Remembering the First Rangzen Marcher
Late one night in October 1988 I was woken by a telephone call from the United States. I was living in Japan then, teaching English and writing the occasional book review for the Japan Times. My twenty year work stint in exile Tibetan society had ended a few years earlier when I had been dismissed (with the aid of a violent McLeod Ganj mob) from my post as director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) for the alleged irreverence of a couple of my plays.
An urgent voice in Tibetan asked “Jamyang Norbu, Jamyang Norbu, can you hear me. I am Thupten Jigme Norbu.” For a while I couldn’t place the name and then realized it was Taktser Rimpoche, the Dalai Lama’s oldest brother.
— Yes Rimpoche I can hear you, how are you?”
— Jamyang Norbu, Jamyang Norbu, do you know what has happened.”
— What is it Rimpoche?”
— They have given up our rangzen.”
— Rimpoche, what are you saying?
— Gyalwa Rimpoche made a statement at this place, Strasbourg…”
And he told me what had happened.
I am not on terms of any real intimacy with members of the Dalai Lama’s family, and it took me a little while to figure out why Taktser Rimpoche had contacted me. It probably had to do with my writings in the Tibetan Review, where I had been regularly analyzing and condemning the Tibetan government’s policy of downgrading Tibetan independence to conciliate Communist China. My last contribution had been a two-part article (“On the Brink”, Oct-Nov1986) warning of the increasing Chinese population transfer into Tibet. I stressed that the only way to deal with this crisis was not to appease Beijing but to actively discourage business, tourism and investment in Tibet. Destabilize the region. In those early years of Deng’s liberalization there was an opportunity to do something like that. Officialdom, of course, ignored my report. A couple of inji readers accused me of sabotaging the wonderful new relationship between the Chinese and the Tibetans.
“And what are you going to do?” Rimpoche asked me at the end of the conversation.
What could I say? I told him I didn’t know; that I wasn’t in any position to do anything.
I think I disappointed him with my answer, but that conversation started a friendship, nonetheless. There was, on both sides, a bit of emotional dependence in this relationship. Those who espoused the cause of independence became increasingly marginalized in exile society and accusations of “opposing” the Dalai Lama were readily hurled at those who expressed any doubt at the Middle Way approach. So even if you happened to live at the opposite ends of the earth, you took strength in the friendship, no matter how long distance, of those few Tibetan who would not give up rangzen.
Rimpoche wasn’t a spring chicken then, in fact he was 73 when with the help of Lawrence Gerstein he founded the International Tibet Independence Movement and led a number of independence walks that took him all over the United States and Canada. I was back in Dharamshala during those years, editing the Tibetan newspaper Mangtso. It was always an uplifting experience to see a photograph of Rimpoche on one of his marches, striding vigorously, his white baseball cap tilted back on his head, telling America that Tibet was an independent country and that Americans had to support the cause.
He always seemed to make his statements with a big smile. Rimpoche wasn’t one of your grim, teeth-gritting nationalists. His conviction regarding rangzen did not come from any hatred of the Chinese people or some ultra-patriotic doctrine or philosophy, but merely that he had no illusions about China’s real intentions regarding Tibet. Rimpoche was convinced that Tibet needed independence not for some exalted ideological reason but as a fundamental condition, an essential requisite for the survival of the people, their language, their culture and even their religion. Rimpoche was certain there was no other way.
I feel Rimpoche had this clarity in his thinking because the Communist leaders he first encountered in Amdo, when he was abbot of Kumbum monastery, were the real deal: crude, self-righteous, devious and murderous men — de-humanized progenies of the unbelievably savage Chinese Civil War. Rimpoche describes them very accurately in his autobiography Tibet is My Country. Left wing propaganda a la Edgar Snow has left us the impression of Chinese Communist cadres and officers as idealistic agrarian reformers with a soupçon of the Taoist sage about them, but anyone who has some idea of the history of the Chinese Communist party will be aware how many in the Red Army were ex-warlord officers, mercenaries, former bandits, ex-junkies and the like. Rimpoche also witnessed how the Communists dealt with opposition when they wiped out the Muslim Huis of Lusar, close to Kumbum. Rimpoche was also in Amdo when the Red Army slaughtered the Amdowas of Nangra and Hormukha and started their genocidal campaign against the Goloks.
In Amdo the Communists do not appear to have tried to win over people with guile and sweet-talk. Most probably they felt that Qinghai was theirs anyway, and they didn’t have to bother. The outcome of their invasion of Tibet, on the other hand, was far from certain, and the Communists were careful that their representatives in Lhasa and Chamdo were outwardly pleasant, smooth-tongued people.
The first Communist officials that His Holiness the Dalai Lama met and interacted with in Tibet were attractive and charming equivocators like Baba Phuntsog Wangyal and Liu Ke Ping the ideologue, both of whom taught the Dalai Lama Marxism-Leninism, the history of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union’s nationality polices. Phuntsok Wangyal mentions in his autobiography that “The Dalai Lama was very eager to learn about all aspects of communism, and I think we had an effect on his thinking. Even now, he sometimes says that he is half Buddhist and half Marxist.” We should bear in mind that His Holiness was very young, in his formative years and impressionable. His long held belief, that he could arrive at some understanding with the Chinese leadership on the question of Tibet, has probably been shaped to a degree by this early experience.
But Taktser Rimpoche’s was a grown man, thirteen years older than His Holiness, and his experience with the Communists convinced him that China’s intentions regarding Tibet were malevolent. Rimpoche was not without some guile himself, and he managed to give the impression to his captors that he was receptive to their overtures. They decided to send him to Lhasa to win over the Dalai Lama. Rimpoche describes the unbelievably crude way the Communist leaders approached him promising to appoint him “governor-general” (chikyap) of Tibet if he convinced the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government not to resist the Chinese advance into Tibet. They even went so far as to hint that if the young Dalai Lama got in the way he could be taken care off, and that Rimpoche might think about it doing it himself “…in the interest of the cause”.
Rimpoche reached Lhasa on the eve of the invasion and told his brother everything. His advice probably contributed to the young Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cabinet’s decision to leave Lhasa after Chamdo had fallen. When the Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama chose to remain temporarily in Dhromo in the Chumbi valley, Rimpoche decided to continue on to India. Once in India his old friend Tilopa Rimpoche (the Dilowa Hutukhtu) contacted him. He told Taktser that arrangements had been made through the Committee for Free Asia (a CIA front) for him to travel to the United States. This eminent Mongol Lama, who had survived Stalin’s purges, had been invited to the United States in 1949 as a resident scholar at Johns Hopkins University. The American who made this possible was the distinguished orientalist, Owen Lattimore, who was then a key consultant of the United States State Department’s Far Eastern affairs. It is ironic that someone who aided this Mongol lama and (indirectly) Taktser Rimpoche to escape Communist persecution should later became a principal target of Senator McCarthy’s infamous anti-Communist witch-hunts and face false charges of being a “top Soviet agent”.
Rimpoche didn’t have an easy time of it in the States, what with bad health, lack of English and insufficient funds. But he gradually learned English (at Berkeley) and even mastered Japanese when staying in a Japanese monastery for some years when the Government of India did not renew his expired IC and the American government was not helpful about giving him asylum. The CIA had lost their initial interest in him after the Tibetan delegate in Beijing signed the 17 Point Agreement and the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa. Finally, after about three years his friends in the World Church Services secured permission for Rimpoche to return to the United States. He earned a modest income giving Tibetan classes to a handful of students as a part of a non-credited course at Columbia University, while his servant Dhondup Gyaltsen worked in a factory. I got the impression from his autobiography that Rimpoche spent his evenings in his small New York apartment making soup (most probably thinthuk soup) “…according to a typical Tibetan recipe”
This was at a time when Tibet was having its honeymoon period with the Communists and many merchants, lamas, monasteries, aristocrats and yabshi were reveling in the dayuan silver the Chinese were spreading around Tibet. Many of Rimpoche’s old acquaintances tried to convince him to return to Tibet including some of his own relatives, as he frankly mentions in his biography. But Rimpoche was convinced that the easy money and strident affability offered by the Communists was a passing phase and that there would be a reckoning soon. His younger brother Gyalo Thondup who had studied at a Guomindang school in Nanjing was also distrustful of the Communists and escaped to India from China.
When the Dalai Lama came to India in 1956 for the Buddha Jayanti celebrations, Rimpoche immediately flew to India where with Gyalo Thondup he tried to persuade his brother to seek asylum in India. Other Tibetan leaders in exile as the former Prime Minister, Lukhangwa, pleaded with the Dalai Lama not to return to Tibet. But in the end the Dalai Lama consulted the state oracle. The Dalai Lama mentions in his Compassion in Exile that Lukhangwa refused to leave the room even when the oracle became angry with him. The old aristocrat warned the Dalai Lama “When men become desperate they consult the gods. And when gods become desperate, they tell lies.” But the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa.
A disappointed Taktser Rimpoche flew back to New York. By this time, fighting had broken out all over Eastern Tibet and Rimpoche was in regular communication with the State Department. He had also re-established his contacts with the CIA. In an interview he gave me he said that he later passed on all these contacts to his brother. He did not explicitly say so but I assumed he must have realized that Gyalo Thondup had the more conspiratorial bent and the diplomatic skills necessary to use these connections effectively to benefit the Tibetan cause.
Rimpoche assisted in the training of the first group of Tibetan agents (Athar, Lotse, Gyato Wangdu and others) in Saipan, acting as an interpreter. Rimpoche along with the Kalmuk Geshe Wangyal were also on the CIA team that devised a telecode system to describe items that were not in the Tibetan vocabulary and created a system of writing precise intelligible messages concerning modern warfare and intelligence, within an archaic traditional language. Rimpoche and Geshe Wangyal were also involved in the writing of training manuals for guerilla warfare, sabotage and so on.
Rimpoche’s language skills: Tibetan, Mongol, Japanese, Chinese, English and his native Sining patois, underscored his essentially scholarly nature, and he probably found the whole warfare and espionage world alien to his nature. He went back to his teaching, but he also started to organize relief effort for Tibetan refugees with his contacts in the World Church Services and other organizations.
Rimpoche initiated Tibetan studies programs at the American Museum of Natural History and also developed a similar program at Indiana University, where he received a professorship. He began teaching there in 1965 and as an old student of his told me “he had no trouble drawing students to his classes”.
What I have always found intriguing about this high lama, abbot of one of the most important Gelukpa monasteries, and a brother of the Dalai Lama, is that he was not interested in giving dharma lessons or starting a dharma centre, but instead wanted to let the world know about the culture, the history, the land and most of all the people of Tibet. This trait comes out clearly in his book Tibet, Its History, Religion and People, which he co-authored with Colin Turnbull. It is a wonderfully encyclopedic account of Tibetan history (especially folk history and cosmology) and Tibetan life, studded with all manner of legends, fables and (unusually for a history book) personal and intimate memories of Rimpoche’s own childhood, life and travels. The well-known cultural-anthropologist, Margaret Mead, called it “a uniquely sensitive and beautiful book”.
It could be pointed out that the book somewhat idealizes Tibetan life. But then again it never carries it to a point of dishonesty or absurdity, and is clearly an expression, a metaphor, for Rimpoche’s deep and genuine feelings for his people and country. I found the book so enchanting, so irresistible that I bought a dozen or so copies of the paperback edition in Delhi, and used it at TIPA (in the early seventies) as an English textbook for senior students, and as a primer for teaching them their history and culture. The book also had a wonderful set of drawings by the folk artist Lobsang Tenzin, of a variety of Tibetan costumes, household utensils agricultural implements, weapons, nomad encampment, and interiors of tents with everything numbered and identified. It was a cultural resource in itself. Even the paperback edition is now out of print but I think second-hand copies of the Pelican edition can be bought on Alibris or EBay.
Just the other day a friend of mine told me that the poet Woeser had written about Taktser Rimpoche and mentioned that she had come across Rimpoche’s history book in an official neibu translation. My friend translated this excerpt from Woeser’s blog:
“The first time I read the book was probably 1990. At that time I was newly returned to Lhasa: a sinicized youth, who knew almost nothing about her own people’s history and culture. In my circle and in the reading circles of quite a few Tibetans in Tibet that was the first Chinese translation of a book in which we could read about Tibetans and about the real Tibet. From that time on I regarded the book as a treasure; wherever I went I kept it by my side.”
Of course, Rimpoche was a spiritual person, perhaps even deeply so. He had been raised a monk and a trulku and his book is definitely not a secular history. But unlike many other Tibetan lamas and geshes, Taktser Rimpoche clearly saw that although religion was an important feature of Tibetan life, it was only one of the many features that defined the life, and indeed the identity of a Tibetan person. Rimpoche told me that although he firmly believed that his brother was the true incarnation of the Dalai Lama, he did not consider himself to be a special person spiritually. In his history book he candidly mentions that as a child he did not recognize any of the objects placed before him when he was tested. More than anything Rimpoche was an honest man. He absolutely detested those who went around claiming spiritual authority and accomplishments that they did not possess, and exploited the dharma for material gain. He himself refused to give religious teachings. In fact Rimpoche delegated another professor in his department to teach the required course on Tibetan religion for the Tibetan studies program.
It was always easy to talk to Rimpoche. You didn’t have to stand on ceremony with him. You never felt awkward around him, unsure whether to bow or prostate or receive a chawang. You just shook his hand, made a joke, or told him the latest gossip from Dharamshala. He also never patronized you like the great and powerful in Tibetan world generally like to do. I got to meet him and speak to him more often after I moved to the States during the late 90’s. And of course one of the main topics of conversation was rangzen and what we could do to promote the ideal, even in a small way.
Taktser Rimpoche, Sonam Wangdula, Thupten Tsering la, Lhadon la, myself and some others, who shared that concern and conviction, founded the Rangzen Alliance. Rimpoche hosted the first Rangzen Alliance Planning Meeting at his Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington Indiana, on November 23-24, 2001. Two of us (accompanied by Peter Brown) also set out on a Rangzen Road Trip driving across 28 states, five provinces (in Canada) and the District of Columbia for about a month to contact as many Tibetan communities, individuals and friends to reenergize the struggle for Tibetan independence that was weakening with each passing year. Rimpoche gave us an enthusiastic letter of support that we sent around to the various communities to introduce ourselves and our mission.
Rimpoche had his faults, of course, and his share of detractors. One of the usual criticisms against him was that he had stayed away from the Tibetan world and had not worked in Dharamshala for the exile government. There was some truth in that charge, although Rimpoche served (very briefly) as the Director of the Tibetan Library and as the Dalai Lama’s Representative in Japan. But these were short stints. I know that some of his yabshi relatives also held that against him, as in fact I did for some years.
But if I were to argue on his behalf now I might say that the very distance he maintained from the exile administration and exile world, allowed him the intellectual freedom to hold on to the ideal of independence. If he had served in Dharmshala, where absolute conformity is the minimal requirement for holding any kind of high office, we might have another failed negotiator in the long list starting with Gyalo Thondup and Lodi Gyari and ending with God knows who. But the rangzen struggle would have lost a mentor and a comrade-in-arms.
As is it is, even out in the wilderness, the yul-thakop of the American Midwest, Taktser Rimpoche was able to keep alive “the embers of rangzen” and pass on to us his conviction that Tibetan independence was absolutely not negotiable, and was (as mentioned earlier) a fundamental condition, an essential requisite for the survival of the Tibetan people, their language, their culture and even their religion. There was no other way.
In late 2002 Rimpoche suffered a series of strokes and became an invalid. The last time I saw him a year ago he did not appear to recognize me. Yet somehow he was still with us, when in March this year the rangzen revolution happened in Tibet, and Tibetans everywhere around the world challenged Communist China occupation of Tibet. People close to Rimpoche told me that he did seem to appreciate the significance of the events. And at least his presence was there at the Freedom Torch reception ceremony in June 2008.
Rimpoche was present at the conclusion of another event, the Freedom March in Philadelphia last Fourth of July. I heard this recording made by a Radio Free Asia correspondent, Karma Gyatso, where someone was trying to get Rimpoche to say a word or two for the occasion. Of course Rimpoche’s speech had been near completely impaired by the stroke, but he made a great effort to say something. It was just two syllables, very indistinct, murmured again and again. It was not at all clear, but if you listened hard, it seemed like he was repeating these two syllables “hrrm-hrn … hrrm- hrn … rang-zen.”Remembering the First Rangzen Marcher,