“Did the Chinese beat you?” the little girl asked me. It was the first sentence I heard when I arrived in Dharamsala on a miserably cold December night in 1983. The bus shook and rattled up the winding mountain road. I was tired and my head felt swollen, but I said, “Yes.” It sounded right.

I was born in a remote village to the northwest of the immense Tibetan Plateau. We had no running water, electricity, or paved roads. The most advanced thing, to the wonderment of the villagers, was one family’s sewing machine. In the daytime, grown-ups dug canals or worked in the fields. In the evening, at the blow of the whistle, they attended meetings at the commune hall, where cadres made them recite from Mao’s Little Red Book. It was during these meetings that people were indoctrinated along the Party line to show absolute allegiance to the leadership of the Great Helmsman. At the end of each meeting, they strained their throats shouting “Long Live Chairman Mao!” Everyone learned to hold their tongue, to obey orders and instructions to the letter. No one had to think.

Occasionally, soldiers would arrive at our village on horseback, dressed in faded green uniforms and chain-smoking. They were treated with respect. Large meetings were staged in the village square, during which these important people made long speeches that were then translated for the villagers. The soldiers inspected the new canals, the commune’s prayer-hall-turned-donkey-sheds, and the barley fields where red flags fluttered. They were nice to kids, often giving us candies. They didn’t scold us or chase us away for begging them to hand out more.

Nevertheless, years later, on that wet winter night in India, I told the little girl that the Chinese beat me. “I know,” she said. “They are terrible people.”

Layers of confusion enveloped me when I was sent into exile. To begin with, I didn’t know that the Chinese were different from us. I couldn’t understand why my great-uncle hated the blue canvas shoes, steel mugs, and other items that my mother bought from the commune store; or why the Red Guards had destroyed the monastery in front of our house. I didn’t know why I had to be smuggled out of Tibet.

I have had decades to find answers to these questions, to dig into our history and the political dilemma we find ourselves in today. The years away from home have transformed me into a vastly different person from the small boy whom my parents—at my great-uncle’s advice—sent away to become a monk at the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Dharamsala.

My great-uncle was the abbot of the local monastery in Old Tibet, and his faith in religion was as unshakable as his resolution not to flee in the aftermath of the occupation. This belief was based on his understanding of Buddhism and trust that ultimately ley-gyu-dey: “The law of karma prevails.” Even during the worst years of the Cultural Revolution, when he became the commune’s shepherd, he continued to chant his daily mantras in the company of grazing sheep and goats, away from the prying eyes of the cadres. Until his death in 1988, he never betrayed his belief and steadfastly maintained his monastic vows.

When reality knocks at the door, other things flee through the window.

My father, on the other hand, was a product of the great historical upheaval that had turned his familiar world upside down and forced him into a new socialist world, where the old value system had no practical application in life’s daily struggle. His faith in religion was shallow and his understanding of the politics of occupation and suppression was even more limited. He smoked and drank. Worse still, he bought canned pork, fish, and chicken (Tibetans generally don’t eat these, and they were strictly prohibited in our house) while my great-uncle was away in the hills with the flock. My father also befriended some of the men who, I learned many years later, were the first to volunteer when Red Guards ordered the destruction of the monastery that my great-uncle had presided over.

Once, when our rationed stock of barley was running low, my father wanted to sell the bronze Buddha image that our family had managed to hide during the destructive years of the Cultural Revolution. A heated argument broke out between my great-uncle and my father. “You cannot sell it,” Great-Uncle said, sitting cross-legged, kneading his rosary. This was in the early 1980s when there was a slight relaxing of the policy over religion in Tibet.

“We need money to buy food,” my father said, rolling up the sleeves of his chupa like a butcher about to slaughter a sheep.

“It’s sinful. This will bring no good.” Great-Uncle didn’t raise his voice, but I noticed that his aged fingers were rolling hard on the beads.

Days later, the bronze Buddha was sold to a Tibetan merchant from Nepal for 200 yuan, a white nylon shirt, and a digital wristwatch. The watch stopped working a week later. We were, however, able to buy more barley with the money so that we didn’t go hungry.

The incident had a deep impact on me. When reality knocks at the door, other things flee through the window.

My belief in religion has been shaped by circumstances in exile that neither my great-uncle nor my father had to negotiate. When I was young, I held the naive belief that doing prostrations and chanting countless manis were the sole ways to accumulate merit, and that Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities would come to me in difficult times. Through my lonely and penniless years in school, I had never missed a single prayer session. My invocations, however, were met with silence. No deities jumped down from their gold-plated altars to assuage my pain. Doubt and skepticism soon took refuge in my impressionable teenage mind. I began to abhor the complex and often endless religious rites and rituals that consumed huge amounts of our time, energy, and limited resources. The more I tried to understand the association between the rituals and fundamental Buddhist philosophy, the more confused I became.

The lasting influence of Buddhism on my life is its principle—that everything is interdependent and that every action will have an equal consequence in this or the next life. This guides me through the perils of exile, and I try to conduct my life based on these values. In this sense, perhaps I am closer to my great-uncle’s understanding of Buddhism, and yet I certainly don’t share his unshakable faith. Though I don’t wave away Buddhist symbolism as easily as perhaps my father did during those terribly difficult times, my eyes always glance cynically at the rituals involved.

Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, often remarks that we have had enough elaborate religious ceremonies over the years since Buddhism was introduced in Tibet in the 7th century. He advises that the time has come for us to focus on its practical values. “My religion is simple,” the Dalai Lama has famously said. “My religion is compassion.” Even then, His Holiness still performs many rites and rituals. Furthermore, his remarks to simplify some of the extremely elaborate rituals have caused confusion and anxiety in the monastic community. Monks have been unable to decide which ceremonial rituals to discontinue and which aspects to retain.

Despite Buddhism’s newfound popularity, only a handful of parents in my generation want their children to join monasteries as opposed to the traditional practice of putting at least one child from each family in robes. We may still visit monasteries or light butter lamps on special holy days, but we do these with a pinch of salt, a dose of doubt. A friend complains that his very religious friend makes offerings of soft drinks and wine by opening them and placing them on his altar. “Such a waste,” he says. “We can’t drink them afterward.”

Born and raised in exile, today’s youth are equipped with the linguistic skills and technical know-how to absorb the shock of harsh reality far more maturely than the generation that came into exile in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This gives them the confidence to venture into other communities and to migrate to places that the older generation never dreamt of. The interactions with diverse groups of people and exposure to other spiritual practices make our beliefs less conservative. We ask more questions and rely less on faith.

However, the common dream etched in the collective consciousness is to go back to a free Tibet. Connected by the invisible thread of our common history, culture, and language, each of us has created a mini-Tibet within. As Salman Rushdie writes in his essay “Imaginary Homelands,” we know this is “one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions.” For the moment, this mini-Tibet in our heart is the home we inhabit in our dreams even as we transport ourselves into newer environments and more unfamiliar circumstances. 

From The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays, edited by Tenzin Dickie © 2023. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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