This column begins on a sad note — the demise of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok. Like many of us in exile, life in Tibet is second-hand information to me or even third or fourth. When the news of Khenpo’s death reached me, I was in Dharamsala. I immediately went to meet Tsultrim and Tenkyong. I wanted to understand what it means to the people in eastern Tibet, particularly to the people in Serther Larung valley.
Understanding Tibet in its changing faces is prime importance. For that an easy bridge available in exile is the Sanjorwas we have around us. I envy them for they lived in the country I so much wanted to be in all my life. Their rosy cheeks and the distinct regional dialect bring Tibet alive to me. But when I sit with them and listen to them about their lives in Tibet, all my romantic notions of Tibet fly away from my mind.
Tsultrim and Tenkyong were Khenpo’s student in Serther few years ago. Tsultrim escaped Tibet in 1998, while Tenkyong was the person who smuggled out of Tibet those video evidences of the Serther institute destruction by the Chinese authorities. As I sit with them, they constantly receive updates from Tibet on phone calls.
Khenpo has died in a mysterious circumstance after an operation at the Chinese military hospital in Chengdu on the morning of 7th January 2004. Tibetans are angry that their Lama was held under house arrest since the destruction of the Serther institute in 2001 and now he died in Chinese hands. There are reports that some Tibetan nuns have committed suicide after the news spread. Chinese authorities are afraid there may be unrest in the region. So they are stopping all vehicles heading towards Serther from all approach roads. And yet, we hear reports of people trekking through the mountains to pay their last respects to their dead Lama. As we sat in that small room on the hillside in Dharamsala, worried about the situation, silence enveloped us. We didn’t know what to do. Suddenly we found ourselves at the foot of the mountain, looking up at the enormity of the problem that is Tibet. The two young men from Tibet and I a Tibetan born in India talked about our future. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok is seen as the yid shin norbu of the eastern Tibet. The little boy Kalsang Namgyal, who grazed sheep in the Larung valley grew up into this bright scholar and at young age started teaching. The hermitage of one room he built in 1980’s attracted more and more students, until it swelled like a honeycomb. At the time of its destruction Serther Institute was hosting around 8,000 students; monks, nuns and lay people — from all over Tibet. He had many students from mainland China too.
Khenpo, the reincarnate of Terton Lerab Lingpa, the former teacher to His Holiness the thirteenth Dalai Lama visited India at the invitation of Penor Rinpoche in Bylakuppe in 1990. Khenpo then had an audience with his Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The teacher and the student discussed previous lives some had to say. Khenpo’s foreign trips and his popularity among the Chinese Buddhists from the mainland China were chilies in the eyes of the Chinese authorities. Khenpo was growing beyond China’s limited definition of religious freedom.
Tsultrim showed me a video film smuggled out of Tibet. It had images of Khenpo giving sermons from a temple on a hillside overlooking a valley. What looked like flowers in the valley and on the hillsides, were actually hundreds and hundreds of monks, nuns and lay people listening to Khenpo speak. The demise of Khenpo has created a vacuum of leadership. Without leaders it is all chaos. Nobody knows when to do what. Everyone sits waiting for the moment to jump, but nobody knows WHEN that moment is. Whether the moment has finally arrived. There is no centre, no one to consult to. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was a great key leader in the eastern Tibet. The traditional set-up of society looks for leadership in the Lamas whether for political or religious reasons. These Lamas are unifying forces. They are also the natural magnets for the common Tibetans to show allegiance to when the foreign law and order puts them into various political dilemmas.
But sad, most of the Lamas in exile are found wallowing in the little praise and money they receive from their western patrons. However modern our community is called, the traditional resistance power and leadership still sustains in our community. In Tibet these Lamas run the community. This makes the demise of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok a national loss. Tibet today is without a leader; the real Panchen Lama is under the Chinese control, and the Karmapa has found his way to India. I think His Holiness the Dalai Lama must return to Tibet as soon as possible. He is much more needed to the Tibetans in Tibet. Just his presence will be of so much encouragement and inspiration to our people in Tibet.
Like last year, this year too Tibet made a false start. Last year we lost martyr Lobsang Dhondup to Chinese bullets in an execution on the 26th January. This year we lost Khenpo, one of the most important leaders in eastern Tibet. Tulku Tenzin Delek still lives in Chinese jail with a death sentence hanging on his head. The two-year death sentence reprieve finishes this year and we have only few months in hand to save him.