Abstract and Review of My Youth In Tibet: Recollections of a Tibetan Woman
My Youth in Tibet is a two-part narrative written by Tseyang Sadutshang, the niece of the 5th Reting Rinpoche (Thupten Jampel Yishey Gyantsen; Tupten Jampel Yeshe Gyentsen) during the first half of the 20th century. Part 1 is Tseyang’s autobiography of her childhood in Reting and Lhasa: the sacred festivals, adventures with friends, her relationship with her mother and grandmother, and her arranged marriage. In Part 2, Tseyang gives a biography of Reting Rinpoche, the regent responsible for appointing the present Dalai Lama, where she describes the events leading to his recognition as a regent, his interaction with the Dalai Lama that led to his poor fate, his kindness to others as a regent. The story concludes with Rinpoche’s incarceration and how it is believed that he was poisoned to his death. With this work, she intends to (1) provide insights into the life of an average Tibetan girl and (2) establish a compassionate portrayal of Reting Rinpoche.
The Childhood of Tseyang Sadutshang
Tseyang Sadutshang was born in 1926 in Reting, Tibet, and was raised by her mother and grandmother, Rinpoche’s older sister and mother respectively. Describing her childhood as ‘carefree,’ and indeed living it so, Tseyang seeks many playmates as the only child in the household. Growing up, she would visit her aunt’s nomad camp, where she played with her cousin and the young girls who tended to the calves. She also played ‘truant’ (8), once walking to a village and befriending two girls who were grazing their cows, and another time running away with her cousin. Within these anecdotes, readers experience cultural standards of the time for clothing, food, religious/spiritual practice, and living conditions. As her connections to Reting Rinpoche inevitably pervade her childhood anecdotes, Tseyang immediately begins legitimizing her ability to give Rinpoche’s biography in the second half of the story.
This relationship with Rinpoche tangibly taints her childhood from that of the intended ‘ordinary Tibetan girl’ (vii) she wishes to establish. As the only child, Rinpoche arranged for her to play with cousins easing her loneliness. She sits in special seating at sacred festivals and describes her observations of the public as outsiders. Her favorite folk tale as a child narrates the story of a rural girl identified as his wife by a king disguised as a beggar, where she learns of his special status at a sacred festival (17-18), likely influenced by her family ties. These dimensions of Tseyang’s story reveal the role of hierarchy – and its importance – in her childhood and Tibetan culture.
Tseyang moves with her family to Lhasa as Rinpoche moves for his appointment as the regent. Here she starts attending ‘regular school’ (19), where corporal punishment is common and two break days are permitted monthly. In one anecdote, she does prostrations around the Lingkhor, the outer circular path surrounding a temple in Lhasa, with friends and observes many well-respected people also come, whose descendants marry hers later in life. Her friends are daughters of the Tana noble family, and the one she is closest with marries a well-off Chinese official. Later in life, she describes her visit to this friend, commenting on the many contrasts to the Tibetan lifestyle with respect to food, lifestyle, and drugs. Though never explicit in the story beyond this anecdote and Tseyang’s mention of her escape to India, the reader observes how Chinese rule greatly influenced Tibetan society and culture.
Tseyang returns to Reting with her mother and grandmother at age fifteen after Rinpoche gives up his regency. Her grandmother’s medical condition worsens in severity and she suddenly becomes very ill. Though both Rinpoche and a doctor arrived, she dies that night. Sacred rituals including Rinpoche having prayers said for his mother by all the incarnate Lamas and having her body cut up and offered to the vultures as a final act of compassion that produces ‘a rainbow… all around the sun which (everyone) saw’, indicating that Rinpoche’s mother was ‘spiritually special’ (24). This anecdote further humanizes Rinpoche as faithful to his family and provides additional insight into Tibetan culture surrounding death.
Tseyang had two arranged marriages before finally marrying her husband Rinchen Sadutshang at age sixteen. Her first arranged marriage occurs when she was fourteen to the heir of Lhasa aristocrats Mr. and Mrs. Choktey (26). Only after all the paperwork is signed do the Chokteys communicate that they do not have a son and that their heir is Mr. Choktey’s younger brother. Tseyang’s mother becomes distrustful, and upon observing Mr. Choktey berate his wife over a trivial matter during a visit, she requests that Rinpoche break off the engagement. Rinpoche obliges and instead approves her marriage to ‘the very wealthy Khampa family by name of the Sadutshang’ (26). The Chokteys attempt to stop the wedding (27) by spreading false remarks. Though the wedding proceeds, the Chokteys continue spiteful rumors against Rinpoche throughout Tseyang’s life. Nonetheless, Tseyang disregards the drama and she is grateful to her mother for speaking up. She believes that karma enabled this positive, yet difficult, switch in her life (29). Once married, Tseyang gives birth to six children and serves as the treasurer of all Sadutshang family cash. She also manages the storerooms of food for trading and other commodities. These activities end when she leaves for India with her husband to escape China’s harsh rule of Tibet where ‘life became much simpler’ (32).
Thupten Jampel Yishey Gyaltsen: The 5th Reting Rinpoche
The 5th Reting Rinpoche was born in Gyatsa of the Dakpo region, Central Tibet. Various incidents during his childhood establish that he was ‘a unique child’ (37), and his mother suspects that he is an incarnation. One day, monks from Reting monastery arrive at the Rinpoche’s home disguised as beggars, sent by the 13th Dalai Lama to identify the new Reting incarnation. Reting Rinpoche passes the tests, and the Dalai Lama requests that monks recognize him as the 5th Reting Rinpoche, and invites him to his new home at age nine.
The author then relays what she believes were the fateful events of Rinpoche’s demise that transpired during the 13th Dalai Lama’s visit to Reting. During a special ceremony, in which Rinpoche would receive a sacred scarf from the Dalai Lama, Rinpoche is instructed ‘not to get up on any account’ (42). Out of nervousness he rises when the Dalai Lama leaves the room, and the Dalai Lama becomes very upset upon walking back in and finding Rinpoche standing; Tseyang speculates that this accidental disobedience is what caused Rinpoche’s hardships later in life. The Dalai Lama also gives Rinpoche his book of divination which includes instructions on how to interpret the results. Since this action is only performed by a regent after the Dalai Lama dies, the author speculates that the Dalai Lama clairvoyantly knew it would be Rinpoche who will search and recognize his successor, which Rinpoche undertakes after becoming the regent in 1934 at age 23 when the 13th Dalai Lama passed away.
Rinpoche is further humanized through several anecdotes of his kindness to others. Beyond stopping Tseyang’s catastrophic marriage to the Choktey heir, once he found a poor nobleman working in a vegetable garden to make a living (50), and after becoming the regent, Rinpoche appointed the person to a district magistrate’s post, a position that provided a sustainable income. Another time, Rinpoche appoints a long-time servant to a prestigious position, and later switches the location upon the servant’s request to live close to his home. Finally, Rinpoche helps Tseyang conceive her first son after she gave birth to two girls by arranging for her to circumambulate the Khando Sangwa Yeshi Rock, known to help women give birth to boys, and also walking with her.
Vagueness increases towards the end of Rinpoche’s life, enabling the reader to sympathize with Rinpoche through the previous accounts of his kindness and innocence. After prolonged upheaval during his regency, Rinpoche elects to go on a three-year spiritual retreat and appoints Tatrak Rinpoche to perform his regency tasks. When he returns, Tatrak refused to leave the position of regency, and instead, Reting Rinpoche was arrested by 250 soldiers. Rinpoche is then led on a humiliating trip back to Lhasa and is imprisoned. In prison, he becomes very sick and is diagnosed with severe depression. The medication given by an aide of Tatrak Rinpoche is suspected to be the poison that killed Reting Rinpoche. It marks the conclusion of Tseyang Sadutshang’s narrative.
Despite Tseyang’s intention of providing a “glimpse into the life of an ordinary Tibetan girl, one not born into the privileges of nobility (vii)”, her relation to Rinpoche and the associated privileges inevitably pervade her childhood experiences, underscoring the value of hierarchy and nobility in Tibetan culture. That said, the autobiography-biography coupling in My Youth in Tibet enables an understanding of the human dimension of the 5th Reting Rinpoche, an important facet to consider while interpreting alternative reports of Rinpoche’s story.