Bhuchung K. Tsering

China’s 20th Party Congress and the Tibetans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ngapo passed away in 2009.

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

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

He passed away in 2014.

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

Ragdi and Phakpalha Gelek Namgyal are two such individuals.

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

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

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

Signs and symbols concerning the Dalai Lama and his reincarnation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thubten Samphel: A scholar and a gentleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the great escape of H.H. the Dalai Lama in 1959 was planned

It is common knowledge among people who know something about modern Tibetan history that on the night of March 17, 1959, in the wake of increasing threats posed by the Chinese invasion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama made his great escape from the Norbu Lingka residence in Lhasa, for safety, eventually crossing over into freedom in India on March 31, 1959.

The broader details of this escape have been related primarily by His Holiness in his two memoirs. This blog post is about other aspects that have a human interest element. As much as the actual timing of the escape was sudden, a great deal of behind the scenes preparations were certainly made. Some Tibetan officials who were involved have given indications of such a preparation.

The Ramagang ferry used in His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in March 1959. Photo from The Tibet Album. 05 Dec. 2006. The Pitt Rivers Museum. <>

The mastermind was the then-Lord Chamberlain Thubten Woedhen Phala. He was using his position to undertake initiatives that the then-Tibetan government would not have been able to take formally. He was also strategic in his thinking covering the possibility of His Holiness seeking refuge in India. So some time before the escape, Phala had sent an official, Thupten Tsephel Tekhang, to the then-Indian Consul General in Lhasa S.L Chibber, to brief him on the situation. Although the Tibetan side was continuing to talk to the Chinese side on a solution, Phala’s message said that if this did not work out His Holiness would need to seek refuge in India and requested him to convey the same to the Indian government so that this could be considered when the time came. Chibber responded positively, asking to be informed of the timing and the route that would be taken, whether through Bhutan or through Nathu La in Sikkim. Chibber might have been following guidance provided in a cable that the Indian Foreign Ministry sent to him and the political officer in Gangtok (who oversaw Tibet) on March 15, 1959. The cable said, “Prime Minister is quite clear in his mind that, if the Dalai Lama seeks protection in Indian territory, we should give him asylum. You should not, however, reveal this to anybody at this stage.”

Phala also maintained secrecy of the plan by involving only a few people, and they were asked to take an oath (something considered sacred by Tibetans) even before they were told what the issue was. Among the two people he brought in first were the head of the bodyguard regiment, P.T. Takla, and a senior official (with a Dzasa title), Woeser Gyaltsen Kundeling. He was popularly called Kundeling Dzasa then. He is from a monastic community in Lhasa, two of whose heads have served as regents of Tibet.

Phala’s strategy included not seeking recourse to the normal governmental machinery for logistical support. Although the Tibetan government had a stable of around 200 horses and mules for transportation, none of these were commissioned to avoid information from leaking. Instead, Phala asked Kundeling Dzasa to manage the organization of the critical initial stage of the escape, from Norbu Lingka to the Ramagang ferry, from where the Kyichu river was to be crossed, including providing the necessary horses and mules. In addition to having known each other for a long time, Ramagang’s location was also close to Kundeling monastery, and so it made sense for Kundeling Dzasa to be involved.

The entourage members for the escape included the two tutors of His Holiness, Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche; members of the Kashag; senior attendants to His Holiness; and the Yapshi family. However, only P.T Takla, Chikyab Khenpo (head of Ecclesiastical Affairs) Lobsang Rigzin Gadrang and the Lord Chamberlain Phala actually accompanied His Holiness as he departed Norbu Lingka that night (more on this later). The others were asked to gather in Norbu Lingka that night and sent in advance by trucks toward Kundeling monastery, from where they were taken to the Ramagang ferry. The day before the departure, the security guards at the Norbu Lingka gates were called to a meeting by Phala and were informed that during the nights there would be patrols going around, and the security guards should not switch on their flashlights or ask for identifications. They were also told that trucks were being sent the next night to collect armaments from the Potala and Shol and they should not be searched.

Phala also considered meals for His Holiness during the escape. He instructed the head of the Norbu Lingka kitchen to take along required materials and wait at the Ramagang ferry and accompany the entourage in case His Holiness decided to travel. Since the chef was not informed of the actual plan, it took some time for him to be able to connect with the entourage, it seems.

Kundeling on his part involved another, Tenpa Soepa, in the plan. Tenpa Soepa belonged to the Kundeling community. He has written his memoir and spoken about the great escape and mentioned code signals, like gun shot sounds and flashlight, to be used by people involved in the escape.

One of the tasks assigned to Tenpa Soepa la was to await at a bridge near Kundeling for a vehicle to arrive around 11 pm on the night of March 17 and to lead them to the nearby Ramagang Ferry. He did so and when the vehicle arrived, the two tutors of His Holiness, Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche, as well as three ministers, Wangchen Gelek Surkhang, Gyurme Topgyal Shasur and Thupten Tharpa Liushar, were in it. Surkhang had a bag, which Tenpa Soepa helped to carry, and he was asked to be careful as it contained the official seals. From His Holiness’ memoirs, we learn that the bag would have contained his seal as well as that of the Kashag and some official documents.

At around 10 pm Tenpa Soepa la heard a gunshot from the other side of the river, a signal to indicate that everything was fine in the area and to proceed.

When His Holiness departed that night, he was first in the Takten Migyur Palace (popularly known as the new palace, having been constructed in the mid 1950s on a plan laid out by then-official Jigme Taring). His Holiness could only take two additional robes. From his room, he left for the chapel of the protecting deity Gonpo (Mahakala) accompanied by the head of bodyguards, P.T. Takla, and two guards. His Holiness has said that he always made it a point to pray in this chapel before going on long journeys. As the two guards were not privy to the escape plan, Takla sent them away while His Holiness was praying in the chapel.

His Holiness then subsequently left from the southern gate of Norbu Lingka, accompanied by Chikyab Khenpo (head of the Ecclesiastical Affairs) Gadrang, Lord Chamberlain Phala and head of security guard Takla. And the rest is history.

Watch “Never Forget Tibet,” the amazing true story of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, in over 800 theaters across the United States for one night only, March 31. Get your tickets now!

This Tiger Year Losar, let us talk about Tibetan astrology

On March 3, Tibetans as well as other communities from the Himalayan region welcome the year of the Tiger. Some other Asian communities, including Vietnamese and Chinese, welcomed Tiger year a month back. So first of all, Happy New Year or as we say, Losar la Tashi Delek.

If you are born in the year of the Tiger (from around March of each of these years: 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010 or 2022) then some of the characteristics you are believed to have are the following, according to some with knowledge of Tibetan astrology: On the positive side, you are generous, kind, mighty and charismatic; protective of your family members and those under your sphere of influence. You have a love of small birds and animals. You do not shy away from challenges, are humorous and musically inclined. On the negative side, you are talkative, suspicious and a contrarian. You are liable to have extreme emotional experiences, sometimes happy, at other times sad, but you don’t need to be pitied. You are capable of selecting the best for yourself.

Some of the well-known people born in the Tiger year include Everester Tenzing Norgay Sherpa (1914), Jiang Qing (wife of Mao Zedong, 1914), British Queen Elizabeth II (1926), Cuban leader Fidel Castro (1926), Chinese leader Jiang Zemin (1926), Journalist Peter Jennings (1938), Former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan (1938), Hong Kong democracy activist Martin Lee (1938), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (1950), retired Indian diplomat Nirupama Rao (1950), singer Stevie Wonder (1950), Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh (1962), Bhutanese Prince Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1986), Lady Gaga (1986), Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt (1986), etc.

Among Tibetans, well known personalities born in the Tiger year include the first recorded King Nyatri Tsenpo (among versions, one says he was born in the Wood-Tiger year in 127 BC, another says he was born in the Fire-Tiger year in 115 BC), the first Karmapa Dhuesum Khyenpa (Iron-Tiger year in the second Rabjung cycle, corresponding to 1110), the 10th Panchen Lama (1938), Buddhist, and Bon scholar and master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche (1938).

Astrology plays an important role in the lives of the Tibetan community, from birth to other significant periods in an individual’s life like education, career, livelihood, travel, sickness, and till death and life after. In this one’s “year symbol,” or “Lothak” as it is known in Tibetan, is very important. Since each year is believed to be connected to a specific symbol (explained below), the “Lothak” is the first point of reference whenever someone has to consult an astrologer. There is a tradition to consult lamas or astrologers to do divination and astrological calculations to determine propitiousness of events or actions connected to an individual and to identify antidotes and act on them when there are obstacles.

To provide some background, Tibetan astrology is a system evolved from Indian and Chinese traditions. History says in the sixth century, the then 32nd Tibetan Emperor Namri Songtsen sent scholars to China to study astrology. In the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava came to Tibet from India bringing along with him knowledge about the role of elements in an individual’s life. In the 11th century, the Sri Kalachakra Tantra from India, which forms the basis of modern Tibetan astrology, was translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan reportedly by Gijo Dawa Woeser, and thereafter the tradition of the annual Tibetan almanac was begun. Within it, there arose two sub-systems, the Phukluk tradition (which subsequently has come to be regarded as the official system) and the Tsurluk tradition (established by the Karmapas). During the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century, Desi Sangye Gyatso, his regent, composed books on Tibetan astrology, which remain in use today.

Prior to the spread of Buddhism, it is believed that the traditional Bon religion had a system of astrology and medicine.

Having said that, a year on a Tibetan calendar has four components: the years since 127 BC when the first king ruled Tibet, the element, zodiac sign and a 60-year Rabjung cycle. The elements are earth, metal, water, wood and fire. They are biennial and separately identified as male or female. The zodiac signs (known in Tibetan as Lothak) are the 12 animals, Mouse, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Hen, Dog and Pig. The 60-year Rabjung cycle of dating was introduced by Gijo Dawa Woeser and began in 1027 AD. Thus the new year in full is the Male Water-Tiger year, the 2149th in the Tibetan Royal Year, in the 17th Rabjung cycle. This year is the 2149th since the first Tibetan king period and the 36th year of the 17th Rabjung, which began in 1987.

It is said that one who is born in a Tiger year is compatible with one who is born in the Pig year (1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, etc.), Dog year (1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, etc.) and Horse year (1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, etc.). Those incompatible with Tiger year are people born in the Snake year (1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, etc.) and Monkey year (1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, etc.).

Since this is the Water-Tiger year, the characteristics of people born in this combination year (1962, 2022, etc), are the following: You are big-hearted, athletic, ambitious, innovative. You are also full of self-praise, and it will be difficult for others to correct you. The colors that complement you are blue, white and green. You are not compatible with those who are born in the Pig, Monkey, Dragon and Snake years. You will either have one to three sons.

I am writing this at a time when the world is confronted with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So here are the Lothaks of the main leaders connected with the crisis. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine would be a Fire Snake (having born in January 1978),

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is Water Dragon (1952), President Joe Biden is Water Horse (1942), Josep Borrell Fontelles, high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is Fire Pig, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, is an Earth Dog (1958), and Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, is Earth Pig (1959).

My Lothak is Metal-Mouse! Those who can put the Lothak in context with the Rabjung cycle will be able to calculate how old or young an individual is by just knowing the Lothak.

Have you heard of Panchen Lama Tenzin Gedhun Yeshe Trinley Phuntsog Pel Sangpo?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama announcing his recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama on May 14, 1995. A portrait of the Panchen Lama can be seen on the table beside him.

Yet another birthday of the 11th Panchen Lama, his 32nd, falls on April 25, 2021, and the world has as much information or as little as it had when he was abducted by the Chinese authorities in 1995, following his recognition by the Dalai Lama. In 1995 he became the youngest individual to have been placed under virtual detention, becoming known as the world’s youngest political prisoner.

Way back in August 2003, when asked about the Panchen Lama, who was 14 years old then and a minor, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “He is now in a good healthy condition, leading a normal and happy life,” adding, “He is not the incarnated soul boy.” In 2020, when the Panchen Lama was 31 years old, Chinese state media had the Chinese Foreign Ministry having a similar position, reporting, “this so-called ‘soul boy’ designated by Dalai Lama” is just an ordinary Chinese citizen living normally.” “Soul boy” is a mistranslation used by the Chinese authorities in English to refer to a reincarnated being.

So if the Chinese government considers the Panchen Lama “just an ordinary Chinese citizen,” today he is an adult and past his Age of Majority even under Chinese laws, and should be given all the rights, including to speak for himself. But the fact that the Chinese government continues to speak on his behalf shows that they have taken away his freedom of expression and that he is not “leading a normal and happy life.”

China not giving any credible information about the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts or status has even had several UN experts and working groups write formally to the Chinese government, expressing their concern and asking for an “independent monitor to visit him.”

This attitude by the Chinese authorities has even made some in the Tibetan Buddhist community ask questions about his fate. On his 31st birthday last April, the re-established Tashi Lhunpo monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, now in south India, asked in a statement, “Due to this stonewalling of the truth for such a long time, today it is a pertinent question whether the Panchen Lama is still alive or not?” The monastery added that, “This is a matter of deep concern to the monks of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.” I have even heard some Buddhists, who fear the worst about the fate of the 11th Panchen Lama, opine that the followers might as well supplicate to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to start the process of finding his reincarnation. This is certainly thought-provoking. If there is no evidence of the Panchen Lama still living, it is an appropriate step, according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for his followers to make this request to the Dalai Lama.

But this blog post is about another aspect of the Panchen Lama, namely his name. The world knows of him as Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. It is a name that finds a place in the records of the United Nations as well as in parliaments and governments in many parts of the world. However, from a Tibetan Buddhist tradition perspective, that is no longer his formal name. Rather, his name is Tenzin Gedhun Yeshe Trinley Phuntsog Pel Sangpo, a mouthful, which had been bestowed on him by the Dalai Lama upon recognition in May 1995. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is his non-monastic order name. Let me explain.

In the Tibetan Buddhist cultural tradition, an individual joins the monastery for spiritual pursuit, leaving behind the material concerns of the world. One of the first acts after an individual becomes a novice monk or nun is to get a new name from the spiritual master. One of the reasons for this is to symbolize the getting of a new identity, and non-attachment to the life before entering the spiritual path.

In the case of the Panchen Lama, it is the Dalai Lama who shoulders the responsibility for bringing him along the spiritual path. So, on May 14, 1995, when the Dalai Lama announced his recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama, his statement included the bestowal of a new name. In the statement, the Dalai Lama outlined the series of spiritual tests he had conducted, including divination, and all of them in unison pointed to the boy from “Lhari district in Nagchu, father Kunchok Phuntsok and mother Dechen Choedon, named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima” as being the unmistakable one. He was thus given the new name Tenzin Gedhun Yeshe Trinley Phuntsog Pel Sangpo. Had he been living freely and assuming his religious responsibility in Tashi Lhunpo, the 11th Panchen Lama would be known by this name rather than by Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.

In any case, in his address on May 14, 1995, in Dharamsala announcing the recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama recalled the challenges that the 10th Panchen Lama had to go through and urged that “efforts must be made to ensure that the young incarnation has a long and successful life.” This is particularly relevant 26 years later when we are not even sure whether the Panchen Lama is alive or not.

My take on Dalai Lama’s call for a paradigm shift in thinking on study of Tibetan in Tibet

His Holiness the Dalai Lama delivers teachings in February, 2021.

Oftentimes, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives public teachings, he takes the opportunity to provide advice on specific issues, in addition to explaining the subject matter itself. Given the strong bond between the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama, his advice then reverberates in the community. For example, in January 2006, on the final day of the sacred Kalachakra empowerment in Amravati in South India, he had a message for the Tibetans, “When you go back to your respective places, remember what I had said earlier and never use, sell, or buy wild animals, their products or derivatives.” His call was followed in subsequent months with Tibetans in Tibet giving up the skins of animals in their possession and organizing their public burning, much to the chagrin of Chinese authorities who were then being accused of lack of enforcement over poaching and selling of endangered animal pelts in Tibetan areas.

This past weekend, during his annual teaching on the holy 15th day of the first month in the Tibetan calendar (which fell on Feb. 27, 2021), the issue he addressed was the Tibetan language.

His Holiness understands the power of his platform. He began his teachings on Saturday saying that although the unfortunate pandemic situation has made him have to adapt to a new teaching format, it has also enabled these teachings to be seen and heard by people worldwide, including Tibetans living all over Tibet.

His Holiness then made a special appeal to Tibetans in Tibet, specifically the younger generation, to study the Tibetan language. He did this by virtually challenging them to make a paradigm shift in their thinking on the reasons for doing so.

It is commonly assumed that Tibetans should study the Tibetan language because we are Tibetan. Learning and using pure “father tongue” (Tibetans are among the few communities that use this term rather than the commonly seen “mother tongue”) is included as part of the broader movement to protect Tibetan identity. This can be seen in the Lhakar (“White Wednesday”) movement, which Tibetans in Tibet initiated informally many years back (and the Tibetan community in exile replicated, most visibly through performing circle dances on the day).

His Holiness first applauded a new interest in the Tibetan language that he was seeing in different parts of Tibet, giving the example of developments in Siling (Chinese: Xining) area. He said he saw some videos of Tibetan children there studying the Tibetan language, which wasn’t the case in the past.

His Holiness then said Tibetans, particularly the younger generation, should study the Tibetan language not from a sense of Tibetan nationalism, but because of its ability to impart knowledge about the profound Buddhist philosophy of the Nalanda tradition. His exact words, translated into English, were, “This is not a matter of attachment to one’s own nationality.”

He expanded on this saying (with reference to Tibetans in Tibet) that on subjects like science and politics, Chinese might be the dominant language in the short run. But on subjects of religion, culture and Buddhist philosophy, which enjoy worldwide interest, knowledge can only be gained through the Tibetan language. He referred to the two Tibetan Buddhist canons of Kagyur (with 100 volumes) and Tengyur (with nearly 200 volumes) and said that it will be almost impossible to translate them into Chinese. To me, this reference to the drawback in the Chinese language on matters of Tibetan Buddhism makes me feel the Dalai Lama is cognizant of the reports of efforts by the Chinese authorities to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism. I guess he is implying that the Chinese plan cannot succeed.

Secondly, His Holiness made the interesting point that studying Tibetan Buddhist culture does not necessarily mean one has to be a “believer.” This seems to me to be a direct message to those many Tibetans in Tibet who are members of the Chinese Communist Party and thus consider themselves to be non-believers. In recent times, the Chinese authorities have been restricting party cadres, government officials and their children from participating in religious activities. His Holiness explained his call by referring to several scientists who are his friends who study Buddhism as an academic subject, getting benefit in the process, but who are not necessarily Buddhist practitioners. This is because Buddhism is not only about faith, but also about knowledge, he said.

His Holiness also presented his call for studying the Tibetan language in the context of his now well-known emphasis on studying the Buddhist scriptures rather than merely having a superficial understanding. He urged the younger Tibetans to do deeper study of subjects like logic and perfection of wisdom. He made the case that this was necessary particularly in light of the “situation created currently by those narrow-minded Chinese Communist leaders bent on wiping out the Tibetan language.”

His Holiness’ call is topical, considering the way the Chinese authorities have been using their authority to undermine the Tibetan language, whether in changing the medium of instruction from Tibetan to Chinese or discouraging people through persecuting language rights advocates like Tashi Wangchuk.

One can only wait to see what the impact of His Holiness’ call to the Tibetans this time will be.

Why Takna Jigme Sangpo Matters

For those working in the field of human rights, there are few occasions when we can feel our effort is having concrete and positive impact. This is particularly so when the issue concerns political prisoners as then there is the measurable output in the form of their release. Over the years the International Campaign for Tibet has taken up a number of cases with the United States Government as well as with the United Nations. There have been occasions when we have had the pleasure of seeing some of the Tibetan political prisoners not only released, but also sent abroad for a variety of reasons.

Such occasions arose for us in the early 2000s when the Chinese authorities released four Tibetan political prisoners between 2002 and 2004, who were subsequently sent to the United States. Since the International Campaign for Tibet was then providing support to the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C. we were closely involved in arranging for the resettlement of the former political prisoners. Takna Jigme Sangpo was the second in the group, the others being (in order of their dispatch to the United States) ethnomusicologist Ngawang Choephel, Drapchi nuns Ngawang Sangdrol and Phuntsok Nyidron.

The process would be something like this: Special Envoy Lodi G.Gyari is informed by the State Department about the impending release of a Tibetan. ICT then steps in to work on the logistics; housing, medical treatment, long-term stay, etc. We would work with the individual to discuss future plans and how we could help realize them. Accordingly, from the four that were sent to the United States, Takna Jigme Sangpo and Phuntsok Nyidron opted to be resettled in Switzerland as it had also taken an active interest in their cases (we facilitated their interaction with the Swiss Embassy) while Ngawang Choephel and Ngawang Sangdrol (we assisted in their documentation) settled themselves in the United States.

Although in his seventies when he arrived in the United States, he was mentally very alert. One of the very first things he told us during our first meeting with him was how he noticed that we were all mistaken in calling him “Tanak” (which we were doing then) and that the correct form was “Takna” like it is in “Tiger’s nose”. Also, following his medical checkup at Georgetown hospital, he took it in his strides when the doctors kept him in an isolated room for a few days after they suspected him of having TB.

While John Kamm, American businessman and human rights campaigner, is to be rightly complimented for relentlessly taking up the cases of Takna Jigme Sangpo and the three other Tibetan prisoners who were released, his work was helped by strong support by the United States Congress and the Administration. In the case of Jigme Sangpo, Congressman Tom Lantos (since deceased) was among those who took a lead on his behalf.

Since then there have not been any more Tibetan political prisoners released to the United States by the Chinese authorities. In general, the four Tibetan political prisoners were released and sent to the United States not because the Chinese authorities felt that that was their right, but because they thought they would win the support of the United States, on this.

That was the period when President Jiang Zemin and his successor President Hu Jintao were desirous of improving relations with the United States to fulfil their own agenda for China. Similarly, the United States Congress and Administration were sending the right message to China. In a report on October 18, 2002, the Washington Post analyzed the circumstances leading to the release of prisoners by China saying:

“When President Bush last met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, a senior State Department official passed a list of 13 jailed dissidents and other prisoners to a Chinese counterpart and delivered a message: If China wanted better relations with the United States, it should let these people go.

“The Chinese government responded in the following months by releasing two of the individuals on the list. They were Jigme Sangpo, a Tibetan teacher who was one of China’s longest-held political prisoners, and David Chow, a U.S. businessman jailed eight years ago on questionable fraud charges. Today, eight days before Bush and Jiang are scheduled to meet again, China released a third person on the list, a young Tibetan nun named Ngawang Sangdrol who was imprisoned in 1992 at the age of 15.”

So Takna Jigme Sangpo symbolized a few things. He symbolized the determination of the Tibetans in Tibet in standing up for their rights. The governmental support for his release symbolized the international community’s concern for the Tibetan people. His release and subsequent dispatch to the United States indicated the fact that if the Chinese Government is placed in a situation where it is in their interest to change their approach to issues relating to Tibet, they will do so.

Takna Jigme Sangpo passed away on October 17, 2020. This article was written for Swirling Red Dust, the story of Tibet’s longest-serving political prisoner, Blackneck Books in collaboration with ICT-Europe, 2017. Although China did not release any Tibetan political prisoners in a similar way in recent years, in a different circumstance, ICT had the opportunity to assist Dhondup Wangchen when he arrived in the United States in 2017.

Why Does Tibetan Democracy Matter?

On September 2, 2020 we celebrated the 60th anniversary of Tibetan Democracy Day, marking the day in 1960 when the first Tibetan parliament in exile was established.

During these six decades, much water has flowed not only down Bhagsunag, the small stream in Dharamsala, India, the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration, but also in rivers in more than 30 countries where Tibetans reside today. Similarly, Tibetan democracy has also gone through much evolution during this period.

Until 2011, the Tibetan democratic experiment had been a top-down one. It began with His Holiness the Dalai Lama implementing his political vision once he escaped from Tibet to freedom in India in 1959.

In February 1960, while in the sacred town of Bodhgaya in India, the Dalai Lama made an address to the Tibetan people explaining his political vision of a future Tibet. He told them then, “Since in Tibet, unlike in the past situation, it is important to establish a democratic governmental system with a blend of religion and politics, there needs to be a people’s assembly that has been constituted by the general public through an electoral system. You should, on your return, identify people in the community who are educated, capable, patriotic, and have the confidence of the people. For the moment, you should elect a deputy each from each of the four major religious [Buddhist] traditions and three each from each of the three provinces [of Tibet].”

Tibetans in Dharamsala voting in the Sikyong and parliamentary elections in March 2016.

The Dalai Lama continued with his quest to educate the Tibetan people about democracy. In mid-1960, during a visit to the Indian hill station of Dalhousie, the Dalai Lama explained to the Tibetan people his vision of reform in the Tibetan society. He said, “Changes must come in all spheres. The government structure will also have to undergo far-reaching reforms so that the people are more intimately associated with the policies of the government and the administration of the country. The task and responsibility of establishing improved political and religious institutions lies upon all of us.”

Meanwhile, on their return to their respective places in the Indian subcontinent, these Tibetan refugees introduced the process of democratic elections and 13 ‘Deputies’ were elected to what was known in English as the Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies. The deputies took their oath of office on September 2, 1960. This historic date was later celebrated as ‘Tibetan Democracy Day.’

The Dalai Lama’s next step towards democratization was the introduction of the rule of law. He set up the process of the drafting of a constitution for future Tibet, the provision of which could be applied in the exile situation to the extent possible. He provided an outline of the principles of the Constitution on October 10, 1961 and subsequently a detailed document was prepared based on it. He promulgated the draft Constitution for Tibet on March 10, 1963.

The Dalai Lama highlighted the blend of Tibetan values and modern systems in this democratic constitution by saying in the foreword, “This takes into consideration the doctrines enunciated by Lord Buddha, the spiritual and temporal heritage of Tibet and the ideas and ideals of the modern world. It is thus intended to secure for the people of Tibet a system of democracy based on justice and equality and ensure their cultural, religious and economic advancement.”

The name of the Commission subsequently changed to Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies and thereafter to the current Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. Its role in the administration also began to be further institutionalized.

Rule of Law in exile

In 1990 the Dalai Lama took the next step in his quest toward further democratization and establishment of the rule of law when he asked for a specific Charter for the Tibetans in Exile that would be the law for the Tibetan administration. The Charter was to incorporate the best of modern democratic system and traditional Tibetan values. Thus, the Charter was adopted by the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies on June 14, 1991.

Under the section on “Principles of the Tibetan Administration” the Charter highlighted the Tibetan desire to be responsible members of the international community. It said, “It shall be the duty of the Tibetan Administration to adhere to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as specified by the United Nations, and to also urge and encourage all other countries of the world to respect and comply with such Declarations, and shall emphasize the promotion of the moral and material well-being of the Tibetan people, the safeguarding of their social, cultural, religious and political rights, and in particular, the ultimate achievement of their common goal.”

With the establishment of the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission, as stipulated by the Charter, on March 11, 1992, the three pillars of democracy became fully functional in the Tibetan democratic set up in exile. The Kashag, the administrative wing, was made more answerable to the parliament and the Justice Commission began adjudicating on cases within the framework of arbitration laws. The membership of the parliament was also expanded to give more voices to the people in the policy decision making process.

Despite these incremental steps, the Dalai Lama continued to be directly involved in the Administration, whether it was in the appointment of the members of the Kashag or being the final authority on assenting to bills before they became law.

Era of Direct Elections of the Administrative Head

In 2001, the Dalai Lama democratized the system further when he mandated amendments to the Charter giving authority to the public and their representatives the authority to select and appoint members of the Kashag. Since then the Chairman of the Kashag began to be directly elected by the people. The Chairman in turn sent his nominations for members of the Kashag to the parliament to decide. Prior to this, the convention was for the Dalai Lama to appoint the members of the Cabinet.

In this way, the Dalai Lama’s vision of having the people “intimately associated with the policies of the government and the administration” began to be realized. It may be pertinent to mention here that the parliament took this role seriously and even rejected a nomination by the very popular Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche to his cabinet. Of course, internal politics was involved here, but even then democracy was practiced, whether rightly or wrongly.

With this, the Dalai Lama said he was now in a period of semi-retirement with the elected leadership assuming the major role in the governance system.

End of era of top-down democracy

As the years passed His Holiness the Dalai Lama undertook the most significant step in 2011 to alter the Tibetan democratic structure. He announced the devolution of his authority to the three pillars of democracy. The Charter was amended to reflect this and the Kashag began to be totally answerable to the parliament.

The Dalai Lama announced then that he was ending more than 300 years of rule by the Dalai Lamas over the central Tibetan government. Equally important was the message that henceforth it was totally up to the Tibetan people to assume their responsibilities of Tibetan democracy.

The most important transformation since 2011 is the change in role of the Dalai Lama. From being the virtual head of state, he became the “symbol” of Tibetan identity, unity, and the free spokesman of all the Tibetan people. He no longer had any direct role in the governance system, with final authority being shouldered by the three pillars of democracy. As the Dalai Lama, he is now completely retired from any political responsibilities.

To the international community, the most visible aspect of this change is that since then the Dalai Lama stopped issuing his annual statement on March 10, the anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising. Conventionally, that statement used to be considered his “state of the nation” speech reflecting political developments relating to the Tibetan issue.

Since then, we have had two elections for the post of Sikyong, the administrative head, and the parliament, including a very partisan and divisive campaigning for Sikyong in 2016. I wrote about that situation at the time, calling for civility.

As another Tibetan Democracy Day passes us by, we need to realize that the era of top-down democracy is over. We are in a period where we no longer enjoy the advantages of any direct intervention by the Dalai Lama and so whatever directions we are heading, it is up to the Tibetan people to take charge.

Having a proper democracy does not mean doing away with dissenting voices. Far from it, democracy will not work well when there is just one point of view. However, the way the views are expressed and acted upon are equally critical to the survival of Tibetan democracy. One can use dissent to create chaos and divisive environment or the same can be used to provoke candid discussions leading to considered decisions.

To put this in context, it is said that in the Tibetan community there are two broad political movements, one for independence and the other for the Middle Way Approach. What has often ended up happening is attacks and counter attacks between sections of followers of these two movements rather than finding common grounds and moving the struggle forward. I for one feel that if one doesn’t know how to express one’s devotion to the issue of Middle Way rightly, merely espousing it might even be counterproductive. Conversely, if one knows to project one’s adherence to the cause of Tibetan independence appropriately, it could even be supportive of the Tibetan leadership’s efforts through the Middle Way Approach to resolve the issue with the Chinese leadership.

It is generally understood that when we talk about the Tibetan struggle, it is between the Tibetans and the Chinese. But in another sense, the Tibetan struggle is as much about us Tibetans facing the challenges of democracy head on and exercising our rights as well as duties responsibly.

As I write this, we have upcoming elections for the Sikyong and parliament. We are already beginning to see the campaigning for Sikyong and to a lesser extent for the parliament. Will we see a repeat of the bitter experiences of 2015-2016, or will the Tibetan people in the free world show their maturity and together make Tibetan democracy a success? The jury is out, but it is all in the hands of the Tibetan people.

That is why Tibetan democracy matters.

On Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett’s memoir, and how the Dalai Lama “changed her life”

Dalai Lama and Valerie Jarrett

Valerie Jarrett speaks with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015

One of the benefits of my work in Washington, D.C. has been the opportunity to meet a wide section of policy makers and public figures in the course of accompanying Mr. Lodi Gyari, the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (and Executive Chairman of ICT Board), for meetings. One such individual Rinpoche, as we refer to Mr. Gyari, would meet during the Obama Administration was Ms. Valerie Jarrett. Her official title was “senior adviser to President,” but it was no secret that she was more than that. She was a friend and confidante to the Obama family. Her views and gestures showed that she had deep reverence for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and sympathy for the plight of the Tibetan people.

She has written about the impact the Dalai Lama had in her life in her memoir, My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, published in April 2019.

In his first year, President Barack Obama faced with developments that affected US relations with China that would have an impact on US relationship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (I will dwell on this more later). As part of the resolution of the issue, Ms. Jarrett (and the newly designated, but not announced, U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Maria Otero) ended up flying to Dharamsala in India in September 2009 to call on His Holiness.

I will let her memoir take it up from here. She says, “When I returned to DC, I told the president that the Dalai Lama had changed my life. If his spirit could be so positive and hopeful in the face of fifty years living with his people in exile, I should have no complaints.” She then compares the Dalai Lama to two other personalities who have touched her deeply: “He had the same generous spirit I saw in Elie Wiesel when we had visited Buchenwald, a spirit I’d also seen once before back in city hall in Chicago, when we received a visit from Nelson Mandela.”

She then recalls this incident when the Dalai Lama visited Washington, D.C. in February 2010: “Several months later, when the Dalai Lama did visit the president, I was so excited to see him again. After dealing with the frustrations of trying to work with the Republicans in Congress, I needed another infusion of his hopeful spirit. After President Obama greeted the Dalai Lama, he re-introduced him to me and told the Dalai Lama that I had said he had changed my life. The Dalai Lama’s eyes danced with delight, and, pausing first for effect, he announced with a belly laugh, “She exaggerates.”

Now to the background to this Dharamsala trip by these senior American officials. The years around 2009 were those in which the Dalai Lama made at least one annual visit, if not more, to the United States. Some months after President Obama assumed office in January 2009, there were talks of him making his first visit as President to China in November. That news came when preparations were already underway for a visit by the Dalai Lama to Washington, D.C, in October, to participate in programs, including a conference with scientists organized by the Mind & Life Institute.

Rinpoche took up with the White House the issue of a presidential meeting. It is public knowledge that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has a principled position not to cause inconvenience to leaders of countries that he visits and President Obama was no exception. Given that US-China relationship is something important, the US side wanted to request the postponement of a meeting with His Holiness to a period after the China trip. At the same time, the White House felt important to get His Holiness’s thoughts on what the President could convey to the Chinese leaders during the November trip. It was thus that Ms. Jarrett ended up going to Dharamsala on September 13 and 14 of 2009 to convey President Obama’s message to His Holiness.

Ms. Jarrett explains this in her memoir: “My work for the White House took me around the world and back, many times. Very early on, we heard that the Dalai Lama wanted to visit DC and call on President Obama. At the same time, we were trying to manage our relationship with China, and it would have caused diplomatic problems if the Dalai Lama, who China considered to be an enemy, came to visit the White House before they did. We had to try and think of a delicate way to ask the Dalai Lama to postpone his trip without giving offense. The national security team came up with the idea that I should go and hand-deliver a letter from the president to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, where he and thousands of other Tibetans have lived in exile for fifty years. The letter invited him to come in six months. We felt that the symbolism of someone close to President Obama making this trek would smooth over any ruffled feathers with the Dalai Lama, while not provoking any negative reaction from the Chinese.”

The Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama announced their visit to Dharamsala on September 14, 20109 saying, “US President Barack Obama’s emissary, Valerie Jarrett, called on His Holiness the Dalai Lama on September 13 & 14. She was accompanied by State Department Under Secretary Maria Otero, who she introduced formally to His Holiness as the designated new Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues.” The statement also said, “His Holiness is looking forward to meeting President Obama after his visit to China.”

The International Campaign for Tibet carried a report on the visit on September 14, 2009. It quoted Rinpoche as saying, “His Holiness has shared with the US delegation his views about how the President can help the Tibetan people and he would value an opportunity to hear directly from the President about what transpired during the Beijing summit with regard to Tibet.”

President Obama and the Dalai Lama eventually met on February 18, 2010 with the White House issuing a statement saying, “The President met this morning at the White House with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China. The President commended the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach, his commitment to nonviolence and his pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government. The President stressed that he has consistently encouraged both sides to engage in direct dialogue to resolve differences and was pleased to hear about the recent resumption of talks. The President and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China.”

The White House had to face some criticism from members of congress, analysts and the media for the non-meeting in October 2009 as some saw this as kowtowing to the Chinese. Ms. Jarrett’s memoir explains from the Obama Administration’s perspective, the development leading to this.

While in Dharamsala, Ms. Jarrett was also touched by the babies at the Tibetan Children’s Village as well as other people she met. She writes, “We arrived a couple of days before the Dalai Lama, who was on his way back from Europe. He’d arranged for us to tour an orphanage filled with over five thousand children, all sent by Tibetan families to escape persecution in China and to be closer to their spiritual leader. The children were so well loved and happy. One of them grabbed my hand and took me to her immaculate room and showed me her stuffed animals. The woman giving me the tour had a special way with the children because she had been an orphan herself decades earlier. I visited with nuns who’d been incarcerated in Tibet because of their commitment to the Dalai Lama, and met with the men who’d escaped the Tibetan village and hid in the surrounding mountains while the Chinese government searched for them. We met with Buddhist monks who tended to the ancient manuscripts secured safely away in their monastery, and they told me the history of the Dalai Lama and why he meant so much to his people.”

Be that as it may, Ms. Jarrett concludes her experience meeting the Dalai Lama by comparing his life with that of Elie Wiesel and Nelson Mandela. She writes, “All three men had endured terrible ordeals, and not only had they not lost their will to live, but they never let those experiences warp their spirit or undermine their belief in the potential of all people to be good. Their empathy, warmth, and compassion always remained unshakably intact. They all had a genuine love for their fellow man, regardless of how their fellow man felt about them.”