Secret Tibet

Dedicated to the imprisoned Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, Bangri Rinpoche and Lobsang Tenzin


When I think of it, what do they have to do with me?
Palden Gyatso [1], imprisoned for thirty-three years;

Ngawang Sangdrol [2], locked up since she was twelve;
then the newly-freed Phuntsok Nyidron [3] and Lobsang Tenzin [4], imprisoned somewhere.
I don’t know them, really, haven’t even seen their photos.

I only saw on the web, in front of an old lama,
shackles, sharp knives, cattle prods with multiple functions.
Loose skin, bony cheeks, furrowed wrinkles,
a recognizable handsomeness from his youth,
a beauty that doesn’t belong to the mundane.
Becoming a monk early in life,

the Buddha’s spirit glows in his face.

October, outside Beijing, chilly wind of autumn, a changed world.
I was reading the biography I downloaded in Lhasa,
seeing the sentient beings of the Snowland crushed
by iron hoofs from outside. Palden Gyatso in a quiet voice:

“I spent most of my life in prisons
built by Chinese in my country”. [5] And through another voice,
one can “recognize the forgiving words.” [6]

Once in a while, the masked demon reveals its true face,
frightening even the ancient deities.
Yet, the challenges have emboldened the ordinary birth;
who turn prayers in the deep nights into cries under the sun,
who convert whines behind the high walls into songs spread wide.

They are arrested! Punishments increased! Life sentences!
Executions postponed! Shot dead!

I usually keep quiet because I barely know anything.
Having been born and raised under the bugles of the PLA,
I am a suitable inheritor of Communism.

Egg under the red flag, suddenly cracked and broken.
Nearing middle age, belated anger is about to blurt from my throat.
I cannot stop my tears for the suffering Tibetans younger than me.


Yet, I do know two serious cases of prisoners still in jail,
both of them tulkus and Khampas from the East.

Jigme Tenzin [7] and Angang Tashi [8] or Bangri, Tenzin Delek;
these are their names from birth and their dharma names.
As if the forgotten password is recalled, these names
push open the high gates of recent memory once closely guarded.

Yes, initially in a post office in Lhasa he asked me
to write a telegram, saying with a smile:
“I don’t know how to write the words of Chinese.”
He must be the first tulku among my many friends.
One year on New Year’s Day we went to a photo studio

on the Barkhor; in front of a tacky backdrop we took a photo together.
I also brought him into Zhu Zheqin’s MTV [9] to perform the elegant mudras.

A bespectacled U-Tsang woman became his partner.
They started an orphanage for fifty kids begging in the street.

I sponsored one, but an incident soon suspended my limited compassion.
Why were they arrested? I don’t know.
It’s said that one morning something happened,
something about raising the Snow Lion flag at the Potala Ground.
I admit I neither wanted to know too much
nor had any urge to visit him in the prison.

Yes, several years ago he stared at an apple rolling
in strong currents of the Yarlung Tsangpo:
“Look, the karmic result is coming.”
I, drawn by his fame, didn’t know how to react to his pain.
He is well known in this era of shifting sides and silence;

teaching dharma from village to village,
confronting the government on its false policy.
The peasants, nomads, and orphans
he has raised call him Big Lama.
He is also a thorn in officials’ eyes
and needle in the flesh; removal, the only relief.

With a pack of tricks, they finally trapped him after 9/11.
Magnificent way to accuse him, in the name of “anti-terrorism,”
punishing one to warn many. They said he hid bombs
and pornography, as well as planning five or seven bombings.
I remember, half a year before he was locked up, he was very sad:

“My mother passed away, I am going into a one-year retreat for her.”
Such a sincere follower of the Buddha,
how could he be involved in bombing and killing?


I also knew Yoen Lama who taught me the sutras
for taking refuge and meditation. In Sera Monastery,

his students were crying and said to me that when he was meditating,
police cars suddenly took him away to the infamous Gutsa prison
for his involvement in this or that attempt to overturn the government.
With a few monks, I rushed to see him;
the road was swirling dust without today’s paving.
Under the hot sun, we saw only the icy faces of the armed soldiers.

As suddenly as he was arrested, so he was released
for lack of real evidence. Having survived the catastrophe,
with heavy emotion he gave me a strange rosary
made from steamed prison buns,
bright yellow flowers outside his cell window,

and crystal sugar his family sent.
Every bead is ingrained with fingerprints;
the warmth of his touch can still be felt on each of the beads
from reciting the mantras for those ninety odd days of humiliation.
All 108 beads, each one is hard like stubborn pebbles.

I also know a nun only half my age. That summer;
while she marched around the Barkhor shouting the slogan
known to every Tibetan, plainclothes policeman rushing to cover her mouth,
I was shopping for pretty dresses for my 28th birthday.
And at fourteen, I was busy passing exams
to go to high school the next year in Chengdu.

One of my essays was dedicated to the PLA fighting Vietnamese.

Seven years later, after expulsion from her nunnery,
she runs errands for a kind merchant. She is tiny
and always wears an ugly woollen hat, even under the strong sun.
“Why not put on something else?”

I intended to give her a fabric hat. She refused:
“I have a headache, the woollen hat makes me feel better.”
“Why?” I never heard such a thing.
“They beat me in jail. My skull was damaged.”

As for Lobten, a professional with a bright future everyone envied,

after a crazy night of drinking, he alone got on a bus to Ganden Monastery.
It’s said he threw lungta on the pass and shouted that fatal slogan
several times. He was immediately arrested by police
stationed in the monastery. The Party Secretary decreed:
“True words spill out after getting drunk.”
One year later, one more ex-prisoner becomes a vagabond

on the streets of Lhasa.


Having got so far in composing this poem,
I am unwilling to turn it into an accusation.
But among the imprisoned, why do the ones in monastic robes
always outnumber the others? This contradicts commonsense.

We all know the line separating violence and non-violence.
We are indeed the offspring of the holy Ogress — Sringmo,
preferring to have monks and nuns suffer for us.
Let them be beaten, let their sitting wear out the jail floor.
Endure it, lamas and anis, endure it for us!

There is no way to know how they have tortured one’s body and mind,
those intolerable minutes and seconds, those unbearable days and nights.
Mentioning the word “body,” I cannot but shiver.
I am so afraid of pain, a slap could leave me shattered.
In shame, I count days for them, their endless sentences.
Oh, the hearts of Tibet are beating in the hell of reality!

Yet, in sweet teahouses along the Lingkhor,
mindless gossips fly from table to table.
Yet, in the gardens serving tea along the Lingkhor,
retired cadres revel in playing mahjong until sunset.
Yet, in small bars along the Lingkhor,

plump pot-bellied officials get drunk every night.
Oh, let’s be happily passive; it is better than becoming an amchok.
Amchok” means ear and refers to those invisible informers.
Such a graphic nickname. Such Lhasawa humour!

Betrayals by quietly peeping and whispering,

the more one does so, the larger the reward.
It can make one big. Once, in the street,
strangely, all of a sudden I had to tightly cover my ears,
worrying they could fall into someone’s hands if I wasn’t alert;
worrying they could become amchoks reaching out to everywhere,
growing sharper, like Pinocchio’s nose getting longer everytime he lies.

How many suspicious “ears” are around?
How many are wrongly suspected amchoks?
Who is an amchok? Who is not?
Such an absurd scene, it’s more destructive than sugarcoats or cannonballs
Thinking of these, sadly and reluctantly I discovered:

there is another Tibet hidden behind the Tibet we live.
This now makes it impossible for me to write this poem lyrically!


I remain silent. I have long become used to it
for a single reason, because I am full of fear.
Why is it like this? Who can clearly explain?

After all, everyone feels the same, I understand.
Someone said: “Tibetans’ fear can be felt through touch.” [10] But, I want to say, the real fear has long permeated the air, everywhere.

At a mention of past and present, he burst into tears

frightening me. His face was covered with the shawl
of his burgundy robe, while I could not control my laughter
to disguise the pain that had gripped my heart.
While people around glared at me with blame in their eyes,
he lifted his head from the robe. We exchanged eye contact.
The slightest shiver made us aware of the weight of each other’s fear.

A reporter from Xinhua, an offspring of northern Tibetan nomads,
smelling alcohol-soaked on Moon Festival evening,
scolded me with his Party throat and tongue:
“You think you can find out something?
Who you think you are?

You think you can change anything?
We change everything.
Why you create problems?”
Am I really breaking any rule? I wanted to talk back
but only saw in his face the cruelty of a running dog.
There are more people, more serious unrest.

Would all of them be knocked out of the game?

I nearly hear them singing in soft chanting voices:
“Fragrant lotus, withering under the sun’s rays;
snow mountains of Tibet, being scorched under the burning sun.
O! Rock of Permanent Hope, protect us

the youth swearing to bring independence!” [11] No, no, I did not intend to overshadow poetry with politics,
I am only wondering, in prison, why the anis in their teens are fearless.

Thus, let me write, only for remembrance of my pitiful moral pride.

Of course I am not qualified to find out anything, change anything.
I am only admitting to my innermost feelings.
Far away from home, amidst foreigners, eternal strangers,
with slight embarrassment, safely and quietly, I say:
when I think carefully, how can they have nothing to do with me?
And this poem can only express my humble respect, my concern from afar.

(Translated by Susan Chen, Jane Perkins, Buchung D. Sonam, Tseten Gya, Phuntsok Wangchuk, Sangjey Kyap and Tenzin Tsundue)


  • [1] Palden Gyatso was an ordinary Tibetan monk. At the time of the Lhasa Uprising in March 1959, he was twenty-eight. Because he refused to betray his teacher, he was arrested and imprisoned. His sentence was later repeatedly extended. He was brutally tortured and not released until he was sixty, after which he escaped to India. From Dharamsala, the residence-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, he told the world of his life and suffering in his autobiography, Fire Under the Snow (edited and co-authored by Tsering Shakya; Chinese translation by Liao Tianqi).
  • [2] Ngawang Sangdrol was a nun and twelve years old, when she was arrested and imprisoned in 1990 for participating in a street protest in Lhasa. This made her the youngest female political prisoner in Tibet. After her release nine months later, she again demonstrated and was re-arrested in 1992. This time she served eleven years of her sentence. In jail she was one of the fourteen nuns who composed songs about their life behind bars. When a tape recorder was smuggled into prison, they were able to record their songs and the resulting tape shocked the outside world. They became known as ‘The Singing Nuns’. Under strong international pressure, Ngawang Sangdrol was released in 2003 in very poor health. This saved her serving ten more years of imprisonment.
  • [3] Phuntsok Nyidron was a nun who was sentenced to nine years in jail in 1989 for “spreading anti-revolutionary propaganda”. A further eight years were added to her sentence in 1993. She is one of the fourteen nuns who, while inside Drapchi Prison (TAR’s Prison No 1), recorded songs yearning for their nation’s freedom and praising the Dalai Lama. In response to global pressure, she was released on 24 February 2004, in a deteriorated physical condition, thirteen months before her sentence expired. Phuntsok Nyidron was the last of ‘The Singing Nuns’ to leave prison.
  • [4] Lobsang Tenzin, born in Lhasa in 1966, was a sophomore student in the Department of Tibetan Language and Literature, Tibet University, when he was arrested during the so-called “Lhasa Riot” of 5 March 1989 and charged with murdering an armed Chinese policeman. Although there was no evidence to prove his involvement, he was sentenced to death with two years’ suspension. Under international pressure the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, which was later reduced to an eighteen-year sentence. From 2004 he still has ten years to serve. The facility where he’s detained — Pomeshan Prison, Nyingtri Prefecture — is for high-profile political prisoners. One of its twenty-five inmates has become insane. Lobsang Tenzin has serious heart and liver damage caused by brutal beatings and now has trouble sitting and standing straight, experiences temporary blindness as well as severe headaches. There is concern that he might not survive until 2014 in his current medical condition.
  • [5] From the internet Chinese edition of Fire Under The Snow, Chapter Eleven, “In the Ruins”.
  • [6] From the internet Chinese edition of Fire Under The Snow, Chapter Eleven, “In the Ruins”.
  • [7] Jigme Tenzin is a reincarnate lama from the Tibetan region of northern Kham. ‘Bangri’ is his religious name. Around 1997 he and his wife, Nyima Choedron, founded an orphanage, Gyatso Children’s Home, that once housed around fifty street children. The couple were accused of having acted as spies and been involved in activities that threatened state security. After their arrest and respective sentences of fifteen and ten years, the orphanage was closed and many inmates became homeless again.
  • [8] Angang Tashi, a reincarnate lama from the Tibetan region of southern Kham, is also known by his religious name, Tenzin Delek. But Tibetan inhabitants of the Nyagchu (Yajiang) and Lithang areas usually call him as Big Lama. He travelled the heartland of farmers and nomads, spreading Buddha’s teaching, setting up charity organizations to school orphans, care for the poor and elderly, repair roads and bridges, protect the environment, and educate citizens against smoking, drinking, gambling and killing animals. However, in December 2002 he was sentenced to death on charges of “spreading splittism” and “plotting a series of bombings”. The sentence had a two-year suspension and there is widespread suspicion that this case has been fabricated. There has been pressure on the Chinese Government over the past two years by international monitors, the Tibetan exile community, and some intellectuals in inland China, to apply the law and allow a fair and open retrial. The request has so far been denied. Meanwhile, many Tibetans in the region have been accused of involvement in the alleged bombings, including Lobsang Dhondrup who has already been executed. Others are imprisoned.
  • [9] Zhu Zheqin, the singer who became popular with her recording Sister Drum (Dajie Gu), came to Lhasa in 1996 to produce her new MTV, Yangchen Ma (Yangjin Ma). There are several shots of mudras performed by a lama, who is Bangri Rinpoche.
  • [10] From the radio programme Deutsche Welle, 11 June 2002: “Neue Zurcher Zeitung in Switzerland made a detailed report on Tibet … The first article is based upon the reporter’s visit to Tibet. It describes the street scenes and the way Tibetans feel about themselves. The article then goes on to say: ’Yet, when we tried to get closer to some Tibetans, those confident mountain people somehow became ultra cautious strategists.’ One cannot but wonder if this is their way of self denial … Many people are in fear; they are afraid of the trouble that might be invited by mentioning their own nationality … The national flag of PRC is everywhere in Tibet. Tibetans’ fear can be felt through touch.”
  • [11] From the radio programme Deutsche Welle, 11 June 2002: “Neue Zurcher Zeitung in Switzerland made a detailed report on Tibet … The first article is based upon the reporter’s visit to Tibet. It describes the street scenes and the way Tibetans feel about themselves. The article then goes on to say: ’Yet, when we tried to get closer to some Tibetans, those confident mountain people somehow became ultra cautious strategists.’ One cannot but wonder if this is their way of self denial … Many people are in fear; they are afraid of the trouble that might be invited by mentioning their own nationality … The national flag of PRC is everywhere in Tibet. Tibetans’ fear can be felt through touch.”


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