Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Book Review: Tibetan leader's book details escape from China

March 9, 2010

The Oklahoman
March 6, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) -- Arjia Rinpoche sweeps
snow from the sidewalks around his Buddhist
temple here and thinks of Tibet. There are other
reminders — photos of Tibet in a cultural center
he oversees and a tall religious monument
containing the ashes of the teacher who taught him as a boy.

For Rinpoche, the journey from Tibet's rooftop of
the world to Indiana truly has been long. Born to
a family of nomads, he was introduced to the life
of a prince after monks from the prestigious
Kumbum monastery identified him as the
reincarnation of a high lama, or spiritual teacher — at age 2.

After the Chinese takeover of Tibet, he saw his
teachers tortured, his family imprisoned and his
faith challenged. Eventually, he would flee to
the West and, ultimately, this little slice of
Tibet situated on 108 acres in Bloomington — the
Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, where
he has served as director since 2005.

Rinpoche, 59, is sharing the lessons of his life
in a new book. "Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan
Lama's Account of 40 Years Under Chinese Rule" in
many ways is a tally of China's effort to extinguish Tibetan culture.

"I wanted to share my life experience and the
story of Tibet -- what's happened to me, what was
around me, what I heard, what I saw," Rinpoche
(pronounced RIN-po-shay) said recently from a
sitting room at his temple in Bloomington.

Rinpoche made a daring escape from China in 1998,
the most important defection by a Tibetan
religious leader since the Dalai Lama fled in 1959.

Among the few possessions he escaped with were
the photos of his early life -- as the lama on
the throne at Kumbum, as a young man in tattered work clothes.

Born in 1950, shortly after China's invasion of
Tibet, Rinpoche as a young boy was taught sacred
Buddhist scriptures and adored by crowds who
lined the streets to watch him pass in an ornate
chair carried on the shoulders of monks. Yet he
also was a child who coveted candy, played
hide-and-seek in the monastery and delighted when
visitors presented him gifts of toy airplanes and other trinkets.

That world was upended in 1958 when China's
communist leader, Mao Zedong, called for a "Great
Leap Forward," an attempt to increase farm and
factory production and teach a good "worker"
ideology. Soldiers dragged monks into the
courtyard of his monastery for beatings in front
of the young boy. Some were hauled off to prison.
Others were tortured, their hair pulled from
their head, their skin burned with cigarettes.

By the mid-1960s, China was trying to eradicate
religion with its Cultural Revolution. Prayers
and rituals were forbidden. Monasteries were
ransacked or destroyed. Ancient scriptures were
burned and Buddha statues smashed. Monks and
young students, including a teenage Rinpoche,
were forced to denounce spiritual leaders including the Panchen Lama.

"I felt debased by this," Rinpoche writes, "but
in my fear I also felt I had no choice. Monks who
refused to go along were tortured, sent to prison camps and even killed."

Rinpoche's family was relocated, and some members
were imprisoned. A few, including his father,
disappeared forever. Rinpoche was forced into
hard labor, building dams and participating in collective farming.

By the mid-1980s, Rinpoche was allowed to attend
college. He took a job acting as a bridge between
Tibet and the Chinese government, justifying the
job by saying it put him in a position to look
out for Tibet. He helped see that a hospital was
built. He oversaw the restoration of Kumbum after decades of neglect.

After years of hardship, the perks of the job
began to grow on him. He began dressing like
communist bureaucrats and spending time with friends "gossiping in cafes."

"The temptations of the material world were very
strong," he writes, "and threatened to sever my
ties to the sacred vows I had taken."

By 1995, the Chinese demands on him grew worse.

 From India, the Dalai Lama announced he had
discerned the identity of the reincarnation of
the Panchen Lama. China disputed the
announcement, forcing Rinpoche to go on TV and
denounce the Dalai Lama's choice.

A few months later, under armed surveillance, he
and other monks would be forced to witness
China's own selection of a Panchen Lama. He then
had to prostrate himself in front of the newly
minted, communist-approved religious leader.

"I felt soiled by the gesture," Rinpoche writes.

Larry Gerstein, a Fishers resident and president
of the International Tibet Independence Movement,
said China's lengthy occupation has led many
Tibetans to make compromises that appear
unseemly. But they do it strategically, in ways
intended to preserve their country. The key for
Buddhists, Gerstein said, is their motivation.
And he thinks Rinpoche's motives were pure.

"It is a survival strategy," he said. "You know
if you yell and stand up to them you might be
sent to prison and stay for a long time."

When the Chinese government asked Rinpoche, in
1998, to become the counterfeit Panchen Lama's
tutor, Rinpoche reached a breaking point: "My
political life," he writes, "was betraying my religious and moral principles."

So Rinpoche contacted a friend in Guatemala, who
arranged visas for Rinpoche and a small
entourage. He put aside his lama's robes for
Western clothes, grew a mustache, donned
sunglasses and a hat, and boarded a plane bound
for Central America. The Dalai Lama helped
Rinpoche and four others come to the United States.

Rinpoche is on a multicity tour for the book,
with proceeds going to a library in India and a
cancer center in Mongolia. But his primary job is
building support for the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington.

Founded in 1979 by the late Thubten Norbu, an
Indiana University professor and the eldest
brother of the Dalai Lama, the center has become
a lifeboat for Tibetan culture and religion. The
Dalai Lama, who wrote a forward for Rinpoche's
book, has visited five times and is due again in May.

The trials of his life, Rinpoche writes, taught
him valuable lessons about "the workings of
karma, impermanence, ignorance and discontent."
Yet he writes that Tibet, once free like a fish
in the sea, is now "broiled and on the table, already half devoured."

And Rinpoche is beginning to doubt whether he will ever again see Tibet.

"I had that dream that after 10 years I can
return -- this is my dream," Rinpoche said.
"Already, at 12 years, it is too far away."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank