Story of Gendun
As told by Tatiana Robles from Bolivia
A monk who left Tibetan to find religious freedom
When I was 14 years old I became a Buddhist monk; my family was poor and this gave me the opportunity to study Tibetan Culture and Buddhism. After four years as a monk a Chinese law was enacted forbidding us from studying in the monasteries. I didn't want to stay in Tibet if I couldn't study, so I decided to go to India. I wanted to have contact with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and have the freedom to open my mind and receive the knowledge of other monks.
My village was in Amdo, one of the four provinces of Tibet. Only 40 families lived there; half nomad families and half farmers. When I was only eight months old my father died, then my mother when I was five years old. My mother's sister and her husband became parents to my two brothers, three sisters and me, and took care of us like their own children, with lots of kindness and love.
Like most of the children in town I was happy to go to school, and lucky to have a Tibetan school in my village. From the age of six until twelve 30 of us studied with Tibetan teachers in the Tibetan language; this education was not a major expense for my family.
When I was 12 years old I became the first person from my village to attend a residential intermediate school in another town an hour away from home. I went home on weekends. There were more than a thousand Tibetan and Chinese students at the school and the lessons were in Chinese. This was difficult for me with the little Chinese I knew. There were constant fights between Chinese and Tibetan children; I don't think any friendships developed between us. I studied for two years but couldn't finish my last year because it was too much of an economic burden on my family. We paid the school in cash (I don’t remember the amount), and also gave them 200 kilograms of wheat per year.
When I was 14 I decided to become a Buddhist monk. The reasons for my decision were the ongoing educational expense for my family who were poor, plus the opportunity to keep studying Tibetan Culture and Buddhism in the Monastery. It was not a difficult decision to make, as from childhood, I had always felt happy hearing the Abbot's teachings. My family supported me in my decision. The only thing I miss in the monastic life is playing basketball and other sports.
I was admitted to a small monastery near my home, where I stayed for four years, until a Chinese law was enacted forbidding monks from studying in the monasteries. Then, at the age of 18, I went back home for almost a year.
At this time I decided to leave Tibet and come to India; I couldn't stay in Tibet if I couldn't study. I wanted to learn more and have contact with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I also wanted the freedom to open my mind and to receive the knowledge of other monks.
I was able to secure a valid one-month passport to go to Nepal and I said goodbye to my family in the village. It was a very sad time for all of us; I knew I had to leave, but I didn't know if I would see them again. My oldest brother came with me to the bus, he said, "If you make it to India alive, study very hard", then he walked away.
We travelled for three days by bus to Lhasa, then by car for 15 hours to Dam near the Nepalese border. Everything went well until a Chinese policeman noticed a lot of tsampa in our luggage (a Tibetan staple made of barley flour); that amount of it signalled to him that we were preparing for the long trip to India. The police took our passports and sent us back to Lhasa. I couldn't get another passport, so I stayed there for three months. A friend who ran a restaurant gave me work in the kitchen so I could make some money.
I heard about a guide who knew the way through the mountains to Nepal. My friend and I contacted him and found out he was planning to guide a group out of Tibet soon; the fee was 500 rupees per person (about $12). He warned us that the trip would last around about a month, it would be difficult, and that we would have to look after our own food and safety. We prepared ourselves as much as we could, packing away our robes, and taking pants, jackets, warm clothes, gloves, sunglasses, flashlights, nylon tarp to sleep on, some dried noodles and tsampa.
When the departure day arrived we travelled by car for four hours, then began walking up and down the Himalayan Mountains. Our group consisted of 52 people, mostly monks, several girls, four children and some older men.
We walked for 28 days, mainly during the day unless there was a Chinese police station nearby, then we rested during the day and walked at night. The walking didn't bother me much since I was used to doing that in my village. It was a very dangerous trip. The most difficult times were when I thought about the possibility of losing my life out there in the middle of the mountains. We were all terrified of being caught by the Chinese police and put in jail, this would affect not only me, but would compromise my family's safety.
When we slept we spread pieces of nylon tarp on the ground to keep dry, sleeping in pairs with our feet on the other person's chest to keep each other warm, so we wouldn’t freeze during our sleep. I thought it was all worth it as long as we got to Nepal alive.
Many of us developed an intense headache in the back of the head. Some travellers without sunglasses to protect their eyes from the snow's reflection, suffered from snow blindness; at very high elevations some people felt dizzy and had hallucinations.
When we were only three days away from Nepal we all ran out of food. Some local people gave us food, and we also stole some from small villages nearby. By now we had begun to travel downhill, and the temperature was becoming warmer. During the last few days of our trip there were annoying insects everywhere. I had rarely seen mosquitoes and these were enormous ones; they drank our blood until their stomachs exploded while they were still in our skin, splashing blood everywhere.
Fortunately every one of the 52 who left from Lhasa arrived in Nepal alive. I had blood spots from the mosquito bites and a terrible headache that kept me in bed for three days. But I also had a huge smile on my face, I felt very happy knowing I was free from Chinese rules and from the constant persecution I experienced in Tibet. All my feelings of fear had disappeared. The journey we shared together gave me the gift of life-long friendships with several monks still living today.
It was a blessing to arrive at the Nepalese Refugee Center in Kathmandu. Even though the building was too small for all the refugees, the staff were very helpful to everyone who arrived there after walking in the mountains for such a long time. I stayed there for 15 days, then started my travels toward India again.
I crossed the border between Nepal and India by bus. The trip took two days, a good journey except when the Nepalese police took most of my possessions. I didn't have much anyway, but they left me with just one pair of shoes and a few clothes. They told us that travelling with more luggage is considered a business trip.
Arriving in Delhi was quite a shock, I’d never seen so many people, cars and motorbikes all in one place and in such a hurry. I couldn't stay there for very long, the hot weather was starting to affect me and I was getting sick, so I took a bus to Dharamsala in the mountains.
I stayed in Dharamsala for a month; where I was privileged to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He advised us to study hard. I was so happy and excited to meet him; I knew I was lucky to have the opportunity when so many in Tibet don't even have the freedom to keep a picture of him.
After a month in Dharamsala, I was transferred to a monastery in North Karnataka, South India. It was a real challenge getting used to the hot and humid weather when I first arrived, and I became sick a few times from impure water.
At the moment, I feel very blessed. I really enjoy life in my monastery; I like the way the place is run, the teachings I receive, and the good friends I have there. Even though everything is different in India, inside the monastery my Tibetan lifestyle has been recreated. My goal is to study more and become a Geshe, a High Lama who teaches compassion and promotes truth.
On my holidays I return to McLeod Ganj to learn and practice English at the Tibetan Hope Center. I'm happy to say that my English has improved very quickly over the last six weeks there. The conversation class has helped me the most and I'm very grateful for it.
I would very much like to go back to my village and teach the people there what his Holiness the Dalai Lama says. I would tell them that it is possible for us to have a free and democratic country based on a non-violence policy. But I can't go back to Tibet now, and I can't see my family or my friends again unless Tibet becomes free.