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Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama

Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama

by Lobsang Gyatso, Gareth (Translator) Sparham, Gareth Sparham (Illustrator)
A Tibetan patriot and unswerving follower of the Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso emerges from these memoirs as a master storyteller, a fearless social critic, and a devoted Buddhist monk.


A Tibetan patriot and unswerving follower of the Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso emerges from these memoirs as a master storyteller, a fearless social critic, and a devoted Buddhist monk.

Product Details

Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

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Chapter One


My name is Lobsang Gyatso and there is nothing particularly spectacular in my life. What you have with me, I'm afraid, is just an ordinary fellow spinning around in the world of life and death. As of now I am in charge of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics here in Dharamsala, North India, and I am head teacher here. There are things in my life which are worth recording, no doubt, even which need to be said, but with me everything that has happened is confined to this ordinary world.

    I was born in the northern part of Kongjo-rawa, in the four rivers and six mountains region of Kham, not far from the Burmese and Chinese borders. One of the four great rivers of Kham is the Drichu (called the Yangtse when it gets to China), and Kongjo-rawa is the name for the western bank of this river for about two hundred kilometers or so just before it enters China. We share the lower part of Kongjo-rawa with the Jang people. They are not actually Tibetans, though they are Tibetan Buddhists like us, and they live in the southern part of the valley closer to the Chinese border. The valley cut by the Drichu is so deep along this part of its course that the other side of the river, a region called Zanam, is almost completely cut off from us.

    Kongjo-rawa is never more than seventy kilometers wide even at its widest. For its entire length it is hemmed in at the back by high mountains, and only a few passes leave the region, heading over to the region of Jolwa. Like Kongjo-rawa, Jolwa also lies alongside a valley carved by one of thefour great rivers—the Mekong. The northern parts of the two valleys of Jolwa and Kongjo-rawa are referred to together as Jol-kong-ra. Sometimes the region is called Jol-kong-gye, referring to Jolwa, northern Kongjo-rawa, and Gye-tang, which is to the south, on the other side of the Drichu River.

    Kongjo means "Tang princess." The old kings of the Tang dynasty were known as kongs, and their daughters were called kongjos. During the seventh century, at the time when the great Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo was invading China, the Tang king had to give one of his daughters to Songtsen Gampo to keep him from taking over his capital. The kongjo whom the Tang king sent became one of Songtsen Gampo's wives, and was the one who brought the famous Buddha statue which is the central figure in the temple in Lhasa. Songtsen Gampo sent one of his ministers, a fellow called Gal-dung-dzin, to collect his kongjo. It would have been a long trip, and on the way back, I suppose the two fell for each other.

    The rawa in "Kongjo-rawa" means "garden" or "pleasure stop." While journeying back to the king in central Tibet, the couple passed through my part of Kham, and stayed for a while having an affair. So that is how it got its name, "The Pleasure Garden of the Tang Princess." Some others explain that kongjo is actually the local pronunciation of pongjo, which means "the one who abandoned her child." While traveling from China to Tibet with Gal-dung-dzin, the princess got pregnant, and unable to find an easy place to cross the Yangtse, the caravan stopped in Kongjo-rawa, where the princess gave birth. Knowing that she could not take the baby with her to central Tibet, she put it in a basket fashioned of reeds and let it float back to China. Kongjo-rawa therefore got the name "The Pleasure Garden of the Princess Who Abandoned Her Baby."

    I was born there in 1928, in a village named Choo-chur, which means "bitter water" in Tibetan. The bitter taste of the local water came from its high soda content. If you used this water when you cooked, you would not need to put any baking soda in your dumplings or bread to make them rise. The village was quite famous for this and people from neighboring villages would make a special trip to get some of our water to use for their cooking.

    The village was inhabited by perhaps ten or twelve families when I was a boy, so it was not big by any standards. It is located at the base of a rock formation that looks like an elephant, and the great monastery of Dondup-ling was located high above. When you approached Kongjo-rawa, the lie of the land made it look exactly like the monastery was on the crown of an elephant's head, with my village down and off a bit to the left, situated at the elephant's left foot.

    My family name is Ye-drong Nya-me Nam-pa. We got the name because of where we lived in the village. The two houses of my extended family are about ten meters apart from each other, and are set off from the rest of the village a little way up the hill. Ye-drong means "the villagers a little way up." Because one of the houses was further up the hill than the other, it was known in the village as Nya-me Nam-pa, "one a bit higher up," while the lower one was known as Wo-ma Nam-pa. I belong to Ye-drong Nya-me Nam-pa; it is the house where I was born and where my family still lives.

    My family was sa-ma-drok, which means "not farmers but not nomads." My family owned fields and had permanent houses, but our lives were also partially nomadic. In the late spring we would take our flocks up to the high grazing lands. Most families in Kongjo-rawa lived like this. In other villages, families made their living by doing business, using their animals to transport goods for trade. In others, families simply worked their fields. Sometimes, but not often, farmers engaged in trade by transporting goods on pack animals that belonged to others. Other families made their living by plying a trade; there were iron workers—lots of them—and there were the petty traders who lived by small business alone.

    There was a lot of business in my region. The bigger traders would bring up tea, brown sugar, and soy noodles from China, sell what they could in Kongjo-rawa, and then take the rest up to central Tibet. They would then pick up the many different grades of woolen goods and take them on to India. In India they would buy cloth to sell on their return to central Tibet, and when they came back home to our region they would bring loads of woolen goods. Traders who did not have the capital to do such big business would just head down to the Chinese border and then come back and sell their wares in Jol, or in the regions just on the borders of Kongjo-rawa.

    Our family had particularly good fruit trees, and we had fields sufficient for two households. So by local standards, though we are by no means considered very rich, we are certainly not considered poor. We are not a noble family by any stretch of the imagination and are not a family with a glorious history, but over the previous generation or two some of our family did make a name for themselves in the region with their magical powers, and got quite rich performing rituals to identify and punish thieves. My maternal grandfather knew how to make a figure of a person representing an unknown thief, and he would put a piece of thread around its neck. He would slowly tighten the thread until it started to cut into the figure, and then he would ask his client, "Do you want to kill him or not?" If the client said yes, he would tighten the thread so much that the head would be sliced off, and for sure somewhere in the district the thief would fall into a terrible sickness from which he or she would soon die. I grew up hearing a lot about my recent ancestors, these local religious figures who had been skilled in a mixture of Bön magic and Buddhist learning, and I knew there had been quite a rivalry between my ancestors and two other local magicians.

    I was born into this family in 1928, probably in the tenth or eleventh Tibetan month, just before new year that falls in very early spring. My mother had nine children in all, but only three of us survived infancy. My older sister, Tsering Chern-dzom, was eight when I was born and my younger sister was born two years after me. My older sister was the local beauty and the villagers used to say that when the village went up to a festival all the men would go to see her, not the performance. She knew that everybody was looking at her too, and she always had a sense of pride. She had an incredibly sharp tongue and was not to be crossed lightly, but she was a fine worker and when the house and fields came into her charge she took over with confidence and skill.

    I was very sickly when I was born and my mother used to tell me how close I had come to death when I was a week old, and then again a month after that. I was on the verge of certain death, she said, when they called in a Dondup-ling monk named Barshing Dulwa, a distant relative of ours who was famous throughout the district. He gave me a chin-ten, a blessed pill, and then I got well. My mother often said that had I not been given that pill I would have died for sure.

    The fact that I was so sickly and that so many other children in my family had died in infancy explains the name I was given as a child. I was called Drang-te. Drang means "beggar" or "destitute," and te means "something that has been retrieved." So my name, a horrible one so that no malicious spirit or person would have any interest in me, meant something that a destitute had thrown out and that had then been picked up by someone else. That was the name they hung on me—"the fellow scavenged from the beggar's rubbish."

Although our family had a lot of animals and its holdings were quite large, it was in a state of decline. My father had a stroke early on, leaving him with one side of his body partly paralyzed, and he went around with one hand clutched tightly to his body. My mother, bless her, was a rather simple woman, and with no grown-up children to do the work the herds and fields had not been properly looked after. Eventually my sister took charge and later, when I was only about seven or eight, I was sent out to tend to the sheep and goats since there was nobody else available. I can hear them now, telling me carefully that there were eighteen sheep and goats, and telling me what I had to do to take care of them. They gave me good food and sweets to take with me and made me a new pair of slipper shoes.

    Since I was so young I could not go off to tend the animals on my own, so I was teamed up with a neighbor's slightly older son who was looking after a large flock. Although sometimes he was friendly to me, sometimes he was very nasty and would make me feel stupid, so I gradually came to hate him. My family would give him treats too, but he would lie to my mother and she believed everything he said. One time he took my new shoes, which I had taken off and laid aside while I was running in the fields. He insisted that I had lost them, and I did not see them for weeks until one day he turned up wearing them. Of course, I could not say anything to him because he was bigger than me and he was in charge. If I had told my parents they would not have believed me, and I would have just come in for a scolding, but I thought that one day when I grew up I would teach him a lesson. I carried that grudge around with me for a long time even though I had to go out herding with him nearly every day.

    I remember one time when the two of us were out with our flocks; we were close to a beautiful retreat house built nearby the home of the village headman. It was a very peaceful place that had been made for a member of the family who had been to central Tibet and become a geshey. There were fruit trees nearby and we were sitting underneath them, helping ourselves to the villager's apricots and peaches without a care in the world, blissfully unaware that our flocks had all got into the neighbor's field, which was just about ready for harvest. Suddenly a tall monk who was the caretaker of the retreat house came running across the adjacent field in a towering rage, driving our goats and sheep in front of him. We ran off as fast as we could, both heading along one of the level paths away from the retreat house. As he began to gain on us we split up, my companion heading up the hill and me running down as fast as I could. The monk at first came after me and came within an inch of catching me, but my companion tripped on a thorn bush and the monk went after him. He caught up with him and beat the daylight out of him.

    I kept on running and crossed a small stream and hid under a thorn bush. After a time I could hear the sound of footsteps; I peered out from under the bush and saw the tall monk start off in the general direction of my house. I started to worry that the monk would tell my family and that I would get a beating from him and from my family too, so I leapt up and ran home as fast as I could without returning to the goats and sheep. When I arrived and found that the monk had not been there, I decided I had better make up a good lie to explain why I was home so early in the afternoon—it could not have been much more than two or three o'clock. My sister with the sharp tongue was very hard to fool, but my mother believed me right away when I said I felt terrible and that I had started to vomit. She was very gentle with me and said to the others that I was very sick. Inside I was terrified of being found out, but my mother made me the object of her attention and bundled me up in bed. She even brought me a special rice porridge.

    Towards dark I said that I was feeling better and that I would go out to see about the flock. I had gone a short way when I met Namgyal, my companion, coming home alone with the animals. I could see he was in a foul temper and he asked me where I had gone. "What could I do?" I said. "The monk was going to beat me so I ran home." When I asked him how he had fared he said he had been beaten to a pulp. The monk had taken a stick and beaten him so hard that there were black and blue marks all over him, which he showed to me. He shoved me about a bit, but that was one occasion when I came off better than him.

The truth is that Namgyal was not really a very good fellow. One time while we were playing he picked up some fresh dung on the end of a stick and came running after me, trying to smear me with it. I ran off as fast as I could and he came chasing after me. I went off quite a long distance to escape from him, and when I got back to where we had left our food for the day he said that the crows had taken all mine, even though it was obvious that he had eaten it.

    I had to go out with Namgyal until I was nearly eleven. Then as I gradually got older we started to go out separately. One day I had taken the animals out by myself and had gone quite a distance to a place close to a cliff face. I was playing there by myself, letting the flocks graze, when suddenly out of nowhere a single big boulder came crashing down and landed just a short way off from me. There was nobody about and nothing further up the cliff. It was as if it had just fallen straight out of the sky. I felt scared and immediately drove the sheep and goats further down the mountain. Later I met up with a local woodcutter who warned me not to go near the cliff because a leopard had just given birth to a litter and was keeping them there. I kept thinking about that big boulder that had fallen from nowhere. If it had not fallen to scare me I wouldn't have known there was a danger and would have just kept on playing—the leopard would have killed me for sure. I felt certain that a god or goddess had been looking down on me and had protected me. A few days later I went over near the cliff with some friends and we could see the leopard with her kittens, just as the woodsman had said.

    I remember another day when I was out by myself with the flocks. I had taken them up behind the village along a stream that ran through a dense piece of forest. Suddenly I saw a man with a huge stomach—it looked like he had a cow's stomach, really. The rest of him was as thin as a stick man sketched out of charcoal. I ran off to call another boy who was looking after his herd close by and told him what I had seen. We both ran back to the spot where I had seen the strange apparition, but there was nothing there. I felt so strange—I knew that I had seen something, but now I was there with my friend and there was nothing there at all.

    When I was about the same age I had become friends with one of the yak and dzomo herders in the village. He was a fellow with a limp who had taken a liking to me and sometimes gave me treats: fruit or pieces of meat or little pieces of brown sugar. One time he told me that I should keep my ears open and come immediately if I heard him clap his hands. The next day when I took the flocks out, quite early on I heard him clapping so I went down with another village boy to see what was going on.

    When we arrived, we found the herder getting ready to force-feed his cattle to strengthen them before taking them to the spring feeding grounds. The cattle in our parts get very emaciated during the long winter months, so in the spring the herders feed them pork to strengthen them. It works very well—you mix the meat, mainly the fat, together with grain or ground barley and you open their mouths and push it in. The cattle quickly regain their strength, and then when you take them up to graze they do very well.

    This herder was in charge of all the cattle belonging to one of the main administrators of the monastery, so to feed them all he had to cook up a great pile of pork. He had stolen quite a bit of pork in addition to what was allotted for the cattle, and though some of it was a little old, some of it was still very tasty. As he cooked, he would give us some tasty bits, eat some himself, talk about this and that, and then go back to work again. There were three or four of us there and we spent the best part of the day enjoying ourselves, totally unconcerned with the fact that our untended flocks were wandering far afield.

    By the end of the day there was only a kilo or so of the pork left. When I finally went out to see what had happened to the animals, I saw the whole flock running in a panic out of the woods and down the side of the hill. When I counted them there were three missing, but what could I do? Nothing but tell a lie, right? I decided it would have to be a good one to conceal a whole day spent eating pork, especially since I had not touched any of the bread given to me for my lunch. "I fell terribly sick," I said as I came lurching in, and my mother immediately began to worry about me. Mothers are like that, are they not? They have such a feeling for their kids that they always take their side. "But why didn't you come home immediately if you were so sick?" she asked. To cover my tracks I said I was so sick that I didn't feel I could make it home. My mother tucked me up in bed, brought me hot water and told me not to worry. But of course I was worrying inside because I knew that three of the flock were missing. To make matters worse, my sister and her husband were getting ready to go out searching for the missing sheep and I said that I had taken the flock in the opposite direction to the one I had come from so that they would not meet up with the herder and find out what had really happened. They went out in the wrong direction hunting high and low for the missing animals, but of course they came back much later without having found even a trace of them.

    A few days after that, the remains of the three carcasses turned up in the forest. There were just some traces of the hair and hide remaining; a leopard had eaten all the rest of them up. After a month or so the family heard the whole story of the pork-eating incident, which was making the rounds in the village. Everybody was laughing about it, and by the time my family heard about it, the time for a beating was long past. As they discussed the incident they were alternatively stern and joking, and my sister asked me why I had not at least been truthful about the direction I had taken the flocks—they might at least have been able to salvage some of the carcasses. I told her straight. "Sister," I said, "you are always on my case and you scold me for the smallest mistake. If I had told you honestly that three of the flock had been eaten by a leopard while I was enjoying myself eating pork, you would have eaten me alive on the spot." Everyone had a laugh at that and my sister just had to let it pass because she knew what I said was true. Dear old mother, she looked at me shaking her head. "You should not lie, you know that," she said. "It was wrong to tell a lie, you naughty boy." And that is how the whole incident passed off, turning into an often repeated family joke. The villagers enjoyed talking about the incident too. If truth be told, I was a naughty fellow and was known for it. Often when people met me they would say, "You are the young fellow who spent the whole day pigging out on pork instead of following your flock, aren't you?" Then they would give me a slap on the back and go off chuckling.

There were a lot of wild animals and birds in our region. There were flocks of two or three hundred blackbirds, and you could see hundreds of the white stork with red legs that we called the "whitebird." In the winter when the deep snow fell on the high regions the whitebirds would descend into the valleys to feed. In the evenings there would sometimes be so many of them that they would cover the fields in a white blanket, just like the snow in the higher regions covered the mountain tops. Nobody would ever lift a finger to hurt them. In summer, the birds would disappear up into the high regions and you would not see them again until next winter. It was the same with the wild animals: they would come down into the fields when the snows were heavy in the high regions, but when the snows melted they would disappear again into the woods.

    Although there was so much wildlife, none of those who lived in the valley were supposed to hunt, and by and large none did. It was considered low. People from outside the valley would come in to hunt, but if you caught one of these poachers you would immediately confiscate everything he had and send him away. On the other hand, wood was not held in any special respect. There was so much of it and it was only used for cooking and house-building, so there was not really any need to have special customs to protect it. After all, there was no lumber industry to talk of, nobody was cutting down the trees and selling them, so whoever needed wood from the forests would just take what they needed. There was one forest though, on one mountain which was sacred, and cutting trees there was not allowed. Still, there was a carelessness even then about the trees and forests—even back then our people were at fault in the way we went up and indiscriminately cut any trees we wanted without any thought for their place in the environment. We thought clearly about the animals and birds, protecting them quite well, but we didn't think much about the trees.

    Though no one hunted, the villagers were happy if someone was able to kill a marauding leopard or wolf. These animals went after the flocks, so if someone killed one it would be considered excellent. I remember there were some devious beggars in our parts who would get hold of a leopard pelt and go through the villages begging. They would pretend that they had killed the animal, thereby protecting the flocks of the villagers, and would ask for bounty money from each villager. We called this zig-long, which means "leopard-begging."

In our part of the world, it was the custom to use some of the local land as common property. Families who had no fields of their own could make their entire living on the common lands by grazing livestock, sheep, and goats. At festival time, when each family gave a part of their harvest for the rituals and celebrations, the families who used the common lands would pay the community back by contributing an extra share of their harvest. Families who had their own fields would give some of their harvest, but it would only be a little bit. Orchard owners would be expected to give some of their fruit, but since there were no orchards on common lands, the amount of fruit at the festivals was less than the amount of the other offerings. This system, called sa-bab-kyi-thun-kyen (requirements in accord with what is taken from the land), was a kind of land tax, though not what one thinks of as land tax nowadays.

    There was a natural order to things. Three families were responsible for collecting this tax, and every three years the responsibility would pass on to other families, who would take up the work without question. The amount that each person gave to the communal pot was always offered with happiness; no one felt, "This is a tax that I have to give though I do not want to give it." When the monastery had to raise materials to carry out rituals that ensured the well-being of the region, the same sort of procedure was followed, but again there was no feeling on the part of the villagers that it was a tax. It was an offering to the monastery by those who owned fields and livestock, and the herders, field owners and orchard owners each contributed their share.

Living at home with us when I was still a little boy was my maternal grandfather, who we called Anyi. He was a very old man and had suffered a series of strokes that had left him more and more paralyzed. He lived until he was about eighty-two, I think, and for the last year of his life he could not even get up. But boy could that old man eat! Whatever you served him, he would have it down immediately and he was never sick. He was almost blind, so he would just lie there, but he knew exactly what was going on, and took a very active interest in things. He had a soft spot for me and was always saying, "Come over by me," or asking where I was, or what I was doing.

    One day, I was already a monk by then, my grandfather called us three children together—my elder sister Tsering, me, and my younger sister Bhuti. He had us sit down and began to talk seriously to us. Now, my uncle, which is to say his son, was an important figure in our local monastery, Dondup-ling. "He is well off," Anyi said about my uncle, "so we do not need to consider him here. When I die, he will take care of you and be in charge of you." He then turned to my sister and said, "The house and the authority over the house and what is in it are all in your hands, Tsering Chern-dzom, and I want you to remember that if you put yourself to the task you will be successful at it. It is me who set you up here, set the whole thing right for you." He always had a lot to say about that and never let people forget it. Then he said to me that as a monk I had a responsibility to go up to the monastery in Lhasa, which was a very expensive proposition. Therefore he said he was going to give me most of his belongings as an inheritance, in order to be able to help meet some of those expenses. When he was younger he had four very good dzomos and a bull that went with them, and he ran off each of their names for me there and then. They were no doubt excellent in their day but of course they had died long before, and since he had his strokes he had not had any cattle. Very warmly he said to me, "I want you to have those five animals—I want you to take care of them and then when you are ready to go up to Lhasa I want you to sell them and use the money to help to pay your way. That is your inheritance, my boy." He also gave me a big walnut tree that belonged to him. "You can either use the walnuts for food or sell them each year," he said, "but I am giving you the tree as well."

    Old folks, when they are very old, seem to see more and more clearly those things that happened when they were young, so here he was giving away to me as my inheritance things that were nowhere except in his mind. And there I was saying thank you, and my sisters knowing what was going on. Both of them were nearly splitting apart trying to contain themselves. He was very warm and kind about it: "This, my boy, is your inheritance—those four dzomos and that bull!" And there I was saying "Thank you grandpa, thank you," knowing I was not getting a thing. "Be very careful with those dzomos, my boy. They will fetch you a good price when you sell them and it will help you when you go up to Lhasa." I can hear him now, and my older sister enjoying every minute of it. As for my younger sister, he said to her that he would advise her not to marry out into another family, that she would be better off to stay at home. He said that he was giving her a field as her inheritance; I think there was maybe another walnut tree in it for her too, if I remember rightly—I am a bit unclear now because it was a long time ago.

    When he was finished what could we do except say, "Thank you grandpa, we will do just as you have said." There was nothing else to be said, right? When we went outside my sister was enjoying herself as much as I have seen her saying, "Now you take good care of those dzomos, you hear me, that is your inheritance. You be sure to milk them well and keep them well fed now, you hear me?" And there I was, with nothing to show for the experience except the cows of his youth that he loved so much in his mind.

The different regions on the Sino-Tibetan border were given a considerable amount of autonomy, a policy that can be traced back to the time of the Tibetan dharma-king Ti-re-pa-chen. He devised a system of regional autonomy for Gye-tang, Jolwa, and Kongjo-rawa, allowing them to mobilize their defenses immediately if there were any encroachments on the borders of the Tibetan kingdom. The protection of the borders of Tibet, therefore, was a particular duty he laid on these regions. If the border regions were unable to deal with a threat they were expected to inform the central Tibetan dharma-king in Lhasa, who would then respond by sending reinforcements. I cannot say that this description is based in actual historical fact, but I do know that this was what was said about the origins of our form of highly autonomous administration. What it led to in practice was a number of small principalities, almost little kingdoms. We were grouped under the central Tibetan authority, but we had great autonomy. It was a state of affairs that continued until the early part of the present century when the power of China, for the first time, became too strong for the Tibetans to stand, and we began to have to bow in the direction of their wishes. Until that time, our laws were local laws that were administered by locally originating bodies of authority. After our defeat by the Chinese, we had to pay a war indemnity which continued down to my own days.

    In 1909, when the Chinese first started coming in, they set up a settlement of about a hundred soldiers in the center of the Kongjo-rawa region. They were going and coming every day, bringing in all sorts of things. There was much talk about the soldiers, and fearing their intentions, an armed party from the monastery wiped out the lot of them, barring two who were able to get back to China and report what had happened. You can imagine the size of the force they sent to avenge the atrocity. All the monks ran away into the hills and the Chinese were about to raze the monastery, insisting that the monks who had done the killing be handed over to them. Anyi, my maternal grandfather, was an important intermediary in this dispute, and had a Chinese incense burner that he had been given as a gift by the general who led the forces that finally subdued our district.


The Practice of Tranquillity and Insight
A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation

By Khenchen Thrangu
Translated by Peter Roberts

Snow Lion Publications

Copyright © 1993 Khenchen Thrangu. All rights reserved.

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