Sorrow Mountain – The Journey of A Tibetan Warrior Nun is an autobiographical account of Ani Panchen, with Adelaide Donnelley as the co-author. The book opens with Ani Panchen anxiously waiting for the arrival of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Due to years of torture she experienced in China, she was very alert, even though now she is in safety. In the next few chapters, she recounted the stories of childhood in her flashbacks. Born in 1933 into a chieftain’s family in Chamdo in Eastern Tibet, she grew up as a spiritual and stubborn woman. In order to lead a spiritual life, she had to reject the marriage her father arranged her. She enjoyed a few years of peaceful life even though the Chinese had occupied her home region and even subdued the Central Tibetan government. The peace she found in a religious life was soon disrupted as the Chinese tightened its grip over the region around the time of Great Leap Forward. Her father decided to lead his peole to fight against the Chinese. After her father’s death, she took over her father’s place as the leader and continued the struggle against the Chinese. After she was captured, she was sent to one of the most notorious jails in China, where she stayed for 20 years. During her time in jail, she had witnessed the destruction of the Tibetan society and the suffering of the Tibetan people under the Chinese rule. It is only her faith in Buddhism that kept her going. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, she was released from jail. She went back to Chamdo briefly, stayed in Lhasa for a while, and eventually decided to flee to India, where she finally met the Dalai Lama. The Dalai heard her story and said, “You have seen Tibet’s tragedy, you have lived its suffering. You must tell your story so others will know” (10). It was his encouragement that helped her to decide to write this book. The autobiography is an account of the remarkable life of a nun. Her experiences and her observations of Tibetan society during this chaotic period paint a vivid picture that supplements formal history. This is not to say that her accounts are completely unbiased; it seems that at certain moments her understanding of Tibet was skewed by experiences unique to her. Nevertheless, it provides a different perspective on the issue of Tibet.
Ani Pachen was born in Chamdo in Eastern Tibet in 1933. As the daughter and only child of a chieftain, she was expected to marry a son of a chieftain or inherit her father’s place. However, Ani Panchen preferred a spiritual and religious life. The first struggle in her life came when her father arranged a marriage for her. In order to avoid the marriage, she ran away from home. Her father eventually gave in and allowed her to lead a monastic life. She was happy with her religious life, and felt increasingly estranged from her old friends and family. Even though they were becoming increasingly suspicious of the Chinese motives, she and other Tibetans lived under the Chinese rule for a few years without resisting, till they witnessed the destruction of Tibetan culture and religion under the rule of the Chinese. It is unclear when the Tibetan resistance broke out in Chamdo, but it seems to have taken place around the time of the Great Leap Forward, when the Chinese started to confiscated monastery properties and discourage religious activities. It was also during this time that she joined her father and her people in the effort to drive the Chinese out of her home region, and inherited her father’s position as a leader after his death.
The Tibetan effort was crushed by the Chinese, and Dalai Lama fled to India. Pachen was also captured in 1960. During interrogation, she refused to comply and was thrown into one of the most infamous jails in China. She spent the next twenty years in Chinese prisons, where she suffered from interrogation, beating, and starvation. Several times, she was on the verge of death due to starvation. She also had to endure emotional traumas, such as the betrayal of fellow Tibetan inmates and the long-term separation from loved ones. She was also pained when she witnessed the suffering of old friends and acquaintances, who lived under humiliation, attack, or starvation during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Her devotion to her religion kept her from giving up. When asked what kept her going, she answered, “The wish to see His Holiness.”
She spent around 20 years in prison. When the Cultural Revolution came to an end, there seemed to be a certain level of liberalization, and she was allowed to travel to her home region, where she was welcomed by her people and where she saw the aftermath of the destruction of her hometown. In her hometown, she received a divination that suggests that she would go to Lhasa. Thus after her release, she she traveled to Lhasa, where she witnessed the religious revival in Tibet and was able to further her spiritual training. In Lhasa, she realized that her determination to see the Dalai Lama did not wane during these years, and decided to flee to India. With the help of other Tibetans, she eventually fled to Dharamsala. The book ended with the fulfillment of her dream – She eventually met the Dalai Lama, who encouraged her to tell her story.
At the end of the book, she shared with the readers how she wants to be remembered, “As for me, the story will go like this: She led her people to fight against the Chinese…. She worked to save the ancient spiritual teachings. When I die, just my story will be left.” Her book certainly succeeded at that; and it tells not just her life story, but also the story of Tibet at a very chaotic historical moment. Her account is admittedly limited in scope, but she also touches on some aspects that are often omitted in formal history.
One of the themes in her book is the issue of gender, which is often difficult to study from formal documents and history textbooks. In some ways, she was not a typical Tibetan woman. Born as the only child of a chieftain, she had some power and privilege that other women did not have, but she was still aware of the constraints and expectations the society placed on women. She realized that passivity of many female figures in her life. She portrayed her mother as a gentle woman who rarely spoke her mind (41). She also commented on how tiring domestic chores had been for her mother.
She became quite unlike her mother. In many ways, she fought against the constraints placed onto women. She got out of the fate of being married, and became a leader like her father did. However, her self-consciousness as a woman persisted throughout most parts of her life. When she appeared at meetings to discussion strategies to fight the Chinese, she noted that she was the only woman and the others looked at her “with a mixture of curiosity, disbelief, and dismay on their faces, as if they thought their meetings were no place for a woman” (111). Often, such as during their fight with the Chinese and when she was first imprisoned, she would noticed that she was the only woman in a group of men.
In face of these stereotypes associated with being a woman, she lived up to the title of the book, “fighting nun” by fighting against these rules to prove herself. Soon after her ascending to her late father’s position, one minister objected to her proposal and was severely punished for standing up to her. She admitted in her book that her decision to punish the man was to prove herself, “the thought kept entering my mind that he disobeyed me because I was a woman, and I felt enraged.. but it seems important to let others know that I could mete out punishment as well as a man” (133). When the Chinese asked her to surrender, she refused; she explained, “Because I’m a woman, they think I’ll hand over the weapons of my people. It’s an insult.”(139).
Another striking quality of her book is her honesty and courage when recounting events. She was a monastic practitioner, but she was never afraid of admitting failures in practices and living up to expectations of her as a nun. When unable to calm her friend’s child, she expressed her anger, “on the way home, I felt despondent. My feelings of peace and charity had gone, and the words compassion for others had lost their uplifting meaning” (105). She admitted that she was very fearful when she was meditation in the cemetery with Amdo Jetsun (255). She also admitted even though she was a nun who followed the Dalai Lama, she could not forgive the Chinese as he would like Tibetans to do. She recounted, “sometimes I felt such anger for the Chinese.. my life, like so many others, passed in suffering.. His Holiness said that we must not hate the Chinese..Even after my time in the caves [where she meditated], I still struggle with anger” (269). With such courage and honesty, she was able to speak of her feelings about her experience and her thoughts. In standard histories, such voices might have been suppressed by a willingness to portray the Tibetans as “forgiving” and “peaceful”.
With her own life story, Pachen painted a picture of Tibetan nuns that is quite different from what we would often expect. Often portrayed as peaceful and submissive in many formal history texts, nuns in Pachen’s book are quite different. She explained her willingness to use violence against the Chinese and rationalized it as necessary for “protecting the Dharma.” Before encountering the Chinese troops, she stated, “I have vowed to fight, even kill. The precepts say not to kill, but with times as they are, there is no other choice, defending our country and teachings come first.” At another instance, she said to herself, “survival of the teachings! A new sense of purpose came over me when I heard the words. If I can contribute something to protecting the great teachings of the Buddha’s thought, I will do whatever is asked. Even kill” (128). Her vows show that to her, at least from her perspective, violence was not forbidden if used to preserve Buddhist teachings. This provided some insights to how the monks and nuns who resisted the Chinese reconcile between the vow to not kill and the need to resist the Chinese.
The attitude of common Tibetans toward these events is sometimes addressed in history texts. In her book, her experiences and observations reflects the attitude of many through her interactions with them. For example, when she traveled to her hometown after her release from jail, she was welcomed by her people. After many years of campaigning against “social classes” like hers during the Chinese rule, one would expect the Tibetans to despise her if the propaganda worked. She also commented, “The feudal lords treat the people like animals, but how is one to explain the open display of affection and the loyalty to a chieftain like me? I wondered. Even after so much coercion and so much material incentive, their loyalty hasn’t wavered” (245). Her experience certainly testifies to the failure of the Chinese effort to create tension between the ruling Tibetans and the commoners. The commoners’ attitude toward religion after years of campaigns against Buddhism is also surprising. Shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution, there was a revival of Buddhism in Tibet. In Lhasa, she stayed for a week helping to rebuild the monastery, and noted, “Hundreds of Tibetans were there, volunteering their time. We worked from sunrise to sunset moving earth and stones” (252). The willingness of common Tibetans to help rebuild monasteries after the Cultural Revolution suggest the inability of the Chinese government to eradicate the influence of Buddhism in Tibet.
Her book addresses many issues that are not very well documented or overlooked by standard history texts. However, as with any personal account, the representativeness and bias of her writings become issues. She was different from other Tibetans in many ways. Besides aspects such as her power and wealth, it is debatable whether her and her family’s views of the Chinese are representative of all Tibetans, or Tibetans from her area or Tibetans of the same socio-economic background. She certainly distrusted the Chinese even before the Chinese implemented any policy and would not work with the Chinese. But in other history texts, it seemed that there were many monastic and aristocratic Tibetans who were willing to work with the Chinese communists. Her distrust of the Chinese also raises the question of possible bias in portrayal of the Tibetan society under the period. Some of the claims in her books seemed to be unconfirmed rumors; she certain presented them as rumors she heard, but they were woven into the story in a way that the readers might mistake them for facts. For example, she said heard that Mao plans to move eight million Chinese into Tibet (116) and “During the Great Leap Forward, food was shipped to China” (184). It is difficult to verify the accuracy of this information, but some information in the book should not always be taken at face value. Further readings would be needed to clarify some issues in her book, but Sorrow Mountain provides an interesting account of Tibetan people and society during the chaotic years spanning from the eve of Chinese incorporation to after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Ani Pachen and Adelaide Donnelley. Sorrow Mountain- The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun. New York: Kodansha International, 2000.