Article for Contact
[I wrote this article for Dharamshala's community publication Contact as part of my Learning and Ideas for Tibet ISP in McLeod]
A Story of Hope: Dorje Rinchen
By Andrew Weaver
In my eighteen short years on this earth, I have never been shot, tortured, or beaten. I have never watched any of my friends die. I have never tasted the cold fear of death, or the bitter uncertainty of exile. I have never been forcibly separated from my home or family, and have never worried that I might not see either again for the rest of my life. I have never known true pain. I have never known true suffering. And until quite recently I imagined, through the frosted-glass distortion of my comfortable, Western upbringing, that my inexperience with these horrors was not uncommon. Safety was simply a norm for me, and I never thought to consider it any kind of treasure, any kind of privilege. After all, I told myself, I live an average life, don’t I? And most other kids like me live average lives, too. Real torment didn’t befall any but the very few and very unlucky. I was narrowed within my own head, blissful and blind, my brain bubble-wrapped by all the things I took for granted. But on November 17, 2009, when the curious machinations of life happened to lead me to McLeod Ganj, India, I found myself suddenly stripped of every comforting delusion, every shadow of every lie. The mirrors in my mind were shattered, and for the best and the worst, I saw the truth.
The night was already brushing the last bits of lavender from the horizon when I stepped into the Learning and Ideas for Tibet center. A burst of violent yellow light spilled back into the darkness as I lifted the cloth cover swaying across the open front door. I paused for half a beat on the threshold, adjusted my eyes, then took slowly to the room, pen and notebook viced between nervous fingers at my side. It was a small space, though not uncomfortable, padded by worn-out carpets and oriented toward three empty chairs at one of its ends. Clusters of foreigners gathered along the walls, trading snatches of conversation and glances that bubbled with grave-giddy expectancy. They had a timid idea, as I did, what they were getting themselves into. We’d all heard stories of the unthinkable cruelty committed against the Tibetan people since China’s occupation of the country in 1949. We knew of the oppression, devastation, and inhumanity. But the stories we’d heard were largely secondhand, and often decontextualized. They were accounts worn down to brittle recitations of fact, repeated to engender shock rather than true understanding. We were anticipating a different breed of story, that evening. A wild thrust from vague secondhand to powerful and immediate. We were gathered to surrender ourselves to a story still in the making, with an ending yet unwritten.
Among the moments I remember most clearly from that night was the instant that I first laid eyes on Dorje Rinchen. He popped unexpectedly through the center’s door, and at once the room’s chatter snuffed into silence. He was thin, of medium height, and wore his face in a soft, watchful expression beneath a shock of trimmed black hair. His clothes were unremarkable—sporty and casual—and he carried himself with quiet, tentative humility. I might have called his manner peaceful, if not for his deep, black eyes, which wouldn’t allow the word anywhere within reach of him. They were placid, on the lying surface, as the face of a bottomless lake. But something dark swam beneath the calm, bent and warped by secret upon layered secret. Something that felt strangely wrong, like walking through an empty fairground, or speaking alone in a quiet room.
He moved skittishly from the doorway, and took up his seat before us. Two young Tibetan men followed him, and sat one after the other to his left. Rinchen was still, and looked at us. We were still, and looked back at him. For ten terrible seconds, the continuum of human experience widened into a jagged canyon, and divided us on opposite sides of infinity. Life smiled its crooked-sweet grin and ensured us that we’d never understand what he understood. We waited in painful expectancy. Finally, from the back of the room, Lauren Smith, editor of Dharamshala’s community publication Contact, stood and broke the silence.
“Welcome, everyone. Thank you all for coming. I’d like to introduce our speaker tonight, Dorje Rinchen.” She motioned to Rinchen, and he gave a shy little wave. “He recently escaped from his monastery in Tibet, and arrived in India just last week. He’s here tonight to tell you his story.”
She sat again, and every gaze packed into the tiny room turned upon Rinchen. He looked to the floor, clasped his hands, and wrung out his thoughts. Then, slowly, he began to speak.
“Hello,” he offered in quiet Tibetan. “I am eighteen years old, and I am a monk born in Tibet.”
I learned immediately, in time with the rest of the audience, that the two men who had entered alongside Rinchen were his translators. One converted the story from Rinchen’s dialect of Tibetan to the native dialect of the second translator, who churned it out in English for us. It was a tedious process, and I couldn’t desert the notion that I was watching the gravest game of “telephone” ever played. I wondered to myself (as I’m sure others did) how much of the story would be lost of changed in transit. Indeed, the splinters of narrative thrown to us were fractured and mismatched, but I steadily realized that the method worked also to trim the linguistic fat from my mind’s picture of the events. Like waves lapping at a length of shore, uncovering shards of glass buried in the sand, we were left with only the most honest and cutting vitals of the account. The heart of the words. From all that I could piece together, the story went like this:
On the second of April, during the 2008 Tibetan Unrest, Rinchen’s monastery in Tongkor Township was invaded by Chinese troops. They entered by force, and demanded that each resident monk individually renounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Not one of them accepted. The troops left without contest, and for twelve hours a façade of sickening peace descended upon the monastery. At four a.m. the following day, however, a stronger force of troops surrounded the place and spoke in to the monks through a loudspeaker. The only words they said, in Rinchen’s memory, were “Come out now. We’re going to kill you.”
The monks again refused to comply, and at eight a.m. the troops finally breached the monastery walls. They entered every room, ransacked the compound, and turned Rinchen’s home upside down in search of any images or depictions of the Dalai Lama. When they had sufficiently torn the place apart and stolen all the images they could find, the troops threw them in a pile and trampled them into the mud. They went back through the rooms and proceeded to steal money and valuables at will. Any monks who showed the slightest resistance were tortured on the spot. . .
Rinchen paused to collect his thoughts, and the roomful of us breathed heavily, collectively, waiting. Many in the audience had slowed their pens and abandoned any attempts to take notes. We hung in captivation as the story grew heavier, and the suspense built. Finally, Rinchen resumed.
After the raid of the monastery, the troops detained a seventy-year-old monk and took him into custody. He was tortured so severely that he later spent two months in professional medical care. With the man and money they had taken, the troops worked their way to the town of Tongkor just a few miles away—the residence of Rinchen’s family. The head of the monastery quickly called a meeting of the monks, in anticipation of the troops’ return. He told them, “You all have to think for yourselves, and do what you must. But I myself cannot renounce His Holiness and comply with the Chinese. I will not.” The monks agreed to follow his actions, and decided to join a public protest of 700 fellow Tibetans occurring at that very moment in front of a Chinese governmental office near the monastery.
As soon as the monks arrived at the protest, a Chinese official addressed the crowd and commanded the Tibetans to step down. All refused. The monks shouted for the release of their brother, among countless other demands and cries of “We need freedom!” issuing forth from the din.
The protest continued, and night pressed in upon the eruptive chaos of the hoard. The detained monk had not been released, and Rinchen agreed with the rest of his monastery to persist in the demonstration until he was free. The troops were called back by the governmental office under pressure from the crowd, and they quickly made their way up from Tongkor to surround the group of protesters. This time they made no demands, and took no hesitation. They loaded their guns, and opened fire.
“We just lay down on the ground,” Rinchen recalled. “There was nothing to do but lay down.” The velvet night was at once licked apart by the burst and spark of discharged weapons. Bullets plunged into the crowd, and bodies fell. For a moment the shooting stopped, but the troops soon realized that not all on the ground had been killed—that many had only thrown themselves down in fear—so they started firing again.
“Then we had to run. If we didn’t run, we were all going to die.” Frantically, those not already injured or killed scrambled to their feet and scattered. Rinchen tried to get away, but a bullet found him and connected with the back of his right shoulder.
At this he paused and, without any need for explanation, pulled up his shirt and turned in his seat. A large white scar on his upper back caught the room’s light, and whispered to each of us in his audience all that we would never know about the horrors of men’s souls. He raised his chin to the stirring crowd. Cameras flashed. All at once, fierce defiance sparked within his eyes, and to every popping lens they offered the whole of his story in a single frame. This is what’s been done to me, they said. This is what I’ve lost. And I’m still here, still alive, and still fighting. I knew without being told that the round had torn through more than Rinchen’s body. It had ripped away a bit of his spirit with the flesh and blood it took. And the scar from that hidden wound, when it eventually healed and hardened over, would twinge and bite for the rest of his life.
In the instant that the bullet pierced him, he fell facedown on the ground. He crawled, somehow, through blinding pain and shock and the rushing of his own blood, to a nearby tree for cover. Troops who saw him reach the tree unloaded a hail of fire at its trunk. Leaves rained down on him, and splinters of bark showered his body. He waited there, with his back to the carnage of his friends and brothers, and watched devastation erupt around him.
A young girl was shot in the chest and thrown to the ground by the force of the bullet’s impact. She took off her clothes and tried to stem the blood pouring from inside of her, but by the time she pressed her sopping shirt into her wounds, her body gave its last jerk, and she was still. A fellow monk ran just past Rinchen’s tree and stopped dead in his tracks. He turned, miraculously skirted by the bullets whizzing by, and threw up his arms. “If you want to kill Tibet and her people,” he screamed, “You have to kill me first.” He closed his eyes and stood against the advancing troops. Gunfire erupted toward him. A bullet entered his forehead, tore his skull in half, and he crumpled to the ground. Meters away, a young girl carried her wounded brother on her back. She tried to run, struggling under the weight of his body, driven by love and devotion to the boy fading from life in her arms. Rinchen watched as she slowed, buckled, and cried out as he slumped into death.
“The shooting never stopped,” he went on. “Never.” He knew that he had to run. Despite his wounds, he had to try for an escape, as eventually the troops would press in to where he hid, work their way around the tree, and end his life in half an instant. He looked wildly around, and focused in on a nearby bridge that led away from his monastery, away from death. He had to cross it to get away. Countless others were trying to make their way across, running, shoving each other, and falling over the edge into the river below.
A pause broke the endless flash and thunder of the troops’ fire, and Rinchen ran. He struggled from the pain of his wound, but made it across the bridge with his life. Some of his brothers from the monastery caught up with him, and helped him run. The world spun before his eyes as more and more of his own blood left his body, soaking his robes and dripping along the ground behind him.
He didn’t stop moving after he escaped the slaughter. He pushed to the top of a nearby mountain, and stayed there in cruel helplessness for one month. There was no chance of trying to make his way back down to his home township, or to any hospital for miles around. The Chinese troops who had attacked the protesters were trying to find all the Tibetans who had survived, and Rinchen himself had been put on a most-wanted list. In his hiding he received news of his friends and family, and learned that the Chinese had tortured them for information concerning his whereabouts. Soldiers had entered their homes, handcuffed them, stripped them naked, and poured boiling water over their bodies.
All who were killed in the shooting were never seen again, and all those captured were sentenced to jail without trial. If he were discovered, Rinchen knew, he would be either killed immediately or thrown in prison to die slowly. He knew that he had to escape. That much was clear. There would be no rest hiding from the Chinese in Tibet, and it would be only a matter of time until they found him. He had to flee the country. Like so many thousands before him, he was forced into the barren, fear-dogged life of a refugee.
At this point in his story, the details thinned out. He refused to discuss the specific means of his escape, lest the Chinese government hear about his story and prevent other Tibetans from escaping in the same way. All he would say was that he made his way to Lhasa—a journey that took two and a half days. He stayed in Lhasa for over two weeks, and from there traveled to Nepal. He found a guide to take him over the Himalayas, and paid 50,000 Chinese yen for his escape to India.
In mid-November, 2009, he arrived in McLeod Ganj. He had no money. He had no family. He had no friends, no direction, and no knowledge of what would happen to him. The only thing he possessed in the entire world was his story. And he gave it to us that night. We, who had so much, and took so much for granted—he handed it to us with grace, courage, and without the slightest hesitation. And we took it. . .
There arrives a point in every human life at which a certain realization finally works its way through the tangle of the universe and comes knocking at the front door. It flashes its wide, mysterious grin and says, “You’ve learned enough now, kid. I think it’s time I came in.” Then, all too suddenly, you see it, and you know: It is the understanding that suffering and happiness are nothing more than ideas built upon clouds, absent of their own support, bearing, or structure. In truth, it’s hope (or the complete lack of it) that keeps those ideas sustained, and keeps them distinguished. I arrived at this conception in the instant that I shook hands with Dorje Rinchen. Because after his story ended, when I stood before him and my hand joined with his, I was the one who frowned, and he was the one who smiled. And in his eyes I saw hope.