SIGNIFICANCE OF TIBETAN ELDERS' LIFE STORIES
The isolation of Tibet, high in the Himalayas, came to an end in 1950 when the Chinese invaded and then occupied this remote but self-sufficient country. Initially, the Chinese presented themselves as neighbors who came to help Tibetans communities and support development. Soon the real motive of occupation became apparent and Tibet fell under the control of the Chinese army.
A Buddhist country, about the size of Western Europe, Tibet had no way to defend itself from its powerful neighbor. The lives of farmers and nomads were disrupted and changed forever. Buddhist monks and nuns saw over 6,000 monasteries destroyed and their spiritual masters subjected to abuse, imprisonment and execution. Many Tibetans franticly fled from their villages and pastures and some were captured, imprisoned, tortured and subjected to forced labor.
Many nomads and monks became resistance fighters to try to stop the Chinese army from occupying their territory and destroying their monasteries. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was forced to flee from Tibet in 1959, around 80,000 Tibetans followed their beloved spiritual leader into exile. They endured great hardships crossing the Himalayas on foot. Of those who survived, many found their way to refugee settlements in India and Nepal.
Tibet’s elders are the last generation who can provide firsthand accounts of what it was like to grow up in a free, unoccupied Tibet. They are also the eyewitnesses of what happened to their country during the Chinese invasion and occupation. Most importantly, they carry the wisdom, traditions and treasured Buddhist beliefs of the Tibetan people in their hearts.
Memories of Early Life in Tibet
From a cultural and historical perspective, the elders’ accounts of their childhood experiences document a period of Tibetan life not easily obtained due to the remoteness of a people living in the vast Himalayan region. Their memories of being farmers, herders, traders, monks, housewives, civil servants and land owners provide rich, firsthand accounts of a way of life practiced for generations. Their descriptions reveal the social, political, cultural and religious aspects of the daily lives of a people living in a free and independent country with its own language, currency, and government.
When interviewed by the Tibet Oral History Project, the elders gave detailed accounts of the dynamics of family life and religious traditions surrounding birth, marriage and burial ceremonies. They recalled the hardships as well as the joys of their life tilling the fields, herding yaks, caring for large families and studying as young monks in the local monasteries. They described their Himalayan homeland filled with majestic mountains abundant with spring flowers and wild animals. They recounted horseracing festivals, the details of trading fairs and the deep satisfaction derived from their Buddhist beliefs and practices.
The interviewees, especially those from lower income levels, were forthright in recounting their memories of severe poverty, lack of education and medical care. They did not hesitate to describe the challenges they faced in paying taxes to the local monasteries and to the Tibetan government, which depended on their contributions to sustain the monastic culture they valued and the government services they needed.
After describing their early lives in Tibet, the elders were asked to recount when and how their lives changed. Because of the limited access to news of world events and conflicts, the Tibetans were psychologically and politically caught off-guard by the Chinese army’s invasion of their country. Interviewees reported being stunned and horrified by the reality of the invasion as Chinese troops fired on nomad gatherings, bombed monasteries in the middle of the night and imprisoned village leaders without cause. Property and family possessions were confiscated, religious leaders captured, and people were forced at gunpoint to participate in beatings and public humiliation sessions known as thamzing, where children were forced to harm their own parents and monks beat their teachers. The constant refrain, “I saw it with my own eyes” often preceded accounts of these experiences.
The Buddha’s teachings, or dharma, were considered the most cherished treasure of Tibetan culture without which one could not find true happiness. The intentional destruction of the monasteries, treasured ancient texts and revered spiritual teachers struck at the heart of the Tibetan people and the interviewees often tearfully recounted their eyewitness accounts of these events. To understand the elders’ past and current reactions to the invasion and on-going occupation, it is important to note that Tibetan culture, and most importantly Buddhism, teaches that suffering in this life is the result of karma or past deeds. Although elders spoke of their anger at the Chinese oppression, they also felt it was perhaps due to their destiny or fate and “partly due to the might of China.” The elders often described how they struggled over the years to let go of anger or hatred towards the Chinese because these feelings destroyed their own peace of mind. They described their commitment to follow the Dalai Lama’s counsel to refrain from violent retaliation and seek freedom for Tibet through negotiation.