After escaping from a Chinese prison, Tibetan lama Phakyab Rinpoche travels to the United States as a refugee and is treated at New York City’s Bellevue hospital for a severe pain in his ankle that eventually turns to gangrene. In the following excerpt from his book, Meditation Saved My Life, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher recalls his admission to the refugee program and the different ways that he and his doctor view his torturers.

The interview with the psychologist for my admission in the Program for Survivors of Torture will last two hours. I know these two hours will stir up many sufferings—first of all, my present condition as a refugee. I have been greeted with tremendous generosity at Bellevue hospital. But at this point I have lost everything, including my health. The interview will also bring back the shameful denial of humanity that I was subjected to in Chinese jails. Not being human any longer, being reduced to the despicable dregs of society with a dismantled body dismembered by torture, humiliated by degrading treatments—how can I express all of this to human beings whose physical and moral integrity has never been trampled? It will feel as if I am attacking their intact humanity by displaying my own violated humanity.

I have never told anyone about my experience in prison, neither people close to me nor my masters. When I met the Dalai Lama after my escape, I did not need to describe to him my tortures. He knows only too well what goes on in the prisons of the Roof of the World. Without asking me any questions, he hugged me silently. Then he simply said: “Three months of prison and torture! It’s a terrible ordeal! But for others, it lasts 10 years, 20 years! It kills some!”

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I understood then how important it is to put our sufferings into perspective, to not lock oneself in a painful past that indefinitely extends the ordeal. When that happens, we become our own torturer.

On June 17, 2003, in the office of the Program for Survivors of Torture, I am greeted by the psychologist, a smiling young woman with the blue eyes of a doll. Her manners are demonstrative and her kindness is conventional—both features of social relations in the United States of America. I have not yet gotten used to this in the weeks that have gone by, and I must seem very coarse to some of the people I speak with. Indeed, my culture is not very exuberant.

Although I can see this young woman intends to be genuinely benevolent and open to my story, a misunderstanding quickly arises between us as soon as I mention my detention and tortures. I will soon realize that Westerners easily indulge in victimization. This explains their amazement, and their total lack of understanding, when I joke about the ill treatments I suffered in prison.

In her eventual report, the Bellevue psychologist will state: “Mr. Dorje’s affect was stable, however, it seemed inappropriate at times. For example, he was smiling, animated, and even laughed as he described his torture in detail and his survival.”

She would have better understood my feelings had I acted like a punching bag and expressed myself with the tearful language of complaint. Then she would have sympathized and undoubtedly shared my wailing, my indignation, my anger, and my hatred to­ward my torturers. During our interview, I got the impression that she was driving me into a corner and wanting me to accuse my tormentors. That was when I burst out laughing.

How can I take on a hatred I do not feel?

In fact, on that day, even if I was only a penniless refugee and a sick man with a gangrenous leg, I was not the victim. The victims were my jailers. I had left prison, but what about them? They were locked up in a vicious spiral that would hound them during this life and for many lives yet to come!

The psychologist did not understand that I laughed at the absurdity of hating those who had shown such hatred toward me. During my incarceration, I was often dumbfounded at the idea that people who did not know me, and whom I had never been harmful to, could relentlessly torture me. And I have meditated at length on karmic causality. What was happening to me was only the result, the consequence, of a negative spirit and negative thoughts that in previous lives had led me to injure and cause pain to other beings, both human and nonhuman. My torturers were not my enemies. The real enemy is not outside of us. It is to be confronted within us. It takes the shape of selfishness, attachment, self-cherishing. I was therefore laughing at how absurd hatred, thirst for revenge, and anger are. By laughing, I was hoping to relax the psychologist. But I only managed to make her tense.

Sometimes when I think of the bad karma built up by the People’s Armed Police officers who tortured me, I feel tremendous compassion for them. Moved to tears, I pray for them more than for anyone else. And I have completely forgiven them. It is only thanks to my forgiveness that one day, as soon as possible, I hope, they may free themselves from their infernal karma.

Related: The Enemy Within 

In appearance they were the torturers and I the victim. But in reality, we were all victims. I was their physical punching bag, and they were the victims of their own uncontrollable, destructive emotions. The actions they committed to ensure the meager sustenance of their families could lead them to the terrible torments of being reborn as hungry ghosts, hot or cold hellish beings, or animals . . . How can I know? I dedicate to them the positive energy of my praiseworthy actions so that they may find peace of mind at last.

While talking to the psychologist at Bellevue Hospital, how could I explain that the understanding of karma I developed in prison freed me from the unbearable burden of negative emotions? I thus feel gratitude toward those who tortured me. They taught me patience, unconditional compassion, and impartiality, more than have any of my masters. Every day, I express my wishes for them and offer them my prayers so that they may free themselves from mental states upset by hatred and anger. Has the psychologist in front of me ever heard about karma? I doubt that it was part of her studies. If it had been, she would express herself differently.

The law of karma implies that we must assume our share of responsibility in what happens to us. This is easier in the case of happiness and when positive developments occur in our life. But in adversity, I find a source of deep wisdom. It has allowed me to become friends with what I would otherwise deem bad and therefore reject. As it is said in one of the fundamental teachings I meditated on during my training at the monastery:

When the container and the contents are full of negativity,
Transform adverse fortune into an awakening path.
Use all immediate circumstances in meditation.

I have therefore fully accepted the idea that I created the causes of my detention through actions whose essence came to maturity in this life, and I am delighted at having cleansed these negativities. Such an attitude has transformed the way I see those who brutalized me with unimaginable barbarity. Through the sufferings they inflicted on me, they created the necessary conditions for my transformation. How can I not feel infinitely grateful to them?

Excerpted from the book Meditation Saved My Life. Copyright © 2014 by Le Cherche Midi Éditeur. English-language copyright © 2017 by New World Library.

[This story was first published in 2017] 

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