From sheltered youth to forced laborer to government official, Arjia Rinpoche tells the story of his extraordinary life in Chinese-occupied Tibet, including an eyewitness account of one of the most infamous events in recent Tibetan history.

Arjia Rinpoche was born in 1950, the same year Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet. His early years were ones of geographical and political isolation. His nomadic family herded their yaks across the high plains of the Tibetan-Mongolian border, their camp never far from the vast blue waters of Lake Kokonor. At the age of two, he was recognized by the Tenth Panchen Lama (the second-ranking figure in Tibet after the Dalai Lama) as the reincarnation of the father of Tsongkhapa (the founder of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism). At the age of seven, he was sent to live in Kumbum Monastery, one of Tibet’s six great monastic universities.

Arjia Rinpoche with his parents in 1955 in Kokonor, Tibet
Arjia Rinpoche with his parents in 1955 in Kokonor, Tibet

In the following years, the Arjia Rinpoche’s life became a series of extreme swings of fortune: first as a carefree child, then as a protected and revered incarnate lama, then as a youth singled out and ridiculed by the Communists, then as a forced laborer in a Chinese camp, then as a “rehabilitated counterinsurgent” released from hard labor at the age of thirty, and, finally, as a favorite of the Beijing hierarchy, he was named head abbot of Kumbum Monastery, a position that proved to be more political than religious; it paved the way for even higher positions, including vice-chairman of the Chinese Youth Association, vice president of the Central Government’s Buddhist Association, and member of Beijing’s Central Government.

Arjia Rinpoche also remained closely aligned with the Tenth Panchen Lama throughout this time. He acted as his assistant for many years and was with him the day before he died in 1989—an event still shrouded in rumors of foul play. After the Panchen Lama’s passing, Arjia was named a member of the Communists’ nominating committee, created to select a new Panchen Lama, a task traditionally left to the standing Dalai Lama. He witnessed firsthand as the Communists choreographed the “lottery” for the Eleventh Panchen Lama. (The little boy who had been the Dalai Lama’s choice was apprehended by the Chinese; tragically, the boy’s whereabouts are still unknown.) After the rigged selection, Arjia Rinpoche was named tutor of the new Panchen Lama. Demoralized and realizing that he could no longer support the grim charade of a false Panchen Lama, Arjia Rinpoche fled China. Against tremendous odds he successfully eluded the Chinese and in 1998 reached American soil, where he was granted political asylum by the United States Government. His escape remains a major source of embarrassment for China’s Central Government.

In 2005, the Dalai Lama appointed Arjia Rinpoche the director of the Tibetan Cultural Center (TCC), in Bloomington, Indiana. His Holiness’s eldest brother, Professor Thubten Jigme Norbu, established the strictly nonpolitical, nonprofit TCC in 1979 to support Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile and to preserve Tibetan (and Mongolian) Buddhist culture. This past March, I interviewed Arjia Rinpoche at his office in Bloomington.

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