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Enduring Agony: Buddhist monk survives starvation and torture, works for a free Tibet
Anchorage Daily News[Monday, November 10, 2003 11:30]
Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso enters Schailbe Auditorium at the University of Alaska Fairbanks with interpreter Rigdzin Tighzi. Gyatso told the audience about his 33 years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of his Chinese captors. (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)
Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso enters Schailbe Auditorium at the University of Alaska Fairbanks with interpreter Rigdzin Tighzi. Gyatso told the audience about his 33 years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of his Chinese captors. (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)

FAIRBANKS -- He was the monk who lived.

And living through 33 years in a Chinese prison in the snowy mountains of Tibet was far more unusual than merely dying, Palden Gyatso told an auditorium full of Fairbanks high school students last week.

There were lots of ways you could die.

Many of his fellow Tibetans who languished alongside him from 1959 to 1992 died simply by starving to death, Gyatso said. There were long periods when they received only a single bowl of soup a day, and it wasn't very nourishing.

"One bowl of soup was so thin he could see his face in the (bottom) of the bowl," said Rigdzin Tighzi, a former Tibetan who translated Gyatso's morning address to Monroe Catholic High School.

On trips outdoors, Gyatso and other prisoners would scrounge for anything edible to add to their soup. "Leaves, grass, insects ..." Once, he said, he even boiled shoe leather.

A photograph of Gyatso taken in 1995, three years after his release from prison, shows him still almost skeletal, with deep depressions below his cheekbones. But by then Gyatso was relatively healthy, he said, at least by comparison to his prison condition.

"(Then) I almost weighed nothing," he said.


The story really starts in 1949.

Tibet was still in peace back then, virtually hidden from the rest of the world. Palden Gyatso was an 18-year-old monk in training at a small village monastery about 100 miles west of the capital city of Lhasa.

"Even when I was 18, I still had no idea of the world outside the valley," Gyatsu writes in his extraordinary memoir, "The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk," which includes an introduction by the Dalai Lama. "We had no inkling of the civil war then raging in China."

But one year later, it was hard to miss as the aftershock of that Far East conflict rippled toward Tibet, the storied "Land of the Snows," the highest, most remote nation on Earth. It all happened quickly.

In 1949, Chinese Communist troops under Mao Tse-tung finally routed Chinese Nationalist troops under Chiang Kai-shek and seized control of the mainland. In 1950, looking to expand China's interior borders to the west and southwest, the Red Army next began to march on Tibet.

There, under the shadow of Mount Everest, the generally peaceful but poorly armed Hermit People could scarcely resist the battle-hardened and well-equipped Chinese. The little Tibetan army was quickly destroyed.

Soon China set up a ruling national government in Lhasa, the spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1951, it agreed to grant the Tibetans some degree of local government and religious freedom. But at the same time, the Communist authorities began dismantling Tibet's ruling theocracy, led by the Dalai Lama.

The fervently religious Tibetans rebelled, demanding self-rule. In 1956 the United States began to covertly arm the Tibetan resistance. But in 1959, the Red Guard crushed an anti-Chinese revolt that culminated in the death of 87,000 Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee into exile in northern India.

In the crackdown on religion that followed, the Chinese destroyed more than 2,000 Buddhist monasteries, including the Drepung Monastery outside Lhasa, where then-28-year-old Gyatso practiced. Thousands of monks were arrested and sent to prison, Gyatso included. There he remained for more than three decades while thousands of fellow prisoners of conscience perished from disease, starvation, torture or execution.

The Tibetan death toll under Chinese occupation ultimately reached hundreds of thousands. In 1960, an investigation by the politically nonpartisan International Commission of Jurists condemned the Chinese regime for "acts of genocide ... to destroy the Tibetans as a religious group."

Still, some Tibetans might have reduced their sentences or won immediate release simply by denouncing the Dalai Lama in public -- or by admitting that Tibet was not a sovereign nation separate from China, Gyatso told the students. It was a choice that was frequently put to him during prison interrogations.

"It was always the same question," he said. "Do you agree that Tibet is part of China or not?"

He and many other prisoners refused to agree, and so they remained in their cells or in labor camps, where they were tortured repeatedly, Gyatso said. In ways you can hardly imagine. He estimated that 70 percent of the Tibetan prisoners of conscience perished in custody. Only the youngest and strongest, physically and emotionally, survived.

At the time of his release -- won partly through the efforts of a letter-writing campaign by volunteers associated with Amnesty International -- Gyatso was believed to be the longest-surviving political prisoner in Tibet. And now he'd come to Alaska to explain exactly how.


They thought he was dangerous, Gyatso told the students.

Under Chinese rule in Tibet, it wasn't considered as serious to be a criminal -- murderers and real wrongdoers were sometimes released after a few days in jail, he said. It was much more serious to be someone like him, willing to criticize China and its policies toward Tibet.

Not just the implied criticism of being a monk and remaining faithful to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. But explicitly, too, by posting "Free Tibet" signs in public places during his first short-lived release from prison in the 1960s.

Then he was re-arrested and thrown back in prison as "an enemy of the state" and subjected to harsh "interrogations."

Sometimes under questioning he was ordered to kneel bare-legged in a gravel courtyard deliberately littered with broken glass, Gyatso said. Guards would then secure his hands behind his back with a set of barbed handcuffs that tightened and cut the wrists deeper when a prisoner struggled.

"Do you still proclaim that Tibet is an independent nation?" Gyatso recalled the guards asking him. When he answered "yes" or remained silent, they would club him across the face as he knelt on the ground.

Sometimes he was ordered to remove his clothes. Then his feet and hands were fastened together behind his back, and a rope was tied to them and slung over a rafter, allowing the guard to pull him off the ground like a toy. Once, when he was suspended like that in midair, a guard slowly dripped scalding water on his bare skin and watched it peel away under the heat.

Hearing this account, the few high school students in the Monroe auditorium who were murmuring to each other grew silent. Everyone was staring forward, listening intently.

It got worse, Gyatso said.

In the 1980s the guards began to use long, electric cattle prods in their interrogations. With the prisoners fastened to a chair or standing in chains, the guards would jolt them with powerful electric shocks at various spots on their bodies. Imprisoned Buddhist nuns were treated the same way, he said.

Sometimes after shocking the prisoners, the guards would begin teasing them, thrusting the cattle prods close to them but pulling up short, making the prisoners lose control of their bladders and bowels. Sometimes they even shocked their genitals, Gyatso said.

His worst experience of all was the time he was under interrogation and a prison guard shoved the electrical cattle prod straight into his mouth. The explosive shock that followed knocked him unconscious, Gyatso said.

When he regained consciousness, in great agony, he realized he had no teeth left. The shock had shattered them all and split the end of his tongue. It still hasn't completely healed, Gyatso said. But after his release from prison, people with Amnesty International paid dentists to supply him with a nice set of false teeth. He took them out of his mouth and showed them to the students.

"I really like these teeth," he said.

Not just because they allow him to eat solid food again. He said he also likes to think about what they represent: "One human who takes, but another human who gives."


Everything that happened to him in prison isn't really that important, Gyatso said. He was lucky compared to so many others who suffered more or died in prison -- and continue to die there still.

"Even as we speak here today, these kinds of unthinkable tortures are still taking place in Tibet," he said.

"(But) it's not just Tibet. It happened to Jewish people (during the Holocaust), and it's happening all over the world."

That's why young people in Alaska should treasure their political and religious freedoms and try to use their lives well, he said.

"Realize how fortunate you are," he said. " Don't waste your time -- be respectful of your time. It behooves you not to waste your opportunity!"

When Gyatso was done speaking, the auditorium was silent. Tighzi, his translator, asked if there were any questions, and several students quickly raised their hands.

"Why did he decide to become a monk at the age of 10?" one asked. What happened to his faith during his long years in prison? How did he manage to escape in the 1960s (though only briefly)? How did he survive all the torture?

One by one, Gyatso answered the questions. But the last one was the hardest. How did he survive?

Being relatively young when he was first imprisoned helped, Gyatso said. Being resourceful at finding additional sources of food helped too, as did his training as a Buddhist.

He wasn't a great, learned monk, Gyatso told the students. He'd only practiced Buddhism in monasteries for 18 years before his imprisonment. But that training provided him with several spiritual tools that helped him survive. One was the Buddhist practice of "tonglen," of giving and receiving.

Many times when he was being tortured, he said, he tried to concentrate on the idea of "receiving the anger" of the guards as a favor to them. At the same time, he tried to concentrate on the idea of "giving back compassion."

His torturers simply struck him out of ignorance, he said. The ignorant need our compassion and our help. He holds no lingering animosity toward them. Said Gyatso: "I have no anger toward any human, any Communist Chinese."

But he also was sustained by his respect for many of the elders who died in prison. Some implored him before they died, "If you ever escape, don't forget us," he recalled. "Please do some kind of contribution to Tibet."


Gyatso's chances of getting out of prison were greatly enhanced in 1984 when Amnesty International added his name to its worldwide list of prisoners of conscience. As such, people he didn't know began writing letters to Chinese authorities urging his release. In October 1992, they finally let him go.

But before he departed, Gyatso and other prisoners bribed some of the guards to sell them several of the implements of torture that were used on them. He wanted them as evidence and later was able to display them during his testimony before a special United Nations committee on Tibet.

He was a marked man in Tibet, Gyatso said. The only way he could change conditions there would be to work from the outside. So soon after his release, he disguised himself in Chinese clothing and escaped to India.

There he met the exiled Dalai Lama, who recently had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for trying to improve conditions in Tibet through nonviolent means. He urged Gyatso to write a book about his experiences.

"The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk" was published five years later.

Ever since, Gyatso said, he has journeyed around the world to spread the word about Tibet and honor the memory of former prisoners. His book has been translated into 26 languages. He has visited the United States dozens of times, but this was his first trip to Alaska.

Which is surprising, he said last week in Fairbanks, glancing out the window at a fresh layer of snow. It looks so much like home.

Daily News reporter George Bryson can be reached at gbryson@adn.com.


The author of "The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk" will talk about the 33 years he spent in a Chinese prison at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Marston Theatre at Loussac Library. The event is sponsored by Amnesty International and is open to the public. Other public appearances by Gyatso in Anchorage include:7 p.m. Monday: addressing Students for a Free Tibet at the University of Alaska Anchorage Campus Den.
  • 7 p.m. Tuesday: addressing visitors to the ATOM Center, 4025 Raspberry Road (contact: 561-2464).
  • 7 p.m. Wednesday and Friday: leading a Tonglen meditation at the White Lotus Buddhist Temple, at 123 E. 11th St. (258-1851).
  • noon Friday: addressing the Alaska World Affairs Council luncheon in the Chart Room of the Hilton Anchorage (276-8038).
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