A Gift

July 4th, 2000

t012Irene, Orianne and I are sitting on the steps outside the back entrance of the Potala Palace, high above Lhasa. We have been sitting here a while. Talking occasionally, thinking mostly. We had come here earlier today for a tour of the Potala.



t010Like all the monasteries, the walls, hallways and rooms here are richly adorned. Yet there is a strange feel to this place. It feels like an empty shell. It is easy to imagine how it must have been before. Hallways bustling with activity, schools humming with students and prayer halls fragrant with incense. But instead it is an empty shell – a mausoleum. In the audience hall there are photographs or statues of all the Dalai Lamas. Except that of the fourteenth. One can see the discolouration on the wall where that photograph used to hang. There are monks who still live here. They do not wear the traditional robes; they are not permitted to. Instead, they are garbed in ubiquitous blue polyester robes that look like lab coats. Notices that extol the glorious joining of Tibet to the great motherland of China hang in hallways.t026

Toward the end of the tour we came to the chapel housing the stupa of the sixth Dalai Lama. The crowd had lessened; there were just the three of us in the chapel with the monk and he spoke. Haltingly, with difficulty he spoke of the upcoming birthday of the Dalai Lama on the sixth of July. It is a day of great joy, he said. A day that should be spent in celebration. But they will not be celebrating. The monks have not been allowed out of the Potala since yesterday and will not be allowed out for four more days. On the sixth, they are not allowed to pray, or to burn incense. They are not allowed the normal everyday activities let alone any celebration. There was pain in his eyes. Orianne and Irene felt it too. There were tears in our eyes as we listened. So much pain; so much suffering.

t023A while ago, as we were sitting here, the same monk came outside and I spent a few more minutes talking to him. I asked if I could give him a photograph of the Dalai Lama. I wish I had it with me. But I am not carrying it. For the sake of safety I have left it locked in my pack in the dormitory back at the Yak Hotel. I will have to come back here to give it to him. I could tell how much he wanted it. Several times he said that it was too dangerous – for me as well as for him. That I should not even be carrying such a thing let alone come back to the Potala with it. Much like the monk at the Jokhang, he chastised me for bringing the forbidden photographs into Tibet. And thanked me in the same breath. We have agreed on a plan for tomorrow. I should come to the back entrance. There will be a man in a guard’s uniform here but he assures me that that man is a friend. He will let me in. I am to go to the chapel of the sixth Dalai Lama. Another monk will be there tomorrow. If I mention whom I want to see, I will be taken to him. On no account should I tell anyone that I am carrying photographs of the Dalai Lama.

t025I might be putting my foot in it. I am not entirely sure I should be doing this. I could play it safe and not come here tomorrow. But I think I will. I have to; I remember his eyes.


July 6th, 2000

The presence of armored trucks and police have doubled or tripled in Lhasa over the last couple of days. On the way to the Potala yesterday I saw seven tanks rolling along the road in front of it. The presence of too many police cars and policemen made it seem prudent not to try too hard to get in. Today both the front and back entrance were closed off.

12:01 a.m.
July 9th, 2000

t014I leave Lhasa tomorrow, so today was the last day I could try to see the monk at the Potala. I went in and wandered through all the rooms, amid throngs of tourists. They were looking at the artifacts and I was peering into the monks’ faces. I did not see him and could not ask for him; he had not told me his name. So I sat on the ground just inside the entrance waiting for the monks to come out at the end of the day – I knew I would recognize him if I saw him. A couple of hours and several curious stares later, a young monk coming out of the doorway stopped by me. He said he remembered me talking to his friend, Kushup Lobsang. He introduced himself as Dorje Tashi and said he would take me to Kushup Lobsang’s room. So off we went, down narrow corridors, up and down steep stairs, down a maze of cobble stoned pathways. We reached Kushup Lobsang’s room but a padlock greeted us there – he must be away for the day, probably visiting his family. To have come so close! How I wished I could stay on in Lhasa even if for just one more day but knew that was not possible. My disappointment must have shown because Dorje said Kushup Lobsang’s sister lived not far away; we could try there. So we did. I was greeted with warmth and offered hospitality and umpteen cups of yak butter tea. We sat there – his brother-in-law, Dorje and myself – on the traditional benches covered with carpeting, in a tiny mud bricked house that is a hundred years old sipping tea, and talking, with Dorje acting as the interpreter. I learned that Kushup Lobsang was visiting his father but would be back in the evening.t024

I went back later, met him and gave him the photograph. We sat and talked awhile. He wrote a letter to his nephew Tenzing Chodak who is at the Dharamsala in India. I will take it back with me to India and mail it. They gave me some money too, to take back for him. It is not a lot of money to most, but I could see the look on their faces as the treasured note was taken out – it had been carefully saved for this purpose. They have not been able to send him money for a long time, and now they wish to send it with me. It amazes me to think of the trust they place in me. Why? I am nobody. And yet they trust me with something of such value. I feel humbled and honored. They may not know this but they have given me a rare gift. A gift that is unimaginable in the world I live in. As we said goodbye they placed a khata around my neck, with blessings for a safe journey. Kushup Lobsang had told me that someday he hoped to be able to go to the Dharamsala; that India was his second home. I have to agree with him; it is my second home too.

There were six of us sharing a dormitory in the Yak Hotel in Lhasa – among them, Irene, and Orianne. Returning to the dormitory after the visit to the Potala, I found them waiting there, relieved to see me. Irene’s dilemma – she was all set to head for the Indian embassy and hammer on the door if I hadn’t turned up, except she wasn’t sure Lhasa even has one! How we laughed over that!


November 17th, 2000
New York

Since leaving Lhasa in July I have been trying to find Tenzing. All I had to go by was his name, that he was a boy sixteen or seventeen years old and that he had escaped to India some time ago, and that he was at the Dharamsala. His father and uncle hadn’t a mailing address. Instead, Kushup Lobsang had given me a phone number at the Dharamsala. I was to call to get a mailing address and then mail Tenzing the money and the letter. I had also taken a photograph of his father and uncle that I wanted to send him

Once I was in India I called, but found that that is a general number and that nobody knew who Tenzing Chodak was. I had too little to go on and it was too common a name. Searching for him was similar to searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. A part of my time in India was spent in the south, at the Tibetan settlement in Bylakuppe. I had another letter to deliver to a monk at the Sera Je monastery. It had been given to me by his brother who works at a tea stall outside the Ganden monastery near Lhasa. I tried searching for Tenzing then too. But every attempt proved to be in vain and every lead turned into a dead end.

At the end of August, I had to come back to the United States and since then have been searching constantly, via the web and through the organizations in New York. I have lost count of the number of emails I have sent or the addresses I sent them to. I was hoping someone somewhere would be able to help. I did not want to admit to myself that this was fighting impossible odds; that I may as well give up. Today I got the following email from a Tashi Namgyal, at the Tibetan Children’s Village in the Dharamsala. He says:

Namaskar from your homeland!

We got your email from Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and we have now traced the boy. He is in our Children’s Village. Here are few other details we got from him.

Tenzing Chodak
Roll No. 4701
Class X M

Father’s Name: Tsering
Mother’s Name: Pema
From Lhasa Trimon

His maternal uncle is Lama Lobsang (which actually is a nickname)

Do contact us for any more information.


Tashi Namgyal
TCV Head Office
November 24th, 2000
New York
I have been communicating with Tashi Namgyal. He has sent me more details, including a mailing address. Tenzing’s letter, money and photograph are on their way even as I write. A part of me still cannot believe that Tenzing could be found against such odds. Statistically, the odds are next to nothing. So how was it possible? Karma perhaps? Yes, I think so.t029


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