Remembering Tsangyang Gyatso, Gendun Choephel, Dhondup Gyal, Tsering Wangyal, Dawa Norbu and others

By Bhuchung D. Sonam

Tibetan World Magazine  July 2009

Your old road is

Rapidly ageing.

Please get out of the new one

If you can’t lend your hand

For the times they are a-changing.

– Bob Dylan

The confrontation against writers and intellectuals in any society generally comes from two sections — the mob and the authority. While the former is a congregation of the ultra orthodox who are untouchable by winds of change, the latter is a force all out to silence creative voices, since creativity means change and the change signifies danger to those in power. History is filled with such incidences – lack of societal receptacle for fresh thoughts and rule of thumb by those in power, a toxic cocktail that often drives the intellectuals into exile, social ostracism and in many cases to their demise. Over and above these conditions there seems to be, in our society, a trace of collective karmic result that by a freak twist of fate hammers the heads that rise above others.

It all began with His Holiness the Sixth Dalai Lama, Rigzin Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), or the Precious Ocean of Pure Melody — his rebellious life, non-conformity to established social norms, challenging received wisdom, love for creative expression, desire to bring change and tragic early death.

The poet Dalai Lama was born on 1 May 1683 in Mon, presently Arunachal Pradesh in India, and in 1697 he was enthroned at the Potala Palace as the Sixth Dalai Lama. Growing to a tall, handsome but simple youth, Tsangyang never liked the strict regimens and the grand routines in the huge palace. He spent a great deal of time in outdoor sports and worldly affairs with his friends. By the time he was twenty years old, he had made his mind not to take the vows to become a fully ordained monk, thus creating an uproar in the Potala Palace and endangering the very institution of the Dalai Lama. The regent, Sangye Gyatso, became desperate as his successful rule over Tibet depended on how the young Dalai Lama was brought up to befit his name.

In the ensuing years Sangye Gyatso’s political intrigue, miscalculated alliance with the Dzungar Mongols, failed assassination of Lhazang Khan, the Qosot Mongol and bitter rival of the Dzungar, proved fatal. Lhazang’s retribution ended with the beheading of the regent, deposing of the Dalai Lama on 27 June 1706 and taking him by force to China. As Tsangyang and the Mongol escorts reached Kunga-nor, a small lake in Kokonor region, he died or most likely was murdered. Some claim that Tsangyang Gyatso simply disappeared and, as The Secret Biography of the Sixth Dalai Lama mentions, led a secret but fruitful and peripatetic life as a yogi. At the time of his death, murder or disappearance he was 23.

In his short, chaotic life, Tsangyang penned some of the finest poems and love songs ever written in Tibetan. Free of didacticism and elaborate imageries of traditional Tibetan cantos, he wrote and sang out of his experience and longing to be who he was. There is spontaneity in his poems and universality in his message. To this day his songs are sung by Tibetans scattered all across the globe.

If the maiden forever lives

The wine ceaselessly will flow

And in the tavern this youth

Eternally will seek his refuge.

Then for two centuries there was silence. As the twentieth century dawned, and the wheel of change was at full throttle elsewhere, our kismet punctured. The demon popped up its ugly head. This time it was the over-cautious, squabbling

and intriguing ruling Lhasa aristocrats who were up in arms against the small frail bespectacled monk. The monk’s ideas for Tibet wobbled their weak hearts carefully hidden beneath the fine silk brocades. They pounded him with their inadequacies.

Gendun Choephel (1905-1951), the foremost of modern Tibetan intellectual, was born in 1905 in Rebkong, northeastern Tibet. He was a bright student and a brilliant monk who created chaos in the debating courtyards with his antics and often unconventional, but brilliant, dialectical skills. He travelled in India and Sri Lanka like a vagabond, craving for knowledge. By the time he returned to Tibet karma had turned against him. He was imprisoned in February 1946 for crimes of treason, and underwent unimaginable suffering and humiliation. (while in Kalimpong GC had met Ragpa, Changlochen and Kunphe-la, three influential and somewhat reform-minded people for whom he supposedly helped design the emblem and wrote the manifesto for their Tibet Improvement Party. Although Lhasa aristocrats never

officially stated, this was said to be the main reason for his imprisonment)

In his life Gendun Choephel scanned everything that passed by him and produced numerous books from Buddhist philosophy to the Tibetan art of making love. He wanted change in Tibet that never came. When he came out of Nangtse Shak Prison in May 1949, his hair was long and his manner strange. He took to drink and cigarettes to dispel his extreme disillusion. The brightest star that shone in the Tibetan sky exploded under constant poundings of censure, short-sightedness and the witless whims of a few elites. The demon was on the loose. Gendun Choephel passed away in

Lhasa at 4 pm on 14 August 1951. He was 47.

Dhondup Gyal (1953-1985), the enigmatic rebel poet and writer, was born in 1953 in the tiny village of Gurong Phuba, northeastern Tibet. After braving a broken family and lack of early education opportunities, his diligence and love of books led him to discover his creative ability and the need to inspire others. When opportunity knocked its door he excelled in his studies and soon acquired a unique voice. The originality in his writing was supplemented by a strong sense of Tibetanness and patriotism, which also drove him into many fights, both verbal and physical, with anyone who looked down upon Tibetans.

As an iconic figure, one of his many contributions is to restore a love of and interest in Tibetan language amongst Tibetan youths. A section of conservative Tibetans failed to understand his defiant moods and seemingly unconventional style of writing, not knowing that his new creations were firmly based on Tibet’s rich literary past. He was perfectly in tune with the era and let his pen dance to the shifting melody of time. The harmonious rhythm of his pen was but a new voice for the ancient tradition. However, the confrontation never ceased. He was threatened with dire consequences when his short story titled Tulku was published in 1981.

Feeling constricted by such a suffocating social environment, he eventually decided to lift the weight off his back. Our karma twisted. In November 1985 Dhondup Gyal apparently committed suicide in his room in Chabcha. He was 32.

In the heat of Indian summer where butter sculptures melt, the demon followed us like the shadow of an empty glass. It searched the entire length of the Tibetan diaspora scattered across the earth and in the far-flung corner of Colorado, it found Trungpa, the poet and meditation master.

Chögyam Trungpa (1939-1987) was born in Kham, eastern Tibet. After the Chinese occupation of Tibet, he escaped into exile and became a leading meditation master, a prolific author and an astonishing poet. He spewed out a range of verses constantly reminding us about the fleeting nature of existence. At times he wrote to say that we are fools blindly dancing around a fire of ignorance. The range of his writing was matched only by his eccentricity.

Along the winding road of his life as a father, a master, a husband, and a poet, he invited controversy and gathered flakes, which he nudged off with a wave of his incisive pen.

‘The best minds of my generation are idiots,They have such idiot compassion.The world of charity is turned into chicken-food,The castles of diamond bought and sold for tourism …’

Trungpa passed away in 1987. He was 48.

The vicious circle was turning. Our karma dwindled. Calamities were in the offing.

Ngodup Paljor (1948-1988) was a little-known figure. But he was among other things a translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a professor of Tibetan studies at the University of Hawaii, the founder of The Alaska Tibet Committee and a vibrant poet. Through his forced travel from Tibetan hills to the Indian plains and eventually to cold Alaska, he was a refugee, a monk and a layman.

Sitting in the mountains he juggled between his perfect Tibetan, Hindi, Pali, Thai and English. The final words, however, were always reflective of the country he left behind.

‘I remember the face of Mt. Everest

The Queen of the Earth

I grew on her lap

And played with her children.’

On 25 October 1988, Paljor died in an accident at the Port of Anchorage, Alaska. He was 40.

In the midst of our uncertain exile existence many flowers bloomed only to be blighted by untimely frosts of communal wrath. The devil has many shapes and forms.

K. Dhondup (1952-1995) was born in Rubin Gang in Tibet. He was a restless youth with great zeal. In the 1970s, when there were severe repressions in Tibet by the Communist China, a few Tibetans set up a Tibetan communist party in exile. On 1 May 1979 the Tibetan Communist Party (TCP) came into the open with K. Dhondup, Namgyal and

Kelsang Tenzin as its founding fathers causing ‘shock, distress and panic’ in exile community. Understandably, the party was vehemently opposed and its founders faced public rage and ostracism. Their intention may have been good, but the timing was terrible. Communism as an ideology was already on the decline then and as we see today it has virtually disappeared – except in dreadfully repressive and closed countries like North Korea, China and Cuba.

The founding of the TCP created a spurt of ideological debates and comments, including one by His Holiness the Dalai Lama who spoke in favour of the TCP. Perhaps it was extreme zest and youthful naiveté that drove Dhondup and his comrades to launch the TCP without a fuller understanding of its historical necessity or the many fundamental contradictions communism has with Tibetan culture and religion. However, K. Dhondup’s open-mindedness and boldness in expressing his views were rare qualities. His additional strength was the judicious use of his pen to reassert our sense of history and to compose verses, which were painfully poignant and evocatively tender.

‘A tear is a poem

A smile its celebration’

K. Dhondup passed away at 6 am on 7 May 1995 in New Delhi. He was 42.

Re-rooting in exile is an agonizing process. In this stage on unsure ground more flowers were to be destroyed. In the summer of 1988, a friend took me with him to his sister-in-law Lhamo Tsering’s place in Delhi. The address was Tibetan Review, D-11, East of Kailash. The next day I asked Acha Lhamo about Tsering Wangyal (1949-2000) fondly called Editor, of whom I heard so many near-legend stories in school. She was the circulation manager for the Tibetan Review and was occupying the room opposite to Editor’s. Acha Lhamo did not tell any story. Instead she let me and my friend go into editor’s room saying that he would not come back that night. With our schoolboy curiosity doubly roused we marched in expecting a room befitting the stories we’d heard. The bare dingy, ten-by-twelve room was a big disappointment. There were pyjamas on the floor forming a number eight, a single bed with a grey bedsheet, plastic slippers and a television. The bathroom, however, was luxuriously full to the brim with empty beer bottles. A genius must drink a lot of beer, I thought.

We showed our disappointment to Acha Lhamo, who then told us that once a Japanese journalist, dressed in a three-piece suit, came to interview Editor. The journalist knocked on the door and when Editor came out in crumpled pyjamas rubbing his eyes, the Japanese very politely stated his purpose and asked for the editor of the Tibetan Review. Editor answered he was the editor and the Japanese was taken aback, lost his words and became extremely nervous.

Tsering Wangyal had an uncanny power over words that came with mathematical precision, ‘quick wit and irreverent humour’. During his nineteen years as the editor, Tibetan Review became a standard forum where ideas were debated, ideologies were shaped and shaky policies from both sides of the Himalayas were shredded. His ascetic life was made more attractive by the sounds of his words which echoed in the corridors of the Kashag and Zhongnanhai in equal measure.

Editor’s dedication to his profession was also incomparable. The day on which he was to leave for Canada he attended his office at the Voice of Tibet in Dharamshala with his belongings stuffed in a small carry bag. After office that evening, he sat in a bus that wormed slowly down the narrow road towards the plains. It was the last time we saw him.

Tsering Wangyal passed away in Toronto at 8:33 pm on 24 November 2000. He was 51.

Dawa Norbu (1948-2006) was born in Tashigang, a small village near Sakya in Central Tibet. After the Chinese occupation of Tibet he, along with his mother and other siblings, escaped to India where he had opportunities to study.

Using his modern education, he boldly wrote in the editorial of the Tibetan Review, August 1972, “…that the Tibetan people in and outside need a dynamic and pragmatic political leadership. Even the comrade who believes in the miracles of the masses would agree that a people with great revolutionary possibilities would remain fallow without a dynamic leader. Tibetan leadership in exile tends to be more interested in spiritual pursuits than in the mundane affairs of a people who is gasping for its national existence.”

Under the circumstances of that time and perhaps even now, it was a perfectly true and apt comment. But the mob was up in arms demanding Dawa Norbu’s death for insulting their holy leader. In a fervent rage of misguided emotion the Tibetan women came out in full force shouting and shrieking. They took off their beautiful aprons and flapped them in the air, a last measure of insult generally reserved for Communist China. Dawa Norbu at that time did not understand the meaning of women flapping aprons.

A group of Tibetans in their fanatic refusal to violate customary norms of blind-faith and utter narrow-mindedness chased Dawa Norbu with their fists firmly clenched. Luckily his friends were able to hide him in Dejongpa B. Tsering’s room opposite the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, where presently a scary cell-phone tower stands. Ultimately, it took the Dalai Lama’s voice to knock some sense into those obnoxious minds.

Dawa Norbu had a private audience with His Holiness during which he was praised for having the guts to speak the truth. Later, in a speech given during the general meeting on Tibetan Education, the Dalai Lama reiterated his praise and further stated that the purpose of educating young exile Tibetans was coming to fruition with their courage to think, express and carry out responsibilities as exemplified by Dawa Norbu. The boiling pot suddenly cooled down.

In 1976 Dawa Norbu left for further studies in the US, and in 1982 he completed his Ph.D from the University of California, Berkley. However, when he came back to Dharamshala his karma frowned at him. Perhaps the authorities did not forget the furore that his editorial created more than a decade earlier, or maybe they did not want too bright a star amongst them lest they pale under its shine, or some say that he went under depression. Whatever the reasons were, Dawa remained jobless for quite sometime.

The dry spell, however, came as a blessing in disguise, for it led him to become a professor at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University. The journey of a boy from a small peasant family who rose to become exile Tibet’s foremost scholar reached its pinnacle. He, as one of his students wrote, ‘combined rare intellect with practical insights and honesty’.

Dawa Norbu passed away around 12 noon on 28 May 2006. He was 58.

The average age of these outstanding individuals is 42.

When they were alive, a constant flow of words from them lost its meaning in our superstitious and half-baked minds and the authorities gagged their mouths with self-serving petty politics. The nibs of their pens became blunt, words

blurred, sentences grew denuded and the writers became victims. Yet when most of us have died and turned to ashes, the new flowers that bloom will find wisdom in the words of these people… and through words their names will be remembered and honoured, while we will disappear into the shadows of history, unknown and unclaimed.

It is better to live a short fruitful life, than a long parasitic one.

Bhuchung D. Sonam can be reached at tsampa@tibetwrites.org