Celebrated for her prominent role as a resistance leader against Chinese rule in the late 1950s, Pachen died on February 2 in the northern Indian hill town of Dharamsala--seat of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Unsure by her own account of the year of the birth, Pachen was believed to be 68 when she died of heart failure. Already feted within the Tibetan community, Pachen received broader international attention with the publication two years ago of her autobigraphy: "Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun." Pachen had not wanted to write down her story, believing there were others who had suffered more than her, but was eventually persuaded to do so by the Tibetan government-in-exile.
She was born in Gonjo district in the eastern Tibetan province of Kham around 1933--the only child of Pomda Gonor, the chieftain of a local clan. Coming from a very religious family and heavily influenced by her devout aunt, Pachen became a Buddhist nun at the age of 14, but plans for a life spent in religious contemplation were turned upside down when Chinese troops seized control of Tibet in 1951. Faced with the oppressive policies adopted by the Chinese, her father organised seven local clans into a resistance movement.
Pomda Gonor died from an illness in 1958, leaving Panchen with a stark choice. "I was the only child in the family, and since my father had so much love for his country, I had to carry on what he left behind; the task, the struggle against the Chinese," Pachen said in an interview last year. As a Buddhist nun, she was acutely aware of the conflict between her belief in compassion for all things and the idea of taking up arms. "I realised there would be negative karmic imprints and I would have to bear that for the actions I had taken.
"To be truly a Buddhist, you must be loving and all compassionate. But I was faced with that particular situation and I thought what I did was right at the time." The following year, Pachen led her united clans during a major Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule, which finally ended in failure and the flight of the Dalai Lama to exile in India. "We killed many Chinese soldiers," Pachen recalled "but we didn't have proper weapons."
In prison, Panchen was regularly tortured and beaten and spent long periods of time in solitary confinement. One regular punishment involved being clad in leg irons and hung upside down. The years of mistreatment and malnourishment caused her hair to fall out and she never fully recovered her health.
"Faith kept me going," she said in the interview. "I saw my experience of 21 years in jail as a result of my negative actions in my previous births. I thought I was purifying myself."
On her release in 1981, Panchen had no hestitation in continuing to resist Chinese rule and she took an active role in three major protests that rocked the monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Gaden in 1987 and 1988. Told that she faced imminent arrest, Panched fled the country-- this time successfully -- and arrived in Dharamsala in 1989. "At first I didn't want to write a book," she said of her autobiography. Later, however, she was persuaded that it was important testimony from which young Tibetans could learn. "Also, I thought I am old, so after I die I cannot bring my story with me. So I leave this story."