The Wealth of a Nation

Pawa Trinley Tenzin passed away yesterday in Dharamshala. He was 90. He had no children and no relatives to mourn his death, but he will be immensely missed by his friends and neighbors. His few possessions had an orphaned feel about them. A worn sling hung on the wall of his stark and humid room. His fragile figure, his constant drone of muffled prayer, and his critical and insightful remarks about the nature of the Tibetan struggle will always be cherished and referred to as a prized book.

Pawa was born when Tibet was free, somewhere in Tsang. He had held no position of rank in Tibet. He had just been a muleteer in Lhasa. In exile, his favorite past-time was making circumambulations around the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and his daily sojourns would serve as his social network and a way to get some exercise. Everyday, Pawa would meet someone new and would have something to say about the conversation that transpired during the meeting.

Bhu,” Pawa would say with his gentle yet piercing eyes. “Do you know how many Tibetans are still coming to India as refugees from Tibet? I just met a young man who had brought three little children from Tibet over the Himalayas to receive an education here in exile.”

The exodus from the land of snows still continues half a century after His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama set foot in India to seek political asylum. Within these fifty years, the Tibetans outside Tibet have managed to keep their culture, identity, and struggle for their collective future alive and vibrant. Dharamshala has bloomed from anonymity into the cultural capitol of Tibet.

Pawa Trinley Tenzin was not a grumpy old man, but there were days when Pawa was not his usual self, and seemed depressed, broken and simply hollowed. Such days would be punctuated with unanswered greetings followed by semi-audible curses. After his self-imposed period of mourning and social unavailability, Pawa would gently stroll by and strike up a conversation as if to atone for his feverish behavior. “You know Bhu, he would start, “Thousands of Tibetans live in exile. Each uniquely different but unified by a common illness, the malady of foreign domination of our land. India, the springboard of all exile Tibetan activities has shown great kindness, understanding and patience to the Tibetans, much to the irritation of the Chinese government. It is in India that we find Tibetan schools, institutions and monasteries that house, school and breed Tibetans of varying ages and dispositions. Our unique culture that had thrived for centuries in the rarified air of Tibet is now found abundant in the Indian subcontinent. Isn’t that quite remarkable?”

Pawa was quite right. Our achievements in exile pertaining to the preservation and resurrection of our institutes has been quite something. But what about those born in exile? I wondered, and asked what Pawa felt about them.

“It was a beautiful spring day and His Holiness’ Monlam teachings were just over. There were a lot of people on the Kora that day. Many new faces. Injis and Tibetans alike. I stopped for my usual tea at Lhagyal-ri when two young Tibetan girls seemingly in their twenties sat next to me. Both of them were very pretty and rather reserved. I asked them if they wanted to have some tea and they took the offer. They told me that they were studying in New Delhi. Some BA or MA, I don’t remember. They started to ask me which part of Tibet I was from and so I started my discourse that I usually give to people who had never seen Tibet. Both of them listened intently to what I said and after a while, one of them, Drolma, yes, that was her name, started to speak in a very quaint yet strong voice:

‘No pangs of nostalgia besiege me when I think of Tibet, for I have never seen the intense blue sky, nor have I tasted the salt of Tibet. However, my heart is heavy and it yearns for a place where it can skip a beat and with a sign of relief, proclaim, “This is home.” Born and bred in exile, I have never known a house, a street, a market where my heart can truly be at ease. I am a perpetual nomad, a transient with no attachments to any place; as beautiful or comfortable it may be. The promise to breathe the free air of my own country far outweighs the lure of a foreign one. I may live in any country, but my heart will always belong to Tibet.’”

The understanding of Tibet, Tibetan history, and the world of Tibetans raised in exile is not quite the same as that of their parents. Some have Nepali flavors to their tongue, some Indian, and more now with occidental twangs. Home to them may be where they earn a living or where they were born, but their hearts always remain tuned to the beat of their homeland. The dream that one day, Tibetans will be able to roam the streets of their homeland; free from fear, converse in Tibetan to any shopkeeper, dine in restaurants where Tibetan is spoken, and above all, be free to hoist our flag on any post, terrace or mountain top. Free to build a small hut on a patch of land that could be called home with a sense of permanence.

Many Tibetans dream of returning to Tibet in the near future. Many have perished in the settlements of India and Nepal with a broken heart. The generations born in Tibet when Tibet was free is fast perishing. Those born in exile; the first, second and third generations have had varied experiences of being a refugee in terms of economic, educational, social and political challenges. In exile, we have never really experienced the wrath of China first-hand, but the placenta of anguish from our homeland, the trail of frost-bitten children and the woes of countrymen tell us that the occupation of our homeland is ongoing and that the Chinese authorities have no issues in silencing voices of dissent with the utmost brutality. China continues to isolate, divide and sterilize Tibet for Han residency with sophisticated media campaigns and subtle methods of cultural genocide. There has never been a darker period in History for the Tibetan race.

It was one of those days we all have that one finds difficult to forget. I had just returned from a short trip to Delhi to apply for my Identity Certificate. My body was still numb from the harrowing kamikaze bus ride of the previous night, and was content with the general flow of life. I was planning to go the United States after my travel documents were processed, and envisioned a life in the land of opportunity. I was daydreaming with a cup of tea gazing at the beautiful Dhauladhar range blushing in the setting sun, when Pawa Trinley Tenzin seemed to be in a fit. He was howling in my direction,

“What will happen to the Tibetans and the Tibetan cause after His Holiness the Dalai Lama? It is because of His leadership and vision and the dedication of other individuals that we have been successful as an exile community. Compared to other refugee communities, we have been very successful in establishing ourselves in foreign countries. His Holiness’ philosophy and belief in non-violent methods in solving political crises has been lauded by the international community. He unites us and he has our undivided loyalty. Our brothers and sisters living under tyranny in Tibet have all their hopes pinned on him even though most of them have never had a glimpse of him. His photographs are outlawed by the Chinese authorities in order to erase ethnic hope and identity. He is a person who genuinely breathes, thinks and lives non-violence. Do you think Tibetans everywhere tread the path of non-violent resistance out of belief in non-violence, or do you think it is out of loyalty and total belief in His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama? What is the use of this non-violent struggle? We are becoming more like international pets where we are petted and stroked for being pacifists while the Chinese continue and strengthen their hold in Tibet.

“The world is abiding by China in its claim that the only thing wrong with Tibet is the Dalai Lama and his group of splittists. Look at how they are verbally attacking His Holiness and trying to character-assassinate him. They are keeping on telling their own people how bad and ruthless the Dalai Lama is and the Chinese people believe this propaganda. How are we supposed to talk to the Chinese under such circumstances? The world very conveniently only addresses political issues that have a flavor of violence. Only when blood is spilled and explosions are heard, the strong will listen to the weak. Non-violence is taken as a sign of weakness by the Chinese. Nations who depend on China think that the cry of Tibet will be lulled with the passage of time. Who cares for Tibet?”

I was stunned. This gentle man I knew, who would usually stare and let a mosquito finish sucking his blood, was all of a sudden bitten by all the war gods. The air was thick with frustration, passion and revolution. Pawa was still holding his rosary, foaming at the corners of his mouth and he continued his oration:

“There are no political gods. No genuine friendships in politics. Only self-interest. The world of politics is strewn with men of short memories and valiant tongues. Men with deep pockets but short hands. The plight of Tibet is eroding from the conscience of the world and at 74, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is losing faith with the Chinese government. Politically, the Chinese have agreed to disagree, and all earnest attempts to peaceably negotiate with the Chinese government have failed. We have tried to reach out to the enemy, to make peace with heavy concessions, and yet all they are doing is varnishing the conquest of Tibet and waiting for the demise of His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet. And what are you youngsters doing? Nothing. All you care about is your own livelihood and to hide in the cloak of non-violence. The path of non-violence is not about apathy. The path of non-violence entails creativity, resolution and understanding who you are up against. You don’t even understand what non-violence is. Non-violence starts with thought. Non-violence is a method for lasting, sustainable change. Non-violent struggle is just not bleating out your lungs every March Tenth and then burying your heads in the sands of petty social, religious and administrative schemes. Non-violence requires much more strength, fortitude, focus and ingenuity than violence. Non-violence my foot, all you and your kind know is self pity.”

That said, Pawa retired to his room and turned on his radio. His favorite station, the Tibetan service of the Voice of America, played for the entire valley. Pawa was displaying nationalistic disgust to his surroundings.

My tea was cold, the sun had set and the mountains looked haunted and dark. I felt as though an elephant had just trampled over me. Pawa had spoken his heart out and for a moment, all my body aches had withered away. My head was swirling, and the very ground on which I stood was swept away by Pawa Trinley Tenzin’s wrath. Even though I did not agree with him on a few of his exaggerated furlongs, I chose to retire to my room silently. I knew very well how precious Pawa was. He was my earthly voice of conscience. I to him represented the next generation of Tibetans. All his hopes for a nation, a race, a civilization.

Pawa seemed reclusive the following few weeks. The hot summer had come, and given to cooler climates, Pawa usually spent summer days whining about the heat of India and how pleasant it was back in Tibet. The complaints about the heat would be followed by the traumatic ordeal he had undergone in having to learn Hindi and the ways of India. How rice and dal were food befitted for his mules and so on and so forth. Yet come meal time, he would relish his rice and dal, his cup of tea, and occasionally he would ask me to go buy him his favorite whiskey. He called it Wiky.

It was over one of our after-dinner drinks that nationalism poured in again. Pawa came to my room and handed me an envelope with a list of things he wanted to get done with some money in it. I left the envelope on my altar and thought that I would look at it on the morrow. I opened a bottle of Jameson a friend of mine had given me. Pawa seemed impressed with the generosity of my friend and my standing in his world grew a little. Pawa was jovial that evening. “So this friend of yours, where does he live?” “Ireland,” I replied. “They make good Wiky, don’t they?” “Yes Pawa, the Irish are famous around the world for their Wiky,” I replied.

Savoring his drink, Pawa was transfixed on the small altar in my room and gently started to reflect audibly,

“Civilizations come and go, but what is important is that the quintessence of a civilization remains within the human family. The Tibetan nation from around the 7th Century embarked on a herculean task of bringing the words and teachings of the Buddha Dharma from India. Our ancestors were extremely successful in this endeavor and much of our ethnic character has been shaped by the Buddha Dharma. However, this is not to say that our race is incapable of violence. Tibetans fought tooth and nail against the invading Chinese forces in the early 1950s, and waged a guerilla war from Mustang during the height of the Cold War. Here in exile, we have successfully resurrected these institutions of Buddhist learning and are open to anyone wanting to study and learn. We have managed to spread the word of the Buddha to the world and it is, in a way, the wealth of Tibet. Wherever you go in the world, I hear that you will either find an Indian, Chinese or Italian restaurant. For us Tibetans, our contribution to the human family is our Dharma. The Dharma centers that have mushroomed all around the world are a testament to the preciousness of what our race achieved. Do not let all our endeavors of the past go to waste by shunning the dharma without truly studying and learning it. You do not need to be a monk or a nun to learn the Dharma. Your generation will find a lot of strength; both personal and national if you earnestly study and practice the words of the Buddha. Tibet did not lose its independence because of Buddhism. Your generation must realize the wealth of our nation. Study it, protect it and guard it from those who abuse it.”

Ending the evening on a very friendly and prophetic tone, Pawa bid goodnight to me in incomprehensible English that he said he picked up in Gyangtse from the British soldiers. He seemed on top of the world that night, and I was happy that he was happy.

I woke up the next morning amidst some voices coming from Pawa Thrinley Tenzin’s room, and opened the envelope that Pawa had given me the previous evening. The list was short and written by Pawa himself:

Money for wood. Money for funeral. Possessions to be offered to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Sling for you to drive the Chinese out of Tibet. Tashi Delek.


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