2016-06-30
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"Dalai Lama, My Son" (Penguin/Putnam 2000) is the extraordinary and simply told autobiography of Diki Tsering, the mother of the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. Born in 1901 to a peasant family in Amdo, in the wooly expanses of the eastern part of the country, her life was typical of a culturally rich but sexually repressive place and time. After her arranged marriage at 16, she worked round the clock at home and in the fields of her husband's family, giving birth to 16 children over the course of her marriage. Then one day, her toddler son Lhamo Dhondup was recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama, and Diki Tsering's world metamorphosed.

Apart from holding the title "Great Mother," what made Diki Tsering such a remarkable woman--and it comes through shiningly in this book--is her humility and rock-solid strength of character. In the snobby aristocratic milieu of Lhasa society, she stuck fast to her Amdo traditions, wearing the hari, a heavy, gold-brocaded overdress for married women, until the day she died. She protected her family as best she could after the death of her husband and the Chinese takeover of Tibet, and taught them to be, above all, compassionate and true to their heritage. "Traditions are the creators of your spirit and your pride," she said. "They make you what you are and define what you want to be."

Sixteen years after her death, Khedroob Thondup, Diki Tsering's grandson, decided to publish her autobiography. Khedroob's father, Gyalo Thondub, is an older brother of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and his mother, Chu Tan, was the daughter of a Kuomingtang general. His parents met while Gyalo was studying in China. They moved to India in the 1950s when China's grip on Tibet tightened and the family's advisers suggested that a brother of the Dalai Lama with a Chinese wife would be a political liability in Lhasa.

Khedroob was born in Calcutta in 1952 and educated at a renowned Jesuit school in Darjeeling, India, and later at the University of San Francisco, where he earned an M.B.A. After returning to India, he served as special assistant to His Holiness and traveled with him extensively. In 1980, Khedroob was also part of a special team to begin dialogue between the Tibetan government-in-exile and the People's Republic of China. In 1986, he was appointed to run the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre in Darjeeling, which his mother founded. He is also an elected official of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile. He spoke with Beliefnet's Buddhism producer Mary Talbot on a recent visit to New York.

How did this book come about?
This book is my sister, Yangzom Doma's, legacy. When she returned to India from graduate school in England, she got a job with the Tibetan Library and Archives in Dharamsala and became the editor of the Tibetan Journal. In 1979, she got the idea of recording our grandmother's life story. When my sister asked her if she would mind, she was taken aback at first. Nobody had ever asked about her life, or how she felt about it. But she wanted people to know what her childhood was like, and together they recorded a number of tapes. They got up to the point where my grandmother left Tibet, and then, in 1981, my grandmother died. In 1982, my sister went on holiday to North Africa and was killed in a car accident. My mother wanted to complete the project, but she was busy raising my sister's son. Then my mother contracted cancer and died in 1986. In 1997, I decided it was time for me to take up the project.

It's hard to imagine a life as hard as your grandmother's--she recalls sleeping just three or four hours a night--and yet she describes how much she missed the countryside after her son was recognized as the Dalai Lama and the family moved to Lhasa.
Women were treated very badly, especially once they were married and had to move in with the husband's families. They were expected to do all the work. And if their husbands died, they often committed suicide rather than be married off to yet another family.

My grandmother's mother-in-law was very hard on her because she wanted a male heir, and my grandmother's first baby was a girl. The mother-in-law died before any sons were born; as it happened, she had the strange karma of giving birth to three reincarnated lamas! But my grandmother never cringed from her duty. She loved to work and be busy. She used to say to her children and grandchildren, "You guys are spoiled. You don't do any work." When she moved to Lhasa, she would carry rocks back and forth on the roof to keep her body strong for childbirth.

When the Dalai Lama, your grandmother, and other members of your family finally escaped to India in 1959, how did your life change?
Up until then, I had no idea of who I was or what I represented. I was 7 and the headmaster of my boarding school called me into his office. I thought I was in trouble, but he told me my parents had asked for me to come home. He said, "Young man, today history is being made." When I got home, my parents took me to see His Holiness' procession, which stopped near Darjeeling [an Indian hill station near the Tibetan border where Khedroob grew up], and there were hundreds of people trying to get a glimpse of him. It began to dawn on me that I was part of something very important, and how much he meant to the Tibetan people.

Then things got very difficult. There were thousands of Tibetans flooding into India. They left with nothing and had to beg for food. Every morning, there was a line of 40 to 50 people outside our house. We kept huge boxes of rice and wheat and gave everyone enough for the day. That same year, my mother opened a Tibetan self-help center, which is the same one I run today.

And your grandmother came to live with you then?
Yes. Right away, she became a great influence on me. She always impressed upon us how important it was to maintain our traditions and keep our culture intact. She used to tell us that our traditions were our backbone. She taught us how to cook Tibetan dishes from Amdo, her home in eastern Tibet. To this day, most Tibetans in India now eat a noodle dish from Amdo that she introduced to the refugee community.

She also taught me a lot about compassion. On Losar [Tibetan New Year], it's traditional to wear new clothes, and she had always sent us beautiful Tibetan clothes from Lhasa that she had made herself. After she arrived, she told us not to wear new clothes on Losar, because most of the Tibetans in exile had none. I also remember I used to keep aquariums, and fed live worms to the fishes. She spent a lot of time with me and gave all the fishes names and knew their characteristics, but she told me it was a sin to let one being eat another being. From then on, I used the dry fish food.

Beginning in the early 1970s, you assisted the Dalai Lama on many of his trips abroad. What was that like?
I was in charge of finance, but we didn't have any money. If we wanted to make a trip, we usually asked the Mongolian government for a loan--maybe $5,000, which we paid back later. We'd stay in people's houses a lot, not in hotels. All of us who worked with him had to be jacks of all trades. Sometimes, I was his Chinese interpreter. Sometimes, I cooked his breakfast--two eggs sunnyside up, bacon, toast, things like that. I accompanied him on his first trip to the United States, in 1979. At the time, people didn't know who he was, and it was very exciting to see Americans' reaction to him.

What's your relationship with the Dalai Lama like now?
We get together for family events and holidays. He knows all of our problems, and we turn to him for advice on a lot of matters.

Does he get to relax when you're all together?
Oh, yes. He loves flowers and gardens, and he tinkers with his collection of watches. He takes them apart and puts them back together. He's also very interested in technology. Whenever we're at an airport, I have to bone up on aviation, because he asks a lot of questions about aircraft.

Many Westerners have a view of Tibet as a Shangri-La. But your grandmother's descriptions of the political infighting in the Tibetan capital--the gossip and backstabbing and even political assassinations--show a very different reality.
Yes [laughs]. Tibetans have always liked a lot of intrigue! Throughout history, Tibet has kept itself very isolated from the rest of the world and done whatever it pleased internally. I think that was my country's downfall, when the Chinese came along and wanted to turn Tibet into a buffer state. If we'd had an alliance with England or the United States, some help would have been forthcoming. But instead, we had none. Now, Tibetan history is coming to light.

What is the situation like for the younger generations of Tibetans who were born and are growing up in exile?
I really worry about this. When my and my parents' generation arrived in India, we knew what our purpose was. We worked hard and studied in order to take something back to Tibet when we go. But the younger Tibetans don't have that direction. They have disposable income, they watch MTV and [read] Rupert Murdoch's Star TV and all that nonsense. If they were in Tibet, it would be one thing. But in exile, separated from their roots, it's much harder for them to grasp the Tibetan situation and to have an understanding of where they come from.

Lately, the voices of young Tibetans calling for an armed struggle against the Chinese, as opposed to the Dalai Lama's policy of nonviolence, seem to be getting louder.
There have always been differing opinions about this: people who favor complete Tibetan independence, and those who follow His Holiness' middle path of nonviolence and Tibetan autonomy. I just gave a talk at Tibet House [in New York City], and some Tibetans were saying that we must have independence, and the only route to independence is armed struggle. I told them that they should lobby their member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile. Tibet was a theocracy. But His Holiness has always promoted a democracy for Tibet. The Parliament is part of this effort, and it's a place where people can let the government-in-exile know what they believe.

But it's not very likely that the Tibetan government's position would change, is it? That His Holiness would decide to take up arms against the Chinese?
No. But the point is there's a mechanism for people to voice their opinions. And in my grandmother's time, that never existed. We can say that we haven't wasted 41 years in exile.

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