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Boy on the Lion Throne
The Childhood of the 14th Dalai Lama
By Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Roaring Brook Press Copyright © 2008 Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
All rights reserved.
ON A QUIET WINTER MORNING in 1937, several strangers on horseback rode into the Tibetan village of Taktser. The men made their way through the small cluster of houses and prayer shrines on the lofty hillside, searching for the one that had been described to them. They were disguised as a group of simple travelers, their true mission a tightly held secret. Through the falling snow, their attention was drawn to a farmhouse nearby. Something in the shape of the gutters around the flat roof told them this was the house they must enter. If this was in fact the place they had been seeking, the common brick-and-mud structure contained a treasure of immeasurable value. The party of men approached the home. In their hands lay the future of Tibet.
Lhamo Thondup was not yet three years old when his mother welcomed the strangers into her home. The boy was immediately enchanted by the visitors, and he was especially drawn to a man dressed in a brown belted cloak and fur hat. Lhamo Thondup did not know that the servant who so captivated him was in fact the leader of the party, a high-ranking lama who had traded his scarlet monk's robes for a servant's costume.
The boy's mother, Diki Tsering, was a beautiful and gentle woman, with smiling lips and glossy black hair worn in long braids down her back. She was known for her generosity and never turned away strangers no matter what their circumstances. She offered the men a place to sleep for the night and took Lhamo into the kitchen to fetch them tea and bread. They were as welcome at her table as anyone, though she was already beginning to suspect that they were no ordinary travelers.
While the tea and bread was being served in the main room, the man dressed as a servant went into the kitchen. There he found Lhamo Thondup. When the servant sat down, Lhamo climbed into his lap and discovered that beneath the man's cloak he wore mala beads, the traditional Tibetan rosary. The boy was fascinated by the prayer beads and wanted the servant to give them to him. Amused, the servant agreed, with one condition. Lhamo Thondup must identify him, though the man and boy had not met before.
Lhamo did not hesitate. In spite of the man's clothing, the boy called him "Sera Lama," meaning a monk of the Sera Monastery. Lama Kewtsang Rinpoche was deeply impressed. Not only had the boy correctly identified the man and his monastery, but Lhamo had also shown an interest in the prayer beads. Only Kewtsang Rinpoche knew that those beads had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. To him, it made perfect sense that this little boy demanded he hand them over. Though there were other tests to be given, it seemed quite possible that the child on Kewtsang Rinpoche's lap was the one the search party had been seeking.
Two-year-old Lhamo could not have understood that the arrival of the party of strangers signaled the coming of great change. Life as the boy and his family knew it was about to change forever, and for Lhamo there would be no going back.
The Roof of the World
LHAMO'S MOUNTAIN COMMUNITY of Taktser was a small and remote village in the Tibetan province of Amdo. Tibet has the distinction of being the highest country on the globe, with the average altitude 15,000 feet above sea level. It is sometimes called the Roof of the World and the Land of Snows.
Although Tibet is flanked by China to the east and north, and India, Bhutan, and Nepal to the south, it is also surrounded by a natural fortress of mountain ranges, including the majestic Himalayas, where Mount Everest is located. For centuries, these forbidding peaks made Tibet incredibly difficult to reach, and it is little wonder that the country managed to keep largely to itself. As a result, Tibet is a land shrouded in myth and was long rumored by explorers and armchair travelers to be the real location of the mystical Shangri-La — the spirit land of eternal youth.
At the heart of the country is the religion of Buddhism, which came to Tibet from India in the seventh century. Buddhism teaches what is called the Eightfold Path, which stresses living a compassionate and respectful life, doing no harm to oneself or any other living being, and keeping a clear and focused mind. It also stresses the concept of interdependence, meaning that every effect has a cause, particularly in human experience. Like all Tibetan children, Lhamo was raised to have an enormous reverence for life, not just in human form, but down to the smallest insect.
Worship was an integral part of Tibetan life. Almost every household, no matter how poor, had a small altar. Colorful prayer flags fluttered above most homes. Families prayed together after rising in the morning and before going to sleep at night. Traveling monks were welcome in any home, and the Buddhist principles of compassion ensured that most beggars would receive food or money when they asked for it.
Central to Tibetan Buddhism is the concept of reincarnation — the idea that after death a person's soul is reborn in a new body. Tibetans believe that certain teachers or lamas are tulkus, able to choose the manner, time, and place in which they are reborn for their next lifetimes. Once reborn, a tulku is able to continue his teachings and leadership for another generation. Though there are many tulkus, there is none more important than the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama is both the spiritual and civil leader of the Tibetan people — there is no higher authority in religious or political issues. Tibetans revere the Dalai Lama and consider him a god-king. Their love for and faith in him is virtually unshakable.
When one Dalai Lama dies, the country is governed by a regent, who also oversees the search for the reincarnated Dalai Lama. It is an anxious and emotional time for the Tibetan people. On that snowy morning in 1937, Tibet had been without a Dalai Lama for four years. The 13th Dalai Lama had died in 1933. Almost immediately, Kewtsang Rinpoche and other high-ranking Tibetan monks and officials had begun searching for clues to the identity and location of the boy who would be enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama.
In keeping with tradition, the dead tulku's body had been laid out on a throne. On several occasions, witnesses reported that the face of the dead leader had turned toward the east. It was said that unusual cloud formations and dragon flowers growing near the shrine also seemed to be pointing in an easterly direction. Several important oracles turned east when seeking the location of the newly born tulku. And the regent himself, while gazing in the sacred lake of Lhamoi Latso, experienced a series of visions including letters indicating the province of Amdo, a three-story monastery with turquoise roof tiles, and a farmhouse with a distinctive juniper gutter.
In 1937, three search parties departed from the capital city of Lhasa. Several months later, one of those teams reached the remote village of Taktser, where they encountered two-and-a-half-year-old Lhamo Thondup.
Lhamo Thondup's family would have been well aware that the search for the next Dalai Lama was under way. And like all Tibetans, they would be looking forward to the discovery with great joy and anticipation. For them, being Tibetan and being Buddhist were closely intertwined. So the discovery of a new Dalai Lama was likely to be one of the most important events that would occur in their lifetimes.
Across Tibet, monks and peasants anxiously awaited news from the search parties. Unbeknownst to them, the search party now leaving the tiny village of Taktser secretly believed they may have just found the boy the country was looking for.
Life by the House Mountain
TAKTSER WAS HEAVEN ON EARTH for a young boy like Lhamo Thondup. The village lay in breathtaking surroundings, protected by the towering distant peaks of Ami-Chiri, The Mountain Which Pierces the Sky.
About 30 small farms dotted gently sloping pastures of lush grass. The occasional evergreen tree gave way to forest in the distance. In the brilliant sunshine, life was abundant. The hillsides were rich with flowers, herbs, berries, fruits, and nuts, and a running brook nearby teemed with goldfish. Lhamo Thondup and his family had all that they needed — ample food and shelter and loving family and neighbors. They also had temples, prayer flags, and a bumkhang, a tower-shaped shrine to Buddha located near each home, for daily worship.
Lhamo's house was a comfortable dwelling made of clay bricks topped by a flat roof with juniper-wood gutters and two chimneys. A prayer flag fluttered from a flagpole. There were several rooms in the house, but the largest was the kitchen. Always warm because of the big stone stove, it was often the most popular and crowded room in the house, particularly during the winter.
In 1937, there were five children in the family — two more would come later. Daughter Tsering Dolma, born in 1919, was the eldest, followed by firstborn son Thubten Jigme Norbu, in 1922. Three more sons followed: Gyalo Thondup (1928), Lobsang Samten (1933), and finally Lhamo Thondup, in 1935. Like virtually all Tibetans, Lhamo's parents would have hoped for at least one or two of their sons to go to the local monastery to become a monk or perhaps even a great lama. When a tulku was discovered in a family, honor was brought to the entire village.
Indeed, there was already a tulku in the family. The eldest son, Thubten Jigme Norbu, had been recognized as the reincarnation of the high lama Taktser Rinpoche and had moved to the nearby Kumbum monastery. A second brother, Lobsang Samten, had also joined the monastery as a monk. The family had been blessed two times over, and in spite of the strange visitors, Diki Tsering thought it was unlikely that there was more than one tulku in her family.
Still, Diki Tsering had often remarked that Lhamo Thondup had been born with one eye wide open and did not utter a single cry. She remembered him as being an unusual child from the day of his birth. The little boy was very attached to his mother and insisted that she be the only one to handle his things. He often amused himself by packing his belongings in a bag and informing his family that he was leaving for Lhasa, the Tibetan holy city. He would draw large houses in the soil, then tell his mother that they would live in such a house. One day he announced that he had come to his family from heaven.
A typical day for Lhamo began at dawn, shortly after his parents arose. There were no clocks or electricity — time was kept by the passage of the sun. The children were supposed to be washed and dressed by the time the sunlight reached the highest mountain peaks. After morning prayers and rituals came a light breakfast of tea and tsampa, roasted flour balls from specially made dough, salted tea, and yak butter.
Other than some light chores, such as weeding, fetching water, and collecting firewood, young boys like Lhamo were not required to spend all day doing farmwork. A lucky boy might be sent to fetch eggs from the henhouse, or even better, be allowed to follow one of the herdsmen leading cows and sheep up into the mountains. An afternoon could easily be lost in the meadows and woods, with fresh streams and ample supplies of strawberries and raspberries to keep up one's strength. There were plenty of other boys for company. And though the woods held some danger, particularly the sleek gray wolves always looking for a meal, children found safety with the herdsmen and their hefty doubleedged swords.
Most children enjoyed a visit to the bumkhang. Made of clay and hollow on the inside, the bumkhang contained relics and treasures such as little statues of deities built into the clay. Sharp eyes could pick out these statues when peeking through the cracks in the walls.
Makeshift balls could be fashioned from yarn and feathers, and a small, round rock could be adapted in endless ways to suit fanciful imaginations eager to play. In the two wet months of summer, children remained closer to home to wait out the rain.
The farmhouse's flat roof also made for a diverting play space. It provided a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside and brought a child a touch closer to Kyeri — Taktser's "house mountain."
Mountains are extremely important in Tibetan culture, and many are believed to be the homes of protective deities. Taktser's central temple was built in honor of Kyeri and the spirit the villagers believed resided there. The peak of the mountain gave the first hint of approaching weather changes, and there was no better view of it than from the roof. The roof was also a warm and protected haven, and held secrets and surprises of its own. Lhamo's brother Norbu used to pick wildflowers growing out of the chimneys and returned the favor by planting wild onions there.
And of course, there were always the animals. Lhamo's family had chickens, cows, sheep, horses, and a sow, along with the household dog and cat. Lhamo enjoyed fetching eggs from the henhouse and occasionally installed himself in a makeshift nest and clucked contentedly, lost in his imaginary chicken world.
Children and adults alike looked forward to feast days, and none was more exciting than the two-day celebration of Kyeri and the mountain god Kye. For the event, the entire village made a three-day journey to the foot of the mountain. There they feasted, danced, and played games. The food was plentiful. And when the adults made their pilgrimage up to the area on the mountain where ice began to form, the children remained happily behind in the tents, exhausted from hours of singing, stuffing themselves, and playing in the meadow.
Winter brought its own reward: heavy snowfall provided a perfect playground, the landscape full of natural ice slides and well decorated with snowmen. When the temperature plummeted, the snow piled high, and the wind blew bitterly, Lhamo would stay close to home, sitting near the stove and watching his mother work in the kitchen. At night he slept snugly, warm under layers of sheepskin. If there was anything his life or home lacked, Lhamo Thondup was not aware of it.
A King's Ransom
THE SEARCH PARTY SOON RETURNED to Taktser to see Lhamo again. They had received official word from the government in Lhasa authorizing them to proceed with more tests. It was a situation that had to be handled carefully — prior to the 13th Dalai Lama, it had been over 70 years since any Dalai Lama had lived more than 20 years. Whether some were poisoned or whether they all simply suffered from diseases and accidents remains unknown. The lesson, however, was clear — whoever became the next Dalai Lama must be watched extremely closely. Along with the danger of harm from within the country was the constant threat of interference from neighboring China.
The traditional area of Tibet, consisting of the provinces of Kham, Amdo, and U-Tsang, sprawls over almost the entire Tibetan plateau, an area of approximately 1 million square miles. China had long been eager to establish a foothold there, and many Chinese believed that historically, Tibet had been a part of China. What had or had not been agreed on in past centuries about the sovereignty of Tibet is still in dispute. What is clear is that as the twentieth century dawned, China was keener than ever to gain influence in Tibet, as was the British-run government in India. During the reign of the 13th Dalai Lama, who lived from 1876 to 1933, Tibet had been invaded by both the British and the Manchu Empire of China. In the 1930s, a Chinese governor named Ma Pu-feng had taken control of a small portion of northeastern Amdo province, close to the Chinese border. In fact, China's influence in Amdo was significant enough that most villagers in Taktser spoke Chinese. By the time of 13th Dalai Lama's death, Tibet was for all practical purposes independent again. But the wolves continued to circle. The future Dalai Lama would have enormous influence over Tibet's attitude toward its neighbor. Should a boy be chosen who was thought to be anti-Chinese, his life might well be in danger.
Lhamo Thondup was happily unaware of the many larger issues that surrounded the test he was about to take. When the search party presented Lhamo with the second test, the little boy didn't hesitate.
In the guest room of the farmhouse, the men arranged a variety of items. There were pairs of mala beads, ritual drums, bells, bowls, reading glasses, silver pens, and walking sticks. Of every pair of items, one had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and the other had not. Lhamo's instructions were simple — choose one of each pair.
Lhamo Thondup examined each pair of items and confidently chose the correct ones. When he picked up the small drum that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, he began to tap it rhythmically, as a monk would during prayers. It was only when the pair of walking sticks was presented that Lhamo seemed to hesitate. He placed a hand on the first stick and examined it very closely. After several moments, he withdrew his hand and selected the other stick instead. The search team believed that Lhamo Thondup's hesitation was easy to explain — the first walking stick belonged to Kewtsang Rinpoche, but many years earlier had in fact been used by the 13th Dalai Lama as well. When the tests were concluded, the monks were more than satisfied. They reported that Lhamo Thondup had correctly chosen every item that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama.
Excerpted from Boy on the Lion Throne by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. Copyright © 2008 Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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