India’s invasion of Tibet of 1903-1904 and the subsequent invasion by China under the Manchus. These developments made the 13th Dalai Lama realize that in order to establish Tibet as a nation-state, Tibetans needed to be internally prepared and realize the threat and challenges to their national identity.

Therefore, even though the most prominent aspect of the proclamation known internationally is the reference to the political status of Tibet, it actually has four other additional points. Points 1 and 2 deal with preservation and promotion of Tibetan religious identity and institutions, including Buddhist study. Points 3 and 5 deal with the Dalai Lama’s call on Tibetan officials to maintain proper conduct, including in looking after the socio-economic welfare of the Tibetan people. Interestingly, in Point 3 the 13th Dalai Lama calls for doing away with corporal punishments, saying, “Furthermore, citizens’ limbs have been amputated as a form of punishment. Henceforth, such severe punishments are forbidden.”

At the popular level, this proclamation has been made more well known for its Point 4, which deals with Tibet’s political status. Given that the existing translations in English do not seem to reflect fully the text, I read the relevant portion of this point in Tibetan first.

“བོད་འདི་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་གཞན་དག་ལྟ་བུའི་སྟོབས་འབྱོར་འཕྲུལ་ཆས་དང་མི་ལྡན་རུང་། ཆོས་མཐུན་ཞི་བདེར་གནས་པའི་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་རང་དབང་དང་ལྡན་པ་ཞིག་ཡིན་སྟབས་།”

My translation of this is that: “Tibet is not endowed with wealth, power, and technology like other nations. It is nonetheless a free country abiding in peace and happiness in accordance with the Dharma.”

The exact Tibetan term used relating to the political status is Rangwang, literally “freedom,” but it has also been interpreted over the years to mean independence. Be that as it may, to me Point 4 is like the other points addressed to the people of Tibet, officials and citizens, rather than to the international community, in which the 13th Dalai Lama calls on them to understand their country’s status and come together to protect it. Each of the five points of the proclamation in fact ends with “should do this,” in what could be seen as direct order. Even at the end of the proclamation, there is a directive that a copy of the proclamation should be kept in all the Tibetan offices somewhat like a standing order so that successive officials can implement it. It says,

ཁེ་ཉེན་ལ་བསམ་ཞིབ་ཀྱིས་ལྷ་ཆོས་དང་། མི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་བླངས་དོར་ཕྱིན་མ་ལོག་པ་དང་ལེན་རྒྱུན་འཁྱོངས་དགོས་རྒྱའི་རྩ་ཚིག་འདི་བཞིན་མངའ་ཁུལ་དཀར་ཆག་ཏུ་བཀོད་ངོས་། ལས་བྱེད་རིམ་འབྱོར་ནས་རྩ་འཛིན་མཇུག་གཞོན་རྒྱུན་འཁྱོངས་ཚུལ་བཞིན་སྤྱོད་པ་གྱིས་།

Bearing in mind the consequences, and without confusing between what is to be accepted and abstained from divine and human conducts, all officials should keep this declaration in the records of their offices, abide by it by properly implementing it.

The reason why this declaration is important?

The importance of the 1913 proclamation can be understood when we look at the two subsequent political developments of the Shimla Convention on Tibet of 1913-1914 and the 1932 Last Testament by the 13th Dalai Lama.

In the 1913 proclamation, the 13th Dalai Lama had hoped that his officials and the citizens of Tibet will heed his call and rise to the occasion. While acknowledging that his government has been able to banish all Manchu forces from the areas under the then Tibetan Government, he hoped to be able to recover other Tibetan territories in the Dhokham that were outside of the rule of the then Tibetan government.

Related to this is a statement made about the 13th Dalai Lama by the present 14th. In response to a question, “Are there any of your predecessors in whom you have a special interest or with whom you have a particular affinity?” the 14th Dalai Lama says, “The Thirteenth Dalai Lama. He brought a lot of improvement to the standards of study in the monastic colleges. He gave great encouragement to the real scholars. He made it impossible for people to go up in the religious hierarchy, becoming an abbot and so forth, without being totally qualified. He was very strict in this respect. He also gave tens of thousands of monks’ ordinations. There were his two main religious achievements. He didn’t give many initiations, or many lectures. Now, with respect to the country, he had great thought and consideration for statecraft. The outlying districts in particular. How they should be governed and so forth. He cared very much how to run the government more efficiently. He had great concern about our borders and that type of thing.”

During the subsequent Shimla Convention in 1913 and 1914, the 13th Dalai Lama seems to have acted on his hope expressed in the proclamation to bring back the Tibetan territories in the east under his government’s control. His envoy Lonchen Shatra made efforts to reassert control over the Tibetan areas outside of the Tibetan government’s rule. Scholar Tsering Shakya says the “Tibetans demanded the return of all Tibetan territories occupied by the Chinese in Kham and Amdo” with some saying mule loads of documents to support the claim were brought to Shimla. Eventually, it only led to the outlining of what was called outer and inner Tibet.

The third important development is the 1932 Last Testament. In fact, Shakabpa calls it, མ་འོངས་སྔོན་གཟིགས་ཀྱི་ཞལ་འདམས་, “the testament that foresaw the future.” This testament was the response by the 13th Dalai Lama to a long-life offering made to him. While outlining all the efforts he made for the welfare of the Tibetan people, he included a stark warning, including the threat of takeover by Communism (which had taken over Mongolia by then), that unless the Tibetan people came together and worked for a common cause, there would be grave consequences.

The relevant portion of the 1932 Last Testament says this:

In the future, this [communist] system will certainly be forced on this land that cherishes the joint spiritual and temporal system, either from within or without. If, in such an event, we fail to defend our land, the noble ones who are holders of the doctrine, beginning with the triumphant father and son [the Dalai Lama and Paṇchen Lama] will be eliminated without a trace.

The 13th Dalai Lama was very critical of some of the people in the Tibetan leadership then. He said,

གནས་སྐབས་རང་དོན་སྒྲུབ་ཕྱོགས་ཕྱོགས་ལྷུངས་ངོ་སྲུང་ལས། ཆབ་སྲིད་ཀྱི་བདེ་དོན་ད་མུས་བཞིན་ཡལ་ཡོལ་འབའ་ཞིག་གིས་འཁུར་དུ་མ་བླངས་ན་ཕུགས་དོན་མི་འགྲུབ་པ་མཐོང་གསལ་ལྷར་། སླར་ཅི་དྲག་གི་འགྱོད་ཀྱང་ཕན་ཆ་མི་སྲིད་པས། ངོས་ནམ་འཚོའི་རིང་ལ་བོད་ལྗོངས་བདེ་ཐབས་ད་མུས་ཀྱིས་འཁྱོལ་བར་མཐོང་། ཕུགས་རང་རང་་མྱོང་ཆོས་རྣམས་སོ་སོའི་ཐོག་ཏུ་སྨིན་པ་ནི་ངོས་རང་གི་ཉམས་མྱོང་རྒྱུ་མཚན་གསལ་པོའི་སྟེང་ནས་གཞན་ལ་འདོམས་པ་འདི་ལྷག་བསླབ་བྱ་ལྷུག་པོར་སྟོན་རྒྱུ་མེད་་་་་།

“There are people who in order to serve their own interests, involve in factionalism and placation, and if they continue their careless attitude without shouldering their responsibilities, it is evident that their long-term objectives will not be met. Even if they have regrets subsequently, it will not be of help. It can be seen that as long as I remain, the well-being of Tibet will continue. In the long run, based on my own experience and with clear reason I do not have any more advice than to say that everyone will experience the fruition of one’s action…”

What lessons should we learn from it?

First, we have to look at this proclamation holistically and in conjunction with the subsequent Shimla Convention and the Last Testament in 1932. Looking at the 1913 proclamation alone does not provide the full picture of the intent of the 13th Dalai Lama.

Secondly, through the proclamation as well as his Last Testament, the 13th Dalai Lama was advising Tibetans to be mindful of the broader understanding of Tibetan politics and calling on the people to shoulder their due responsibilities.

Thirdly, the subsequent developments in Tibet showed that our people then failed to fully comprehend the advice of the 13th Dalai Lama and did not take adequate steps to protect Tibet.

What should we be doing?

The current Dalai Lama, while talking about the reasons for the continuation of reincarnation, has said primarily it is to continue the mission of the previous incarnation. Seen from this angle, we are all familiar with this Dalai Lama’s activities and vision, which all complement that of the 13th. In the above quote about the 13th Dalai Lama, the current 14th mentions two categories of contributions, namely in the field of religious reform and strengthening of Tibetan polity. In both fronts, the current Dalai Lama has continued the mission and made it possible for Tibetan religion and people to compete on a par with modern society. The monastic reforms in the Tibetan community in exile, including the introduction of scientific knowledge in monastic education, are part of this.

Similarly, what the 13th Dalai Lama began in trying to recreate a pan-Tibetan common identity, including Tibetans from all three provinces, is now made a reality under the present Dalai Lama. On this matter, Kasur Lodi Gyari, the Special Envoy of H.H. the Dalai Lama, in his memoirs talks about this contribution by the present Dalai Lama, saying he “gave a new hope for Tibet’s cohesiveness, creating a watershed moment in Tibetan history that has led to true unification in the Tibetan people’s hearts and minds.” I would urge each and every one of you to read the memoirs, which outline this foundational initiative of His Holiness soon after he escaped to India in 1959.

Similarly, the current Dalai Lama has, in accordance with his principle for hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, taken steps to provide a pathway to a firm foundation for the Tibetan struggle through the democratic system of governance. At the same time, he has issued stark warnings to today’s Tibetan people, like his predecessor did, to act on our obligation and work in a united front.

Here is a quote from his statement on Tibetan National Uprising Day in 1976:

བོད་མི་ཚོ། རང་ཡུལ་འཕྲོག་མཁན་དགྲ་བོ་སྣང་མེད་དུ་བཞག་ནས་བོད་མི་ནང་ཁུལ་ཚིག་སྐམ་སྟོང་བཤད་ཀྱིས་འཐེན་འཁྱེར་བྱེད་པ་དང་གཅིག རང་རིགས་རྒྱ་ཆེའི་མང་ཚོགས་ཀྱི་བདེ་སྡུག་ལ་སེམས་འཁུར་བོར་ཏེ་རང་ཉིད་གཅིག་པུ་རང་མགོ་གང་ཐོན་བྱེད་པ་དང་གཉིས། ད་ལྟ་བོད་མི་རིགས་སྤྱིའི་བདེ་སྡུག་གནས་སྟངས་ཛ་དྲག་གང་འདྲ་ཞིག་ཐོག་ཡོད་པ་ངོས་མ་ཟིན་པར། འབྱོར་ལྡན་རང་དབང་ཅན་གཞན་དག་ལ་དཔར་བཀབ་རྒྱས་སྤྲོས་སྐྱིད་འདོད་བྱེད་པ་དང་གསུམ་ནི། ཤིན་ཏུ་འཁྲུལ་ཚབས་ཆེ་བས་མནོ་བསམ་ནན་ཏན་གཏོང་དགོས།

My countrymen, beware of the yawning chasms. Forgetting the enemy who invaded and wrested the country, you indulge in squabbles and factionalism. Discarding the thoughts and motives to promote the interest of the larger masses of one’s own people, you seek and work to promote your own interest only. Refusing to recognize the grave economic situation that the Tibetan people are in, you desire and emulate luxury life-style of other rich people. These are unhealthy trends and matters of serious concern. So, give a thought to these seriously.

Here I want to say that we Tibetans should not shy away from discussing issues on which we have disagreements. We are living in a democracy, and so there would be diverse views among us. But difference of opinions should be put in proper context so that they don’t create misgivings and misunderstanding. We should spend all our time and resources in confronting external challenges instead of wasting time in trying to create issues within ourselves.

The current His Holiness has also categorically called for the need to establish the fact of the historical independence of Tibet even while striving for a future for Tibet through the Middle Way Approach.

Therefore one concrete initiative that Tibetan leaders and Tibetans and Tibet supporters of today can take is to see how this can be fulfilled. In the United States, in consultation with the Tibetan leadership and supporters of Tibet in the Congress, a new legislation, the Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act, has been introduced that asserts the historical independent status of Tibet, rejecting the Chinese claim that Tibet had been part of China since ancient times or since antiquity and saying that China should resolve the conflict through negotiations.

History has shown that the Tibetan people failed in heeding the warning of the 13th Dalai Lama and acting positively on it. This generation of Tibetans now should not fail the current 14th Dalai Lama in heeding the warnings he has been issuing about the future.

Why does the Dalai Lama look to Avalokiteshvara for his long life?

On Nov. 30, 2022, during a “Tenshug” (long-life offering ceremony) to him in Dharamsala, His Holiness the Dalai Lama pointed to a headshot beside him of the Jowo Wati Sangpo statue and told the gathering that although they are making this offering for him to live long, he in turn was putting faith in the Jowo, the image of which he had specially brought to the ceremony, to grant him the same. He mentioned that this image usually was in his residence, implying its special significance to him.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama drawing attention to the headshot of Jowo Wati Sangpo during the Long-Life Ceremony in Dharamsala on Nov. 30, 2022

The concept of Tenshug is part of our spiritual tradition. It comes from the belief that certain superior beings like His Holiness have the power to decide the course of their lifespan and their rebirth. Therefore, there is the tradition of disciples beseeching upon such lamas, through established rituals, to live long for the sake of all sentient beings. Tenshug literally means “Permanent existence.”

However, I found this statement by His Holiness intriguing as generally during such Tenshug rituals, I have seen him expressing his gratitude to the disciples for their devotion and his determination to continue serving the cause of humanity. So I tried to look into this a bit more to get some clarity on the story behind Jowo Wati Sangpo’s importance.

Jowo Wati Sangpo is believed to be a self-manifested statue of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in sandalwood that appeared in the Nepal-India border region. Avalokiteshvara is known as Chenrezig in Tibetan and is regarded as the patron deity of Tibet. In fact, in Tibetan Chenrezig is referred to as Tibet’s Lhakel, “quota from among the gods.” This is because legend has it that the Buddha of Infinite Light, Amitabha, prophesied in the past that Avalokiteshvara would be the one in the future to “subdue the barbaric Land of Snows.” In his response, Avalokiteshvara committed to Amitabha, “May I have the opportunity to establish all living beings in happiness, beginning with those in the Land of Snows. Until I relieve all living beings, may I never, even for a moment feel like giving up the purpose of others for my own peace and happiness.” According to another version, Avalokiteshvara vowed to Amitabha: “If I should ever get discouraged down there, working with those barbaric Tibetans, may my body be shattered into a thousand pieces.” The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara and therefore having a special concern for the Tibetan people.

The statue of Jowo Wati Sangpo

This statue is more popularly known as Kyirong Jowo (as it came to be housed in a shrine in Kyirong in Western Tibet). The statue has a legendary beginning, believed to be part of five “Arya Brothers” statues that came into existence sometime in the seventh century. Arya is a reference to those who have attained an exalted level of practice in Buddhism. The five statues, according to Tibetan Buddhist historian Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa, are 1) Arya Wati Sangpo, also known as Kyirong Jowo; 2) Arya Bukham of Patan in Nepal; 3) Arya Akham, also of Patan in Nepal; 4) Arya Jamali of Kathmandu in Nepal; 5) Arya Lokeshvara, also known as Jowo Lokeshvara, in the Potala Palace, in Lhasa.

In the seventh century, Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo, being aware of these sacred statues, wanted to bring one to Tibet for the sake of the Buddha Dharma. Legend has it that he sent a light ray from between his eyebrows carrying an emanation known as monk Akaramatiśīla (Lodoe Jungney Tsultrim Sangpo) to go to a sandalwood tree in southern Nepal and get the statue. It is said that the five statues emerged from the tree and miraculously decided on their respective future locations. Thus, two of them ended up in Tibet while the remainder three were in Nepal. One interpretation says that the statues are located along the traditional trade route from Nepal to Tibet, which begins in Patan, passing through the Kathmandu valley and reaching up to Lhasa.

In any case, while the town of Kyirong was the location of Jowo Wati Sangpo, the statue was placed in the care of the Dzongkar Choede monastery in Dzongkar, also in western Tibet, now re-established in south India. According to abbot Jampa Sopa of Dzongkar Choede, the origin of the name Wati Sangpo is traced to a water gutter or trough (In Tibetan a water trough or gutter is called “Wati” or “Wakha”). It is said that when the statue first came to Kyirong, it rested on a stone slab beside a water trough from where people would get water.

As an aside, it is said that Kyirong (“Happy town,” in Tibetan) came to be named as such because the coming of the Jowo Wati Sangpo statue brought happiness to its residents.

After the establishment of the Dalai Lama institutions, there was a special connection between them and the two statues in Tibet. For example, the fifth Dalai Lama is believed to have undertaken an Avalokiteshvara retreat and experienced visions of deities emerging from the heart of Jowo Wati Sangpo. Also, twice during the time of the Fifth and the Eighth Dalai Lamas, the statue was taken to Lhasa for safekeeping in the wake of an incursion by Nepal.

The present Dalai Lama has also talked about his own special connection to Jowo Wati Sangpo. He even calls himself a “Donyer” (chamberlain) of Wati Sangpo and talks about being at his service. During a teaching session in Yokohama in Japan on Nov. 15, 2018, he said, “That statue, the Kyirong Jowo, was brought to India by the monks of Dzongkar Chodé and is now staying with me in Dharamsala. The monks say that different expressions can be seen on its face and I’ve noticed that it seems to smile when I’m making prayers related to bodhichitta. I had a dream about it once in which I was talking to him face to face. I asked if he had realized emptiness. ‘Yes’, he replied. Some people regard the Dalai Lamas as emanations of Avalokiteshvara, but I consider myself to be just his messenger.”

Confirming the Dzongkar Choede monks’ reference to changes in the facial composure of the statue at different times, the Dalai Lama said, “When I pray to him, I feel he smiles at me. Although he can’t walk or talk, he gives me his blessing and as Chenrezig’s representative, I am determined to fulfil his wishes.”

In the wake of the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, the Dzongkar Choede authorities carried out a successful plan to take the statue into exile. This included commissioning similar replacement statues, one in Kyirong itself so that no one would realize that it was no longer there, and the other one in Nepal as a way to placate the devotees who did not want the statue to go onward to India. A fascinating account of how the statue was taken out of Tibet is relayed by Lhakpa la, who was from Kyirong and entrusted with the main task then, to Voice of America’s Lhakpa Kyizom. Eventually, the statue was brought to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala on April 24, 1967. When the Dzongkar Choede monks were resettled in south India, His Holiness conducted a divination on the issue of the statue, which said that the statue should remain in Dharamsala. Thus, it has been in His Holiness’ residential complex. Occasionally, including during the holy month of Sagadawa (fourth month in our calendar) it is brought to the adjacent Thekchen Choling Tsuglakhang for the public to pay their obeisance.

During his address to the gathering on Nov. 30, His Holiness said while the Jowo Lokeshvara is still in the Potala, the Kyirong Jowo ended up with him in Dharamsala. He continued, “Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara is the patron deity of Tibet and I am someone who receives his blessing. I pray every day to this Wati Sangpo. As a representative of the body, speech and mind of Avalokiteshvara I work to fulfil his wishes. And I will continue to do so for the coming decades. Since you are making these prayers and offerings on my behalf today, and since Wati Sangpo is my refuge and guardian, I’ve brought this photograph of him here with me.”

So now you know the story of the Dalai Lama and the image of Jowo Wati Sangpo.

On China’s “strategy for governing Tibet in the new era”

Third plenary meeting of the Tenth Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region Committee Communist Party in Lhasa on Nov 16, 2022.

In the light of the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, time has come for us to brush up on our understanding of Communist jargons and see if we can truly comprehend what the “new era” means to the Tibetan people.

Obviously, whenever a political leader comes out with an initiative there is an interest in knowing what is new about it and how it might impact the people concerned. Given that Tibet is currently under Chinese rule, and as someone interested in the welfare of the Tibetan people, the urge is there to find out what the “new era” will bring to them.

During the 19th Party Congress in 2017, we saw the incorporation of Xi Jinping’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the Party’s Constitution. During the recent 20th Party Congress, China claimed to have established the “new era.”

In fact, even on Taiwan, the 20th CPC document says, “We have put forward an overall policy framework for resolving the Taiwan question in the new era.”

So, what exactly is new in this “new era”? Although the 20th Party Congress report itself did not expand on what it might mean to the Tibetan people, developments before and after it tries to shed some light.

On November 16, 2022, a meeting of the Communist leaders of the Tibet Autonomous Region in Lhasa saw Party Secretary Wang Junzheng making a reference to the “Party’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era”.

I had a glimmer of hope that there will be clarity now. However, this is not the first time when a Chinese leader has connected the “new era” to Tibet.

Xi Jinping made the first reference to governing Tibet in the new era during his address at the seventh Tibet Work Forum in August 2020. According to Xinhua, “Xi underlined the need to fully implement the CPC’s policies on governing Tibet for a new era.” The state media reported Xi as telling the meeting,” Efforts must be made to build a new modern socialist Tibet that is united, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful”.

Thereafter, in May 2021, in its White Paper “Tibet Since 1951: Liberation, Development and Prosperity” the Chinese Government devoted a whole section to “Embarking on a New Journey in the New Era.” The White Paper said the “four main tasks embodied in the guidelines for governing Tibet – ensuring stability, facilitating development, protecting the eco-environment, and strengthening the frontiers – will be implemented”.

At the recent meeting in Lhasa, Wang expanded on what is meant by governing Tibet in the new era through bringing in more Chinese Communist jargons. He said it meant “anchoring the “four important issues” (四件大事 Sì jiàn dàshì) and “four guarantees”(四个确保 sì gè quèbǎo). Wang added that “The strategic deployment of “Four Creations” (四个创建 sì gè zǒu zài qiánliè) and “Four Advances” (四个走在前列 sì gè zǒu zài qiánliè) is an inevitable requirement for implementing the “two-step” strategic arrangement in the new era and building a new socialist modernized Tibet.”

What these jargons mean in actual practice is not clear to me and so the question remains on what the “new era” entails. Irrespective of the labels, one thing is clear from the “new era”: the Chinese authorities intend to strengthen their hold on all things Tibetan. In 2020, we surmised that the “new era” includes “Sinicization” of Tibetan Buddhism and improving the ability of Chinese Communist Party organizations and members at all levels “to deal with major struggles and prevent major risks.” This being the case, the new era that the Chinese Communist Party is offering to the Tibetan people is not a welcome one.

Speaking of jargons, the November 16 meeting in Lhasa was the third plenary meeting of the Tenth Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region Committee Communist Party. As a matter of curiosity, I looked up the outcome of a similar plenary of the previous Ninth Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region Committee Communist Party held in 2017. The 2017 meeting clearly said, “we must persist in carrying out the anti-separatist struggle in depth” whereas the 2022 meeting did not have any such references. Should one conclude from this that “separatism” — as the Chinese government terms Tibetan struggle for their own rights — is no longer an issue today? Something to ponder.

Kasur Lodi Gyari and international diplomacy on Tibet

Oct. 29, 2022 marks the fourth death anniversary of Kasur Lodi Gyari, who until his retirement was the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and concurrently Executive Chairman of the Board of the International Campaign for Tibet.

The Dalai Lama's Special EnvoyEven though Rinpoche, as he is reverently addressed by people in the Tibetan cultural world, is no longer with us, his legacy lives on and is a daily reminder to many of us at ICT who knew him. Now, a book that he had been working on since his retirement has been published by the Columbia University Press. It is aptly titled, “The Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy: Memoirs of a Lifetime in Pursuit of a Reunited Tibet.”

I have been reading the book and taking in all the information therein like any other new reader. I am saying this since some might assume that having worked with Rinpoche closely, I might have seen it in manuscript form. Rinpoche told me categorically that he intentionally did not include some of us who were working closely with him (I understand even some of his family members did not have access to it) in the process of writing this book so that his process would be clear.

This is also not a book review. In addition to my not having finished reading it at the time of writing, it will take much more space and analysis to thoroughly appreciate the book. Having said that, the title of the book summarizes Rinpoche’s objective: fulfilling the vision of H.H. the Dalai Lama keeping in consideration all Tibetans. In his preface, Rinpoche says, “I firmly believe that I was destined to serve my people and His Holiness. When I look back over the past decades of my service, it is clear to me that each major change in my life was guided by some unseen force.” Indeed!

Me assisting Gyari Rinpoche as he prepares a Mandala set for a formal presentation to Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, in July 2010, part of the items that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had gifted to the Library of Congress.

Even from the pages that I have read so far, the book provides insight into how His Holiness’ vision was put into action. It has revelations of the different players with whom Rinpoche interacted and self-examination of developments and challenges with recommendations for the future.

In the post-1959 period Kasur Lodi Gyari is among those notable Tibetan leaders who have made a mark in shaping the direction of the Tibetan movement. Rinpoche’s fingerprints can be seen in the development of the Tibetan media, democratic governance system and also in public diplomacy. All of these are highlighted in the book.

Rinpoche’s greatest contribution is his role in the field of Tibetan diplomacy, and virtually two-thirds of the book are devoted to this topic. It was also because of this quality of Rinpoche that His Holiness the Dalai Lama assigned him to be the lead interlocutor in the dialogue process with China.

Rinpoche had a clear strategy and game plan. He redefined “dialogue” to the Tibetan people. Conventionally, people assumed that Tibetan-Chinese dialogue meant the actual act of Tibetan officials meetings with Chinese officials. However, Rinpoche asserted that dialogue did not merely mean the few days of actual talks that might take place with Chinese officials. Rather, it included the need to take into consideration the building of a necessary support base among governments and in the international community so that the talks could have the needed outcome. Rinpoche came up with a strategy to build a coalition of governments whose representatives met regularly to discuss with him in Washington, DC and elsewhere. To fulfill this, he regularly consulted with officials of different governments in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Similarly, he chose to reach out to think tanks and influential individuals, including Chinese intellectuals and Tibetan personalities inside Tibet, who could use their good offices to help with the dialogue process. Rinpoche thus brought a multifaceted approach to the process. I have had the privilege of accompanying him on many of these meetings. Each of these entities were a piece of a puzzle, the complete image of which was clear to Rinpoche.

Interestingly, there were times when Rinpoche even felt the need to ask the international community not to give up its hopes for forward movement in the Tibetan dialogue process. In a testimony to the then-House Committee on International Relations (now the House Foreign Affairs Committee) on March 7, 2002, some months before he was to lead the first round of talks, Rinpoche said: “Members of Congress acting in Committee and individually have taken significant initiative to reach out to the Chinese leadership to urge dialogue with His Holiness, respect for religious freedom, and on behalf of certain Tibetan political prisoners. I know that some congressional friends have been deeply frustrated in their efforts and have even questioned the utility of continuously raising Tibet with the Chinese when their words appear to fall on deaf ears. Yet, I must ask you today not to give up.”

He added, “For the people of Tibet, congressional resolve has given us hope that the possibility of a political solution has not been foreclosed. As long as people have hope, they refrain from desperate measures. Although Tibetans inside Tibet must live in a political and economic situation increasingly beyond their control and by every measure less and less Tibetan, they still cling to hope—hope that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will one day return and hope that they will be delivered from Chinese oppression.”

Rinpoche also provided an international dimension to the Tibetan issue, asserting that the international community is a stakeholder in its future. In a speech at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government on Oct. 8, 2008, Rinpoche expanded on this. He said, “But resolving the Tibetan issue is also important to the international community, particularly to our region. The historically volatile Central Asian region has revived and has already become an area of conflict. Here Tibet can play a stabilizing role, which is important to the countries in the region such as India, China, and Russia, as well as to the United States and other countries. Tibet, which for centuries played the vital role as a buffer in the region, can help create a more cohesive and stable region by serving as a valuable bridge. A number of political observers from the region also acknowledge that resolving the Tibet issue is an important factor in the normalization of India-China relations. Understanding the great mutual benefit for all concerned, His Holiness has consistently supported closer India-China relations.

“There is also increased awareness of the vital importance of the Tibetan plateau from the environmental perspective. Just on the issue of water alone, it is an undeniable fact that over the next few decades water may become as scarce a commodity as oil. Tibet is literally the life-source of the region, serving as the source of most of Asia’s major rivers. Therefore, protecting Tibet’s fragile environment should be accorded the highest priority.”

Rinpoche also did much to explain what the Tibetan issue was and what it was not so that the dialogue process was not confused. For example, when China was literally forcing governments to repeat adherence to the “one-China” principle at every opportunity, Rinpoche explained how this should not apply to the Tibetan situation. In an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, on April 23, 2012, Rinpoche explained it this way: “If one has to look for any reference point for China-Tibet relations, it is not the 1972 Shanghai communiqué, but the ‘17 Point Agreement,’ previously mentioned. In fact, the lack of relevance of the ‘one China’ policy is precisely what I would like to address. No Tibetan government has ever claimed to be the government of China, so the application of the ‘one-China’ policy to Tibet—or for that matter, the PRC government’s ‘one China’ principle that stresses the inalienability of both Taiwan and mainland China as parts of a single ‘China’—simply does not arise.”

Rinpoche’s diplomacy encompassed outreach to the Tibetan people as well. One of his constant lamentations, also mentioned in the book, is that we Tibetans fail to study our history properly and to learn from it. For example, concerning the Middle Way Approach, Rinpoche says this in the book’s preface: “Unless we fully understand the tumultuous and complex decades of our early years in exile, we cannot truly appreciate why His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama took the courageous decision to adopt the Middle Way Approach.” The book has a section totally devoted to this tumultuous period.

Nature of his assignment

In the final years of the 2002-2010 dialogue period, there were those who felt that the exercise had not achieved anything. By this, they meant that the issue remained unresolved even after nine rounds of talks. Rinpoche spoke out on many occasions about the nature of his assignment and how there might be differing public reaction no matter what the outcome was. This was because he knew that trying to talk to the Chinese leadership on the complicated issue of Tibet where there were several factors at play was a herculean task. Any outcome would be controversial.

However, this did not mean Rinpoche failed in his assignment. Rinpoche was clear in what he was tasked to do. On Sept. 28, 2002, after the first round of the talks with the Chinese officials, Rinpoche issued a statement in which he said, “The task that my colleague Envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen and I had on this trip was twofold. First, to re-establish direct contact with the leadership in Beijing and to create a conducive atmosphere enabling direct face-to-face meetings on a regular basis in future. Secondly, to explain His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach towards resolving the issue of Tibet. Throughout the trip, we were guided by this objective.”

On May 10, 2007, in a speech at Asia Centre, a think tank based in Paris, Rinpoche outlined the status of the dialogue process until then, saying, “The five rounds of discussions that we have had with the Chinese leadership have brought our dialogue to a new level. Today, there is a deeper understanding of each other’s positions and the recognition of where the fundamental differences lie. On the surface it may appear that there have been no break-throughs and that a wide gap persists in our positions. But the very fact that the two sides have been able to explicitly state our positions after so many decades represents a significant development.”

Subsequently, he summed up the outcome after the dialogue process ended in 2010. On March 5, 2010, in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, DC, Rinpoche said, “Through our talks, for the first time after decades of being in and out of contact, we have been able to convey to the Chinese leadership in an unambiguous manner the position of His Holiness and the steps that need to be taken to resolve the Tibetan problem. Our talks have certainly enabled us to understand better the Chinese government’s position and concerns regarding the future of Tibet.”

Even as Rinpoche was able to convey His Holiness’ position directly to the Chinese government, he clearly reiterated the fundamental issues in which there would be no change. In his “My Personal Words of Gratitude,” which he released at the time of his retirement on Dec. 31, 2014, he said, “My delegation made sincere and serious effort to convince the Chinese leaders of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s firm commitment to seek a solution for the future of Tibet without independence and within the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). We were also explicit and firm on three fundamentally important positions as directed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership: 1) that whatever solution was worked out must address all the Tibetans and encompass all the areas inhabited by Tibetan people, 2) that while our commitment to seeking a solution within the PRC was genuine, we could not accept a falsified and distorted version of our history and, 3) that the issue confronting us was not about the title, the function or the future of His Holiness the Dalai Lama but that of the six million Tibetans and their place within the People’s Republic of China.”

Rinpoche also made use of the media to convey his messages as and when needed. In the course of his leading the dialogue process, I saw him strategically give interviews to specific news outlets (including having us organize Chinese-only media events) or write articles for a news outlet with a specific target audience in mind. Some months after the ninth round of talks that ended in January-February 2010, Rinpoche wrote an op-ed in the South China Morning Post on Sept. 12, 2010 in which he had a clear message to the Chinese government. Rinpoche wrote:

“The Chinese leadership needs to take responsibility and make a serious commitment to finding a real solution to the issue of Tibet. The urgency of that responsibility is all the more palpable because of the uniqueness of this current window of time. Never before has there been a Tibetan leader like His Holiness, who has so firmly and persistently pursued such a challenging and treacherous path to achieve visionary change for the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.”

Given his work here in Washington, DC, it was very encouraging that the United States Senate honored him with a resolution passed in September 2012, saying it commends his achievements in building “an international coalition of support for Tibet.”

In 2018, after his untimely demise, I ended a blog piece of mine about him with this: “Following his retirement and departure from Washington, D.C. ‘How is Lodi?’ was a constant refrain that I would hear from serving and retired officials here when I accosted them. Until now, I could respond by saying that he is spending his time writing his memoir as he sees that as something that he can put his retired life in a meaningful use in the service of the Tibetan people. Now Rinpoche is no more, but he will continue to be my inspiration.” Now, I can say that with this book, there is some sort of closure.

China’s 20th Party Congress and the Tibetans

As the Chinese Communist Party prepares to begin its 20th National Congress on Oct. 16, 2022, I must note that China has not been able to come up with a credible Tibetan leader since 2014 when Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal Goranangpa, the last such individual, passed away.

The 10th Panchen Lama, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme and Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal were three Tibetans who enjoyed some sort of pan-Tibetan acceptance after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the post-1959 period. All three of them were met by the first fact-finding delegation that the H.H. the Dalai Lama sent to China and Tibet in 1979 (see photo), and separately by other visiting Tibetan leaders from exile. In a way, the Chinese authorities tried to use them as their vehicle to seek control over the Tibetan people.

Members of the first fact-finding delegation sent by the Dalai Lama with the three Tibetan leaders in Beijing in 1979. Standing (from left) Dharamsala official Phuntsok Tashi Taklha, 10th Panchen Lama, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, Phuntsog Wangyal Goranangpa, Dharamsala official Thupten Namgyal Juchen. Kneeling (from left) Dharamsala officials Tashi Topgyal and Lobsang Dhargay Phunrab and the Dalai Lama’s brother Lobsang Samten Taklha.

The Panchen Lama endeared himself to the Tibetans, even though he was not initially recognized by the Tibetan government, because of his forthright championing of the cause of the Tibetan people and for his steadfast devotion to the Dalai Lama. His petition on the situation in Tibet addressed to Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was a direct challenge to the Chinese policies on Tibetans, and according to Isabel Hilton (author of “The Search for the Panchen Lama”), the petition is the “most detailed and informed attack on China’s policies in Tibet that would ever be written.”

On Jan. 23, 1989, the Panchen Lama delivered a speech in Tibet in which he said: “Since liberation, there has certainly been development, but the price paid for this development has been greater than the gains.” Five days later, he passed away mysteriously.

Ngapo was a minister in the Tibetan government before the Chinese takeover, and he led the Tibetan delegation in the talks with the Chinese government in 1951, during which he was made to sign the controversial 17 Point Agreement. He worked within the system thereafter, opting to stay back in Tibet in 1959, and rose up in the Chinese hierarchy.

Many Tibetans accuse Ngapo of not speaking more forthrightly and openly on behalf of the Tibetan people, as the 10th Panchen Lama did. Nevertheless, the two of them worked together to see how they could be of benefit to the Tibetans within the Chinese system, including through the establishment of the Tibet Development Fund to implement developmental projects in Tibetan areas.

Also, Ngapo did correct certain historical distortions that were being promoted by the Chinese government. For example, in a speech in an internal meeting in 1988 he said this on the nature of the 17 Point Agreement: “Such an agreement has never existed between the central government and any other minority regions. We have to consider the special situation in Tibetan history while drafting policies for Tibet in order to realize its long-term stability.”

In 1989, Ngapo corrected the official Communist Chinese report that claimed that in 1940 the then-Chinese envoy, Wu Zhongxin, sent to the Tibetan capital Lhasa for the enthronement of the 14th Dalai Lama, had “presided over” his enthronement, and as evidence showed a photograph of her with the Dalai Lama. Obviously, this was being done to indicate that Tibet was politically subservient to China. However, Ngapo said this in Tibet Daily on Aug. 31, 1989: “Wu Zhongxin’s claim of having presided over the enthronement ceremony on the basis of this photograph is a blatant distortion of historical facts.” Tibetan historians have also written that records show the Chinese envoy did not get any special treatment than what was given to other foreign dignitaries attending the ceremony then. Apparently, the photo was taken not on the day of the ceremony, but a few days after it.

Ngapo passed away in 2009.

Phuntsok Wangyal, or ‘Phunwang,’ is of another category. He did not have the religious background nor the political background of the Panchen Lama and Ngapo. He in fact was a devoted Communist and in the 1950s he was the highest-ranking Tibetan in the Chinese Communist Party, and he accompanied Zhang Guohua, the commander of the 18th Army, to Lhasa. Thus, his involvement with the Chinese Communists resulted in Tibetans regarding him negatively. At the same time, in subsequent years, he did not gain the trust of the Chinese authorities, too, on account of his commitment to the welfare of Tibetans, which made him suspect to them.

While aligning himself with the Chinese government, Phunwang was vocal in urging it to change its Tibet policy. He submitted open letters to Chinese leaders, including Hu Jintao, calling for a review of their attitude toward the Dalai Lama.

He passed away in 2014.

In between and subsequently, the Chinese authorities have tried to cultivate several Tibetan leaders to be their token Tibetan. However, none of them have received the same respect and support among Tibetans as the three mentioned above had gotten. From the Chinese side, despite official claims of equality and ethnic unity, in practice there is a trust deficit when it comes to Tibetans. Thus, very few Tibetans have fit the category of having some presence among Tibetans but also enjoying the Party’s trust.

Ragdi and Phakpalha Gelek Namgyal are two such individuals.

Ragdi is from northern Tibet and assumed leadership positions both in Lhasa and in Beijing. For some years in the 2000s, he was the “Tibetan face” of the Chinese Communist Party. But after the 16th Party Congress, in 2007 and 2008, he had to step away from his party and government positions. He does figure now and then on the political stage, but his influence is not clear.

Phakpalha, who is a reincarnation and head of a major monastery in eastern Tibet, is the longest lasting of the Tibetan leaders. Starting in the 1950s, he has continued to hold positions in Lhasa and Beijing. Currently, he is simultaneously a vice chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, these days he is rarely seen in meetings, and one gets to occasionally hear of him when visiting senior Chinese officials call on him while in Lhasa.

So as the Chinese Communist leaders gather in Beijing, they do so with the knowledge that while they have physical control of Tibet, they have not been able to win over the Tibetans even after six decades of occupation. The fact that they do not have even one Tibetan leader who enjoys Tibetan public support and who they can trust completely is a testimony to this. Even the Panchen Lama selected by the Chinese Communist authority has been said to be not totally trusted to be left on his own.

Signs and symbols concerning the Dalai Lama and his reincarnation

Two important statements in recent days have brought the focus once again to the issue of the reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On Sept. 22, 2022, during a two-day dialogue with youth leaders from the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and South America who had gathered in Dharamsala, India, His Holiness was requested to reflect on the topic of “belonging” after hearing stories from the youth leaders on the impact of war and conflict on their families. In his response, His Holiness expanded his thoughts on the oneness of humanity, from birth to death. He said that at the time of birth, we all experience mother’s affection and compassion, and so even at the time of death if one is “surrounded by people who really show you genuine warm feeling, the dying person will be much happier.” At this stage, he told them that he had spoken to Indian former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (during one of their meetings) concerning his wish when the time came for his own death. His Holiness told the gathering, “I will live for another 15 to 20 years, there is no question (on this). But at the time when I (am) dying, I prefer in India, you see, surrounded with people who really show you love, not artificial something. If I (am) dying surrounded with Chinese officials, too much artificial. So I much prefer dying (in) this country, free, democracy, open.” His Holiness continued by saying that when we are born there is no ceremony and when we die there is no need for ceremony but only to be “surrounded by trusted friends.”

On the face of it, this utterance by His Holiness does not directly refer to reincarnation, but the fact that he is talking about spending his last days outside of Chinese control has implications for a post-Dalai Lama period. Although it is a deeply personal thing, such a scenario would mean that His Holiness and his Gaden Phodrang “institution” (the closest word in English for the Tibetan term “Ladrang,” conventionally pronounced as “Labrang”) will have the freedom to decide on the procedures and implement them without any risk of interference from the Chinese government. Given the current tense situation in Tibet, I feel that His Holiness was intentionally using “trusted friends” in the above remarks to expand on his reason for preferring India to be the place where he would spend his last days. This will be critical when the time comes to begin the process of searching for the reincarnation.

Then on Sept. 26, 2022, the Central Tibetan Administration issued a statement explaining its position on the issue of His Holiness’ reincarnation. I think in order to emphasize the importance of the statement, it was issued in the name of the Kashag and not in the name of the Department of Information & International Relations, as routine public statements are done.

Concerned governments and others have been interested in understanding how the post-Dalai Lama scenario will roll out. Even His Holiness has been directly asked about this by some. By maintaining strategic ambiguity and depoliticizing the issue, I feel His Holiness is maintaining a balance between the deeply spiritual process of the reincarnation tradition and the public interest in the institution of the Dalai Lama.

In any case, the following are my takeaways from the Kashag’s statement.

From the statement, it is clear that internal discussions are already taking place among concerned people in Dharamsala on issues relating to the reincarnation of H.H. the Dalai Lama, even though there may not be any public visibility of the same. The statement even says that the Kashag is in the process of working on other timely issues that need to be addressed.

Secondly, just as His Holiness himself asserted in his 2011 statement on his reincarnation, the Tibetan leadership’s statement says that only His Holiness has sole legitimate authority over his reincarnation issue, including individuals he might entrust with the responsibility “and no other government or individual.” It even says that the Tibetan Administration will only be there to serve any role that it is called upon to play by His Holiness or the entrusted individual(s), whatever the case may be.

As for His Holiness’ statement about preferring India as the country that he would like to spend his last days in, there may be some who look for signs and symbolism or who even look for clues in his not-too-infrequent visits (prior to the coronavirus pandemic) to the Himalayan regions in India that border Tibet. Interestingly, for the first time since the pandemic, His Holiness made his travel outside of Dharamsala to Ladakh in July this year, spending 40 days there. During his remarks there, he repeatedly mentioned how he was very much touched by the devotion and reverence of the Ladakhi people. Soon thereafter, we also saw delegations from Sikkim (led by the state’s Ecclesiastical Minister) and Arunachal Pradesh (the delegation included Guru Rinpoche, the former abbot of the famed Tawang monastery), both places bordering Tibet with residents who look to Tibet as their spiritual source, visiting Dharamsala to request His Holiness the Dalai Lama to visit their places.

A delegation from Arunachal Pradesh with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in September.

Students of Tibetan history will know that the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, wrote a poem (which is now even a famous classical song called “Nangma Amale”), which went something like, “White crane, lend me your wings. I won’t fly far, but just to Lithang and back.” Subsequently, the Seventh Dalai Lama was born in Lithang in Eastern Tibet. Interestingly, the Sixth Dalai Lama was born in Tawang in present-day Arunachal Pradesh.

Then, in his memoir, “My Land & My People,” the current Dalai Lama mentions that his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, had visited his hometown of Kumbum when he was fleeing to China after the British invasion of Tibet in 1904. While in Kumbum, he saw the current Dalai Lama’s house and remarked that “it was a beautiful place.” To further the symbolic connection, the 13th Dalai Lama had left behind a pair of his Tibetan boots called Jachen at the Karma Rolpai Dorje monastery in Kumbum where he stayed while there. Obviously, it all made sense when the present Dalai Lama was born in the same village subsequently.

While the present Dalai Lama has assured us that he will be here for some time, as and when the time comes for a post-Dalai Lama scenario, it is clear the spiritual process will be dominant. This means non-believers will not have any role in it. Just saying!

Click here to read the Kashag’s statement in Tibetan.

Thubten Samphel: A scholar and a gentleman

On the morning of June 4, 2022, I received the shocking news of the demise of Thubten Samphel la, a retired senior Tibetan official, at his residence in the Tibetan settlement in Bylakuppe in South India. It was shocking because he had no major health issues.

In our work at the International Campaign for Tibet, we found in Samphel la a resource bank and a strong admirer of our work. At our request, he had served as a judge in one of our Tibetan empowerment programs, namely the Light of Truth Essay Competition. We have also had him speak to ICT members and staff, both here in Washington, DC and in Dharamsala. He also was responsible for the English version of our publication, “Tibet in Chains: The Stories of Nine Tibetan Nuns.”

Samphel la was born in Tibet, grew up in India. He finished his high school from Dr. Graham’s Home in Kalimpong near the Tibetan border in eastern India and his undergrad and graduation studies from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. He then worked for the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala in various capacities from 1981 until his retirement in 2018. In between, when the US Department of State established a program (now known as the Tibetan Scholarship Program) to enable Tibetan refugees in the Indian subcontinent to do further study in the United States (ICT was involved in advocating for its establishment), Samphel la was among those in the first group to be sent. He studied journalism from Columbia University, New York. You can read more details of his life in this obituary by the Central Tibetan Administration.

Samphel la with his wife Namgyal Chonzom, daughter Tenzin Dekyong, and sons Rabten Namgyal and Tenzin Yugyal. From the family’s collection.

My connection with Samphel la began while I was an undergrad student in Delhi (in Hansraj College) and he was finishing his graduation from the prestigious St. Stephen’s College. Subsequently, when I began working as a journalist for the Indian Express in New Delhi, it was a natural process of keeping in touch with him, as he had by then joined the Tibetan Information Office in Dharamsala. I would occasionally brief him on developments, and since he was editing the official journal Tibetan Bulletin, I started contributing articles and information for it. In one of his letters to me then, he addressed me as “Dear Mr. Reporter,” displaying his own unique sense of humor.

He wasn’t meant to be a bureaucrat and so was a misfit in the mandala of Gangkyi, the area where the Central Tibetan Administration offices were located in Dharamsala. I feel he felt constrained by the procedures that are part of any administration, including that of the Tibetans in exile. His usual way of expressing his disgust at the working of politicians was to squint his eyes (beneath his round rimmed glasses) and sigh out loudly, something like “oof” whenever we had to deal with a situation.

His calling was in scholarship and academics, and he displayed them when Dharamsala had to come out with lengthy reports on different aspects of the Tibetan issue. This can also be seen through his very many analytical articles during his time at the Tibet Policy Institute, including those dealing with aspects of Chinese policies on Tibet. Given his scholarship, some of us colleagues who worked in Dharamsala with him have knighted him, and he is referred to as “Sir Samphel.” Everyone who knew him, whether his senior or junior, respectfully called him Samphel la.

He was interested in analysis of society. I recall Marxist formulations like “base and superstructure” coming out of his mouth during some of our discussions then, but I have not seen him espouse any specific political ideology.

Every time I would meet him during my trips to Dharamsala in recent years, he would always commend the work of ICT, in particular the reports that we bring out. He was particularly impressed by an analysis of the impressions of Chinese visitors to Tibet that we published in 2014. On a few different occasions I recall him telling me how good this report was: “‘Has Life Here Always Been Like This?’ Chinese Microbloggers Reveal Systematic Militarization in Tibet.” It collected hundreds of images and messages from the Chinese microblogging site Weibo and documented perspectives of Chinese tourists on conditions in Tibet.

Gyari Rinpoche (Lodi Gyari as he is formally known), who was the Special Envoy of H.H. the Dalai Lama in Washington, DC as well as ICT’s Executive Chairman (under whom both Samphel la and I had worked in Dharamsala), understood his potential as a scholar. Among the efforts Rinpoche made to exploit this potential of Samphel la was to make efforts to place him as a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute in Texas in 2011. At that time there were plans to establish a formal relationship with the institute, given former President George W. Bush’s interest in H.H. the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan issue. Rinpoche thought that Samphel la’s presence as a research fellow at the institute would enable Samphel la to exercise his passion while placing the Tibetan issue before policymakers here in the United States. I was involved in some of the discussions that took place then. All preparatory work had been done on this, but somehow it did not come to fruition at the end.

It was only at the end of his working life that Samphel la was able to exercise his passion a bit more when he headed the newly established Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamsala. I can only imagine what the situation would have been had he been involved with a similar research institute from 1981 itself. In any case, over the years he was able to exercise his passion for writing. In addition to several articles (which he continued to do even after retirement), he wrote two novels. “Falling through the Roof” (“Novel based on the real pathos of Tibetan students studying in Delhi University and their political activities to liberate Tibet by forming Tibetan Communist Party”) and “Copper Mountain” (“A moving picture of Tibet’s natural beauty and rich historical tradition, Copper Mountain combines memorable characters with an environmental conspiracy and a shot of dark humour”). He is in the category of a handful of Tibetans who have ventured into the world of fiction writing in English.

He is survived by his wife, Namgyal Chonzom, and three children, daughter Tenzin Dekyong and sons Rabten Namgyal and Tenzin Yugyal. He has two siblings in Tibet and another one in exile, who was also a CTA official and predeceased him.

During his time on this earth in this lifetime, Sir Samphel has left his mark. We can celebrate his legacy.