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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

The Young Ones

August 18, 2009

Remembering Tsangyang Gyatso, Gendun Choephel,
Dhondup Gyal, Tsering Wangyal, Dawa Norbu and others
By Bhuchung D. Sonam
Tibetan World Magazine
July 2009

Your old road is
Rapidly ageing.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changing.
-- Bob Dylan

The confrontation against writers and
intellectuals in any society generally comes from
two sections -- the mob and the authority. While
the former is a congregation of the ultra
orthodox who are untouchable by winds of change,
the latter is a force all out to silence creative
voices, since creativity means change and the
change signifies danger to those in power.
History is filled with such incidences – lack of
societal receptacle for fresh thoughts and rule
of thumb by those in power, a toxic cocktail that
often drives the intellectuals into exile, social
ostracism and in many cases to their demise. Over
and above these conditions there seems to be, in
our society, a trace of collective karmic result
that by a freak twist of fate hammers the heads that rise above others.

It all began with His Holiness the Sixth Dalai
Lama, Rigzin Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), or the
Precious Ocean of Pure Melody -- his rebellious
life, non-conformity to established social norms,
challenging received wisdom, love for creative
expression, desire to bring change and tragic early death.

The poet Dalai Lama was born on 1 May 1683 in
Mon, presently Arunachal Pradesh in India, and in
1697 he was enthroned at the Potala Palace as the
Sixth Dalai Lama. Growing to a tall, handsome but
simple youth, Tsangyang never liked the strict
regimens and the grand routines in the huge
palace. He spent a great deal of time in outdoor
sports and worldly affairs with his friends. By
the time he was twenty years old, he had made his
mind not to take the vows to become a fully
ordained monk, thus creating an uproar in the
Potala Palace and endangering the very
institution of the Dalai Lama. The regent, Sangye
Gyatso, became desperate as his successful rule
over Tibet depended on how the young Dalai Lama
was brought up to befit his name.

In the ensuing years Sangye Gyatso's political
intrigue, miscalculated alliance with the Dzungar
Mongols, failed assassination of Lhazang Khan,
the Qosot Mongol and bitter rival of the Dzungar,
proved fatal. Lhazang's retribution ended with
the beheading of the regent, deposing of the
Dalai Lama on 27 June 1706 and taking him by
force to China. As Tsangyang and the Mongol
escorts reached Kunga-nor, a small lake in
Kokonor region, he died or most likely was
murdered. Some claim that Tsangyang Gyatso simply
disappeared and, as The Secret Biography of the
Sixth Dalai Lama mentions, led a secret but
fruitful and peripatetic life as a yogi. At the
time of his death, murder or disappearance he was 23.

In his short, chaotic life, Tsangyang penned some
of the finest poems and love songs ever written
in Tibetan. Free of didacticism and elaborate
imageries of traditional Tibetan cantos, he wrote
and sang out of his experience and longing to be
who he was. There is spontaneity in his poems and
universality in his message. To this day his
songs are sung by Tibetans scattered all across the globe.

If the maiden forever lives
The wine ceaselessly will flow
And in the tavern this youth
Eternally will seek his refuge.

Then for two centuries there was silence. As the
twentieth century dawned, and the wheel of change
was at full throttle elsewhere, our kismet
punctured. The demon popped up its ugly head.
This time it was the over-cautious, squabbling
and intriguing ruling Lhasa aristocrats who were
up in arms against the small frail bespectacled
monk. The monk's ideas for Tibet wobbled their
weak hearts carefully hidden beneath the fine
silk brocades. They pounded him with their inadequacies.

Gendun Choephel (1905-1951), the foremost of
modern Tibetan intellectual, was born in 1905 in
Rebkong, northeastern Tibet. He was a bright
student and a brilliant monk who created chaos in
the debating courtyards with his antics and often
unconventional, but brilliant, dialectical
skills. He travelled in India and Sri Lanka like
a vagabond, craving for knowledge. By the time he
returned to Tibet karma had turned against him.
He was imprisoned in February 1946 for crimes of
treason, and underwent unimaginable suffering and
humiliation. (while in Kalimpong GC had met
Ragpa, Changlochen and Kunphe-la, three
influential and somewhat reform-minded people for
whom he supposedly helped design the emblem and
wrote the manifesto for their Tibet Improvement
Party. Although Lhasa aristocrats never
officially stated, this was said to be the main reason for his imprisonment)

In his life Gendun Choephel scanned everything
that passed by him and produced numerous books
from Buddhist philosophy to the Tibetan art of
making love. He wanted change in Tibet that never
came. When he came out of Nangtse Shak Prison in
May 1949, his hair was long and his manner
strange. He took to drink and cigarettes to
dispel his extreme disillusion. The brightest
star that shone in the Tibetan sky exploded under
constant poundings of censure, short-sightedness
and the witless whims of a few elites. The demon
was on the loose. Gendun Choephel passed away in
Lhasa at 4 pm on 14 August 1951. He was 47.

Dhondup Gyal (1953-1985), the enigmatic rebel
poet and writer, was born in 1953 in the tiny
village of Gurong Phuba, northeastern Tibet.
After braving a broken family and lack of early
education opportunities, his diligence and love
of books led him to discover his creative ability
and the need to inspire others. When opportunity
knocked its door he excelled in his studies and
soon acquired a unique voice. The originality in
his writing was supplemented by a strong sense of
Tibetanness and patriotism, which also drove him
into many fights, both verbal and physical, with
anyone who looked down upon Tibetans.

As an iconic figure, one of his many
contributions is to restore a love of and
interest in Tibetan language amongst Tibetan
youths. A section of conservative Tibetans failed
to understand his defiant moods and seemingly
unconventional style of writing, not knowing that
his new creations were firmly based on Tibet's
rich literary past. He was perfectly in tune with
the era and let his pen dance to the shifting
melody of time. The harmonious rhythm of his pen
was but a new voice for the ancient tradition.
However, the confrontation never ceased. He was
threatened with dire consequences when his short
story titled Tulku was published in 1981.

Feeling constricted by such a suffocating social
environment, he eventually decided to lift the
weight off his back. Our karma twisted. In
November 1985 Dhondup Gyal apparently committed
suicide in his room in Chabcha. He was 32.

In the heat of Indian summer where butter
sculptures melt, the demon followed us like the
shadow of an empty glass. It searched the entire
length of the Tibetan diaspora scattered across
the earth and in the far-flung corner of
Colorado, it found Trungpa, the poet and meditation master.

Chögyam Trungpa (1939-1987) was born in Kham,
eastern Tibet. After the Chinese occupation of
Tibet, he escaped into exile and became a leading
meditation master, a prolific author and an
astonishing poet. He spewed out a range of verses
constantly reminding us about the fleeting nature
of existence. At times he wrote to say that we
are fools blindly dancing around a fire of
ignorance. The range of his writing was matched only by his eccentricity.

Along the winding road of his life as a father, a
master, a husband, and a poet, he invited
controversy and gathered flakes, which he nudged
off with a wave of his incisive pen.

'The best minds of my generation are idiots,
They have such idiot compassion.
The world of charity is turned into chicken-food,
The castles of diamond bought and sold for tourism ...'

Trungpa passed away in 1987. He was 48.

The vicious circle was turning. Our karma
dwindled. Calamities were in the offing.

Ngodup Paljor (1948-1988) was a little-known
figure. But he was among other things a
translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a
professor of Tibetan studies at the University of
Hawaii, the founder of The Alaska Tibet Committee
and a vibrant poet. Through his forced travel
from Tibetan hills to the Indian plains and
eventually to cold Alaska, he was a refugee, a monk and a layman.

Sitting in the mountains he juggled between his
perfect Tibetan, Hindi, Pali, Thai and English.
The final words, however, were always reflective of the country he left behind.

'I remember the face of Mt. Everest
The Queen of the Earth
I grew on her lap
And played with her children.'

On 25 October 1988, Paljor died in an accident at
the Port of Anchorage, Alaska. He was 40.

In the midst of our uncertain exile existence
many flowers bloomed only to be blighted by
untimely frosts of communal wrath. The devil has many shapes and forms.

K. Dhondup (1952-1995) was born in Rubin Gang in
Tibet. He was a restless youth with great zeal.
In the 1970s, when there were severe repressions
in Tibet by the Communist China, a few Tibetans
set up a Tibetan communist party in exile. On 1
May 1979 the Tibetan Communist Party (TCP) came
into the open with K. Dhondup, Namgyal and
Kelsang Tenzin as its founding fathers causing
'shock, distress and panic' in exile community.
Understandably, the party was vehemently opposed
and its founders faced public rage and ostracism.
Their intention may have been good, but the
timing was terrible. Communism as an ideology was
already on the decline then and as we see today
it has virtually disappeared – except in
dreadfully repressive and closed countries like North Korea, China and Cuba.

The founding of the TCP created a spurt of
ideological debates and comments, including one
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama who spoke in
favour of the TCP. Perhaps it was extreme zest
and youthful naiveté that drove Dhondup and his
comrades to launch the TCP without a fuller
understanding of its historical necessity or the
many fundamental contradictions communism has
with Tibetan culture and religion. However, K.
Dhondup's open-mindedness and boldness in
expressing his views were rare qualities. His
additional strength was the judicious use of his
pen to reassert our sense of history and to
compose verses, which were painfully poignant and evocatively tender.

'A tear is a poem
A smile its celebration'

K. Dhondup passed away at 6 am on 7 May 1995 in New Delhi. He was 42.

Re-rooting in exile is an agonizing process. In
this stage on unsure ground more flowers were to
be destroyed. In the summer of 1988, a friend
took me with him to his sister-in-law Lhamo
Tsering's place in Delhi. The address was Tibetan
Review, D-11, East of Kailash. The next day I
asked Acha Lhamo about Tsering Wangyal
(1949-2000) fondly called Editor, of whom I heard
so many near-legend stories in school. She was
the circulation manager for the Tibetan Review
and was occupying the room opposite to Editor's.
Acha Lhamo did not tell any story. Instead she
let me and my friend go into editor's room saying
that he would not come back that night. With our
schoolboy curiosity doubly roused we marched in
expecting a room befitting the stories we'd
heard. The bare dingy, ten-by-twelve room was a
big disappointment. There were pyjamas on the
floor forming a number eight, a single bed with a
grey bedsheet, plastic slippers and a television.
The bathroom, however, was luxuriously full to
the brim with empty beer bottles. A genius must drink a lot of beer, I thought.

We showed our disappointment to Acha Lhamo, who
then told us that once a Japanese journalist,
dressed in a three-piece suit, came to interview
Editor. The journalist knocked on the door and
when Editor came out in crumpled pyjamas rubbing
his eyes, the Japanese very politely stated his
purpose and asked for the editor of the Tibetan
Review. Editor answered he was the editor and the
Japanese was taken aback, lost his words and became extremely nervous.

Tsering Wangyal had an uncanny power over words
that came with mathematical precision, 'quick wit
and irreverent humour'. During his nineteen years
as the editor, Tibetan Review became a standard
forum where ideas were debated, ideologies were
shaped and shaky policies from both sides of the
Himalayas were shredded. His ascetic life was
made more attractive by the sounds of his words
which echoed in the corridors of the Kashag and Zhongnanhai in equal measure.

Editor's dedication to his profession was also
incomparable. The day on which he was to leave
for Canada he attended his office at the Voice of
Tibet in Dharamshala with his belongings stuffed
in a small carry bag. After office that evening,
he sat in a bus that wormed slowly down the
narrow road towards the plains. It was the last time we saw him.

Tsering Wangyal passed away in Toronto at 8:33 pm
on 24 November 2000. He was 51.

Dawa Norbu (1948-2006) was born in Tashigang, a
small village near Sakya in Central Tibet. After
the Chinese occupation of Tibet he, along with
his mother and other siblings, escaped to India
where he had opportunities to study.

Using his modern education, he boldly wrote in
the editorial of the Tibetan Review, August 1972,
"...that the Tibetan people in and outside need a
dynamic and pragmatic political leadership. Even
the comrade who believes in the miracles of the
masses would agree that a people with great
revolutionary possibilities would remain fallow
without a dynamic leader. Tibetan leadership in
exile tends to be more interested in spiritual
pursuits than in the mundane affairs of a people
who is gasping for its national existence."

Under the circumstances of that time and perhaps
even now, it was a perfectly true and apt
comment. But the mob was up in arms demanding
Dawa Norbu's death for insulting their holy
leader. In a fervent rage of misguided emotion
the Tibetan women came out in full force shouting
and shrieking. They took off their beautiful
aprons and flapped them in the air, a last
measure of insult generally reserved for
Communist China. Dawa Norbu at that time did not
understand the meaning of women flapping aprons.

A group of Tibetans in their fanatic refusal to
violate customary norms of blind-faith and utter
narrow-mindedness chased Dawa Norbu with their
fists firmly clenched. Luckily his friends were
able to hide him in Dejongpa B. Tsering's room
opposite the Tibetan Medical and Astrological
Institute, where presently a scary cell-phone
tower stands. Ultimately, it took the Dalai
Lama's voice to knock some sense into those obnoxious minds.

Dawa Norbu had a private audience with His
Holiness during which he was praised for having
the guts to speak the truth. Later, in a speech
given during the general meeting on Tibetan
Education, the Dalai Lama reiterated his praise
and further stated that the purpose of educating
young exile Tibetans was coming to fruition with
their courage to think, express and carry out
responsibilities as exemplified by Dawa Norbu.
The boiling pot suddenly cooled down.

In 1976 Dawa Norbu left for further studies in
the US, and in 1982 he completed his Ph.D from
the University of California, Berkley. However,
when he came back to Dharamshala his karma
frowned at him. Perhaps the authorities did not
forget the furore that his editorial created more
than a decade earlier, or maybe they did not want
too bright a star amongst them lest they pale
under its shine, or some say that he went under
depression. Whatever the reasons were, Dawa
remained jobless for quite sometime.

The dry spell, however, came as a blessing in
disguise, for it led him to become a professor at
the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University. The
journey of a boy from a small peasant family who
rose to become exile Tibet's foremost scholar
reached its pinnacle. He, as one of his students
wrote, 'combined rare intellect with practical insights and honesty'.

Dawa Norbu passed away around 12 noon on 28 May 2006. He was 58.

The average age of these outstanding individuals is 42.

When they were alive, a constant flow of words
from them lost its meaning in our superstitious
and half-baked minds and the authorities gagged
their mouths with self-serving petty politics.
The nibs of their pens became blunt, words
blurred, sentences grew denuded and the writers
became victims. Yet when most of us have died and
turned to ashes, the new flowers that bloom will
find wisdom in the words of these people… and
through words their names will be remembered and
honoured, while we will disappear into the
shadows of history, unknown and unclaimed.

It is better to live a short fruitful life, than a long parasitic one.

Bhuchung D. Sonam can be reached at tsampa@tibetwrites.org
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