Jack A. Waddell
Tibet: My Story is the autobiography of Jetsun Pema (born July 7th, 1940), the sister of the 14th Dalai Lama and the President of the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). Written at the age of fifty-six years-old, Jetsun Pema uses her autobiography not only to recount her life from her birth in Lhasa in 1940 to her 2006 retirement from operating the TCV. The writing is filled with thoughtful and moving stories of Tibet pre- and post Chinese occupation, and Jetsun Pema uses her platform to deliver to a wide readership the challenges and struggles that face Tibetan refugee children. This work is valuable in that it delivers an account of compassion and determination in the face of great political and humanitarian struggles.
In her autobiography, Jetsun Pema (born July 7th, 1940), an influential Tibetan political and cultural figure, recounts the beauty and pain of a life devoted to supporting and promoting the survival of Tibetan culture in the face of a world that challenges its very existence. Jetsun Pema is also the sister of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and she has played an important role in championing His cause and mission. For forty-two years (1964-2006) Jetsun Pema was the president of the Tibetan Children’s Villages, a network of schools for Tibetan children in exile. From her formative years as a student at a boarding school in India, to her witnessing of the Chinese Communist occupation and oppression of Lhasa, to her diplomatic visit to Tibet in 1980 at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party, Jetsun Pema is a hero of Tibet and moreover for humanity. While Tibet: My Story is not meant to be read as a historical textbook of twentieth and twenty first century Tibetan history, from reading Jetsun Pema’s story readers can gather a basic understanding of the timeline. More importantly, Jetsun Pema reveals to readers the resilience of the Tibetan people and the power that comes from organizing in exile.
Jetsun Pema divides her life’s story into three parts. “Part I” covers years 1939 until 1964, and in this period of her life she recounts memories of her childhood including the declaration of her brother, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, as the 14th Dalai Lama, her time spent at a boarding school in India before the Chinese Communist takeover of Tibet, the fall of Tibet, and her studies in Europe. In “Part II” Jetsun Pema recounts the years 1964 through 1979, covering the death of her eldest sister, and the birth of her own two daughters. “Part III” covers years 1980 to 1995 and includes a look at Jetsun Pema’s disappointing diplomatic trip to Chinese occupied Tibet and her hope for the future of Tibet and the Tibetan people.
Born in 1940 in Lhasa, Jetsun Pema writes sweetly about her mother whom she identifies as her very first lama. Jetsun Pema’s amala gave birth to the boy who would become the 14th Dalai Lama in 1935, two years after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. In 1937 a lama and two men arrived at the family’s home at the direction of a vision a regent had. It was in this house that this search committee discovered the latest incarnation of Chenrezi, Lhamo Thondup, the 14th Dalai Lama. In 1939 His Holiness, who had just turned four, and most of the family moved to Lhasa, and one year later Jetsun Pema was born. Jetsun Pema acknowledges that due to her brother’s magnificent position, she was born into a life of many riches, and she did not know the difficulties that her eldest siblings, including Tsering Dolma, experienced growing up in rural Taktser. The family enjoyed an active life in Lhasa where they lived in a huge sixty room house. Throughout “Part I” Jetsun Pema stresses the importance of family in Tibetan culture, and so it is not surprising that she was crushed by the death of her father in 1947.
After her sister fell ill in 1949, Jetsun Pema’s mother decided to send the two girls to India. Here Jetsun Pema would act as caretaker for her sister, and they would both attend boarding school. Arriving in Kalimpong in the Indian state of West Bengal, Jetsun Pema and her niece attended one of many Catholic convent schools established by the British as Tsering Dolma was successfully treated at a facility in Calcutta. News from Tibet began to arrive with an ever increasingly worrisome tone. During the winter of 1950/51 news reached Kalimpong via Sikkim that His Holiness had taken charge as the leader of the Tibetan government in the face of a showdown with the Chinese Communist Party. Jetsun Pema describes the confusion and fear she and her classmates and younger family members felt at the increasing threat to Tibetan independence from the Chinese Communist Party.
Jetsun Pema was nineteen when she welcomed her brother, the 14th Dalai Lama, to Tezpur in Assam, India and into exile. She writes of this time as an awakening for her. Realizing the dire condition of the Tibetan people and being grateful for the safety of His Holiness, Jetsun Pema embraced her role as a devotee to supporting her brother and the Tibetan cause. In 1961 Jetsun Pema finished schooling in India and applied to attend schools in Europe. Departing for school in Switzerland at the age of twenty, she realized that Tibetan refugees and His Holiness in Dharamsala needed her help more than ever and she resolved to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible, abroad in order to be of the most use.
In 1964 Jetsun Pema returned to Dharamsala without a higher education degree, but she recognized that a degree would have only been helpful if it had brought her closer to her goal of supporting His Holiness. Upon arrival, Jetsun Pema was moved by the work her sister Tsering Dolma carried out to care for Tibetan refugee children who had been affected by Chinese atrocities. Sadly, shortly after her return to Dharamsala, Jetsun Pema and the rest of the family learned that Tsering Dolma had been diagnosed with cancer. The death of Tsering Dolma affected Jetsun Pema greatly and solidified her determination to make a difference by improving the functioning of the Tibetan Children’s Village.
Jetsun Pema gave birth to her first child, Tenzin Choedon, in 1966, and her second child, Kelsang Yangzom, was born in 1968. In her efforts spent caring for refugee children, she had already established an image of herself as a mother figure, but nothing prepared Jetsun Pema for the great honor she would feel when her own children referred to her as amala. 1971 was a big year for the Tibetan Children’s Village as it was then that the organization received sizable financial and labor support from the Austrian charity organization known as SOS Kinderdorf. By 1975 the Tibetan Children’s Village had built almost thirty new housing units where Tibetan refugee children would stay, foregoing the previous conditions which required sometimes that two children share one bed.
In 1980 Jetsun Pema visited Tibet for the first time since she had left in 1949. At the request of the Chinese Communist Party, she traveled across Tibet as part of an “educational delegation” in which the Chinese government attempted to show what they thought of as advances in the lives of Tibetan children under the Party’s organization. Jetsun Pema describes this journey as frustrating and emotionally painful, because the lies and deceit of the Chinese government hindered her original mission and itinerary. Reaching an agreement with Beijing, Jetsun Pema was able to visit Taktser, Amdo, the village of her parents and where His Holiness was born. Throughout her visit in Tibet, Jetsun Pema was made ever more aware of the immense agony Tibetan people and culture endured under Chinese occupation. The findings of the “educational delegation” discovered that Tibetan monastic schools and traditional education had been completely destroyed and replaced by an educational system developed by the Chinese that inculcated children into accepting the Party’s ideologies.
In 1990 Jetsun Pema enjoyed the honor of being elected as the first female kalon in the history of the Tibetan government. Jestun Pema viewed herself as an educator and not a politician; she even offered her resignation four times to His Holiness. After the acceptance of her resignation, Jetsun Pema took on her new role of Minister of Education, a role in which she dedicated her time to establishing Tibetan language schools and vocational education centers for older students.
Jetsun Pema ends her autobiography by emphasizing what she has learned of herself throughout her life’s journey, and that this knowledge is in fact crucial to a Buddhist’s conception of peace and reincarnation. Moreover, Jetsun Pema notes that at the age of 56, when she finished writing Tibet: My Story, she felt that the most important Buddhist teaching she has followed has been honest introspection. At every step of the way, Jetsun Pema strove to be honest with herself as to whether her actions were to further her own cause or to benefit Tibetan refugee children and His Holiness.