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Famous Reporter # 34





Jen Gibson talks with Khensur Rinpoche, a Tibetan  
Buddhist Abbot, about his memories of this extraordinary time.


After New Year and the Great Prayer Festival when we had returned to our monasteries in 1959, there was an 'upheaval', a spontaneous people's protest. It started on the first day of Tibetan second month, corresponding to 10 March 1959 in the western calendar. At this time we only used the dates of the Tibetan calendar. That was the day the Chinese wanted His Holiness the Dalai Lama to attend their theatrical performance. All the Lhasa people went to the Norbulinka, his summer palace, in order to prevent His Holiness from attending for they mistrusted the Communist Chinese intentions towards him. They started shouting and yelling, 'Please don't go there. It is not safe for you', and trying to stop the Dalai Lama from being taken away.

Days before the Chinese had invited His Holiness to a very big show saying, he was not allowed to bring his normal bodyguards and that he shouldn't come with many people. It was clear they either intended to arrest him and put him into detention or to take him to China. At that time perhaps because of the power of Tibet's local protecting deities the Tibetans understood the bad intentions of the Chinese and the public gathered from five in the morning all around the Norbulinka to prevent His Holiness from going. He was to depart for the play at the Chinese compound at about nine. They were there to prevent him leaving.

The people also watched carefully to see if there were any Chinese spies. One they found was called Sandup Porong and they started throwing stones at him. He was killed on the spot. There was also a famous lama called Phagbala, one of whose relatives happened to be a Chinese sympathiser too. This relative wore a white mask around his mouth the way the Chinese do to prevent infection and had a Chinese pistol on his waist. When he saw the crowd he tried to escape but the people caught and beat him and he was killed too. Ropes were tied to his corpse and he was dragged all the way down to the Bakor as the crowd shouted, `Tibet is for Tibetans! Chinese go back to China! Tibet is an independent country!' Because this spontaneous uprising started on the tenth of March by the western calendar, today Tibetans still commemorate that date.

On the evening of the eight-day of the Tibetan second month that is on the seventeenth of March in the Western calendar, the Dalai Lama escaped in disguise. During that day before his flight the Chinese had fired two tank bombs. Somehow they did not damage the building he was in but after that they sent a letter to His Holiness saying, `Show us on a map the place where you will be in the palace, because now it seems these Tibetan people can't be controlled without using violence, so we have to know where you are'.

In the morning of the ninth of the Tibetan second month which was the day after the Dalai Lama had left, Geshe Ngawang Dhargey, myself and one of our students went down to Lhasa city to see the famous Cho statue of Buddha in the Jhokang and pay our respects. In the monastery we had heard that a lot of things were happening in Lhasa and the situation had become quite desperate. That was one reason I went, to see for myself how things were. We wanted to find out whether the extent of the troubles was true or had been exaggerated.

After visiting the Jhokang we circumambulated the Bakor to purify our negativity’s, accumulate merit and to look what was happening with the Chinese around the area of the Chorten. There was both an inner and outer circuit, the inside or middle circumambulation route went around the cathedral and there were normally many shops, small stalls selling to crowds of people in the street. But this day there weren't any people doing business at all. All the shops were closed and when we went around there were just a very few people standing about. Nearby there were buildings occupied by Chinese, perhaps army barracks or branch offices, and on top of these there were Chinese machine guns installed and pointed down towards the public. From these rooftops the soldiers behind the guns popped their heads out checking on the public and then hid again. The soldiers were on the roofs of houses too with their guns aimed below.

Nearby was an empty house where monks stayed each year for two weeks during the Monlam Prayer Festival. Since it was empty at this time we bought some meat and vegetable momo and some tea from a restaurant and went there. This was about ten in the morning. While Geshe Ngawang Dhargey remained in that house I went out into the Bakor with the student monk to see how things were going.

Suddenly we saw three or four hundred women come out into the street, shouting. They were from the Tibetan Women's Association. They chanted slogans like, `We want our Independence again. Chinese go back to your own country!’ On the street corners and all about the street were posters and billboards written in Chinese with pictures of Mao Tse Tung and other Chinese leaders. The Tibetan women pulled all these slogans and posters apart, destroyed them all and then moved slowly towards the Chinese headquarters. The Chinese soldiers on top of the roof threw stones and many of things at the women. So many of them were injured. I saw them returning with wounds and cuts.

From loudspeakers the Chinese announced: `Reactionary Tibetans have hold of the Dalai Lama in the Norbulinka and we Chinese will arrest the two main Cabinet Ministers Surkhang and Pala. We will arrest them and make them eat their own flesh and drink their own blood in front of everybody'. These messages were in Tibetan. There were many Chinese in Lhasa who spoke some Tibetan and there were Tibetan's held by the Chinese who were forced to act as interpreters.

The Chinese also announced, `China is like a big elephant and this Tibetan disturbance is like a small ant biting the elephant's feet'. They repeated various statements like this. To them it was just something to laugh about. The women who were going towards the Chinese barracks were stopped and afterwards nobody was going in that direction. So my friend and I thought it was not safe for us to walk that way. We went into a small teashop, had tea and then returned to Ngawang Dhargey at the house. The three of us returned to Sera monastery. It was about three in the afternoon by then. We were away a long time.

On our return we heard that the Chinese had come to the monastery in the morning and again in the afternoon to arrest monks coming back from the city. Fortunately by the time we returned they had already left, otherwise the three of us could have been in real trouble.

It was the ninth of the second Tibetan month when Geshe Ngawang Dhargey and I went down to the city, had a look and returned. On the night of the ninth we started to hear the bombs landing in Sera itself. This was the eighteenth of March 1959 by the Western calendar.

The Dalai Lama escaped on the evening of the eight of the Tibetan second month, the seventeenth of March 1959 by the western calendar but people still believed he was in the Norbulinka so they continued to gather there carrying everything that they could find, sticks, stones, old guns and different weapons. The Chinese started attacking with machine guns and tank fire. The Tibetans could do nothing in return. The Chinese were already too powerful from all sides. It was a massacre. At Sera we heard all this bombing and saw gunfire in the Norbulinka. We were intensely worried about what could be happening to the Dalai Lama. When the bombing started I had a strong pain in the heart worrying what might happen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Afterwards, about ten in the evening when I heard that he had left, I felt very happy.

On the ninth we received the message that His Holiness had escaped, so we were all relieved. Because of the massacre at the Norbulinka, people couldn't stay there any longer. Some were monks and when they escaped they brought us the news at Sera. This was the day after our return from Lhasa. The whole of Sera monastery heard the Chinese attack begin. There were bombs and tanks fire, machine guns firing and flames darting to and fro from all directions, especially around the Norbulinka. The actual attack probably started at one at night in the city but in Sera we heard it from about two when it became more intense.

It seems the Chinese army entered the city and started firing. I was sleeping when many sounds of guns and bombs woke me. My rooms were near the top of the building. I went up to the roof and looked out over the city. There was much noise from gunfire and many lights and smoke from the exploding bombs.

Many monks from the three colleges of Sera monastery went down to the Potala Palace to collect guns from a storeroom where they were kept along with other things. These rifles where purchased by the Tibetan government from the English during the time of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, prior to 1933. These guns were about twenty five years out of date. We called them `English guns'. They were obtained when India was under British rule and fired one bullet at a time. They had to be reloaded after each shot. They weren't really good enough to fight with at all. Against modern Chinese weapons including machine guns and mortars, they were almost useless. So although the monks had these guns there really wasn't anything the Tibetans could do to defend themselves.

The Chinese had already prepared themselves for battle on all the surrounding mountains. Previously they had dug ditches and then installed their guns ready pointing down so all they had to do was pull the trigger. All these preparations had been taking place for several years. They must have been planning things since 1951. In east Tibet it had already started. The 1950s had been years of continuous struggle. They had first tried every indirect means to control Tibet with the intention that if things didn't work they would use direct force.

The monks took the guns from the Potala when the firing started and about three they returned with the guns to Sera. The Chinese saw them bringing the guns, fired many bombs into Sera and killed many monks at this time. The Chinese had ample bullets and machine gun with the big rolls of automatic ammunition: Dah, dah dah dah de de de de de de. We only had these few old rifles so it was not a fair fight.

As I have mentioned before my three roommates and I had two rooms, one was the living room and another the kitchen. This kitchen had a stove with a chimney built like a miniature house with real soil and small rocks. Like any normal chimney the top part jutted outside with a covering to protect it from rain. When the bombs from the tanks struck, this top was destroyed and the whole cover came to pieces through the chimney. There were four pillars and then the top. Due to the impact the whole house inside was filled with dust and smoke. It was so bad that one of the roommates felt very dizzy. He couldn't breath and fainted. However he did not die and within a few hours he had recovered. One of my young students ran in panic downstairs to hide. He was not killed but later returned to join us. Many of the monks' quarters exploded. The smoke, dust and ashes chocked us. There was no gas from shells, but the accumulation of so many years, soot, dust and rubble exploding choked us. Lhasa, the Norbulinka, Sera, everything, was being destroyed. Many people had died and more were shot. Drepung was further away so at that time not much happened there. Sera was attacked heavily because monks from that monastery had taken up arms. Ganden sustained worse damage still and was destroyed completely much later during the Cultural Revolution.

In the Tibetan way of reckoning it was still the tenth until dawn. Some monks had already fled intending to escape to India or elsewhere. Many of my student came to my room and said to me, `We can't remain here. We must escape. Everyone is leaving Sera'. I told them, `We shouldn't go yet. The right time to escape will come later. ' But they urged me to flee immediately and leave Tibet so I told them I would consult our Protector Kamacha.

The protecting deity of the whole of Sera monastery, the three colleges and also of my Trehor Kamzen was Kamacha. Normally the main teacher of our kamzen offered regularly every day without exception a special puja known as kangso. This was an expression of all the faults the monks had committed during that day with a request for forgiveness. But at that time we also held another special small puja to our Protector deity known as tin cho which meant `to rely on his help to keep us healthy'. We did this as the monks were going to get the guns from the Potala.

Kamacha was very powerful. Many times before he had told each of the college monks to leave, `Flee, flee!' Even as early as the fifteenth of Tibetan first month, when Monlam festival was in progress he had given this warning. At this time in Lhasa, Kamacha's presence had come as it usually did, through the Oracle in trance. From that time onwards whenever the Kamacha Protector came through one of the other specific monks who would act as a host, he threw his upper garment and said, `You monks should share pieces of this upper garment and each keep one piece as a protection against weapons'. So from that time our protector was predicting these things.

In Sera Monastery too this protector whenever he came through in trance also said, `You should all leave! I am also not staying here. I am going to Shamba-la'. In western Tibet this was a land beyond this world. Normally Kamacha protected the northern pass to Shambala the mystical city to which the Kalachakra Tantra has specific reference.

Whenever we wished to make a request to our protector we had to go through this main teacher of the kamzen asking him, `I have to do a Tag rim or divinatory observation'. I went to this teacher who was the caretaker of the protector and explained, ` My students have been requesting me to escape. I need to do ask our Protector would it be advisable to escape or not?' This teacher was my friend. He was born in the same area and we both belonged to the same class in the college. He answered me, `There have been very many monks coming with the same question about whether to leave or not and all of them received the same answer which was to go. '

But my students asked, `Would you please also ask for a reply to our particular case'. Then the teacher consulted the Protector and returned saying, `The answer came, "It is better to go. Leave!"' I requested him to ask a second question, `Even if the answer is to leave, would it be better to just go to a place in the mountains called Pempo or to travel beyond that? ' So he requested an answer from the Protector to this question too and the reply was, `Definitely it is better to go far beyond that place. You should go over the mountains'.

In Tibet there were many other cases where Lamas made divinatory observations to their respective Protectors asking whether it was advisable to flee or not to leave Lhasa. For them the answer was, `It is not good for you to go. You should stay. ' Sometimes this was the case for whole monastic colleges. Because of this many monks afterwards experienced terrible hardship at the hands the Chinese, they had practically no food, experienced religious suppression and re-education session. One large kamzen, Hamdong, containing about half the population of Sera Je monks in Tibet suffered this fate. Others only had a handful of monks who escaped and survived. Now in India our kamzen has the largest population in Sera Je because of this advice of our Protector to flee.

This teacher had asked guidance for his own case as to whether it would be good for him to leave or not. The answer came, `It is better for you to stay. Do not leave'. But still I gave him my opinion which was, `Even though the answer came for you to stay you still shouldn't be too insistent on that point. You have to see how other people are doing and if everybody leaves then there is no point in your staying.’ After having said this to him I asked him, `For time being would you please keep this key to my house?'

It was a great pity that this monk could not come. Afterwards the Chinese beat him and tortured him so many times. Finally after so much torture he was sent back to his home town, Rinda, where he was imprisoned and in the prison he died. He had been at Dhargey monastery with me too but he came to Lhasa quite a long time after I did. He was in the same class and we were from the same home town so we were good friends.

I only heard these details much later, after 1980, when Tibetans from Lhasa and Sera monastery came to visit India. I asked them and then they told me, `He was been beaten and tortured so much and then afterwards sent to his home town to prison where he died. ' Later on I heard more details. Some time after we left he was persuaded by his students to escape. When they all came to a certain point after travelling some distance he suddenly changed his mind saying, `I have to go back. Things are not supposed to be like that'. He wouldn't listen to their request to escape. It was mainly because of his past karma.

After he had spoken to the Protector for me, I returned to my quarters. All the students had gathered and they were asking, `What happened? What happened? What is the answer?' I said, `The answer is that it is better to leave,' and so they quickly began packing. We did not have too many things, a small supply of food and some religious texts. I couldn't carry anything, I only took with me the main text, The Lam Rim Chemo by Tsong Khapa which was roughly five inches thick. This original copy of mine is at Sera monastery in India. That was the only thing I carried tied across my neck and shoulders.

It was about eight that evening when under the cover of darkness, together with the fifteen students, I escaped across Nyanri Mountain. I don't remember its other name but we always referred to it as Nyanri after the protective deity at its foot. During the following day the eleventh, we descended the other side of this mountain and made our way towards the village of Pempo. It was daytime when we arrived after our long walk from Lhasa in bright sunshine.

When we left Lhasa most of the monks wore chuba except for a few old monks. It is difficult to walk the very long distances we had to travel wearing monks robes. Also monks' dress is red and very conspicuous if the Chinese were watching. Even the Dalai Lama was disguised when he escaped.

A few of the young monks from a separate group had horses and rifles which they wanted to use to fight the Chinese. I did not have a rifle but two of my students had gone to the Potala to get guns. In my group five monks carried guns. Two armed monks walked in front and three at the rear. This was at the start while we crossed to Pempo. Later two groups of monks from the same class as I all gathered together to form one company. There were at the end about thirty-five monks. Chinese aircraft were patrolling to see if there were any monks escaping. They were searching for any fleeing Tibetans. It was quite frightening.

A Chinese plane appeared in Pempo sky and started firing. There were a whole chain of people escaping, some were headed north, some to Lodkhar and different places and the plane fired down on everyone around Pempo. It was high in the sky and I couldn't see well but there were rapid burst of firing as from a machine gun. Afterwards I heard that not many people were hit although a lot of domestic animals and cattle were killed. The shooting was definitely aimed at the people.

There were many people in this village and my party and I asked for shelter in one of the houses. Some of our monks had no shoes. Neither did we have cooking pots, supplies or anything to take with us on a long journey. We stayed in Pempo for two or three days while the village people who were very helpful tried to supply us with everything we needed for the long journey ahead.

It was here that more monks from Sera joined our party including another two senior monks. One was Lodure Gonpo and the other Tsewang Phuntsog. The rest were students. There were now so many of us, how were we going to manage to carry enough tsampa?

We three senior monks discussed which way it would be best to escape, north, east or west. We decided that, `Oh maybe it is better if we again consult the Protector Kamacha and do another observation'. It wasn't necessary to actually be in the presence of Kamacha. After completing the visualisation of our protector we simply requested his assistance and performed the mo divination. We used three dice made from dough, pa. As one of the other two monks was senior to me, in a higher class, the younger monk and myself requested him to throw the mo but instead he requested me to do it. Maybe he had a good opinion of my abilities.

Pempo was at an intersection where there were three possible ways to travel, to different parts of Tibet. At this crossroads we had to decide where it was best for us to go next. One way led first to Ganden then Lodkhar and thence to India. The Tibetan volunteer guerrilla army, Chushi gongdurg, - the name means four rivers and six mountains and symbolised all of Tibet - was located at Lodkhar and this was the route the Dalai Lama had taken. Another route led a long way northward through the northern desert to the upper western part of Tibet called Dhu, among the nomad people. There was a third way, west to Mount Kailas from there to the other side eventually. Actually I wished to go to this northern part where we could hide in the thick forests which were found on the first section of the road. Whilst hiding there I hoped that perhaps the Tibetan guerrilla army would come and solve our problems. Otherwise I thought that we could continue on the desert route when things had calmed down.

When I made the observation with the other two monks, we had to choose from these three possibilities. I threw the dice and the answer was: `Heading north would be the worst choice possible. To go to the west should be the second choice but not the best one. The first choice should be to go head to Lodkhar'. Immediately we began our escape by that same easterly route as the Dalai Lama to Lodkhar and then we turned south in order to reach India.

At this time my group and I didn't have enough food. Everything we had brought with us from Sera was eaten. Neither did we have pots for cooking. Most of the younger monks had no proper shoes either. We remained in that house for a couple of days trying to prepare all the supplies we so urgently needed for the next part of our escape.

This family of husband, wife and children at whose house we stayed were very kind but had no food to give us. They liked us very much and looked after our group well. However some distance away we went to visit two monks who supervised a storehouse, acting as persons in charge of tsampa and grains collected during harvest from fields belonging to Sera Monastery. They said, `Things are very bad and we are leaving tonight to escape ourselves. We don't have any more tsampa left but there is un-roasted barley here and you are welcome to take as much as you need. Help yourself!'

About ten or fifteen of the younger monks walked a little over an hour to this storehouse and brought back all the barely our group would need for the journey. We then asked the family to roast and grind the grains to make tsampa, which they very kindly did for us in their water mill. They were amazingly helpful to us. Many of the nearby families lived on land that actually belonged to Sera Je Monastery, so the barley really belonged to the monks anyway. But all these people around the neighbourhood put a lot of effort into roasting the barley and then grinding it in the mill for us.

It took us three days altogether to prepare everything for the long journey ahead. Some of the monks in our group repaired their shoes. The householders also gave us many cooking pots and ladles. Since our large party needed more tsampa and pots than we could carry on our backs this couple we were staying with said, `We have two small donkeys. They don't look it but they are very strong. You can have these donkeys to carry the tsampa'. We pooled whatever money we had individually making a total of eighty silver coins called tankhar and gave these to the couple saying, `Please keep this as the price for the donkeys and if sometime afterwards we meet again we can perhaps give you something more.' It was not nearly enough to cover the cost of the donkeys which were very expensive in the Lhasa area. They were very generous to us.

Our group of monks set off on the chosen escape route with the donkeys laden with tsampa and everything else the villages had provided for us. Pempo village had a very reliable deity, a Protector called Samara. This Protector Samara had already told the village and our party that it would be much better to leave as soon as possible and certainly before the fifteenth of the Tibetan calendar. So we set out the fourteenth day of the Tibetan second month with our two small donkeys.

As we fled from Pempo there were Tibetans waiting on the way with letters stamped with Sera monastery seals. These letters carried messages saying firstly, `You should all surrender all your weapons,' and secondly, `If you have any statues, texts and holy things you should give them all to the Chinese government'. The third point of the message was, `If you do this, everything will be as peaceful as before and there will be no punishment'. We realised these were just Tibetan people sent by the Chinese to stop our escape. By then everything was under Chinese control, the city of Lhasa and all of Sera Monastery, so the Chinese had access to all of our official seals. These Tibetans were forced by the Chinese to follow us. Many people listened to them and turned back.

Since all of my party came from Kham we had all had previous experience in our home area with the Chinese. All Kham-pa people knew that somehow in the end the Chinese promises always turned out to be deceptive. We were all determined not to be misled. We were firmly decided that the best thing was to try as hard as we could to escape. Our feeling concerning these messengers was not good.

Some of the monks in our party loudly told these people carrying letters, `There is no point in your trying to say these things to us. We have already decided to leave. We are definitely going'. The messengers were not using force but they were trying every politely means to persuade people not to escape, to draw them back. This occurred a couple of days after the aeroplanes had flown overhead trying to frighten everyone.

On the one hand Chinese were trying to draw people peacefully with letters but on the other hand there was a whole guerrilla fight raging between the Tibetan Guerrilla Army, Chushi gongdurg, and the Chinese. This meant there was still the ever-present possibility of a Chinese attack. The five monks I mentioned before who had gone to the Potala to get guns still had them. So with two walking in front and three behind they continued to provide the only protection, real or imaginary, for our party of thirty five.


The life story of Buddhist Geshe (teacher),
Khensur Rinpoche, of which this segment is a part,
was translated by Jen Gibson from the Tibetan,
using tapes and the help of two excellent translators
(one Tibetan the other Western).



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