Bhuchung K. Tsering

The Dalai Lama and power of collective supplication

As I write this, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is in the United States for treatment for a knee problem he has been having for many years. In fact, available public information shows that as early as in 2003, His Holiness alluded to having issues with his knees. During a public talk in Boston in September that year, while expressing his skepticism about those who claim special powers, His Holiness jokingly said, “If someone truly has healing power, I’d like to call about my knees.”

In recent years, it was apparent that the knee problem had worsened, and it was disconcerting for us to see His Holiness experience discomfort while walking. Therefore, like all his devotees, disciples, well-wishers, and admirers, I welcome his coming to the United States for treatment and offer my fervent prayers for its success.

Dalai Lama arrives

A partial panoramic view of the massive crowd along the street outside the hotel in New York city welcomes H.H. the Dalai Lama on June 23, 2024 (Photo: Tencho Gyatso/ICT)

His Holiness arrived in New York after flying from New Delhi to Zurich and then to an airport in New Jersey. It was heartwarming to see several thousand devotees, including Tibetans, members of the Himalayan community, Mongolians, Vietnamese, and others gathering to welcome him at his landing venues and hotels. In the United States, in addition to the very long queue on the road from the airport in New Jersey, several blocks in New York on the street leading to the hotel were engulfed by well-wishers. The voluntary coming together of people reminds me of the perspective of H.H. the Dalai Lama shared by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, in 2007. While participating in a panel discussion at Emory University in Atlanta in October 2007, Rajmohan Gandhi said this of the Dalai Lama, “This man without a home is loved in millions of homes. This man without a country is honored in country after country. This is no ordinary man, yet that universal pinnacle of happiness, returning home, has been denied to him. People of all kinds are at home with this homeless man.” Indeed.

When the announcement about His Holiness’ imminent treatment of his knee was made even before there was any circular from Dharamsala, devotees began to recite the mantra of the Medicine Buddha (ཏདྱཐཱ། ཨོཾ་བྷཻཥཛྱེ་བྷཻཥཛྱེ། མཧཱ་བྷཻཥཛྱེ་བྷཻཥཛྱེ། རཱཛཱ་སམུངྒ་ཏེ་སྭཱཧཱ། Tad-ya-ta: Om Be-kan-dze Be-kan-dze Ma-ha Be-kan-dze Ra-dza Sa-mung-ga-te So-ha). Invoking the Medicine Buddha is believed to be beneficial in the efficacy of medical treatments. Simultaneously, Tibetans residing in different parts of the world organized collective recitation of the mantra.

Dhoeguling Tibetan settlement in Mundgod

The community in the Dhoeguling Tibetan settlement in Mundgod, south India holding a collective prayer session for H.H. the Dalai Lama on June 19, 20204 (Photo credit:

Such collective prayer sessions are common in communities that follow Tibetan Buddhism. But they do not seem to be unique to us. A cursory look at the different religious traditions show that all of them embrace the special qualities of praying together. These are considered powerful moments that can spread positivity.

Supplication to Live Long

In Tibetan Buddhism one such collective prayer sessions is Tenshug (“firmly abide”), the ritual ceremony of supplicating to a lama to continue living on this earth for the sake of sentient beings. This is based on the belief that certain individuals, the Dalai Lamas being examples, with special realization have the power to decide the course of their lifespan and their rebirth. Therefore, supplicating to them is considered a spiritual way to ensure that their presence continues. As the lamas age, more such supplications are made at regular intervals by the disciples. For example, since January 2023, at least 10 Tenshugs have been offered to His Holiness by groups representing religious traditions, the Tibetan leadership, the Ladakhi community, school students and regional Tibetan communities. Later this year, the Monpa community of Arunachal Pradesh, Taiwanese Buddhists and a community representing Tibetan women are among those scheduled to make their Tenshug offerings.

I returned from a short trip to Dharamsala earlier this month where I was attending a Tenshug that the former officials of the Central Tibetan Administration (གཞུང་ཞབས་ཟུར་པ།) were offering to H.H. the Dalai Lama. We were joined by the former security personnel (སྐུ་སྲུང་ཟུར་པ།) and present & former members of the Tibetan Medical & Astro Institute (སྨན་བརྩིས་ཁང་།) in a joint supplication.

The actual ceremony, which was based on the Dolkar Tsejin Yeshin Khorlo (སྒྲོལ་དཀར་ཚེ་སྦྱིན་ཡིད་བཞིན་འཁོར་ལོའི་སྒོ་ནས་བརྟན་བཞུགས། wish-fulfilling wheel of Life-giving White Tara) ritual, took place in the morning of June 11, 2024. This date was chosen because it fell on the 5th day of the 5th Tibetan month, the actual day when H.H. the Dalai Lama was born in 1935. The ceremony included prayer sessions, symbolic auspicious offerings by Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche who was serving as the Vajra Master of the ceremony, and a brief remark by His Holiness in which he repeated his conviction of living well beyond 100 years.

Samdhong Rinpoché offering a “long-life arrow” as part of the auspicious offerings during the Tenshug on June 11, 2024. (Photo: Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL)

There were other positive initiatives taken before this ceremony. The three supplicating organizations undertook Saving and Releasing the Lives of Animal (Tsethar and Sok-lu) by purchasing over one hundred sheep in Ladakh and entrusting them to the care of a family so that the sheep do not ever have to go to the slaughterhouse.

In any case, notwithstanding the comparatively short session of the ceremony its importance equally lay in the positivity engendered by the coming together of people from different parts of the world sharing the same devotion to His Holiness and with the same prayer for his continued well-being. May our collective prayer continue to see fruition so that all of us, Tibetans and non-Tibetans, can continue to benefit from His Holiness’ presence.

Is Tibetan democracy in exile failing?

On Dec. 21, just four days before its rescheduled session was to begin, the Tibetan Parliament-in Exile announced that it was being postponed again to March, this time due to lack of a quorum.

The initial postponement was made on Sept. 28, 2023, when the Tibetan parliamentary secretariat issued a terse notice saying, “The remaining business of the 6th session of the 17th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile has been postponed due to the absence of the requisite quorum needed for the session to constitute.” This brought an uncertain close to the latest development in Tibetan diaspora politics that left some observers wondering whether Tibetan democracy in exile was failing?

On Nov. 16, 2023, the parliament made an announcement that it “will reconvene with the remaining business of the general session from 25th to 29th December 2023.” And thereby hangs a tale.

I had then wanted to write about this development looking at the overall state of Tibetan democracy, as the parliament is merely a part of it. As I began to draft something, another development took place in Washington, DC, in the US House of Representatives, on Oct. 3, 2023, leading to the dismissal of then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the inability of the House Republicans to come up with a viable new candidate, which paralyzed the House session. It was only on Oct. 25 that Republicans were able to somehow come up with a choice of a speaker in Representative Mike Johnson. Even now there is only temporary peace in the House, so to say.

The development in Washington, DC made me look at what happened in Dharamsala in relation to the fate of democratic institutions in the world in general. It would not be inaccurate to maintain that democracy can become as strong or as weak as its participants want or permit it to be, whether in one of the oldest democracies like the US, the largest democracy in India or the borderless democracy of the Tibetans in exile.

Exiles have democracy while those in Tibet suffer authoritarianism

Let us put Tibetan democracy in perspective first. In stark contrast to the Tibetans in Tibet who live under an authoritarian regime and are denied their fundamental human rights, leave aside political franchise, the small population of Tibetans in Diaspora has been undergoing a unique experiment in democratic governance at the insistence of H.H. the Dalai Lama. This has been taking place both in the temporary headquarters of Dharamsala in India, as well as in all Tibetan communities in the Indian subcontinent and abroad, adapted to meet the needs of the local situation. Since 2000, the Tibetan leadership at the central level has been shaped by the direct will of the voting populace and been represented by the elected political leader (now known as Sikyong) and the parliamentarians. In short, despite the limitations posed by their situation, Tibetans in exile are better off than our brethren in Tibet.

Tibetan elections

Ven. Gedun Kesang, a 100-year old Tibetan monk residing in Minnesota voting for the Tibetan elections on January 3, 2021. One ballot box is for the Sikyong (President of CTA) elections and the other marked Chithue is for the parliament elections. (Photo: TAFM video)

However, democracy is a double-edged sword. When those participating in it exercise their franchise responsibly, there is progress. But when some participants do not do so, they can lead to the stagnation or, worse, the retrogression of the society. The irony will be that people who fall in either of these categories will stick by their position, asserting that they are exercising their democratic rights.

Secondly, democracy does not operate in a vacuum but has to function within the framework of a given society. It is again up to the participants whether or not they take into consideration the prevailing factors in undertaking their actions. Their decisions have consequences.

Dalai Lama’s intervention resolves a problem

This was most recently apparent since the beginning of the current parliament in 2021. The parliamentarians’ term began in an unusual manner on account of disagreement on the nature of taking their oaths of office. This was because some of them declined to take their oath before the then-speaker pro tempore on account of another development during the previous parliament, which is beyond the scope of this blog post. This led to a four-month impasse and a political vacuum, including the newly elected Sikyong not having any ministerial colleagues in the absence of a parliament to confirm them. In any case, this latest development has added fuel to the ongoing discussions about the perceived degeneration of the Tibetan society in diaspora, leading people to wonder about the future of the precious democracy that we were provided by the Dalai Lama. Even the US government had somehow felt it necessary to intervene, indicating the sense of concern even beyond the Tibetan community. In an unprecedented development, even the US State Department made a public call to the Tibetan parliament to resolve its issues. In a letter in August 2021, the State Department said, “Disputes over parliamentary procedures which are not resolved in a timely manner and in accordance with the rule of law risk undermining the confidence placed by the Tibetan diaspora and the international community in the CTA and TPiE. We urge the elected members to move past their differences and turn to the pressing matters that need their attention.”

Ultimately, unable to reach a solution themselves, the newly elected parliamentarians supplicated to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and his intervention led to the parliament members taking their oath of office in October 2021 and being able to begin their work.

Dawa Tsering addressing the Parliament

Speaker Pro Tempore Dawa Tsering addressing the Parliament after the members resolved their issue of the mode of taking their oath in October 2021. (Photo:

While the developments relating to the Tibetan parliament are certainly concerning and are negatively impacting the democratic process, at the same time they need to be looked at from the broader perspective.

Evolution of democratic governance in exile

Acknowledging the drawbacks of the administrative system in Tibet, the Dalai Lama implemented a series of initiatives to empower the Tibetan people soon after coming into exile. In 1960, His Holiness introduced the concept of representative democracy by asking Tibetans to elect their deputies to a “Commission” (now formally known as the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile) that would have a say in the governance of the Tibetans in exile and also be a preparation for a future democratic Tibet. He then followed it up a few years later with the promulgation of a draft constitution for future Tibet, thus introducing the concept of rule of law of this nature. Much to the consternation of the Tibetan public he mandated that this constitution retain an impeachment clause to be applied to the Dalai Lama, if the need arises. This was a very important message that the Dalai Lama was sending, namely that the institution should be more important than individuals and that no one should be considered above the law.

His Holiness also laid out the infrastructural basis in the form of the Central Tibetan Administration and the various organs under it to implement democratic governance.

Initially, the parliamentarians were virtually embedded in the different offices of the CTA to be part of the direct governance.

In subsequent years, the Dalai Lama took further steps in empowering the Tibetan people; from enfranchising the people to elect the ministers (who were until then appointed by him); to the drafting of a Charter, specifically to govern the Tibetan Diaspora, which included provision for the establishment of the three pillars of democracy, legislative, executive, and the judiciary. The authority of the Tibetan parliament was clarified to separate it from the executive and expanded to highlight its legislative functions becoming the highest policymaking body in the Tibetan administration. In the case of the judiciary, given that the Tibetan Diaspora operates under host countries, the process was adapted to the prevailing situation. Thus the judiciary that was introduced to the Tibetan community is the Tibetan Justice Commission that works under the alternative dispute resolution system as permitted under arbitration laws of any country.

The Dalai Lama’s devolution of his political authority

The Tibetan people were able to embrace these changes, some unwillingly though, as they had remained assured of the Dalai Lama’s role as the “head of state and government.” But a significant change took place in 2011 when the present Dalai Lama not only gave up all his political authority in favor of an elected Tibetan leadership, but also virtually removed the institution of the Dalai Lamas from all future political roles.

When His Holiness had initially broached the idea of his devolution of authority, there were concerns among a section of the Tibetan people about whether we were ready to shoulder the needed responsibility ourselves. His Holiness had then said it was better that the people tread on this path of self-reliance while he was still active as he could then provide guidance if things went astray.

In his announcement of this devolution of authority on March 19, 2011, His Holiness outlined the role of the Dalai Lama institution and the support and reverence he himself was receiving from the people. He continued, “If such a Dalai Lama with an unanimous mandate to lead spiritual affairs abdicates the political authority, it will help sustain our exile administration and make it more progressive and robust.” His Holiness also expressed his optimism: “So, the many political changes that I have made are based on sound reasons and of immediate and ultimate benefit for all of us. In fact, these changes will make our administration more stable and excel its development. So, there is no reason to get disheartened.”

Democratic institutions at the grassroots level

Tibetan democracy should not be seen in the context of the institutions in place in Dharamsala alone. Even while working to resettle the Tibetan refugees in the different settlements in the Indian subcontinent, His Holiness had the foresight to introduce grassroots democracy. I have not done a survey of the situation in all the settlements, but in the first settlement that began in Karnataka, Lugsung Samdubling in Bylakuppe, this empowerment began at the “camp” level, comparable to a village. The Lugsung Samdubling settlement had six such camps composed of 100 houses. Householders (Pachens as they were called) in every 10 houses elected their Chupon (leader of 10) to represent them while the camp as a whole elected two Gyapons (leader of 100) as camp leaders to look after the overall camp affairs. Such camp leaders were also known as Chimi (public person). Given that agriculture was the primary means of earning a livelihood the settlement also had a co-operative society (established to support their economic life) whose affairs were run by a board of directors elected by residents of each of the camps. In the early days when the cooperative society ran all-purpose stores in each of the camps, even the storekeepers were elected by the respective camp residents.

It was the camp leaders, assisted by the Chupons, who looked after the welfare of the residents. They would oversee water supply, undertake spiritual, cultural and social activities for the camp as a whole, be the coordinator between the co-operative society and the residents on agricultural work (including arranging for ploughing schedule and selling of crops). They would also be the mediators for any disputes between residents or even within a family. Since the local post office did not deliver mail to individual houses but deposited all mail with the camp leaders, they also had to serve as delivery persons of the mail. The camp leaders met with the Chupons to discuss issues, and for major matters they would convene a householders’ assembly for decisions.

Growing up in the Lugsung Samdubling settlement, I would see the camp residents eagerly taking part in elections for their Chupons, Gyapons and Board of Directors to the co-operative society. As quite many of the people were illiterate then, symbols like those in the eight auspicious symbols were assigned to candidates, and these would be pasted on the ballot boxes so that people could decide whom to cast their votes for.

Almost all the settlements would have elected camp leaders or other similar positions. This grassroots system of democracy in the settlements continues to this day with a new generation of younger residents taking over the mantle of the camp leaders and other locally elected positions.

Also, at the settlement level, there are co-operative societies that have been set up to assist the settlers in their socio-economic life. Their board of directors are elected by the people in the settlement who also technically own shares in the societies. Following democratization, these societies, which used to be administered by Dharamsala, are now overseen by a Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives (FTCI). FTCI lists 10 such societies under it in different Tibetan communities in India.

Signboard of a store for the Kunpheling Tibetan

Signboard of a store for the Kunpheling Tibetan settlement in Sikkim, northeast India, run by its cooperative society (Photo:

Since the promulgation of the Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile, there is provision for Local Tibetan Assemblies, to be composed of deputies elected by the people in the area to be the watchdog of the work of the settlement office in the region. The Tibetan Parliament website currently lists 40 such local assemblies in the Indian subcontinent as well as in Switzerland.

11th Local Tibetan Assembly of the Tibetan settlement in Leh

11th Local Tibetan Assembly of the Tibetan settlement in Leh, Ladakh after their swearing in on Oct. 30, 2023. (Photo:

Is the Parliament impeding Tibetan democracy?

The parliament is seen as the symbol of Tibetan democracy, as is the case with other democracies. Therefore, when parliamentarians, individually or collectively, become embroiled in controversies, there is an immediate negative impact in the public’s eye. This is the situation that Tibetans are in currently. Our parliamentarians who swear by democracy somehow end up being seen as causing impediments to the governance system. The disappointment is more so with the younger parliamentarians upon whom much faith was placed that they would be different from their “green-brained” (a derogative term for older people who are perceived as not using their brains) older colleagues. If not their action, the rhetoric of some of them does give that impression that they, too, subscribe to the herd mentality. Observing the proceedings of the parliament one cannot but avoid reaching the conclusion that consideration of personalities dominates discussions on substance.

The situation is further complicated by the surge in social media usage in the Tibetan community. To be fair, the rise of social media has had a positive impact in the community in many ways. It is common knowledge how social media, particularly messaging apps (unlike in the West students in India did not have individual access to computers and so had to depend on their mobile phones for their classes), were the lifeline for teachers to impart education to Tibetan children in India during the coronavirus pandemic when physical presence in classes was not possible.

Similarly, a major factor for the widespread craze for the Gorshey (circle dance) on Lhakar (White Wednesday) in the Tibetan community is because of social media that became the vehicle for Tibetans all over the world to impact each other. It did not matter whether they were residing in the remote settlement of Choephelling in Miao in Arunachal Pradesh, Bylakuppe in Karnataka, Gangtok in Sikkim (all in India), Pokhara in Nepal, Toronto in Canada or in Bhutan or any other places where Tibetans reside. This has also resulted in younger Tibetans taking pride in projecting their Tibetanness, whether in wearing Tibetan garments or speaking the language.

Gorshey performances

Tibetans in the remote settlement of Choephelling in Arunachal Pradesh in India, close to the Tibetan border, at one of the Gorshey performances. (Screengrab from a YouTuber: Evergreen ChungChung)

However, there have been negative impacts with the advent of social media, as individual content creators do not need to take into consideration accountability. Thus, issues are amplified and distorted and every development is followed by a blame game with polemical utterances through factional taking of sides.

We should, however, remind ourselves of the initial two-pronged objectives His Holiness the Dalai Lama had after coming into exile: to look after the socio-economic welfare of the Tibetan community and to resolve the Tibetan political problem. Thus, it is a no-brainer to realize that all of us should utilize our democracy to work to solve the Tibetan problem rather than lead to the community’s weakening. This power of democracy that the Tibetans have attained in the post-1959 period has enabled united efforts under His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which have been a source of hope for the Tibetans in Tibet and of concern for the Chinese leadership. Not only do the Chinese officials have concerns, but ironically there is an expectation from the Chinese leadership side that the CTA is capable of much more than what it is doing. As a case in point, way back in 1993, during a secret meeting to discuss their public relations strategy on Tibet, one of the Chinese government officials said, “According to analysis, since the beginning of 80s, the splittist activities of the Dalai Clique [the demeaning Chinese term to refer to the Tibetans in exile under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama] have entered a new cycle. It is still in the process of developing and has (not) yet reached its peak stage.” Thus, the Chinese government is certainly cognizant of the potential of the Central Tibetan Administration. There is the opportunity for all of us to prove to the Chinese authorities that they were right, at least on their expectations about the Tibetan leadership in exile.

In one sense, it is good that problems, like the recent one with the Tibetan parliament, are taking place now while corrective measures can be taken and when we have the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide guidance, if all other efforts fail. But we need to think deeply.

The Tibetan people need to change their mindset on their understanding of democracy. Currently, whether it is the parliament or the public, it appears that we are only copying the worst of democratic practices of East and West. Unlike those countries, we Tibetans do not have the luxury of focusing on side issues and neglecting the more fundamental aspect. To the Tibetans in exile, democracy is not the end, but the means to get to the political end, and our recognizing that can pave the way for a smoother running of the Tibetan governance system.

Kungo Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab was an Officer as well as a Gentleman

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

The issue of a generational change in the Tibetan community has been something that is being felt more and more as the years go by. On Nov. 23, 2023, we got yet another indication of this when Mr. Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab, among the first of the Tibetan community workers in exile, passed away. Kungo Lodhar la, as he is known honorably to people who knew him, dedicated himself to the service of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, making his contribution in strengthening the democratic fabric of the Tibetan administration. He was actively involved at pivotal moments in the history of the Central Tibetan Administration. In fact, he has the sole record of having not only served in leadership positions in all three branches of the Tibetan democratic system in exile, but being instrumental in laying down the working foundation for the judiciary wing.

From the time of his arrival in India in 1959 following the Chinese takeover of Tibet till his demise, he was involved in public work. Initially, in Kalimpong, the first town in India where he resided (with the Dakgyab Rinpoche, more about him later) he began teaching Tibetan to fellow refugees. Thereafter, after moving to Bylakuppe in now Karnataka state in South India, to the first Tibetan refugee settlement of Lugsung Samdupling, he was involved in teaching classes for adult settlers. He also served on the board of the settlement’s cooperative society, which provides support to the refugees on all aspects of their agriculture work. The society is overseen by a board of elected people from the settlement, and he was elected to it.

Tibetan Parliament for the 1969-1972

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab (standing first left) with his colleagues in the Tibetan Parliament for the 1969-1972 period.

From 1969, he was thrust into the Tibetan national scene when he was elected to the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile as a representative of U-Tsang province, and thus moved to Dharamsala. He served for three terms until 1979, and moved up the hierarchy, being elected the vice chair of the Parliament in 1976. In 1979, he was appointed as a member of the first fact-finding delegation sent by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab (kneeling second from left) and members of the first fact-finding delegation with the Panchen Lama, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, and Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal in China.

Following his stint in the legislative wing of the Tibetan administration, he moved to the executive wing in 1980 when he was appointed the finance secretary. He served in that position for three years until 1983 when he was appointed finance minister by H.H. the Dalai Lama, who was then the head of the administration. He was the minister until May 1990 when the Tibetan administration was completely overhauled by His Holiness at the leadership level as part of his continuing democratization process, and the ministers began to be elected, rather than appointed by him.

During his tenure in the Department of Finance, Kungo Lodhar la was also overseeing the newly established Planning Council within the Kashag (cabinet).

In 1991, the three constitutionally autonomous bodies of Election Commission, Public Service Commission and Office of the Auditor General were established to enable a more transparent and independent oversight of the work of the Tibetan Administration. Kungo Lodhar la was appointed to hold the position of acting head of the new Tibetan Election Commission.

In 1992, the Tibetan administration saw a major development with the Parliament enacting laws to establish the Supreme Tibetan Justice Commission, the judiciary wing. The Justice Commission was mandated to be responsible for adjudicating all civil disputes in the Tibetan community, within the laws of the host countries. Kungo Lodhar was appointed as the first Supreme Justice Commissioner. Altogether he served as the Justice Commissioner for over 10 years, until his retirement in 2002. For the critical first five years of the Justice Commission, he was the sole Justice Commissioner, during which time he had the unenviable task of overseeing the drafting of the necessary codes, the Tibetan Judiciary Code, Civil Procedure Code and Evidence Code, as the basis of the work of the Commission. Despite the challenge of not having a legal background, he understood the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and put in all the efforts, reaching out to anyone who could support the initiative. I recall him coming to the United States in 1998 to meet with then-Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer as well as to exchange ideas with law professors, all of whom were intrigued by this unique Tibetan experiment of a judiciary in diaspora.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab with Justice Stephen Breyer in his chamber in the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (Photo from his family collection)

In any case, Kungo Lodhar la was assisted in his work by Ani Vajra Sakya, a lawyer by training and one of the sons of the head of the Phuntsok Phodrang of the Sakya lineage. Ani Vajra Rinpoche had come from the United States to Dharamsala to be of service to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. Eventually, the codes were formulated, and in February 1996, His Holiness the Dalai Lama approved the three codes, and these are the backbone of the Justice Commission even to this day.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama specifically wanted to establish the Justice Commission so that the administration would be accountable to the people. He felt that the Tibetan public should have a system in place that would not only provide them the third pillar of democracy nominally, but more importantly enable them to exercise their rights to challenge the working of the administration when they perceived abuse of power or privileges, etc.

Dakgyab Rinpoche with his steward, Chazoe Lobsang Khyenrab

Dakgyab Rinpoche with his steward, Chazoe Lobsang Khyenrab in Bylakuppe.

In 1997, two more justice commissioners, Dongag Tenzin Songag Tsang and Lobsang Dhargyal Shewo were appointed. Interestingly, the first case taken up by them in August 1997 and decided in March 1998 was a charge of defamation against the Tibet Times newspaper by a parliamentarian, Jadur Sangpo. The justice commissioners came out with a 17-page judgement.

After serving until September 2002, Kungo Lodhar la retired. However, he continued his public service, being on the board of different organizations, including the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

He was born in Tibet in 1937 and was related to Dakgyap Rinpoche Ngawang Lobsang Yeshi, the 14th reincarnation of Potowa Rinchen Sal, one of the three main students of prominent Tibetan Buddhist master Dromtonpa. From a young age, Kungo Lodhar la was in the service of Rinpoche. He and Losang Thonden la, a scholar and another relative of Rinpoche, assisted Rinpoche and his steward Lobsang Khyenrab when they escaped to India in 1959. Rinpoche had eyesight issues and could not see well while Chazoe la, as the steward was known, had leg issues and had problems walking.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Undated photo of Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab (right) and Losang Thonden in Bylakuppe.

In India, Rinpoche initially resided in Kalimpong, where Kungo Lodhar la had the opportunity to learn the rudiments of the English language even as he taught Tibetan to refugee students. When Rinpoche was appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to look after the spiritual needs of the people in the Lugsung Samdupling settlement in Bylakuppe, Kungo accompanied him to South India and was with him until going up to Dharamsala in 1969. Dakgyab Rinpoche belonged to the Minyak Khangtsen (House) of Sera Mey Monastic University.

Rinpoche and some unidentified monks in Bylakuppe

Uma Devi with Dakgyab Rinpoche and some unidentified monks in Bylakuppe.

My personal connection to Kungo Lodhar la began indirectly. My elder brother was a monk of the Thekchenling Monastery that Drakgyab Rinpoche had established and was also attending to sundry needs at the residence of Rinpoche. Therefore, when I was growing up in Bylakuppe I would also visit the residence and in the process was exposed to several books in the English language there, all property of Kungo Lodhar la who had left them there after going to Dharamsala. I still recall some of the novels of the Indian author R.K. Narayan, including “The Man-Eater of Malgudi,” that I was able to read. I assume he inherited these books from the Polish writer and Theosophist Wanda Dynowska (Uma Devi or Tenzin Choedon was the name given to her by H.H. the Dalai Lama) who had resided in Bylakuppe in the late 1960s to help the Tibetans, particularly in the field of education. Uma Devi was close to Dakgyab Rinpoche, who supported her initiatives. I would occasionally meet Kungo Lodhar la when he came to the settlement on a break from his Dharamsala work.

When I joined the Central Tibetan Administration in the 1980s, he became a guide and a mentor to me, explaining to me the nature of the Dharamsala society, the leadership expectations and the workstyle of the officials.

The common perception of Kungo Lodhar la in the Dharamsala official circle was of someone who was sincerely dedicated to his work and adopted a gentle attitude to everyone. Even though his contribution to the institutional development of Tibetan democracy is formidable, not many know of this on account of his basic nature of not being in the limelight and his humility.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab and wife Kaldon la with monk officials of Minyak Khangtsen of Sera Mey in Bylakuppe.

He is survived by his wife Kaldon la in Dharamsala, daughter Tenzin Kunsang Phunrab in Utah and son Tashi Topgyal Phunrab in California.

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.