History and Culture

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

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.

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.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s escape to India: 63 years later

By Dekyi Sharchitsang
Dekyi Sharchitsang is an intern at the International Campaign for Tibet and a student at Emory University.

Dalai Lama in India

The Dalai Lama reaches safety in India on March 31, 1959. (Tibet Museum)

In March 1959, as he approached the Indian border after a two-week journey disguised as a common soldier, His Holiness the Dalai Lama looked back at Tibet for the very last time, leaving behind everything he had ever known and entering into a world of absolute uncertainty. He had successfully escaped Tibet as Chinese forces were violently suppressing the national uprisings unfolding in Lhasa. Unbeknownst to His Holiness, this was the beginning of a lifetime in exile.

Upon reaching India, he was swiftly received by border authorities, who led him to a town in the present-day Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. He had been granted political asylum by Prime Minister Nehru and the Indian government, as had the many thousands of Tibetans who followed him into exile with no knowledge of what would become of them.

That was 63 years ago. He was only 23 years old.

His Holiness is now 86 and has not returned to Tibet since his fateful escape. This is not by choice. He has often expressed his desire to see Tibet once again with his own eyes, yet China remains intent on denying him this homecoming. Although he is optimistic, returning to Tibet remains a distant dream.

Since his escape in 1959, His Holiness has led a remarkable life in exile. For many newly arrived Tibetan refugees, who had lost everything to Chinese occupation, their only consolation was the spirit of His Holiness. Although all else was gone, either left in Tibet or lost along the way, His Holiness’ grace and guidance remained constant. As tens of thousands of stateless Tibetans now looked to him for direction, he was confronted with an immense challenge: rebuilding a nation.

From the very beginning, he prioritized the well-being of the Tibetan people. Within his first year in India, His Holiness established various institutions that remain intact to this day, beginning with the creation of a central government consisting of several administrative departments such as Information, Education, Religious Affairs and Security, among others. Realizing the importance of a modern education, His Holiness also oversaw the creation of Tibetan schools for the thousands of refugee children who would now be brought up in exile.

On the first anniversary of the Tibetan People’s Uprising in March 1960, His Holiness made a statement to the Tibetan people, reminding them to remain hopeful even in the face of adversity:

“On this first occasion, I stressed the need for my people to take a long-term view of the situation in Tibet. For those of us in exile, I said that our priority must be resettlement and the continuity of our cultural traditions. As to the future, I stated my belief that, with truth, justice, and courage as our weapons, we Tibetans would eventually prevail.”

Bearing the weight of a wounded nation at 23 years old, His Holiness, through his selflessness, compassion and dedication to the Tibetan cause, lifted thousands of Tibetan refugees out of despair and transformed them into a thriving exiled community.

For many young Tibetans like myself who’ve grown up in the US, Tibet is a place that lives in our minds, but America is the only home we’ve ever known. My identity as a Tibetan American has always been plagued by feelings of cultural alienation and detachment, especially considering that, after six decades in exile, I am two generations removed from Tibet. This experience is hardly unique. It has instead come to define the Tibetan diaspora, as there are now entire generations of Tibetans who have not known a life other than one in exile.

Today, it is no secret that the state of Tibet remains precarious. Assaults on human rights and religious freedoms, severe censorship and surveillance, and violent suppression of dissent occur regularly with little international attention. Despite this, Tibetans are resilient, finding strength in each other and in the teachings of His Holiness, just as they have since 1959.

I am now almost the age that His Holiness was when he escaped Tibet, and just like him, I too wish for a swift homecoming. As a Tibetan American, I have been afforded the tremendous privilege of living in the free world. I can attend March 10 protests every year, speak Tibetan, express my political views and practice Buddhism, all without fear of retribution. Unlike the Tibetans living under Chinese occupation, and unlike the generations of Tibetans who came before me, I have the luxury of opportunity, and the freedom of choice. I stand on the sacrifices of these Tibetans who paved the way for my generation of Tibetan youth to be able to live freely and as our authentic selves.

Sixty-three years have passed since 1959, but the spirit of the Tibetan people remains alive. Our collective resistance to injustice and occupation persists with vigor.

A new documentary on the Dalai Lama’s escape is coming to theaters soon. “Never Forget Tibet: The Dalai Lama’s Untold Story” will premiere at 800 theaters across the United States and Canada for one night only on March 31, the 63rd anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s safe arrival in India.

Buy your tickets now. (Note: Your search results may only return theaters in the immediate zip code. Try searching nearby zip codes for more opportunities to see the film.)

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. <http://tibet.prm.ox.ac.uk/photo_2001.>

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.

30th anniversary: the Dalai Lama meets the president

President George H.W. Bush

The Dalai Lama had his first meeting with a sitting US president on April 16, 1991. Here he is with President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush.

“America is the nation for championing liberty, democracy and freedom. America should stand on those principles … in international relations.”

Those words, admiring and assertive, come from an interview the Dalai Lama gave at the threshold of a historic event: his first meeting with a sitting president of the United States.

That auspicious gathering took place April, 16, 1991—30 years ago today. That evening, President George H.W. Bush welcomed His Holiness to the White House for a discussion about Tibet, the Himalayan homeland the Chinese Communist Party had forced the Dalai Lama to flee during a brutal conquest more than three decades earlier.

First Lady Barbara Bush took part in the meeting, as did several US and Tibetan officials, including the late International Campaign for Tibet Executive Chairman Lodi Gyari, who was the special envoy of His Holiness, and ICT’s founding President Tenzin Tethong, who was then the Tibetan foreign minister. Afterward, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, “They discussed the general situation in Tibet … [The Dalai Lama]’s the religious leader of the country. The president felt it was appropriate to see him.”

The meeting—which the Chinese government tried furiously but futilely to prevent—only lasted about half an hour. But it was the start of something special. Over the next 25 years, every US president, regardless of their political party, spoke with the Dalai Lama in the White House, sending a clear signal to Beijing, and the world, about America’s enduring, bipartisan support for His Holiness’ vision of dialogue with China and meaningful autonomy for Tibet.

As Lodi Gyari said in “My Personal Words of Gratitude” upon his retirement: “This was the first meeting between His Holiness and an American president and it set the precedence for subsequent meetings between His Holiness and other world leaders.”

Lodi Gyari

President George H.W. Bush, Special Envoy Lodi Gyari, Foreign Minister Tenzin Tethong and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Political and personal

I have no doubt that His Holiness meeting routinely with the most powerful person in the world helped elevate the Tibetan movement. Although he only met Bush—who lost reelection the next year—that one time while he was in office, the Dalai Lama convened in the White House four times each with Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Each of them publicly voiced support for His Holiness’ efforts to resolve the Tibetan issue peacefully. They also spoke up for the Dalai Lama with Chinese leaders, most notably when Clinton pushed Chinese President Jiang Zemin to engage His Holiness in dialogue during a news conference that aired live on TV in China in 1998.

But the Dalai Lama’s relationship with the presidency appears to have been a two-way street. Commander-in-chief may be the most influential job in the world, but even presidents need personal guidance. His Holiness, a spiritual leader for countless people around the globe, seems to have provided that.

President Clinton

His Holiness in the White House with President Clinton in 1998.

In one of ICT’s Tibet Talks during the 2020 election, Greg Craig, the first special coordinator for Tibetan issues, revealed a surprising detail about one of His Holiness’ trips to the White House during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the earliest political controversy that I can remember living through.

At one point, Craig recalled, His Holiness asked if everyone could leave the room so he could be alone with the president and first lady. “He stayed on and talked to Mr. and Mrs. Clinton for another 25, 30 minutes,” Craig told ICT. “So not only was he a great leader of a great religion and venerated around the world, but he became a very special marriage counselor, I think, at that particular moment.”


His Holiness appears to have played a similar role as a source of wisdom for Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush. Paula Dobriansky, the special coordinator from 2001-09, also appeared in an ICT Tibet Talk, during which she said she witnessed the relationship between Bush and the Dalai Lama “not only come together firmly but truly grow.” “The two of them are very compassionate about the importance of democracy,” Dobriansky said.

After his presidency, Bush famously exhibited a portrait he made of the Dalai Lama, calling him “a very sweet man, and I painted him as sweetly as I could.” When His Holiness turned 85 last year, Bush sent him a video message saying, “I admire you, I care for you, and I love you.”

Dalai Lama stands next to President George W. Bush

Which one is real? The Dalai Lama stands next to President George W. Bush’s portrait of him.

President Obama also seems to have maintained his respect for the Dalai Lama post-presidency. Recently, the Skimm’ asked Obama which world leaders he would want in a group text. His first response: “Dalai Lama. Love that guy.” Obama later added Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Queen Elizabeth to the list.

In December 2017, about a year after he left office, Obama again met with His Holiness in New Delhi. Kasur Tempa Tsering, an ICT board member and the India and East Asia coordinator for His Holiness’ office, said the two Nobel laureates “both spoke about promoting compassion and altruism in human beings.”

Dalai Lama and President Obama

An embrace between Nobel Peace laureates: the Dalai Lama and President Obama in 2016.

Past and future

Even though Obama was the last sitting president so far to meet with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama’s contacts with the White House began long before his visit with the senior President Bush 30 years ago.

In fact, Franklin Roosevelt, who won an unprecedented third term in the White House the same year as the Dalai Lama’s enthronement in 1940, sent the young Tibetan leader a Patek Philippe gold watch when he was just 7 or 8 years old. Decades later, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., shared an image on Facebook of His Holiness holding the watch during a visit to the US Capitol in 2016.

His Holiness has also met with former President Jimmy Carter since he left the White House, including once in Carter’s home state of Georgia in 1987.

Dalai Lama and former President Jimmy Carter

The Dalai Lama and former President Jimmy Carter in 2002.

It’s too soon to tell yet whether the present-day commander-in-chief, Joe Biden, will revive the tradition of US presidents welcoming the Dalai Lama to the White House. There are more logistical challenges now, including the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and His Holiness’ advancing age.

However, during the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to meet with the Dalai Lama as president, just as he met with him when he was a senator. His administration has also, in my opinion, gotten off to a promising start on Tibetan issues. That has included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whom many see as Biden’s most trusted foreign policy advisor, raising Tibet in his first call with China’s top diplomat in February.

Pressure from China

I’m sure this will come as no surprise, but I hope Biden and Vice President Harris will be able to meet with His Holiness, either in the White House, in India or through some kind of virtual gathering. I desire that not just as a member of ICT’s community of compassion, but as an American citizen.

Let me go back to His Holiness’ first trip to the White House in 1991. By that time, the Dalai Lama had been coming to the United States for over a decade. He made his first political speech outside of India when he addressed the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus (now the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission) in 1987. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and was one of the most respected people on the planet.

Despite all that, his meeting with Bush came as a surprise. According to The Washington Post, the president’s supporters in Congress only found out about it one day in advance (Bush had previously declined to speak with the Dalai Lama two years earlier). The meeting did not appear on Bush’s public schedule, nor was there a public report afterward. Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, appeared to downplay their talk, emphasizing His Holiness’ role as a religious leader over his then-role as the political head of the Tibetan people. Subsequent administrations have used the same tactic.

No doubt part of the reason for that has been the enormous pressure China puts on any country whose leaders dare to host His Holiness. As a result, several countries have shamefully backed away from the Dalai Lama and Tibet altogether.

Congressional Human Rights Caucus

His Holiness addressing the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1987, his first political speech outside India.

“What America is supposed to be”

China’s pressure was also there 30 years ago when His Holiness first visited the White House. At the time, a senior Bush administration official told The Washington Post, “Of course, we have heard from the Chinese on this, and of course they would prefer no meeting.

“But,” the official added, “the Dalai Lama is a leader in human rights, a religious leader and the president wants to meet with him.” (It must have helped that Bush’s cousin, Elsie Walker, was a longtime supporter of Tibet who urged the president to receive His Holiness.)

Before his meeting with Bush, the Dalai Lama was surprisingly (to me anyway) blunt in his criticism of US policy, labeling it “unequal and unfair” for assisting some countries like Kuwait (remember that this was the time of the Gulf War) while not doing as much for a place like Tibet. As an immigrant and a man of color, I’m unhappily aware of the injustice this country is capable of. But I feel my background also gives me greater appreciation for America’s highest ideals. And I see those ideals come to life whenever our leaders embrace His Holiness.

Looking back on the 30th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the White House, I couldn’t help but think of something our ICT Chairman Richard Gere said during this year’s State Department reception for “Losar,” the Tibetan New Year. The event was itself a positive sign about US support for Tibet, as it marked the first time a secretary of state had taken part in the holiday celebration.

But Gere made it even more special by recalling that glorious day in 2007 when the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal in the US Capitol Rotunda. (President George W. Bush spoke at the ceremony, the only time a sitting president has met with His Holiness in public.)

“When His Holiness spoke, I think everyone was in tears,” Gere recounted. “Again, this feeling that this is what America is supposed to be. In that moment, the Dalai Lama was the first among Americans. And I think we also maybe reclaimed our ideals.”

ICT Chairman Richard Gere discusses American ideals at the State Department’s 2021 Tibetan New Year event.

Thirty years ago, as he was about to make his first visit to the White House, the Dalai Lama said America should stand on its principles in international relations. As we mark the anniversary of that happy, historic event, we should continue to push our country to follow His Holiness’ advice by standing as Americans with the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet.

Tibetan nomad children forced to promote Communist Party’s “three loves” after Beijing tour

A Tibetan nomadic student who was forced to tour Beijing was asked to give a speech praising China and the Chinese Communist Party when she returned to her school.

As a new school year gets underway in Tibet, a group of nomadic students have been forced to spread Chinese propaganda urging Tibetans to love the Communist Party, love China and love Chinese socialism.

Nearly 60 students and teachers from the Gedrong Nomadic Tribes in Kham, eastern Tibet (in what China calls Dzatoe County, Yulshul Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture) were taken to Beijing for a 10-day educational tour last month as part of the Chinese regime’s “Educational Activities with the Theme of Three Loves.”

Upon returning home, the students were asked to write and make public speeches praising and thanking China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and socialism. They were also told to express their “determination to love the party, love socialism, and love China.”

Tibet, a historically independent country, has been under a brutal Chinese occupation for the past 60 years.

“Three Loves” tour

The tour of Beijing was organized by Qiushi, the CCP’s main journal, which has been arranging the trips since 2016. According to Qiushi’s website, “educational activities with ‘Love the Party, Love the Motherland, and Love Socialism’ are to further advance national unity and progress, win the hearts of the people, and unite the people.”

Students and teachers participating in the tours are chosen carefully. According to a report from the government-backed Qinghai Daily, “the Propaganda Department of [the] Communist Party and [the] Education Bureau of Dzatoe County organize special personnel to conduct patriotic education training for those selected teachers and students before they go to Beijing participating [in] the educational tour for ‘three loves.’”

While the students are in Beijing, they visit places such as the Qiushi office, the office of state media outlet Xinhua, Beijing universities, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, the People’s Heroes Monument and the Chinese National Museum.

Chinese authorities are quoted in Qinghai Daily saying, “Through the ‘Three Loves’ themed educational activities, Tibetan students receive the vivid education on ‘three loves,’ firmly establishing the consciousness of loving [the] Communist Party and China, firmly establishing the consciousness of knowing the party’s kindness, thanking the party’s kindness, and repaying the party’s kindness, and firmly establishing the consciousness and sense of responsibility for promoting national harmony and national unity.”

“Sinicizing” Tibet

These efforts to indoctrinate Tibetan youth and use them to spread propaganda are part of the Communist Party’s attempts at “Sinicization,” meaning to assimilate Tibet into Chinese culture while destroying Tibetans’ unique identity and religious beliefs.

Tibetan nomads are frequent targets of Sinicization. Because of the Tibetan plateau’s unique geographical features, pastoralism has been one of Tibet’s economic and cultural backbones for thousands of years. In order to stamp out Tibetan culture, the Chinese government is seeking to eliminate Tibetan pastoralism.

In addition to subjecting nomadic youth to “three loves” education, the government has forced nomads to abandon their traditional lifestyles and live on hastily built settlements, despite the risks that poses to Tibet’s fragile environment.

The Panchen Lama and Legitimacy

Dalai Lama Panchen Lama

The Dalai Lama with the previous Panchen Lama.

Today is the 28th birthday of the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who continues to remain in detention since 1995. From being the youngest Tibetan political prisoner, he might well be the only Tibetan who grew into his teens under detention by the Chinese Government.

First a recap: the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima disappeared (detained by the Chinese authorities) in May 1995, when he was a six year old child, a few days after the Dalai Lama recognized him as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. Subsequently, violating the Tibetan spiritual process, the Chinese authorities selected another boy (through illegal means, as we learn from an eyewitness, Arjia Rinpoche, a senior Tibetan Buddhist Master who was closely involved with the process before he fled to freedom a few years later). Since then, despite repeated attempts to gain access to him, no international agencies or human rights organizations – including the United Nations — has been allowed to visit the Panchen Lama or his family, and their condition remains uncertain. The Chinese authorities have even refused to provide any information on his health status or on the pertinent issue of his spiritual education and upbringing.

In an open letter to the Panchen Lama on his birthday U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner Tenzin Dorjee (who was a monk for some years) says, “By the age of 28, I had received both a Tibetan and modern education, as well as advanced Buddhist studies in the Tibetan diaspora in India. I would like to know more about you, especially about your well-being and the education you have received. I fear that the Chinese government has taken away your religious identity.”

Meanwhile, the de facto Panchen Lama (I am using the term “de facto” in the legal sense of “existing in fact whether with lawful authority or not”) is having occasional exposure in the Chinese media and being projected as assuming his spiritual responsibility.

Six years ago, I wrote a piece titled, “Why Doesn’t the China-appointed Panchen Lama Speak Out?” The issue is still valid. Granted that since then the individual appointed by China has been seen conducting public events and talking about issues along Party lines. This does not amount to speaking out in the way the 10th Panchen Lama did. As I mentioned in my blog, a Tibetan Buddhist leader chooses to be reborn to work for his spiritual community and to further the work of the previous incarnation. Tibetans, both inside Tibet and outside, know on how the Chinese appointed individual has fared so far.

China’s political agenda behind their selection of the de facto Panchen Lama became clear in 2010 when he was formally appointed to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Since the selection, the Chinese authorities have used all means to grant him legitimacy. But as of now, he does not enjoy the confidence nor the reverence of the Tibetan people (the Chinese government knows this and so is constantly trying to find ways to impress the Tibetan people, the latest being having him bestow the sacred Kalachakra initiation).

If Gyaltsen Norbu is truly a Tibetan Buddhist leader and has been provided with the necessary spiritual upbringing, it will be seen from his action. In 1995, after the Chinese authorities installed him, I wrote, “Ultimately, as per Tibetan belief, a lama himself will reveal, as he grows up, whether he is a genuine reincarnation or note, and behave accordingly. The late Panchen Lama was a classic example of this. Even though he was in Chinese hands, a look at his life story reveals the scorn he had for Chinese rule in Tibet.”

Without any recognition from the Dalai Lama, the Chinese authorities can never be able to put the stamp of legitimacy to their selection of any religious leader, whether it is the Panchen Lama or a future Dalai Lama.

Unfortunately, Chinese authorities have not been able to understand Tibetan mentality. To Tibetans, China’s interference in their religious life affects them equally, if not more, to its occupation of Tibet. The tenth Panchen Lama put the case in a more subtle way when he, in October 1988, three months before his demise, called for an end to “traditional interference of religious activities with administrative measures over the years.” He said this was harming “the harmony of nationalities, as religions have close relations with minorities.”

In other words, China might want to have its own version of Rule by Incarnation, but it is the will of the believers that will really matter. The earlier the Chinese authorities realize this, the better it is for them.

‘Burning against the Dying of the Light’: Politics of protest and self-immolations in Tibet highlighted in major international exhibition

An unflinching examination of the politics of protest in Tibet, confronting new audiences with the anguish of self-immolations in Tibet, is currently a part of an international art Bienniale in Belgium on the theme of justice, until May 21.

The last testimonies of self-immolators, smartphone videos, portraits and Tarkovsky-like official footage are brought together by film-making duo Tenzin Sonam and Ritu Sarin to shattering effect in ‘Burning against the Dying of the Light’ at the Contour 8 Bienniale.

Tenzin and Ritu, a film-making duo based in Dharamsala, India, frame the self-immolations within the context of the worldview of Tibetan Buddhism – “as do the self-immolators themselves” – and the stark threat to the survival of Tibet as a civilization, a sovereign and distinct entity. They write that the work “attempts to locate this unprecedented and dramatic expansion of dissent within a historical continuum that has its roots in the occupation and colonization of Tibet under Chinese rule six decades ago.”

At the heart of the exhibition, a prayer wheel slowly turns, adorned with a single khatag and tolling a bell, its ring intended to dispel ignorance. Unlike a typical Buddhist prayer wheel, it consists of its bare armature, ringed by metal bars with rolls of religious text exposed at its centre. Embedded within it is a video screen showing footage of self-immolations shot on camera-phones in close, unsparing detail by witnesses whose names we will never know, and who may have been thrown into prison as a result.

In ‘Two Friends’, a single channel video depicts 22-year old former monk, Ngawang Norphel, blackened almost beyond recognition as a human being, speaking on camera to monks who are tending him after his self-immolation.

“When we hear of a self-immolator, we pray that he or she has died,” says one Tibetan friend. The video of Ngawang Norphel, lying covered in an orange quilt in the monastery, is utterly harrowing. Struggling to form words, he asks the monks more than once of the fate of his friend Tenzin Khedup, 24, who set fire to himself at the same time and died. In an unbearably poignant exchange, Ngawang Norphel asks whether his friend has died, and the monks reassure him that: “Tenzin Khedup is fine. He is home.” “Is he dead?” “He is not dead.” Ngawang Norphel survived for several more weeks before dying in a Chinese hospital.

Many Tibetans who have self-immolated have sought to underline the religious context of their acts, or have sought to be close to monks with the belief that the appropriate prayers will then be offered after their death by fire. Some have died with their hands clasped in prayer, while many of those who have self-immolated have done so beside a stupa, monastery or nunnery. Others have self-immolated during important prayer ceremonies. Overwhelmingly, Tibetans who have set fire to themselves and who have risked their lives in peaceful protest have called for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet.

Lines from the famous letter by Thich Nhat Hanh to Martin Luther King in Ritu and Tenzin’s exhibition further illuminate the sacrifice of those individuals burning their bodies: “A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to the body; life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, ie to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.”

On the wall, lines from a poem left by 17-year old nun Sangye Dolma, whose luminous and beautiful face appears here more as a classical painting than selfie, reveal a message of hope beyond despair. Like many of those who set themselves on fire in Tibet, it is not addressed to the U.N., the international community but to fellow Tibetans, written in solidarity, and urging them to “Look my Tibetan brothers and sisters! Look at the land of the snow. Our destiny is on the rise. […] Children of the snow lion! Do not forget that you are Tibetan. Tibet is an independent country.”

Tenzin and Ritu, whose feature films and documentaries include ‘Dreaming Lhasa’ and ‘The Sun Behind the Clouds’ (http://whitecranefilms.com/), have also created a 25-minute film, Drapchi Elegy. It tells the story of Namdrol Lhamo, one of the 14 ‘singing nuns’ imprisoned in the notorious Drapchi prison in Lhasa in the early 1990s for peacefully demonstrating against Chinese occupation and rule. This deeply poignant film, showing Namdrol at work in an elderly people’s home, and at home in Belgium, “reflects on the loneliness of political exile, and on the direct progression of the Tibetan freedom struggle, from the defiance of the nuns in the 1990s to the sacrifice of the self-immolators 20 years later.”

Remembering her time in prison, Namdrol weeps as she remembers the remarkable solidarity that exists, and continues to exist today in exile, between her sisters in prison – “We used to comfort each other – when we were doing this, or singing silly songs, we were happy”. You can see the film at: http://www.ibraaz.org/channel/164

‘Burning against the Dying of the Light’ is on display in the historic town of Mechelen, half an hour by train from Brussels, until May 21. Contour Biennale 8, with its theme this year of ‘Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium’ is symbolically sited in the grounds of the Great Council, established in Mechelen during the 15th Century for law to be enacted across Dutch, German and French territories. Consistent with the theme, other works include the transformation of the wine cellar of a 15th century manor once owned by the city’s watchmakers into an underwater oceanic zone reflecting on ideas of ecological solidarity. In the House of the Great Salmon, originally owned by a monastery for lepers, the Karrabing Film Collective looks at barriers for indigenous people – racialised and colonized incarceration, poverty and securitization.

‘Burning against the Dying of the Light’ compels new audiences unfamiliar with the Tibet story to confront the self-immolation protests in Tibet “as part of a continuing struggle to prevent the light of an entire civilization from dying out”, according to Tenzin and Ritu. They write: “A number of these fiery protests have been captured on mobile phones and secretly made available to the outside world. This act itself is punishable by long prison sentences. The hurriedly shot videos bring home in graphic and horrific detail, the physical reality of self-immolations. To witness a living human body engulfed in flames is a truly distressing and disturbing sight. But what right do we have to turn away our faces when the very point of such a public protest is to draw our attention to the cause they represent?”