Tibet’s Panchen Lama: Stolen as a child for 20 painful but hopeful years

Today, time is the rarest, most valued commodity. Not gold, not silver, but time.

It arrives too quickly without warning and is gone far too swiftly. And yet, it does not go quietly, leaving behind it a precious trail of memories, experiences and wisdom — all intertwined to make up the different parts of one remarkable lifetime.

So, imagine if 20 years of your life was taken away from you. What would that mean to you?

I asked myself this question as I thought of His Holiness the 11th Panchen Lama, who is one of Tibet’s most revered leaders in the spiritual and political community.

The only available picture of the 11th Panchen Lama is that of when he was just six years old.

The only available picture of the 11th Panchen Lama is that of when he was just six years old. He has been in enforced disappearance for 20 years.

The 11th Panchen Lama — who will be all of 26 years as on 25 April 2015 — will have spent 20 long years in enforced disappearance by 17 May 2015. This means, the Panchen Lama has been missing since he was just six years old.

Purely for comparison and meaning no disrespect, I am forced to recall what I was doing at that age.

At the age of six, I was leading a very normal childhood, protected by my parents and family, with my only major worries likely concerning ways to excel at studies/school and maybe also how to acquire enough sweet treats to fill my pockets and mouth.

For the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, at the age of six, he was recognized the world over as its youngest political prisoner. This title was accorded to him after Chinese authorities abducted the young boy, his family and his to-be-teacher on 17 May 1995. The arrests had come soon after His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama publicly recognized Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the rightful reincarnation of the Great 10th Panchen Lama.

His Holiness the 10th Panchen Lama being subjected to thamzing or struggle session during the Cultural Revolution.  "In person, the 10th Panchen Lama is an extraordinarily fearless Tibetan who showed unwavering courage to work for the general cause of Tibet and its people,” the Dalai Lama has said.

His Holiness the 10th Panchen Lama being subjected to thamzing or struggle session during the Cultural Revolution. “In person, the 10th Panchen Lama is an extraordinarily fearless Tibetan who showed unwavering courage to work for the general cause of Tibet and its people,” the Dalai Lama has said.

So in a cruel turn of events, the young Gedhun Choekyi Nyima — who should have been enthroned at a traditional, grand ceremony at his monastery, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery — was instead thrust into oblivion, as China continued to stay tight-lipped about the whereabouts and well-being of the young lama, all through these past 20 years.

Between the ages of 6 and 20, I lived a lifetime — as do most people. I was able to go through high school, finish my post graduate degree and start working for a living, and through it all, experience joy, love, pain, laughter, betrayal, kindness and true friendship.

In comparison, the past 20 years of the 11th Panchen Lama’s life remains a mystery. Did he have a normal childhood, or as normal a childhood as is possible under the circumstances? Was he allowed to move freely in society, albeit in the guise of a commoner? Did he receive the freedom to practice his religious beliefs, study the Dharma, learn and debate with great scholars?

And the more heartbreaking, yet unavoidable question: Is he still alive and safe?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the monks from the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the monks from the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama

Countless appeals and calls by world leaders and activist groups for his release or information of his whereabouts and well-being have yielded no answers from China.

For 20 long years, we screamed on the pavements of cities and towns across the globe; lobbied peacefully with lawmakers; stood outside the buildings of the United Nations and the Chinese Consulate; signed countless signature campaigns; held innumerous press conferences; initiated multi-year campaigns worldwide; and prayed earnestly together under make-shift tents as our stomachs gnawed in pain from hunger, sometimes for a few hours, at other times for days or weeks on end — all with the hope for his eventual release.

For 20 long years — and long they were — we did not lose hope.

We self immolated before make-shift altars with offerings to images of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama; cried for his swift release as our bodies went up in flames; refused to bow our heads to the fake Panchen Lama, as we waited earnestly in the hope of his eventual release.

For 20 long years, we did not lose hope. If it takes another lifetime too, we will continue to hope.

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Show your solidarity with the campaign to free the Panchen Lama. Visit the Central Tibetan Administration’s #ReleasePanchenLama campaign and the official website of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama.

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Making 14 pounds of Tibetan pastries for the Wood-Sheep year…

The intricately designed and colorful rhug rhug Khapsey

With the Tibetan New Year or Losar around the corner (Thursday, in fact), I spent my Sunday in the kitchen, cooking Khapsey(s). A khapsey is a Tibetan snack or pastry, made of whole flour, sugar or salt and butter/ghee or oil; some varieties of khapseys are even topped with ground sugar or melted jaggery.

Khapsey literally translates into “mouth, eat” — meaning a snack to eat. With the help of my two Amalas — my own and my husband’s — we made a wide variety of Khapseys, mainly because they were giving in to my quest to make all the kinds of Khapseys made in the different regions of Tibet. (Here’s a great read on Tibetan Khabseys)

Of course, we made lots of different types of dough — colorful ones for the colorful khapseys; sweet ones for the rhug rhug or regular small khapseys; salty ones for the Bhungu Amjos or Donkey’s ears; Sichuan pepper-flavored, salty, oiled dough for the Amdo khapseys; and non-salted/non-sweetened ones for the Sangha Bhaley and Tseytang-Kotsay (two other types of khapseys that are topped with ground sugar and melted jaggery, respectively).

Khapsey dough, flattened using the noodle maker

Khapsey dough, flattened using the noodle maker

Khapsey dough, with one side colored orange

Khapsey dough, with one side colored orange

Here’s what we started off our Khapsey-making session with… the scorpion.

The scorpion is the first Khapsey that is made with the Khapsey dough and is meant to soak up all the bad luck and ills of the past year. Tibetans don't eat this scropion-shaped Khapsey, but instead, they hang this near their stove in the kitchen.

The scorpion is always the first Khapsey that goes into the wok full of hot oil. Made with the Khapsey dough, the scorpion is meant to take away all the bad luck and ills of the past year and any that may be prevalent during the khabsey-making session. Tibetans don’t eat this scropion-shaped Khapsey, but instead, they hang this near their stove in the kitchen. (There’s also the snake, but we didn’t make that this time)

Then the others followed… The Bhungu Amjo or the Donkey’s ears — Salty khapseys that are shaped like donkey’s ears and take pride of place in Tibetan altars as Losar decorations. They’re also lovely to have with Tibetan butter tea, or regular sweet tea.

The rhug rhugs are the regular sweet Khapseys. These are great to taste and easy to carry around during picnics or offer around when guests come visiting.

We also made the sugar-coated Sangha Bhaley — not too many of them because I was trying out the recipe for the first time. But it didn’t turn out too bad.

Sangha Bhaley -- Khapsey topped with ground sugar. This Khapsey is popular among Tibetans from Lhasa

Sangha Bhaley — Khapsey topped with ground sugar. This Khapsey is popular among Tibetans from Lhasa

We followed that up with our version of the Amdo Khapseys, or Khapseys made in the Amdo region of Tibet. (We’re from Tsang, central Tibet; Amdo is in East Tibet).

The Tsang-pa version of Amdo Khapsey

The Tsang-pa version of Amdo Khapsey

And then of course, we made my favorite — the Tsey-tang Kotsay, which is spaghetti-pasta shaped khapseys that are topped with melted jaggery.

Tsey-tang Khotsey

Tsey-tang Khotsey

And after the day-long khapsey-making session, the three of us put them all away in cartons, until they will be unveiled for the altar decorations due later tonight.

Of course, we offered the first of the khapseys that came out of the hot oil to the Gods, what we Tibetans call “phue” or the offering of the first of anything. (Remember, my post on the first drops of the morning tea? More here.)

See you in the Wood-Sheep year!

My tryst with immodesty

Telling the world about being nominated for an award is, in the Tibetan world, akin to being immodest. Any Tibetan caught or suspected of blowing his own trumpet is met with the slightly unkind, yet apt tongue-in-cheek Tibetan remark: “Kyakpe kup kyak,” which literally translates into “The shit is lifting the butt.”

award21But today, I am throwing caution to the winds by proudly letting you know that I was nominated for my first blogging award — The Versatile Blogger Award — by Vicki oEco Elements. Vicki, who is passionate about healthy living and the environment, writes a wonderful blog as he seeks to discover and share unique ways of preserving the planet for our children.

I’d like to share the award rules (given below) and nominate my other friends in the blogging world, this time a powerful set of women of four:

Perelin Colors — “Travel advice and impressions of a colorful world”

Plateau Journal — “Threads of life”

Simply Tibetan — ” Tsampa, Momo, Laphing and more”

Revisions of Grandeur — “Life is a draft”

Rules:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and add a link to their blog
  2. List the award rules so your nominees will know what to do.
  3. State 7 things about yourself
  4. Nominate up to 11 other bloggers for the award.
  5. Contact your nominees to let them know you have nominated them.
  6. Display the award logo on your blog.

Monthly blog spotlight: Simply Tibetan, Simply Delicious

I’ve been following this wonderful blog called Simply Tibetan, Simply Delicious, and I think you should too.

Simply Tibetan has a wonderful collection of recipes of unique and yet-familiar Tibetan dishes, including the tsampa, the Tibetan staple diet made of barley or wheat, and momo, another popular Tibetan dish.

A Tibetan lady preparing her bowl of tsampa

A Tibetan lady preparing her bowl of tsampa

The author artfully weaves together personal accounts of her own experiences with Tibetan food and cooking in all the recipes on her blog, proving without doubt the significance of food in one’s effort to preserve one’s rich and unique traditions and memories in a foreign land.

STSD, who appears to have been blogging since 2008, has over the years shared a wide assortment of recipes, roping in friends and family in this inspiring enterprise. There’s even one on a Tibetan snack called khapsey, where the major part of the preparation (and eating) was done by the author’s son and his friend.

And yet, it is the author’s narratives and personal stories that bring the recipes to life, allowing the reader a taste of an original Tibetan kitchen amid all the modernity — in that Tibetan cooking essentially calls for a strong perception in terms of duration and measurements rather than defining clear specifications on either of these two essentials of modern-day cooking. Nonetheless, the author is able to effectively balance the two in her posts, even acknowledging this truth in her momo post.

So take a moment and try any of these fabulous recipes, and your home will be filled with the rich aroma of Tibetan cooking.

Of pregnancy and beliefs

Delivering a child in Tibetan circles is serious business. But even then, there’s an underlying humor in the beliefs and traditions that you just cannot miss.

“Tsokpa mashor-wa chey,” friends and well-wishers from afar would say over the phone. “Be careful to avoid impurities.”

Impurities were generally certain foods, particularly pork.

“Lo los,” I’d respond. “Sure.”

And yet, there was an underlying belief that in consuming the impure foods, you run the risk of changing the baby’s gender, mainly from a he to a she. My husband and I told everyone that was impossible. The science of development would have no way of explaining a gender change in the eighth month of pregnancy.

Still, the belief was too deep-rooted to change and could warrant a separate post by itself.

In another interesting anecdote, Amala, my mother, recounted, in all seriousness, that expecting mothers in Tibet would gulp a blob of blessed butter shortly before delivery and that at delivery, the newborn infant would emerge from his mother’s womb, successfully carrying the blob of blessed butter on his head.

When my husband and I laughed, refusing to believe this was possible, my mum told us she’d get people who had actually experienced this to corroborate her story. And rightly enough, there was an old neighbour who said her first child came out with the butter and that the nurses in the labour room had poked fun. There was also a friend of my mother’s, a mother of eight. She too knew this to be true, as a few of her kids hadn’t come into this world empty-handed (or would it be empty-headed).

We didn’t really buy that story but fortunately, or maybe not-so-fortunately, for me, I wasn’t made to prove if this age-old tradition still holds true.

Choe-khang or prayer house, a Tibetan’s oasis

The all-too-familiar and much-loved smell of burnt juniper leaves welcomes you to the Choe-khang or prayer room of any Tibetan home — the oasis of any Tibetan.

Jan 7Inside, the gods and goddesses of Tibet look down at you from beautifully hand-painted Thangkas, where some assume peaceful expressions, while others appear more wrathful. They also smile at you from gold-painted statues that have been adorned with silk and precious stones.

Each statue is placed in the altar in the order of their importance, with the main statue of the Buddha either in the center or at the beginning of the line. At the foot of this comforting sight of the gold-plated statues are seven silver bowls of water offerings or yonjop, an offering made every morning and taken down before sunset. Between these bowls of water offerings are butter lamps, their flames illuminating the faces of the Gods, as if infusing life into the statues and willing them to assume a human form. At the end of the seven bowls of water offerings is a small bowl filled with tea — another daily offering of the first drops of tea for that day, following which the tea is finally served to members of the family.

Next to the altar is a wooden case with rows of pejas or Tibetan scriptures neatly stacked one atop another. At the end of the altar is a yang-gam or a chest of treasures/fortune.

Amid all of these treasures of Tibetan Buddhism, you can’t help but feel at peace — with the world, with yourself — each time you step into a Tibetan Choe-khang.

The luxury that is blogging…

Writing a blog is a luxury. And I learned that the hard way.

When you start writing a blog, you mostly do so with some very lofty ambitions. And if you are obsessively organized like me, you also create a blog publishing schedule, writing your pieces around this predetermined structure. Of course, if you are always pursuing perfection and order, you are even more likely to take into account possible scenarios or days when you may not be able to meet your own publishing schedule. So you save some pieces for those “rainy days,” in the hope that you quickly outlive that particular or series of ‘abnormal’ circumstances that hamper your normal routine; in the hope that you are fortunate enough to be able to quickly go back to life as you knew it and resume your regular publishing schedule.

And yet, the dead and the dying may have other plans for you — distorting all your meticulously designed plans and teaching you, instead, that normalcy and the mundane are sometimes a luxury that most cannot afford.

And so it was! In the weeks of November and December, no week resembled another. My family was either saying our goodbyes to dying relatives, or being there for friends who had lost their dear ones and, in that respect, grieving for those dear ones who were also our friends, or remembering our own losses, those we faced each year for three consecutive years.

So, when my friend playfully reprimanded me with the words “19 November,” I quickly defended my stance knowing she was referring to the date of my most recently published post. She told me she understood, but that exchange left me thinking about life and death, and normalcy and change.

For Tibetans, being “tem-po” or consistent (not the other meaning: risk averse) is considered one of the greatest virtues a person can have. Whole families are known by this characteristic and lauded for it. Being tem-po meant you were reliable at all times, that you were rock-solid — there through thick and thin. A tem-po person isn’t overly in awe when you suddenly become the next Prime Minister of a country or do the opposite, by turning his back on you when you suddenly lose all your fortunes. A tem-po person is just that, tem-po/consistent, through it all.

No darkness outlasts the sun that follows it

No darkness outlasts the sun that follows it

And so, as the new year dawns, I find myself hoping that I am a tem-po person in the blogging world. That I gain your trust and appreciation for not disappearing during the “rainy days,” for not letting change or ‘abnormal’ circumstances get the better of my blogging and that I keep writing and sharing.

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PS — Special shout outs to my blogging community for all the sharing this year. Thanks particularly to my early friends in the blogging world: Qwerty Chronicles and Perelin Colors.