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A hard road to Tibet treasures

September 18, 2007

An Ashland couple overcomes hardships, language barriers to establish a successful business and raise a family here

By John Darling
for the Mail Tribune, OR
September 18, 2007

Browsing among the colorful clothing, carpets, jewelry and handicrafts in Tibet Treasures, one would never know the long and sometimes difficult path that led the owners to this little shop in downtown Ashland.

Sonam Dolma and her husband, Thubrig Dorje, now enjoy a life of peace as they sell wares made by fellow Tibetans who have fled their country. Their oldest child is getting ready to graduate from Ashland High School and head to college. And their youngest, whom they say is a reincarnated high lama of Tibet, is studying in a monastery in India, like his father once did. They say their faith, practiced in holy places in India and Nepal — and for
the last seven years at Tashi Choling temple in the Colestin Valley — has sustained them through early years of persecution and the uncertainties of starting over in a new land.

In 1959, at age 7, after Chinese Communist forces tightened their control over his country, Dorje fled Tibet with his parents, landing in refugee camps in Sikkim, India. His father suffered from gunshot wounds along the way and both parents, malnourished and in shock, soon died.

Seeing what he calls his spiritual nature, relatives put Dorje in a monastery there and, later, in Mysore, India. After 20 years as a monk, Dorje found himself in Nepal, which has a large Tibetan refugee community, and fate turned him in 1988 toward marriage with Dolma, who had fled Tibet to live with relatives at age 16.

The couple became well-to-do in Nepal and had a large home where they would play host to many of the highest lamas, including Gyatrul Rinpoche, who was building a temple in the sweeping hills south of Ashland, says their close friend, Ashland accountant Terri Thomas.

The relationship with Rinpoche, which had started in 1974 in Mysore, deepened. Dorje and Dolma visited here for devotions and, sensing the increasingly unstable political climate in Nepal, followed his urgings to live here, where there would be safety and a good education for the children, Thomas says.

The language barrier was a serious problem in early years, but both are now able to communicate face-to-face, says Dolma, because "you can read the body language."

Their teen daughters Tsering Dorje, 17, and Ugyen Dorje, 15, have adapted well to Western life and listen to their share of rock 'n' roll, says Dorje with a smile.

Other Tibetan refugees have come to Tashi Choling and tried to adjust to life here, but soon move to the Bay Area, where there is a temple and well-established Tibetan community, says Thomas. But Dorje and Dolma stuck
it out.

"It was very hard at first, but Ashland people are really wonderful," says Dolma, who has established a "Western extended family," as Thomas calls it.

"Gyatrul Rinpoche is a special friend. He wanted me to come here and help with the dharma teachings," says Dorje.

They maintain close ties with relatives in Tibet and report that the economy is much better and religious freedom has greatly improved, as long as it stays away from politics.

In the 1950s and 1960s, however, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, thousands of monks and nuns were killed and monasteries destroyed.

The couple are close to the Dalai Lama and have visited with him many times. They note that he wishes to visit his homeland, something still not allowed.

"He's a very wonderful person, very compassionate," says Dorje.

"When you see him, your body gets very relaxed. You cry every time. People love him," says Dolma.

They say their son, Dorje Gyaltsen, 11, is fulfilling his spiritual path as the reincarnation of a high Tibetan lama, studying under his guru, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche in Mysore.

"He writes home to his sisters, reminding them to mind their parents," chuckles Dorje.

Their shop, across from Bloomsbury Books, is doing well, appealing in summer to the tourist trade and supported in the winter by townfolk who want to buy locally, he says. Its wares, clearly the work of handcrafting masters, are simple, containing both ancient and contemporary designs.

"It's amazing what they've done, to walk out of Tibet and get enough money and chutzpah to come to the United States and provide for their children," says friend Kate Nehrbass, who teaches English as a second language here.
"They keep with their spiritual practice and recognize their little one as a Tulku (reincarnated master)."

Philip Thomas, a teacher at Tashi Choling who has known the couple for 20 years, says, "They are wonderful people, genuine and decent, my best friends. They're smart and sophisticated and I think the world of them."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at


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