A Review of The Rainbow Palace
By Jia Zeng
The Rainbow Palace is the autobiography of Tenzin Choedrak, who was a Tibetan Lhamenpa, i.e. the physician, of the 14th Dalai Lama. The story of Dr. Tenzin Choedrak covers 74 years from 1922 to 1996, during which he moved from his birthplace Niertchen in Shigatse to Lhasa, from Lhasa to several places of imprisonment, such as Jiuzhen in China, Drapchi, and Yititok, and then finally from Lhasa to Dharamsala in India, where he permanently settled in his final years. This autobiography recounts Dr. Tenzin Choedrak’s life as an orphan in a poor Tibetan farmer’s family, as a monk in the Chothey monastery, and as a student at the medical institute Men-Tsee-Khang. In his later life, the doctor was arrested by the Chinese authorities almost the same time that he became the personal doctor of the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, imprisonment and torture did not stop him as a compassionate and persistent transmitter of traditional Tibetan medical practice with a devoted heart to Buddhism. This not only presents the doctor’s personal and professional trajectory but also Tibetans’ collective memory before and after the Chinese invasion. Therefore, as Dr. Tenzin Choedrak emphasizes repeatedly, he not merely tells his own story, but speaks up for the numerous Tibetans, now either already dead or still alive, who underwent atrocities committed by the Chinese. The English version of the autobiography published in 2000 is a translation of the French version that came out in 1998, based on Gilles van Grasdorff’s interviews with Dr. Tenzin Choedrak.
In his autobiography The Rainbow Palace, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak (1922–2001), the personal physician of the 14th Dalai Lama and a great master of the Tibetan medical tradition, gives a detailed and moving account of his life which he devoted to Buddhism and Tibetan medicine despite countless spiritual and physical sufferings in the hands of the Communist Chinese. His personal experiences also reflect the thorough and disastrous change that the Chinese imposed on the Tibetan society from the 1950s on. The doctor’s own destiny is tightly interwoven with that of his motherland, he laments as well as tries to restore the loss of his old Tibet and the Tibetan medical tradition. More telling of the master’s personal opinion than a historical analysis of the political developments of 20th century Tibet, the value of the autobiography lies not in its accuracy of facts, but in how it depicts the particularities of a Tibetan doctor’s experiences, the transformations of the Tibetan society, the public opinion of the Tibetan people toward the Chinese occupation, and even the attitude of the West.
Dr. Tenzin Choedrak divides his life into three parts, roughly the student, the prisoner, and the doctor, though he often played multiple roles at one time. The first part starts in 1922 and ends in 1950, covering his childhood, his youth as a monk in the Chothey monastery, and the arduous medical training that he received in the renowned institute Men-Tsee-Khang in Lhasa before he obtained the title of Lhamenpa.
The young Tenzin Choedrak, mistreated but also loved, epitomizes the Tibetans’ life before the incoming of the Chinese – struggling but content with their religious beliefs. Tenzin Choedrak’s Amala passed away after giving premature birth to him. Lack of care from the stepmother and the father was compensated by compassion and love that Mola, his grandmother, showed the young Tenzin Choedrak, which took root in his heart and was passed on to countless strangers – Tibetans and Chinese – in his later life. What’s more, the image of Amala became a source of consolation and courage that accompanied him throughout his life. From her death, young as he was, he gained a deeper understanding of the Buddhist teachings that “everything is impermanent,” and the rule of causality – in order to be qualified for a better rebirth in the next life, one has to deliver goodness to accumulate good karma.
The Chothey and Men-Tsee-Khang chapters describe how Tenzin Choedrak becomes a faithful Buddhist and an accomplished medical practitioner, giving the readers a rare glimpse into Tibetan medical education. From 1932 to 1940, he was a monk at the Chothey monastery, where he daily studied and memorized Buddhist texts, completed different kinds of physical labor, and swallowed the harsh, and indeed unreasonable, abuse of his professor. The hard monastic life taught Tenzin Choedrak two things, which would further guide him in the years of imprisonment. First, to practice Dharma every minute of his life because life is uncertain. Second, to control his emotions. The ordeal of medical training at the Men-Tsee-Khang institute, beginning in 1940, included mastering large volumes of medical texts, entering inhospitable environments to collect rare herbs, and taking pains to make precious pills, even purifying the mercury. He held the highest esteem for the Tibetan medical tradition, which was holistic and effective. His teacher Khenrab Norbu, the Lhamenpa of the 13th Dalai Lama and the founder of Men-Tsee-Khang, served as the immediate model and inspiration for the Lhamenpa-to-be. The strenuous life at Chothey and Men-Tsee-Khang continued to carve Tenzin Choedrak’s characters dominated by impartial compassion to every sentient being and unbending perseverance vis-à-vis natural and artificial predicaments.
In the early stages of Tenzin Choedrak’s life, Tibet is presented as a peaceful state that faithfully practiced Buddhism without external harassment. The little Tenzin Choedrak admired the flora and fauna rich in and unique to Tibet. Tibetans, at least who resided in the surroundings of Lhasa, were leading a quiet life, unaware of the rapid transformations that were overtaking other countries and the entire world. Buddhism was the mainstay of Tibetan society, despite different levels of devotion among different individuals and families. The political tumults at the highest level of the Tibetan government, e.g. the reigns of two regents, scarcely play into the young Tenzin Choedrak’s life. The old doctor’s accounts of his youth were full of nostalgia, for all this would soon be shattered.
China’s violent military occupation of Tibet marks the beginning of the second part of Tenzin Choedrak’s story, which stretches from 1950 to 1976. As soon as Dr. Tenzin Choedrak becomes the newly enthroned 14th Dalai Lama’s Lhamenpa, he is arrested by the Chinese and starts his twenty-one years of spiritual and physical torment in Chinese jails. As a faithful Buddhist, he was deprived of the right to freely practice Buddhism like the rest of the population of Tibet. He was transferred from prisons in and out of Tibet, including Chonjuk, the re-education camp in Jiuzhen, Drapchi, and the quarry at Yititok, where he went through numerous thamzing, the self-criticism sessions, where Chinese and Tibetan prisoners accused each other as reactionaries of Communism. Besides spiritual torture, starvation and various kinds of inhuman corporal punishment tortured most prisoners to death or suicide. Dr. Tenzin Choedrak survived with the help of his unwavering belief in Buddhist teachings and his knowledge in Tibetan medicine, which not only benefited himself, his Tibetan countrymen, but also the Chinese invaders, whom he saved with the compassionate heart of a Buddhist and a doctor.
During this period, the Tibetan society’s religious and natural environment was savaged by the Communist Chinese, a fact that deeply grieved Dr. Tenzin Choedrak and many of his Tibetan countrymen. The Communists sacked the monasteries and burned Buddhist texts and artifacts. Chinese propaganda portrayed Tibet before 1950 as feudal and oppressive, attacked the authority of the Dalai Lama and the whole set of Buddhist institutions. The cohesion of Tibetans disintegrated with the help of Tibetans “traitors”, as Dr. Tenzin Choedrak called them, who collaborated with and enriched themselves from the Chinese. The other arrested Tibetans who were afraid of the Chinese falsely accused innocent Tibetans to earn favors for themselves in the thamzing sessions. In addition, the immense re-construction projects and extraction of natural resources wiped out the original Tibetan landscape and damaged the ecological system by deforestation and mass killing of wild animals. Tibetans were involved in Chinese political programs, e.g. the collectivization of farms, which led to the Great Famine that also affected Tibet.
While Dr. Tenzin Choedrak vividly reproduces Chinese’s violent actions to totally transform the old Tibet, the Lhamenpa does not explore the historical explanations behind the Chinese invasion. As a master of Tibetan medicine not fully informed with the details of politics, he plainly regards Tibet as a completely independent state before the coming of the Chinese, and claims that “at the end of this document [the Seventeen Point Agreement] the Chinese authorities affixed a counterfeit of the seals of the Tibetan signatories,” both episodes of history that are yet to be clarified. Certainly, the intention of the autobiography is not to present history with the cautiousness of a historian. The doctor’s personal accounts serve other important purposes, such as reflecting how non-historian Tibetan people might view Tibetan history of the 1950s to 1970s and the horrendous means of Chinese’ socialization of Tibet.
The last part of the autobiography records the doctor’s life after twenty-one years of imprisonment and surveillance in Chinese-occupied Tibet. From 1980 to 1996, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak settled in Dharamsala with the 14th Dalai Lama, where he resumed the position of Lhamenpa and re-established the medical institute Men-Tsee-Khang under the Tibetan exile government. Far away from his hometown, he is unable to offer much information about the further transformation of the Tibetan society in the last two decades of his life. What never leaves him is his faith in Buddhism and the universal compassion and love from a true doctor. As one can infer from the doctor’s worldwide tour to spread and promote the research of Tibetan medicine, the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala had received support from various countries and private organizations, though lots of obstacles stand before the exiled Tibetans who wish to restore the Ganden Phodrang government, just as the doctors from the West have reservations about Tibetan doctors’ purification and usage of mercury in their medical practice.
Overall, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak’s autobiography offers a valuable account of the Lhamenpa’s personal life as a Buddhist, a master of Tibetan medical tradition, and an advocate for independence of Tibet from Chinese control. His depictions of the pre-1950 Tibetan rural and monastic life, the disasters in Tibet under Chinese occupation, and the developments in the Dalai Lama’s exile government in India allow us to gain a more direct and comprehensive understanding of the history of 20th century Tibet. Indeed, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak always sticks to the unique perspective of his own, which leaves out the political ongoings between the highest Tibetan and Chinese authorities or gives insufficiently grounded conclusions. Nevertheless, the irreplaceable point of view from Dr. Tenzin Choedrak as a devoted Buddhist doctor makes this autobiography an invaluable source for Tibetan studies.
. Tenzin Choedrak, The Rainbow Palace (London: Bantam Books, 2000), 140.