Miscellaneous

The Monk's Tale

William Dalrymple

I met Tashi Passang on a platform of the Tsuglagkhang, the temple attached to the Dalai Lama’s residence-in-exile in Dharamsala, high above the Kangra Valley and the dusty plains of the Punjab. All around us Tibetan pilgrims were circling the prayer hall on the topmost terrace of the temple. Some, in their ankle-length sheepskin chubas, were clearly new arrivals, nomads from western Tibet, fresh across the high snowy passes; others were long-term residents of this Tibet-outside-Tibet: red-robed refugee monks performing the thrice-daily circumambulation of the Dalai Lama’s temple-residence. There was a strong smell of incense and burning butter lamps, and the air was full of the low murmur of muttered prayers and mantras. 

The old monk had a wide face, broad shoulders, and an air of quiet calm and dignity. He wore enveloping maroon robes, a jaunty knitted red bonnet, and thick woolen socks. Despite his age, his brow was unfurrowed, and his face almost unlined. We talked over a bowl of butter tea and he told me how when the Chinese invaded Tibet he, like many other monks, took up arms to defend his country and his faith, something I found surprising. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Can one be both a monk and a resistance fighter? 

 

TASHI PASSANG

 

Once you have been a monk, it is very difficult to kill a man. But sometimes it can be your duty to do so. 

I knew that if I stayed in a monastery under the Chinese there was no point in being a monk. They wouldn’t let me practice my religion. So, to protect the ways of the Lord Buddha, the Buddhist dharma, I decided to fight. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Isn’t nonviolence an essential aspect of being a monk? 

 

PASSANG

 

Yes, nonviolence is the essence of the dharma. This is especially true for a monk. The most important thing is to love each and every sentient being. But when it comes to a greater cause, sometimes it can be your duty to give back your vows and to fight in order to protect the dharma. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

So your desire to protect the dharma ultimately led you to kill?

 

PASSANG

 

It was not that I wanted to murder individual Chinese soldiers. I certainly did not have bloodlust—I took no pleasure in killing. But I knew that the Chinese soldiers were committing the most sinful of all crimes—trying to destroy Buddhism. And I knew that in our scriptures it is written that it can be right to kill a person, as long as your intention is to stop that person from committing a serious sin. You can choose to take upon yourself the bad karma of a violent act in order to save that person from a much worse sin. 

In our scriptures there is a story about a man called Angulimala who had killed nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine people. He hung a finger from each corpse on a garland around his neck. He hoped the Buddha would be his thousandth victim. But on meeting the Lord he converted and became a monk. Many people opposed this, but the Lord Buddha insisted his repentance was genuine, and that he should be allowed to atone for his misdeeds. I think that if Angulimala could be forgiven, then maybe so could I. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did this all begin? 

 

PASSANG

I was born in 1936 in the Dagpo district of the Kham region. Like many in eastern Tibet, my family lived a seminomadic life. We were small landowners with a stone three-story house, and we had many yaks. In the summer the boys of the family had to help my grandparents and my uncles to take the herds up to the high summer pastures. 

When I was young, I watched my elder brothers go off with the herd, and I used to be sad to be left behind. But the valley where we lived was beautiful during the summer. The trees were all green and there were many wildflowers—cornflowers, poppies, and hollyhocks—I couldn’t name half of them. There was a big river leading to a lake near our house. Cranes and ducks would come in the thousands and build their nests. My parents would warn me not to go near the nesting area, in case I touched the eggs. If I did, the mother bird would smell a human being and abandon the young—something my mother said was a sin and which would bring bad karma on all of us. 

When I was twelve, I asked my parents if I could accompany the herds to the mountains for the summer. After much pleading, they agreed. For me this was a totally new way of life. We all slept in a single tent. Inside there were no partitions, and there was a fire in the center. The smoke would escape through a small hole in the roof. Every evening, all the families in the migration would gather to have dinner together, and recite prayers to the goddess Tara. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

When did you decide to become a monk? 

 

PASSANG

For my third summer in the mountains, my great-uncle came with us. He was a monk, though he no longer lived in a monastery. My mother had taught me to read and write a little Tibetan, and my uncle thought that I was a promising boy who might benefit from a monastic education. Every day he would sit with me and teach me to write on a slate, or on the bark of a tree, as there was no paper in the mountains. He also loved history, and was a good storyteller. As we tended the animals, he would tell me long stories about Songtsan Gampo and the kings and heroes of Tibet. 

But his main love was the dharma, and he told me that if I continued to lead the life of a layman I might acquire many yaks, but would have nothing to take with me when I died. He also said that married life was a very complicated business, full of responsibilities, difficulties, and distractions, and that the life of a monk was much easier. He said that it gave you more time and opportunities to practice your religion. 

By the end of the summer I had decided that I would like to try monastic life. I thought that if I really dedicated myself to religion I would have a better chance of a good rebirth in my next life and have the opportunity to gain nirvana. My uncle and I guessed that my parents would forbid me from becoming a monk, so we decided that I should join the monastery first, and only later inform the family. At the end of the summer, when we came down from the passes, my uncle and I went to Dagpo monastery, and he handed me over to the abbot. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Did you worry about missing the freedom you had in the mountains? 

 

PASSANG

Yes, but as it turned out, I was happier in the monastery than I had ever been. In my life as a herdsman, I had to worry about protecting my yaks from wolves, and I had to look after my grandparents. Life was full of anxieties. But as a monk you just have to practice your prayers and meditation, and to hope and work for enlightenment. 

Also, life in the mountains, for all its beauty, was quite lonely. In Dagpo there were nearly five hundred monks, and many boys of my own age. I made a lot of friends. I knew I had made the right decision. Before long even my parents became reconciled to what I had done. 

How you start your life as a monk can determine the rest of your life. One of our teachings is, Men who have not gained spiritual treasures in their youth perish like old herons in a lake without fish. The main struggle, especially when you are young, is to avoid four things: desire, greed, pride, and attachment. Of course no human being can do this completely. But there are techniques that the lamas taught us for diverting the mind. They stop you from thinking of yaks, or money, or beautiful women, and teach you to concentrate instead on gods and goddesses. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What are these techniques? 

 

PASSANG

 

The lamas taught us to stare at a statue of the Lord Buddha and absorb the details of the object—the color, the posture, and so on, reflecting back all we knew of their teachings. Slowly you go deeper; you visualize the hand, the leg, and thevajra in his hand, closing your eyes and trying to travel inward. The more you concentrate on a deity, the more you are diverted from worldly thoughts. It is difficult, of course, but it is also essential. In the Fire Sermon, the Lord Buddha said, The world is on fire and every solution short of nirvana is like trying to whitewash a burning house. Everything we have now is like a dream—impermanent. This floor feels like stone, this cupboard feels like wood—but really it is an illusion. When you die you can’t take any of this. You have to leave it all behind. We have to leave even this human body. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What kind of training did you undergo? 

 

PASSANG

 

It was very rigorous. For three years we were given text after text of the scriptures to memorize. It was a slow process. First we had to master the Tibetan alphabets. Then we had to learn a few mantras, then slowly we were taught the shorter versions of the scriptures, or tantras. Finally we graduated to the long versions. 

At the end of this period we were each sent off to live in a cave for four months to practice praying in solitude. There were seven other boys nearby, in the same cliff face, but we were not allowed to speak to one another. 

Initially I felt like a failure. I was lonely, and scared, and had a terrible pain in my knees from the number of prostrations—we were expected to do thousands in a day—but by the end of the first fortnight, I finally began to reflect deeply on things. I began to see the vanity of pleasures and ambitions. Until then I had not really sat and reflected. I had just done what I had been taught and followed the set rhythms of the monastery. 

I felt that I had found myself in the cave. My mind became clear, and I felt my sins were being washed away with the austerity of the hermit’s life, that I was being purified. I was happy. It is not easy to reach the stage when you really remove the world from your heart. Ever since then I have always had a desire to go back and to spend more time as a hermit. 

But it was not meant to be. As soon as I returned from those four months of solitude, the Chinese came. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

But didn’t the Chinese invasion of Tibet take place in the autumn of 1950, a few years before you joined the monastery? 

 

PASSANG

 

Yes, I was twelve or thirteen when I first saw them—long lines of the soldiers streaming through our valley with their guns and their horses. But there were very few of them at first, and they never really impinged on my life. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What changed? 

 

PASSANG

 

One day, the Chinese troops came to my monastery—a colonel and about sixty soldiers with guns. They put up posters of their president on the walls and erected loudspeakers in the courtyard so that we would have to listen to what they said. 

Their colonel wore spectacles and was very polite. He said they had come to help Tibet be self-reliant and that they would return home when they had taught us to be modern. He said they had come to bring justice, and to help the poor, and to make Tibet a good country, like China. He said that China was like our big brother, and that it would be good for us if we accepted their authority until the people of Tibet were ready to govern themselves in a modern, Communist way. The colonel even told us he had come to liberate us. To this the abbot replied that he could not liberate us, as the Lord Buddha had showed us that it was up to each man to liberate himself. I don’t think the colonel understood what the abbot was talking about. 

After that, the Chinese came to the monastery every month or so and gave us a lecture—they called them indoctrination meetings. Sometimes the posters they put up were blasphemous—insulting the Buddha and saying that the monks were trying to keep the people of Tibet poor and ignorant. Gradually the lectures became ruder: they said that everything the monasteries did was wrong, and that there was no other option but to accept the changes the Chinese were making. 

I realized something was wrong. Something evil was creeping behind their smiles. I began to have sleepless nights. I didn’t want to be under Chinese rule, but I couldn’t see any alternative. Some of the monks began to say that the Chinese were out to destroy Buddhism, and that we should not simply surrender to what they wanted, but fight back. Some nights as I lay awake I wondered whether these monks might be right. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What made up your mind for you? 

 

PASSANG

 

In the summer of 1954, rumors began to spread that the Chinese had bombed a monastery at the other end of our province, killing many monks. Then we heard that the same thing had happened closer to us, at Changtreng Gompa, and that the monastery had been first bombed and then desecrated. 

There were other stories, too: that the Chinese made monks get married and forced them to join their army, build roads, and work in slave-labor camps. We heard that parents who refused to send their children to Chinese schools were tied to posts and had nails driven through their eyes. 

As we were hearing these things, the Chinese army came to our monastery and asked us to turn over all the guns and swords from the monastery armory. The abbot said that these things had been given to us by our forebears and parents, and that the Chinese had no right to take them. But they ignored him. They searched the monastery and removed all the weapons they could find. 

After this, the monks had a meeting. We were unanimous that we had to fight, since the Chinese were clearly intent on destroying the Buddhist dharma and so had become tendra, or enemies of the faith. We heard that thousands of fighters had gathered in Lhokha to the south and founded a resistance movement called the Chu-zhi Gang-drung, or Four Rivers, Six Ranges. We went in front of the abbot and renounced our vows. We said that we could not continue as monks. The abbot gave us his permission. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

You didn’t have to have some kind of ceremony to release you from your obligations? 

 

PASSANG

 

It did seem odd, especially since we were all still wearing our robes. This bothered us later, but there was no time to worry then. 

A number of the monks were from the village at the foot of the monastery, and their families gave them horses to ride on. I didn’t have a horse, but I had a gun—the one I had used as a shepherd. I went on foot, on my own, with my gun. Really, all I wanted was to go see my family again. But the People’s Liberation Army had built a small camp next to our property, and I knew it would not be safe. So a number of us headed back in the direction of the mountains where we used to pasture the yaks during the summer. 

What I didn’t know was that the monastery was full of informers. As soon as the Chinese heard that I had taken my gun and gone to the hills, they came to my family’s house and began beating my mother, asking her where I was. They were cruel. They beat her feet, and dragged her by her hair so that she was left almost bald. They tied her to a stake outside our house, stripped her, and threw cold water over her. They left her there overnight so that the water froze to her and she nearly died of exposure. 

They came back every day, each time devising new ways to torture her so that she would tell them where I had gone. But I was in the mountains, and it was more than a month before I came to hear of what had happened to her. 

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you actually end up fighting? 

 

PASSANG

 

I heard about what had happened to my mother. My uncle, the monk, found me in the mountains and told me that she had been tortured. He asked me to surrender my gun in order to save my mother. Of course I did so immediately. The uncle took the gun to the Chinese and they finally left her alone. But then I met up with some of my brethren who were also hiding in the hills, and we decided to walk to Lhasa so we could warn the monks there of what was happening. 

We walked for eight months. At first we traveled only at night, but after a while, when we began to near Lhasa, we felt more secure and walked during the day too. There were many checkpoints, but there were lots of other pilgrims and monks on the roads. We told everyone we met that we were pilgrims heading to Lhasa for the Monlam ceremony, when the Dalai Lama gives daily addresses for two weeks. 

 

In Lhasa I told the other monks about the Chinese, and how we had to stand up to them. I told them to take their guns while they still had them and join the rebels. But the older monks wouldn’t listen. They thought our government could still protect us, and that the Dalai Lama would keep the Chinese away. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did they think the Dalai Lama could do this? 

 

PASSANG

 

Magical powers, they said. Around that time word reached Lhasa that my mother had died. She was not old—no more than fifty. But she never recovered from the beatings the Chinese had given her, and she died as a result of internal injuries she received for what I had done. I wept when the news came. For long days after that I was too paralyzed with sadness to think of anything else. I was worried too, because I now felt a real hatred for the Chinese. Violence may be justified by our scriptures, in certain circumstances, but anger and hatred are always forbidden. I knew I was now in mortal danger of real sin—but this only made me hate the Chinese more. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

This must have been early 1959, when it began to seem possible that the Chinese government would abduct the Dalai Lama and bring him to China. 

 

PASSANG

 

Yes. On the evening of March 15, 1959, I was one of twenty-five monks who were told we would have the chance to meet His Holiness. We assumed we were going to join the crowds gathering at Norbulingka. I was excited since I thought I might get to hear His Holiness give one of his public teachings. But we didn’t stop at Norbulingka. Instead we continued straight into the darkness. We crossed the wide Tsangpo River in a small boat, and for the next two days we walked and walked, through empty plains, with only hard balls of tsampa to eat. The monks who were leading us refused to tell us where we were going or what we were doing, and since we were all very junior monks we had no option but to obey. 

We finally stopped to rest at the village of Chi Thu Shae, a three-day walk from Lhasa. After two hours a party of Khampa horsemen turned up. Among them, to our amazement, was His Holiness, with a rifle strapped to his back. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

The Dalai Lama? With a gun? 

 

PASSANG

 

Yes. None of us recognized him at first, since he was dressed as an ordinary guard, but his spectacles gave him away. He had fled Lhasa in disguise, and we were told that it was our job to escort him. None of us knew he was heading into exile. I am not sure that even he knew it at that stage. All we knew was that we had to escape from the Chinese, and to prevent their soldiers from seizing the Dalai Lama. Of course we were excited, and honored. It was a great responsibility. We walked for several more days through harsh country, struggling to keep up with His Holiness, until we reached Lhuntse Dzong in the southeast. It was here that we met a rinpoche in the street. We asked him to release us from our vows a second time, since we were still wearing our monastic robes. We couldn’t fight the Chinese army while still wearing the robes of monks, and we felt strongly that we had to end this ambiguity. The first, very brief ceremony of giving back our vows at Dagpo had seemed very inadequate and hurried, and we were not sure what our exact status was. Were we monks or not? 

So the rinpoche gave us a lecture. He said, Just because you are giving back your vows, it doesn’t mean you can indulge in loose living and worldly affairs. You are doing this to protect the Dalai Lama. If necessary, you must fight the Chinese and even kill them. But don’t do anything else that will go against your monastic vows. 

We shed our robes and were given ordinary chubas to wear, and guns to use. His Holiness hurried on ahead, since the Chinese were expected at any moment. We remained behind with the Khampa fighters of the Chu-zhi Gang-drung. We planned to make a heroic stand, and to die fighting for His Holiness. But that is not what happened. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How long was it before the Chinese arrived? 

 

PASSANG

 

A full day passed. There were hundreds of them, with trucks and tanks and artillery and machine guns. Worst of all they had two fighter planes. We were completely outnumbered. I’m ashamed to admit it, but when the planes began to strafe us, we fired only a few shots before fleeing into the hills. It seemed pointless to stay and die. Some of the Chu-zhi Gang-drung volunteers died fighting at Lhuntse Dzong, but almost all of us monks took to our heels and ran. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

So you were not able to protect the Dalai Lama. 

 

PASSANG

No, but I think we did do him a service by running, even if that wasn’t our intention. You see, the Chinese patrols followed us. Perhaps they thought that His Holiness was with us. Many of the people I was with were shot dead. We hid during the day and traveled only at night, but even then the Chinese sent up flares and shelled anyone they could see moving. 

When we got higher we found ourselves trudging through heavy snow. By that time we were reduced to eating the donkeys that had died—we had nothing else. There was nowhere to shelter, and it was very cold. We lost so many on the way, zigzagging as they fired shells from above, through thick snow, red with blood. By the end we were reduced to just six people, half walking, half sleeping. 

After ten or fifteen days of this we finally got to the Indian border. Only then did we hear that our precious jewel, the Dalai Lama, had escaped. But we also heard there what had happened in Lhasa—Potala and Norbulingka had been shelled, and thousands had died when the Chinese sent their tanks into Jokhang Temple. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Was your faith damaged? 

 

PASSANG

 

On the contrary. I gained more faith. How else could we have survived, despite the entire Chinese army following us? We wore amulets with religious texts to guard our lives. I was wearing one and when the bullets came, they traveled right past me. On one occasion, when we were being shelled at night, a shell landed very close to me. For a moment, in the sudden, blinding light, I thought I saw the protector goddess, Palden Lhamo. The shell had landed only a few feet away from us, but no one was hurt. So, no, my faith was not affected. I felt completely protected. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Then how do you explain what happened to the Tibetans? 

 

PASSANG

 

We Buddhists believe in karma, in cause and effect. An action has consequences. Perhaps this happened because there was a time in the eighth century when we Tibetans invaded China and tortured the Chinese. It is our turn to suffer for what we did in previous lives. 

A similar thing had also happened during the time of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, when the Chinese invaded for the first time. After a while those who fled returned, and the Chinese went back to their own country. I never guessed it would take so long this time. Like me, most Tibetans thought that in a year or two we would be back. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did you get out of the mountains? 

 

PASSANG

 

We had a plan to return to Tsona, which we had heard was still free. We thought that we’d fight the Chinese from there. But we had no food and no bullets. We waited for two weeks, but no help came. We hesitated to enter India. But finally there was no alternative. Starvation forced us across the border. But even then, when we decided to cross, we did so only because we thought it the most likely way for us to be able to continue the fight for dharma. 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did you feel once you got to India? 

 

PASSANG

 

Awful. It was the lowest point in my life. At night we would talk about how everything was over. We had lost our country. We were in exile, dependent on others, with no will or right to do what we wanted. We hoped that someone would arm us and help us, so that we could recapture Tibet, but nothing happened. Our only hope was in following His Holiness. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did you survive in India? 

 

PASSANG

 

I was sent to a Tibetan settlement that was created at Bylakuppe in the forests of Karnataka in southern India. There I learned how to make carpets and handicrafts, and for two years I lived by selling these. 

But in 1962, when China attacked Indian positions in Aksai Chin during the brief Sino-Indian war, recruiters were sent to the Tibetan refugee settlements to find soldiers. I enlisted in the Indian army. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Why did you do this? 

 

PASSANG

 

We were told that we would train for a few months and then be sent back to Tibet to begin a revolution. Clearly making handicrafts in Karnataka was not going to do that, and this seemed the help we had been waiting for ever since we fled Lhasa. I joined a secret Tibetan unit in the Indian army known as the Special Frontier Forces, or Unit 22. We were jointly trained by India and the CIA in a camp near Dehra Dun. We signed up as we thought this was the way to get our land back and reestablish the Buddhist dharma. 

But we didn’t see action until the 1971 war over Bangladesh. From Dehra Dun they flew us to Guwahati, and then drove us in trucks up into Manipur. We crossed a river into Bangladesh, and managed to surround the Pakistani army from three sides. It was a great victory, at least as far as the Indians were concerned. But for me, it felt like a total defeat. 

I had to shoot and kill other men, even as they were running away in despair. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did they convince you to do this? 

 

PASSANG

 

They would make us drink rum and whiskey so that we would kill without hesitation, and not worry about the moral consequences. Every day I saw corpses. Sometimes even now at night I see the whole scene: people shooting, others being shot. Airplanes dropping bombs, missiles, and napalm, and people screaming, houses burning, and the women screaming. War is far worse than you ever imagine it to be. It is the last thing any Buddhist should be involved in. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

You must have left your identity as a monk far behind at this point. 

 

PASSANG

 

No, on the contrary—we tried to behave as much like monks as we could. We brought our short Buddhist texts with us and recited our mantras, even in battle. In between the fighting we continued praying—when we were marching, when we were fighting. If anything I prayed more in the army than I did as a monk. Even when we were digging trenches in the jungle we carried holy images in our packs and lit butter lamps to honor them. 

But within my heart, I knew I was going against ahimsa, nonviolence, and all the most important Buddhist principles—it was not to fight the Pakistanis that I gave up my monastic vows. I knew that I wouldn’t free Tibet, however many Pakistanis I killed. It was for the Tibetan cause and to defeat China that I joined the army. But it dawned on me that we were now no better than the Chinese, killing anyone we were told to kill. 

We weren’t happy doing this fighting, but what could we do? I felt sorry, because the war didn’t seem to be about right and wrong, and it certainly wasn’t about the dharma. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

If you felt like you’d been misled by the Indians into joining the army, then why didn’t you just leave? 

 

PASSANG

 

It’s not easy just to leave the army. For refugees like us who had no rights, the Indian army was a lifelong commitment, though of course we didn’t realize that when we first joined up. On my annual leave, in expiation, I began touring the Buddhist pilgrimage sites of India and Nepal, searching for peace of mind. I went to Sarnath, Lumbini, and Bodh Gaya. There I spent my time praying and meditating, performing prostrations in an attempt to gain back some of the merit I had lost. I went to the place where the Lord Buddha lived, to where he was born, to where he got enlightenment, and where he preached his first sermon. 

My release papers didn’t come until 1986. I retired and caught a bus the same day to Dharamsala. As chance would have it, I arrived in the middle of the Monlam ceremony, when the Dalai Lama gives his public sermons—the same ceremony I had seen in Lhasa in 1959, nearly thirty years earlier. While I listened to the Dalai Lama, I thought about what I could do to make up for all I had done. I saw some prayer flags attached to the temple, and I thought, This is something I can do: I can make prayer flags. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Why prayer flags? 

 

 

PASSANG

 

Compared to Tibet, there are relatively few prayer flags in India, even in Dharamsala, and many are very badly printed: you can’t read the mantras, and often they are not correctly written. I knew all the mantras from my training as a monk and I decided I would try to make well-printed prayer flags. I would take a lot of time with them so that I earned back my good merit. I thought this way I could live a calm and peaceful life. I also thought I might make a little money to supplement my army pension. 

I found a small wooden hut to live in. It had a tin roof and was mounted on four small wooden chocks. I also met an old lama who taught me the techniques of printing. When I made the flags, I tried to think of the people who would buy them, and of the merit they would earn by flying them, and I always prayed that they might find the right path and not make the same errors as me. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did you become a monk again? 

 

PASSANG

 

In my heart I felt that I had never really given up my vows. It was just that sometimes my duty led elsewhere. In 1995 I talked about it with several of my old army colleagues, including two who had been monks with me in Dagpo, and we decided to take our vows again, together. His Holiness gave us our vows, and gave us new names to signal the new beginning we were making, even though it was so late in our lives. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did that make you feel? 



PASSANG

 

The period since I rejoined the religious life has been the happiest time of my life—at least the happiest time since my days as a nomad in the mountains, or when I went to the cave in Dagpo to live as a hermit. Many people think that old age is an affliction. But from youth I have always accepted that I had to grow old. It comes to everyone. I now have the time to read all the scriptures, which I could never do in the army. It may be more difficult to memorize and learn by heart the scriptures than when I was young; but there are fewer distractions in old age, and concentrating has become easier. It is tough getting all the readings for the day done at my age—I have to start at three-thirty, otherwise I don’t finish—but at least my mind no longer goes off like a yak that has escaped its herder. I can’t undo my actions in Bangladesh. But I feel fortunate that I had this second chance. Now at least I can die as a monk. 

For the first time in thirty years I feel that I spend my day practicing the dharma again. I have no material goods, and no temptations. I think of the time I will die, and how best to embrace this. I am here in Dharamsala, near His Holiness. Whenever the Dalai Lama preaches, I can attend, and listen to him, and learn from his wisdom. 

The veterans’ home where I live now is a happy place, and almost like a monastery. Certainly there is some loss of freedom, but I know that if I get sick now I will be looked after. Everything is taken care of, and you can concentrate on your prayers. Since I retired I have gone and repented to many lamas. I have visited many temples, pledging not to do such things ever again. I have prayed for the souls of the men I have killed, and asked that they have good rebirths. But still I worry. The lamas told me that if my motivation was pure, and I had done violent acts to help others at the expense of my own karma, then I can still be saved. In truth I don’t know how much forgiveness I have gathered. I don’t know yet whether on my deathbed I will feel calm and satisfied. Maybe I will never know. 

 

INTERVIEWER

Wouldn’t you like to go back to Tibet, even just to see it one last time? 

 

PASSANG

 

That was what I joined the army to fight for. India is still a foreign land for me, even though I have been here about forty years. Three years ago, I was at the temple when I saw a man from my village. I hadn’t seen him for over fifty years but I recognized him immediately. He had only just come to India from Tibet, and he was able to bring me news of my family, and told me that one of my elder brothers was still alive. Even more than that, he knew his telephone number. 

The next day I called home. After thirty years I was able to talk to my brother, though I couldn’t understand much, since he was crying. He told me all my other brothers had died, and it was just the two of us who were left. He said that the Chinese had taken the family house, and our land, and all the yaks, saying that we were landowners and so “class enemies.” They gave the yaks to a collective farm and made the family live in the yak shed. But that was all I could really hear. My brother kept sobbing and asking me to return: Just come back, come back, and everything will be all right. I thought maybe I should. But then I thought—what help could I be at my age? I will just be a burden. 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Do you still hate the Chinese and wish you could fight them? 

 

PASSANG

 

His Holiness is always preaching that it is not the Chinese but hate itself that is our biggest enemy. After the Chinese tortured my mother, I felt a deep hatred for them, and I was always striving for violent retaliation. Whenever I saw a Chinese restaurant in India, I would want to throw stones at it. Even the color red could make me boil with anger at what the Chinese have done. But after I heard His Holiness say we must defeat hatred, I determined that I would try to eat a Chinese meal in a Chinese restaurant to try and cure myself of this rage. I wanted to wash my anger clean, as His Holiness puts it, to wash clean the blood. 

So one day when I was on pilgrimage in Bodh Gaya, I saw a small Chinese restaurant by the roadside. It was run by two Chinese women—an old woman of seventy, and her daughter who must have been around forty. I went in there specially one evening, and I ordered some noodles. I have to say that they were delicious. After I had eaten, I thanked the mother and asked her to sit down with me, so we could talk. I asked, Where are you from? She replied, Before the Communists, I was from China. It turned out her father had been tortured and killed by Mao’s soldiers in the Cultural Revolution, and her relations had fled to Hong Kong and from there to India. By this stage, she was weeping: crying and crying as she told me what her family had suffered. I told her, Before the Communists, I was from Tibet, and my mother was also tortured, and died from what Mao’s soldiers did to her. After that, we both burst into tears and hugged each other. Since then I have been free from my hatred of all things and people Chinese. 

I am sad, of course, that I have been separated from my country, and my family, and that even now, in old age, I am not back home. I am sad that there has been so much violence and suffering in my life. I am now seventy-four. I am still in exile, and Tibet is still not free. I still hope, and who knows? Even the Chinese do not believe in communism anymore, so maybe in time the dharma will spread from Tibet into China. We should always live in hope. 

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