A Review of Adventures of a Fighting Monk
In Adventures of a Fighting Monk an autobiographical work compiled by Hugh Richardson we see the intriguing tale of Tashi Khedrup, otherwise known as Lhakpa. The time period covered is from 1937-1969. For the purposes of this report I will use the name which he was first given (Lhakpa) (1). He was born in the outskirts of Lhasa, “In a rat year it was probably late 1937.” (1) Hugh Richardson recounts the tale of Lhakpa’s childhood in Tshapanang (A village approximately 50 kilometers outside of Lhasa) where he grew up as a commoner. Lhakpa was the son of a herdsman. His modest upbringing did not serve as a harbinger of the fascinating life Lhakpa was to live. Lhakpa lived through the final years of an independent Tibet and ultimately the occupation of Lhasa by the Chinese. Because of his background it appears he has been able to provide scholars with a more secular perspective on the era surrounding the Cultural Revolution in Tibet.
Coming from a layman background Lhakpa was drawn into the Tibetan monastic culture by a chance encounter with an incarnate Lama of Sera who wanted to take him from his family and train him to be a monk. This is both a benefit and a loss for the family. As a herdsman and farmer in constant need of labor the loss from having a strong son depart is significant. However, being a very traditional and religious family they can not entertain the possibility of turning down this incarnate lama’s offer. The early part of this story details Lhakpa’s early training in Sera monastery located just outside of Lhasa. He participates in the morning assembly’s which occur in the great hall holding approximately 5,000 people (15). This seems like an incredibly large number of people, but is not noted with surprise in the book. It seems that such assemblies were commonplace amongst the great monasteries.
Following the death of his mentor the Shappa Lama, Lhakpa travels with Dote Chandzo to the mountains of Dagpo. During this journey he is further exposed to the layman life of herdsman and faces a very serious natural disaster. An earthquake strikes the region and, “The herdsmen were camping close under a glacier which came down on top of them and killed almost everyone and a great many animals.”(37) The date of this earthquake was around 1950 (36). Sera monastery immediately sends help in the form of supplies and people. Throughout this book adversity is a common theme and present in the lives of most Tibetans. What stood out to me was the way they deal with this adversity. It seems they take a far more communal approach to dealing with natural and man made disasters. This will be especially notable later in the book when Lhakpa suffers a serious injury as a refugee and has his leg amputated. Numerous Tibetans reach out to help even though they are facing difficulties of their own while fleeing the Chinese.
Following his stay in the mountains of Dagpo, Lhakpa returns to Lhasa for the New Year’s Festival. This festival occurred at a difficult time for Tibetans, “The Chinese had beaten our troops in East Tibet and captured the commander, the minister Ngapo. The Dalai Lama had left Lhasa for the Chumbi valley near India to wait there and see what would happen.” (39) This conflict while it is not the primary subject of the book has tremendous affects on the life of Lhakpa and those around him. The increasing modernization in the form of roads etc created substantial economic and social conflicts between the traditional and modernizing segments of society.
Soon after his return to Sera, Lhakpa’s life takes an important turn as he is sent to learn to play musical instruments under the tutelage of a one armed monk who was a Dob-dob or ‘Fighting Monk’. They undergo very intense training exercises and Lhakpa, under the tutelage of this Dob-dob finds himself increasingly attracted to their way of life. The Dob-dob’s were respected individuals, but still more common than highly respected lamas. Dob-dob’s were renowned for their physical strength and were often hired as personal body guards etc. Instead of focusing on the spiritual and intellectual elements of life Lhakpa focused more on physical exertion and competitive games.
After a period of training to become a Dob-dob, Lhakpa was offered a position with the new Governor of Kyirong. This decision soon proved to be a mistake as he found himself working for a ruthless governor who had little respect for his subjects or employees. Lhakpa was never paid for his work and routinely witnessed the Governor beating his subjects for no apparent reason. This episode is one of the few seen in this text where individuals in power use their authority for personal gain to the detriment of their subjects. Disenchanted by the Governor’s broken promises Lhakpa returns to Lhasa and finds a very changed environment.
In his two years in Kyirong a great deal changed in Lhasa. Suddenly, the Chinese have become very influential in the area and signs of modernization abound. He notes changes such as a hospital, bicycles, roads, and ‘motor traffic’. A growing tension is evident and ‘rumors’ abound that the Chinese may soon take Lhasa. Now as a fully fledged Dob-dob, Lhakpa is offered a position similar to the one in Kyirong but with a kinder master and he decides to accept. This posting proves to be an attractive one and he enjoys his time working with herdsman once again. His layman background proves useful in helping him to relate to the people whom he is overseeing. While he is occasionally forced to discipline his subjects it is very clear that Lhakpa takes no pleasure in this part of the job and does so only to maintain social order.
Lhakpasoon finds himself called back to return to participate in Lhasa’s New Year’s ceremonies. Despite his reluctance to return he is impelled to do so out of a sense of duty. Through his connection with Dote Chandzo his life takes a dramatic turn and he becomes a highly successful tea shop manager. This proves to be a challenge as Lhasa is not a stable city at the time with factions of young men creating disturbances. The book suggests this disarray and lack of discipline amongst so called ‘Teddy boys’ is a result of Chinese interferences. Toward the end of his first year as a tea shop manager (1959) the situation in Lhasa is rapidly deteriorating. Major fighting is breaking out between the Chinese and Tibetans outside of Lhasa and tensions are high everywhere. He briefly joins in the resistance movement but ends up fleeing Lhasa as an aide to Sharpa Lama who learned of his reputation as a respected Dob-dob. Again his skills as a Dob-dob make him a valuable commodity in this dangerous world.
During their flight to India Lhakpa and Sharpa Lama encounter various difficulties including Chinese encampments and hostile Khampas looking for them to rejoin in the fight against the Chinese. On the outskirts of Tibet they arrive at Tawang monastery where many of them end up staying and marrying into the farmer population. This region is not captured by the Chinese until several years later. Despite a brief encounter with one of the Momba girls of that region Lhakpa refuses to become a farmer and carries on to a refugee camp at Misamari. Here he is separated from Sharpa Lama and Dote Chandzo who are taken to a center for Lamas at Buxa. After his separation from them Lhakpa he is seriously maimed during a woodcutting expedition. This leads to a period of great difficulty in his life where for the first time he is questioning his purpose for existence. He even discovers, “That some people seem to think there is something unlucky about a man who has had misfortune.” (120) Thankfully, the majority of people are extremely helpful to him and ultimately a chance encounter with Dr. Snellgrove leads to his transfer to a hospital in Dalhousie. Dr. Snellgrove is doing research on Tibetans and is very involved in the attempt to preserve Tibet’s story in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Dr. Snellgrove is very interested in the story Lhakpa has to tell and this ultimately leads to a journey to England and the Tibet house in Tring. Here he is educated in English culture and serves as a valuable source for information on Tibetan history.
What I have attempted to provide thus far is a summary of the some of the more significant events in Lhakpa’s life. For those of you interested in analyzing life in Tibet from a secular perspective this book should prove to be a valuable resource. Personally, as a new student of Tibetan history I found the following points especially noteworthy. First, the resiliency of Lhakpa in the face of great change and adversity is admirable. Also, his general lack of knowledge about the growing conflict with China is shocking considering its proximity and the profound affect it was having on the Tibetan way of life. It is not until Lhakpa and his friends are literally driven from Lhasa that he considers joining the fight. I was also surprised by the flexibility Tibetan society, and its ability to function in relative harmony even when the people are exiled in refugee camps. The book mentions how pleasantly surprised the Indian government was to see supplies being distributed in such an orderly fashion.
In the face of great difficulties and poverty the Tibetan people remained remarkably civil and helpful to strangers and travelers through out this narrative. Lhakpa often travels on the charity of others. It seems very common to supply traveling strangers with food, supplies, and lodging on their travels. Perhaps the most interesting part of this narrative was to take note of how generally helpful and communal are the lives of everyday Tibetans. Lhakpa has little sense or desire for monetary wealth other than that which can be used to provide him with adequate food and clothing. This is an attitude which seems to be shared amongst many of his fellow compatriots.
As a reader it is important to be aware that Hugh Richardson (The author of Adventures of a Fighting Monk) displays a certain bias in favor of Tibetans. He was the last British representative in Tibet and a strong advocate of Tibetan independence. This undoubtedly leads to a slightly more favorable presentation of Tibetan society. In spite of these biases I believe this book is a useful for those seeking to understand Tibetan society leading up to and during the Cultural Revolution from a less religious perspective.