Across the Himalayas

Trungpa Rinpoche's Diary from the Final Days of the Escape

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Trungpa Rinpoche in Tibet, circa 1958

“Across the Himalaya” is Chapter 19 from BORN IN TIBET by Chögyam Trungpa. © 2009 by Diana J. Mukpo. Used here by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc and Diana Mukpo. Available online from Shambhala Pubs

Thank you to Carol Johnstone and Sarah Whitehorn for typing this chapter from Born In Tibet for the Chronicles.

December 20, 1959

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We were desperately short of food, so we could not afford to delay. As we walked down in the morning we looked at a stretch of snow-covered ground surrounding a large lake. We made our way beside it and a little farther on suddenly found ourselves at the edge of a steep escarpment which at first appeared to be impassable. However there was a crack running down it which, though abrupt, had an uneven stony surface affording a reasonable firm foothold; the younger people among us helped those who found it too difficult. Once we got to the bottom everything looked easy, for we were in a small valley with a frozen stream running through it and there was much less snow. The country was completely deserted with no sign of human habitation, the only living creatures being wild animals such as deer, foxes, etc. We chose a sheltered camping place among the rocks, from where we could see distant woods of holly and fir.

December 21, 1959

In the morning we noticed a large patch of green which we took for field of grass, but when we reached it we found to our horror that it was a large muddy swamp which could not be crossed. We tried to walk around it; this presented further difficulties, for the whole land was covered with a very prickly kind of thorn bush which had to be hacked through with every available knife or sword. This was particularly arduous work and took a long time. Toward evening we reached the junction of two rivers. There was evidence here of recent footprints. We thought that this might be a track leading to Doshong Pass and that Chinese might be in the neighborhood, though the footprints were clearly of Tibetan boots. That night we camped among reeds and trees beside the river.

December 22, 1959

As we went on I felt more and more puzzled, for everything looked somehow strange. It was all utterly unlike anything I had known hitherto; the air was much warmer and there were so many unknown trees. We were obviously getting near to an inhabited part of the country. That evening, as we sat round the fire, we held counsel together. The question was whether, if we were within reach of a source of food supplies, we could now allow ourselves to consume more of the slender remains of our food, or whether, if the Chinese were in the district, we must ration ourselves yet more severely. Someone suggested that if the Chinese were indeed here, it might be best to surrender, for we were in a poor state of health after so many acute privations and were near starvation. However, most of the party felt sure that there were no Chinese in the vicinity and even if there were, they said that at all costs we must not surrender but must still make every effort to escape. That night, while trying to sleep, we heard many strange noises and at first were greatly disturbed, until we realized that they only came from the wild animals around us.

December 23, 1959

We had been continuously going up and down the mountain slopes and now hoped to find easier ground. However, with every step the way seemed to become more difficult; the ground was again rougher and the mountains steeper; the trees here grew much taller. In places we had to negotiate great rocks, only able to be crossed by narrow footholds, with rusty chains for support, which reminded me of the track to Rigong Kha; the streams merely had log bridges of the most primitive kind. It was so tiring, jumping from rock to rock that I was beginning to feel at the end of my tether, hardly knowing how to go on; but I dared not tell this to anyone for fear of discouraging them. We camped in a little cave and again saw traces of the same footprints as before. Our tsampa and butter were now all but gone, though we still had some tea; Tsethar remarked that we would have to reach a village within a day or so, otherwise we would all die. A voice called out, “Be a strong Khampa and don’t lose heart,” and everyone laughed.

December 24, 1959

Our journey now took us through yet stranger country; there were all sorts of trees forming a dense jungle with no level spaces; a tangle of mountains with continual rain and mist. For the first time we saw banana trees, but did not know that the fruit was edible and dared not experiment. The rain poured in torrents all day, splashing up from the ground as it fell. Toward evening we found quite a nice cave with many signs that travelers had used it before. We now had nothing left except tea and a few leather bags. However, we could make a good fire and really enjoyed this meager fare. I was touched to find that Yönten had still kept a small quantity of tsampa for me. After we had eaten, Tsepa volunteered to go down to see if he could find a village where he could get some food; he and the peasant husband went off together. He said that if he could find a village that night he would return to us with supplies, but if no village was near, we were to come on next day and he would meet us on the way. About an hour after he left, we heard the report of a gun; then nothing further. We felt very anxious.

December 25, 1959

We stayed in the cave all day and kept up our spirits by chanting as we cooked our leather; it was such a luxury to have a fire and we stayed on in the cave that night.

December 26, 1959

With the morning light we started off and walked down the slope and as we turned uphill again we met the peasant husband carrying a large bag of tsampa. To our amazement he said that he and Tsepa had overtaken Akong Tulku’s elder brother in company with Dorje Tsering’s wife and three nuns and they had given him the tsampa to tide over our immediate needs. They told him how they had been captured by the Chinese near the backwater, but managed to escape from the headquarters where they were being held and had afterward joined up with some Kongpo peasants who were also escaping. The party had heard Tsepa’s gun the night before and had been so frightened that they had rushed away. It appeared that the gun had only been fired to scare a wild animal which seemed as if it might attack. Tsepa had sent the peasant husband back to us while he himself went up to the village on the mountainside to buy provisions. He sent us a message saying that we were to go to a cave below that place where the other party was waiting for us; he would join us there later with the food. We soon reached the cave and spent a very happy morning telling each other of our experiences. They told us that a group of them had crossed the river and the backwater and had tried to follow us; however, they had lost their way and after lying hidden in the long grass for a time they reached the village. When the Chinese discovered them, there was no fighting; all the refugees were taken prisoner and removed to a village which was a local Chinese headquarters, on the south side of the Brahmaputra. Their baggage was thoroughly searched; all the contents of their amulet boxes were thrown out and all religious books were immediately destroyed. Each person was privately questioned to find out if their stories tallied; they were asked where they came from and where they were going. Most of them said that they were trying to escape to India, though a few said that they were going on pilgrimage to that country. The lamas and leaders were separated from the rest and put under guard to be interrogated more closely. They were given the most menial work to do, such as cleaning out latrines. One of the lamas despaired and hanged himself, he had already escaped from one prison camp in Derge and this was the second time that he had been captured. As other prisoners were brought into the camp all our party were relieved to find that no members of our little group were among them; but when the Chinese could not trace Akong Tulku, Yak Tulku, or me among the senior prisoners, they thought we might be lurking disguised among the crowd, since they knew that we had been the leaders of the party; so the prisoners were checked again, especially the younger ones.

At night everyone was locked up together in a single room, but women and the less important men were allowed to go out into the village during the day: They were, however, called in for individual questioning from time to time. The Chinese would then tell them that now that Lhasa was liberated they could go there whenever they wished to, there would be no trouble on the roads; but of course there were more useful things to be done than wandering off on pilgrimages, which were indeed only superstition. The prisoners were even told that should they wish to go to India for this purpose, the Chinese administration were quite ready to let them out; however, such a journey would be exceedingly dangerous, for anyone might die of starvation or fall ill from the hot climate there.

When a rumor went round the camp that all the able-bodied refugees were shortly to be sent north to join labor camps on the other side of the Brahmaputra and that the senior people and those too old for work were to be sent to concentration camps, one of the nuns contrived to buy food for herself and Akong Tulku’s brother, she also obtained information about the best way to reach Doshong Pass. Dorje Tsering’s wife and two other nuns were also able to procure some food and all five managed to escape together. They stopped in a wood the first night and crossed the Doshong Pass the following day. Here they met the family from Kongpo who knew the country and were also making their escape, so they joined forces.

The Kongpo family were camping in a valley below our cave and the man came up to see me, bringing a jug of soup made of meat and barley which was much appreciated. He told me how he and his people had escaped: It had been very difficult to get out of their village as permits were only given to visit friends in the near neighborhood and when the visit was over the holder had to apply to the local authorities for permission to return to his own home. Having obtained the permits to leave his village, our friend and his family took the opposite direction toward the mountains to the south. A number of the villagers had wanted to do the same thing, but knowing the danger they would have to encounter in crossing the snowbound Doshong Pass, they had not dared to undertake the journey.

Some refugee lamas from Lower Kongpo were sheltering in the small monastery in the village above our cave. A monk came down with Tsepa to request me to conduct a devotional service for them as well as for the villagers. I was surprised to see him wearing a long dagger which looked somehow wrong for a monk. He was particularly friendly and invited us all to stay in the monastery. However, we felt that this village was too near Lower Kongpo and might not be a safe place for us so, seeing that one could not get to the monastery and back again that same afternoon, we stayed where we were in and around the cave. We had an excellent meal with some pork the villagers had supplied and made dumplings with their wheat flour which they also gave us. We tried the local dish of millet, but found this difficult to swallow.

December 27, 1959

Some of our party had bought roast corn from the villagers, which we nibbled throughout the day; unfortunately we had not realized that it would swell up inside us and this, followed by a meal of fat pork, gave us all severe stomachaches, so that none of us were able to sleep that night. However, we were all feeling comforted, for we thought that this part of the country was too wild and unproductive to be of much interest to the Communists. A year later, however, the Chinese occupied these frontier regions, including this part.

December 28, 1959

The Kongpo refugees remained in the vicinity, while we resumed our journey. There are a great many holy mountains in this district which is called Pemakö; Guru Padmasambhava used to meditate in its caves and Tibetans have often come here as hermits and pilgrims to practice meditation

December 29, 1959

Today it was very hard going, for our way led up and down slopes covered with large rocks; in some cases rough steps had been hewn, in others, it was the old story of narrow nitches cut in the rock faces. There were trees and undergrowth everywhere and we could not see anything of the country around us. To add to our discomfort it was raining very hard and we were wet through before we could stop for the night.

December 30, 1959

In one of the villages which we passed we stopped to rest and some of the villagers, who appeared to be very poor, welcomed us bringing small rice cakes cooked in oil as well as a local beer also made from rice; as the drink was fermented we were unable to accept it and this rather upset their sense of hospitality. We were much interested when one of the peasants took us up the hill to show us how he grew his corn. This required immense labor, for there were only small patches among the rocks on the mountainside where it could be sown, and it was always in danger of being eaten by the many wild animals about the place; to protect it he had built small well-thatched sheds from where he could keep watch against them. We spent the night on a little hill where there was water.

December 31, 1959

When we woke up in the morning we could see our next objective, a village high up on the slopes on the other side of the river. We crossed this by a slender bamboo bridge and, beyond it, found ourselves on steep hard ground. There were no rocks, but footholds had been cut on the stony surface in a zigzag pattern to made the climb easier. As we went farther up we could see the Brahmaputra again, now on the southwestward course: The ranges on its south side looked beautiful with patches of cloud and little groups of houses dotted about. These foothills of the Himalayas have a continual rainfall and everything looked wonderfully green. We could not recognize most of the plants here for they were utterly different from those which grow in East Tibet. We later learned that this is the best time for traveling, for in the winter there are no snakes nor leeches about. Our climb was very arduous and from the time that we had crossed the river there was no water to be had anywhere until we reached a village called Pedong late in the afternoon. I had sent a messenger ahead of the party to ask if we could be given accommodation for a couple of weeks; when we arrived we received a warm welcome and were able to rent rooms in various houses.

I, together with my attendant, Yönten, Tsepa and his wife, and the peasant family stayed in the headman’s house; our host gave me his best room and that evening he himself cooked our meal. Some of the dishes were made of stewed leather, which is largely eaten in this area; being now nicely cooked with spices and vegetables. I did not even realize that it was leather. For drink he gave us an alcoholic liquor made from wheat and, when I asked for tea, he told me that no water was available that night and that this drink would be good for us after our long journey, since we must be worn out and in need of rest. As monks do not touch alcohol we did not drink it, however, and pretended that the soup had been enough to quench our thirst, which disappointed our host. He was a very gentle and friendly man anxious to help us in every way; moreover he knew Tibetan and acted as interpreter to all our party, for the villagers only spoke the local dialect.

January 1-13, 1960

I took a walk in the country outside the village and was shocked to see some little boys hunting birds which they took home and roasted in their kitchens. When I spoke about this to our host he said it was difficult to stop people from doing it as it was the custom. Akong Tulku and Yak Tulku had had the same experience as ourselves in refusing the alcoholic drink, but after we had walked around together and seen for ourselves the scarcity of water, we understood the position better, for the villagers had to walk a long way down to the valley and then dig a hole, into which water would slowly trickle. This work was generally done by the women. The villagers’ chief industry was very fine and artistic basketwork colored with beautiful vegetable dyes.

During the following days I had many talks with the local people; they considered themselves to be Buddhists, though all this area still showed traces of the ancient Bön religion. There were temples in the villages, but the priests in charge were singularly lax; they had never received any training, and the way to celebrate the rites had merely been handed on orally from father to son. They were all married and led more or less worldly lives. For the devotional ceremonies, the fathers of the household and their sons joined with the priest in charge, while the women and children looked on, and these assemblies generally included the serving of alcoholic drinks to all by the women. Though this part of the country had been considered holy since the eighth century, latterly pilgrims who came to meditate in the neighboring caves rarely went near the small villages so that the indigenous people seldom had any contract with instructed Buddhists.

In the eighth century when Buddhism first began to spread into Tibet practices such as the worship of nature spirits and the animal sacrifices of the Bon religion were forbidden and many Bönpo adherents emigrated to the outlying regions of the Himalayas, both to the Pemakö district and to parts of Nepal, for they could not go to India which at that time was largely Buddhist. However, after Buddhism had become universal in Tibet the inhabitants of the Pemakö area took shelter under the name of Buddhism, though still practicing some of the Bon rites. On the other hand in the eastern province of Kyungpo the people still call themselves Bonpös, though their practice is Buddhist in effect; they are known as the “White Bonpös.”

In 1950 Düdjom Rinpoche, a renowned teacher of the Nyingma order or “order of the ancients” came to Pemakö. He had already established a monastery in Upper Kongpo and wished to found a second one here with a good library, his chief object being to train monks so that they might instruct the local people in the real teachings of Buddhism; in their isolation they had sadly lapsed and reform was necessary. Among other things he introduced cows, so that the villagers need not be solely dependent on hunting wild animals for food. He knew the local dialect and could mix with and teach the people himself.

The villagers told me how much it had meant to them having his monastery there to take a lead in this much-needed work of reform. At one time they had had a Tibetan monk-official as administrator of the district; later, the Chinese had also established a headquarters in the area, but had withdrawn after two years; they had made very little impression on the people. All were now very anti-Chinese and were prepared to fight for their liberty, if only with primitive bows and arrows. They had made plans to build bridges in such a way that they could be demolished at the very moment when the Chinese would be crossing them.

There was no possibility of getting any milk and since it was winter, vegetables were in very short supply; there was nothing left for us, therefore, but to fall in with the local custom of drinking beer, of which the villagers had large quantities. This, combined with better food and rest, certainly renewed our health. When our fortnight was up we were ready to go on with our journey.

January 14, 1960

After about four hours walking we came to the next village. We had already met many of the inhabitants and they had prepared accommodation for all of us. Here the houses were brighter and more cheerful and the people wore better clothes. I met a lama who had escaped from Upper Kongpo with a number of peasant refugees. His account of the Chinese persecution was the usual sad one. This party had traveled by a different route to the one we had taken.

January 15, 1960

The next village lay farther away. Mostly we were following the Brahmaputra, but all the villages were situated on the slopes of the mountains. A bridge that we saw over the river was different from any we had yet seen; it was made of very wobbly bamboo wattle; bamboo loops placed at intervals round it served to help the passenger to keep his balance. This village had some contact with the Indian side of the Himalayas, and consequently there were certain Indian goods to be seen, I was amused to meet men wearing pajamas. Indian coinage was partly in circulation here and cuttings of Indian pictures from newspapers were often stuck on the walls. The specialty of this village was making a particular poison to put on their arrowheads which paralyzed the animals they hunted. The women sat on their balconies all busily engaged in spinning and weaving. The majority of the inhabitants only spoke the Mön dialect; however, some of the older ones knew Tibetan and we were welcomed and put up for the night. We were told that a detachment of Indian guards had been stationed near the village who had invited all the villagers to join in their New Year festivities on January 1, and the people had been very interested to see Indian airplanes in the vicinity.

I met the priest who has living with his family in the local temple; he could speak Tibetan and was proud of the fact that he had visited many places in Tibet. He told me that he had been in retreat and that its chief benefit had been an increase of magical power. We had an argument and I pointed out to him that Buddhism teaches that one must go beyond selfish aims. A retreat should be to increase spiritual awareness; one must start with the five moral precepts. He courteously agreed, after which we both remained silent. Yak Tulku, who had been much scandalized by the corrupt habits of these people was delighted that I had had an opportunity to expound a truly Buddhist way of life. He said that, had he been talking to this priest, he would probably have lost his temper and said something rude.

January 16, 1960

We started on a long trek, passing several villages until we came to the last one on the Tibetan territory where we camped by the riverbank. We were delighted to have water to drink and I now made it a rule that in future no beer was to be taken; I was afraid that some of the younger people were growing too fond of it.

January 17, 1960

Our party of 19 started out very early. It was impossible to keep close to the Brahmaputra as the bank was too rocky, so we had to walk along the mountainside above it. The top of the next pass was the boundary between Tibet and India. We were still uncertain how we would be received by the guards there. There was a big notice-board facing us painted in the colors of the Indian flag, with large letters in Hindi saying “Bharat” and English letters saying “India.” Below, we saw a newly built stupa made of concrete and whitewashed; its presence was encouraging. The two men on guard showed their welcome as they shook hands with us though we could not speak each other’s languages. We felt intensely happy at this moment and particularly so in seeing the stupa, symbol of Buddhism, on Indian soil.

We walked down a further mile to the check post. The soldiers there confiscated Tsepa’s gun and my field glasses and in sign language indicated that we should go farther down the mountainside and not stay where we were. There were various soldiers traveling on the road and we heard an airplane overhead. Feeling tired after our long day, we camped beside a small stream. In the middle of the night a soldier came with an interpreter to see what we were up to. He merely woke us up, looked round, and went away.

January 18, 1960

Early in the morning another soldier came to our camp and seeing our warm fire, sat down beside it. He was smoking and offered us some of his cheroots; we accepted them because we did not like to refuse his kindness, but none of us smoked. We watched him with the greatest interest; he was so different from any Tibetan type, with his pointed nose, deep-set eyes, and mustache. Not long after a second soldier arrived; he looked more like a Tibetan and could speak our language; he said he was a Bhutanese. He had heard of Gyalwa Karmapa and told me that his party had arrived in India before the Dalai Lama left Lhasa and, to our great sorrow, he added that Khyentse of Dzongsar had died.

A messenger came from the army camp, which was about a quarter of a mile away, to tell us to go on to the camp where we would be looked after. When we reached it we were shown into the dak bungalow which was entirely built of bamboo and the walls were covered with basketwork. Everything was beautifully arranged with bathroom, etc., and a fully equipped kitchen. We were told that we must rest and were given rice and tinned food. We discovered that it was the adjutant of the Indian regiment stationed there who was personally looking after us; he spoke Tibetan fluently and asked for all our names. He understood that we had been abbots of important monasteries and told me that he had been privileged to meet many lamas who had come by this pass and that he himself was a Buddhist.

January 20, 1960

We were desperately short of food, so we could not afford to delay. As we walked down in the morning we looked at a stretch of snow-covered ground surrounding a large lake. We made our way beside it and a little farther on suddenly found ourselves at the edge of a steep escarpment which at first appeared to be impassable. However there was a crack running down it which, though abrupt, had an uneven stony surface affording a reasonable firm foothold; the younger people among us helped those who found it too difficult. Once we got to the bottom everything looked easy, for we were in a small valley with a frozen stream running through it and there was much less snow. The country was completely deserted with no sign of human habitation, the only living creatures being wild animals such as deer, foxes, etc. We chose a sheltered camping place among the rocks, from where we could see distant woods of holly and fir.

January 21, 1960

The road here was much better; and the bridges more strongly built with steel cables. On the way, we met an Indian official traveling on his district rounds, with no less than five porters to carry his baggage. He was very sympathetic about our having had to leave our own country and assured us that the Indian government would look after us, just as they were looking after the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees. His interpreter, the headman of the local village, looked very proud of himself in his uniform. This was the country of a primitive tribe who worship nature spirits and the whole atmosphere here seemed quite different from anything we had known before, with no obvious influences either from Tibet or the Indian side. There was much greater poverty in the villages and the dak bungalow where we stopped for the night was very small. There were, however, a few people here who had worked in India among Tibetans, and I asked them to teach me a few useful Hindi words.

January 22, 1960

We reached the town of Tuting round about midday and were shown a bamboo shelter where we could stay the night. Due to the rainy weather, here too there was a shortage of food and we were told that if we could manage on our own small supplies it would be a good thing. In the town there was a large camp of different races, all engaged on building houses for the army and the government officials in the area. There were quite a number of shops and small restaurants, and we were able to buy a few necessities, changing our Tibetan coins into Indian currency.

January 23, 1960

No one knew how we could get to India proper, for there was a waiting list for the few airplanes flying to and fro. However, we no longer felt anxious: We were free at last and were able to wander about the town at will. I was struck by the fact that people here were much gayer and more cheerful than in the Communist-controlled Tibetan towns. As we were having our midday meal, a messenger came to tell us to go down to the airport, as there was every possibility that we would get a lift that same evening. A tractor arrived with a trailer behind it, into which we all bundled. The winding road led through a valley and we came to the gate of the airport. It was built in decorative Tibetan style, surmounted by the ashoka emblem. We disembarked and waited. No one knew of any airplanes likely to arrive that day. The evening drew in and it was quite dark. A jeep came to take me to see the local district administrator; he gave me a bag of rice and a few vegetables and apologized that supplies were so scanty and the accommodation so limited. However, he was sure that the plane would come the next day. He asked me to leave my blessing in the place, that things should go well. I thanked him and presented him with a white scarf. We spent that night in the hut.

January 24, 1960

In the morning an official came and read out a list of our names. He told us that we would be given priority on the next plane. It arrived that morning and, since it was a transport plane, its cargo of building material was first taken off and seats screwed in afterward. There was only room for six of us: myself, my own attendant, Yak Tulku and his attendant, Tsethar, and Yunten; the rest of the party followed in a second plane that same day.

This, our first flight, was a strange new experience, skimming over cloud-covered mountains, seeing far below us the small villages and footpaths leading up to them; only by the moving shadow of the plane on the ground could we gauge how fast we were traveling.

We thought about the teaching of impermanence; this was a complete severance of all that had been Tibet and we were traveling by mechanized transport. As the moments passed, the mountain range was left behind, and the view changed to the misty space of the Indian plains stretching out in front of us.

 

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