Dec. 6th, 2009
Review of The Autobiography of A Tibetan Monk by Palden Gyatso
Palden Gyatso was born in 1933 into a well-heeled peasant family in a village called Panam, some 125 miles west of Lhasa and 45 miles from Tibet’s second largest city, Shigatse. At the age of ten, he became a novice in the nearby Gadong monastery. The year 1952 marked the arrival of the Chinese troops in Gadong and Panam for the first time. Since then, the Chinese presence became impossible to ignore. In that same year Palden seized an opportunity to go to Drepung in Lhasa for further religious study. He studied under a famous Indian Buddhist named Gyen Rigzin Tenpa. After the March 1959 uprising, he watched Drepung being shelled by the Chinese as he was helping his teacher escape to Gadong. Later that year he was arrested for his connection with Gyen Rigzin Tenpa, whom the Chinese accused of being a spy for the Indian government. Then the Chinese military court sentenced him to seven years in prison for his involvement in the 1959 Lhasa uprising. However, an unsuccessful escape attempt and several defiant protests in prison increased Palden’s punishment to thirty-two years in various Chinese prisons and labor camps, during which time he and other Tibetan inmates suffered starvation and physical torture. After his eventual release in 1992, he escaped to Dharamsala where he was met by the Dalai Lama who, upon hearing his life story, encouraged him to write a book about his life, which Palden did, with the help of Tibetologist Tsering Shakya. The Autobiography of A Tibetan Monk tells Paden Gyatso’s life story from his birth in 1933 to his release from prison in 1992.
Palden’s life experience is truly unique in having survived more than thirty years of prison time in China and still managed to escape to Dharamsala in the end and write a book about his life. He recalled that of the twenty novices in Gadong monastery with whom he took the gelong’s vow together to become fully ordained monks in 1952, he was the only one who lived to tell his story. And yet his experience during the Chinese occupation of Tibet was nothing special, compared to other Tibetans who also escaped and wrote their stories – it was the same kind of suffering that had been experienced by numerous Tibetans in the Land of Snow after the Chinese had “liberated” it and begun to bring about socialist change. As Palden noted in the Prologue of his book, he hoped that by writing down what had happened to him, “perhaps…I can tell the story of my country and give expression to the pain felt by every Tibetan.”
Palden’s birth coincided with many auspicious signs, which convinced his grandmother that he must be a trulku, an incarnate of a high Tibetan lama. His mother died shortly after he was born, and he had to be sent to a village called Gyatso Shar to live with his aunt. Childhood in both places was simple and happy. He vividly recalled the religious ceremony that the villagers in Panam performed each year in the harvesting season, and the yul-lha‘s abode, a secluded place in which the villagers believed that the malicious village spirit resided, where Palden never dared to venture near alone. He and his aunt’s daughter Wangmo became the closest friends, and this gave Palden some of his fondest childhood memories. One of Palden’s uncles was a monk in Tashihunpo. The children loved to listen to his stories. Through his uncle, Palden heard stories about Chenresig, the Buddha of Compassion, and the origin of the Tibetan people; about how people would be judged when they die to decide whether to put them in heaven or in hell; about how India was the holiest place on earth and the rest of the world was to be feared; and about how privileged one was to be born in the Land of the Snow. In hindsight, Palden found new meanings in his uncle’s stories. He wrote, “I think now that it was my uncle’s stories of Tibet and of the origins of the Tibetan people that first forged my understanding of the essential difference between Tibetans and the Chinese. When the Chinese arrived and told us that Tibet had always been part of China, we did not understand them. We had a different sense of history. Of course, the communists tried to dismiss these stories as childish tales, but for us they were powerful narratives, part of what it meant to be Tibetan” (13).
Before he reached eighteen, Palden, like most of the monks in Gadong and the villagers in Panam, had no idea of what was going on in the outside world. They did not even know the politics in Lhasa, because politics had traditionally been the privileges of the ruling elite only. As Palden was growing up in Gadong, the anti-Japanese war in China and the civil war that followed remained totally unheard of. Palden’s life in the monastery was characterized by routine and tranquility. “In Panam,” he wrote, “only the shifting of the seasons marked the passing of time” (29). That was the life of an ordinary Tibetan monk before the Chinese changed it.
The first Chinese troops arrived in Panam in 1952. A group of Chinese officials presented gifts to the monastery head. They brought a socialist message, but were otherwise polite and generous. The Chinese gradually increased their presence in the village and organized theatric shows. Palden was curious, but he was never really impressed by the novelty that the Chinese had brought into his life. When he caught the first sight of the Chinese who came to the monastery, his impression was that he could not even tell their sexes because they all dressed exactly the same in their Chinese uniforms and caps. Palden was very aware of how the introduction of the Chinese way of life was ruining their traditional way of life, down to every detail. At one point, when the Chinese officials came to the monastery and distributed enamel mugs that born propaganda slogans, Palden thought these tin mugs were totally useless, because when one tried to drink hot tea from it, one’s lips would invariably get burned on the rim. Later in prison, he blamed the hot broth that the Chinese prisons served for taking away the shine on the traditional wooden bowl that he used and broke it down. His message was clear. He believed that the traditional Tibetan way of life was sufficient. It did not need to be changed. When he looked back to his childhood in Gyatso Shar, he recalled that there were no machines in the whole village and everything was done by hand. He wrote, “[t]oday, when I think back, it seems strange that we had no need for the wheel. The Land of Snows had no use for that great invention” (11).
One of the most absurd inventions that the Chinese had brought into Palden’s life was the communist ideology that the Tibetans had never heard of. In a mandatory “study session” conducted by the Chinese in late 1959 in Gadong, one of the Chinese officials declared in communist jargon that the Tibetan masses had been liberated from the three mountains of the old feudal society which had been exploiting them for thousands of years. The monks did not have an inkling of what this Chinese official was talking about. From Palden’s perspective, Tibet was a religious society, virtually every household had at least one member in the monastery and most Tibetan people took their religious commitment seriously or at least respected it. In his experience, there was no concept of the monastery exploiting the masses. There was no such thing as a clear-cut distinction between the monastery and the Tibetan masses in the first place. Marx’s theory of exploiter and exploited might not apply in Tibet, but the Chinese official insisted on applying it anyway.
Palden’s thirty-two year prison experience was remarkably similar to the large number of Chinese who were also thrown into the prison during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Just as in Palden’s case, they were also met by corrupt prison guards, verbal and physical abuse, starvation, terrible sanitary conditions, torture, random interrogations and endless struggle sessions. While Chinese people today seldom look back to that period anymore, no matter how much they had suffered during that time, the Tibetans, at least in Palden’s time, still had vivid memories of those turbulent years. After all, they saw the Chinese as outsiders, and all those tragedies were inflicted upon them by a different people from the east, unlike the Chinese who suffered under communism – their pains were inflicted by fellow Chinese. Perhaps the Chinese had become the victims of their own propaganda, convinced that the Tibetans and the Chinese are of the same people (Zhonghua minzu) belonging to the same “motherland”, and that the Tibetans would be just as ready to forget the “aberration” of the Party and be ready to embrace China and the Chinese Communist Party once more, just as the Chinese had done. And that was why Palden Gyatso felt obliged to tell his story and bear witness to what he and his fellow Tibetans thought. He tried to tell the world that what had happened to the Tibetans was not an aberration, but evidence of the cruelty of an oppressive regime that continues to rule Tibet. And that Tibetans like him had not forgotten.