Very blessed to Have Losang, a Tibetan monk who visit’s Chico often, share his life story with us! enjoy
Losang’s Birthday Message:
“I Never Imagined…”
I NEVER IMAGINED…
Sometime this year I will turn sixty years of age. I am either already sixty or will turn sixty sometime soon. The truth is, I don’t know for sure exactly when my birthday is! Regardless, I cannot believe I will turn 60 this year. When I look in the mirror, I see an older man’s face looking back at me, but inside I feel that I am still 18. When I lead retreats and give teachings, I often talk about life like the quarters of a football game. Childhood is the first quarter; youth and young adulthood is the second quarter, and so on. I cannot believe that I am heading for overtime! My friends who are football fans tell me that overtime is the most exciting part of the game!
Last summer when I was in India, one of the Tibetan poets wrote a poem about Tibetan birthdays. When I listened to him, I thought it was about my birthday. In the poem a boy asked his mother, “Mom, what month and year was I born?” And the mother replied, “The year we got a lot of rain. That’s the year you were born.” And the boy asked again, “What year was that mom?” And the mom replied, “That year the cow had a calf.” And the boy asked again, “What year was that mom?” And she answered, “That year we had good crops. And a lot of our family came to visit that year.” So when I sat and listened to that poem, I thought that sounded a lot like the mystery around my own birth date!
The year I was born was the year that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In the west, television had become so popular that in the year I was born, the first TV Guide was published. The year of my birth was also the year that the double-helix structure of the DNA was discovered. That same year, the first successful open-heart surgery was performed in Philadelphia. I know there is no connection between this surgery and what happened in my life, but a couple months after I was born I died. I don’t know the cause of my death, but after ten days, just when they were about to bury my body, I came back to life. In the town where I grew up, they gave me the nickname Shilok, which means, “A living being who died and came back to the earth.” With such a difficult infancy, no one could ever have imagined that I would one day live near the base of Mount Everest, watch TV and 3-D movies, or eventually live in the City of Brotherly Love, the place where they performed the first successful open-heart surgery.
The day I needed to sign the documents for my US passport was May 17. On that document, I wrote that my birthday was May 17, 1953. The woman was so kind, she said, “Happy Birthday! Today is your birthday.” So I told her, “I wrote May 17 for my birthday because that is today’s date. The truth is, I don’t know the month and day of my birthday, only the year.” I could only imagine what was going on in her mind, but the look on her face told me she was thinking, “That can’t be! How can someone not know their birthday?” And in fact, most Tibetan’s don’t think it is important to know a person’s individual birthday. No one paid attention to their own birthday, and we didn’t have individual birthday celebrations. Instead, in the past, everyone’s birthday was Tibetan New Year, Losar, and everyone turned a year older on that day. It was so simple. Furthermore, there was no fighting over birthday cake, and no one had to worry about forgetting anyone else’s birthday!
Luckily I remembered the year I was born. It was 1953. I remembered that because my mom told me I was born the year of the snake and the element of that year was earth. However, even though I remembered the year I was born, in my passport they put the year of my birth as 1952. So one day, I went to the passport office in Philadelphia to correct the year of my birth, from 1952 to 1953. There was a long line that day at the passport office, and when it came to my turn, I walked up to the window. The man asked how he could help me. I told him that the year of birth of my passport was incorrect, and I came to fix it. I asked what form I needed to fill out. The man told me to fill out a document and submit it with my birth certificate. I said, “We didn’t have birth certificates in Tibet when I was born.” He told me that I must have a birth certificate to change the date of birth. So I gave up and left it as 1952. I just let it be.
The place I was born in Western Tibet is called Ribuche.
It is a beautiful small town and had lots of temples and there was a very holy stupa. Ribuche was home to the famous 14th century yogi, Thangtong Gyalpo, who founded the Tibetan opera and built many bridges in the Tibetan Plateau. I was born in this small town, and at the age of 2 or 3, even though we had no toys or TV for entertainment and life was difficult, there was still caring and joy. Everyone in the town watched out for the little children, and they were all our babysitters. At that time, I could never imagine that when I was 5, I would be a refugee, forced to leave my lovely home, to give up everything, and to have my family scattered. And on the day we had to escape, none of us had any thought that that night we would be fleeing our home and that the following night we would be hiding like animals in a cave. I remember we could not even make hot tea because people could see the smoke from the fire during the day and the fire itself during the night.
So we traveled for two months across the Himalayas,
climbing up the mountains, down into the valleys, and
As we crossed the glaciers, we saw bodies of people who had frozen to death. There were also a number of people who fell down the crevasses in the glacier, and all we heard was a crack and a scream. A couple summers later, bodies of people and animals would emerge in the river down the valley. It was truly like hell had come to life. When I think back, I have no idea how we survived. We did not have any clothing or supplies to protect us from the weather and the mountain environment. It was cold, snowy, windy, and wet. Sometimes there was so much snow and wind, I could not see the person walking in front of me. We had no good shoes, and although we had some wool and fur, our clothes and shoes were not waterproof and often became completely soaked. Sometimes we could feel the water squishing under our feet with each step. I was so happy to have long hair for that trip because I could pull the hair over my eyes to protect them from snow blindness. And yet after two months, somehow we arrived in Nepal in a place called Solukhumbu. Solukhumbu is a valley at the foot of Mount Everest.
Solukhumbu is a beautiful place, yet we had nothing!
We did not even have a tent for shelter, and the winter’s snow was a couple feet deep. We stayed a few years there, until 1963. We hoped that we would soon be able to return to our homeland. We missed the brothers who did not escape with us, and we missed our relatives and our home and the animals. I was 5 or 6 years of age when we escaped, and both of my parents were so kind and loving, but I cannot imagine what was going on in their minds.
After a couple years, we lost hope that we would be able to return to Tibet. No one was able to leave Tibet, and no one could go in. In the whole Himalayan region, the border of Tibet was sealed. We saw there was no hope staying on the border, as we would not be able to return to our homeland. In 1963 I came to the border of India and Nepal with my family, and slowly a group of about 300 Tibetans came to be at that border crossing. When we were at the border of India (one of the hottest places in India, called Jaynagar), we didn’t know we needed permission to go into India. Without passports or documents, we came to the border and hoped to enter, but we were stuck there for 7 months! A number of older and very young Tibetans died while we waited at the border. Every day we would go to the train station hoping that they would let us go to Dharamsala, which after 1960 became home to the Dalai Lama. There were rumors that this was the day we would be able to cross the border into India, and we would pack, only to find the rumors were false. Then we would return to the mango tree where we had found shelter and unpack once again. So many times we packed up our possessions and left our shelter under the mango tree only to return once again. During this time on the border, we heard that the US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I never imagined that one day my sister, Sonam Sangmo, and I would become citizens of and live in the United States.
When we were still living in Tibet, we also never imagined that we would be one day sitting on a street in the border of India and Nepal begging for food.
A number of us boys and girls would go to the bus or train station asking for money to help support our families. At the time, I had long hair. In Western Tibet, both men and women would have long hair and earrings. So at the age of 10, I had long hair and also wore earrings. One day I was in the train station, and an Indian man said, “Follow me, and I will give you money!” He took me to his house because he thought I was a girl. He took off my pants and realized I was a boy! Luckily he kicked me out! The next day I cut my hair and took out my earrings. When I saw the Indian movie, Slum Dog Millionaire, I identified with what happened to the children in the movie. It felt very profound to me, as I could understand what they were going through.
Then one day three or four Indian military officers came to our camp with a translator. He said that if any of the men would like to join the Indian military, they could go into India and would be able to bring the rest of their families into India too.
Later that day, I was sitting and resting on a bench waiting for the next train to arrive to ask the passengers for any money they could spare. As I waited, I seriously thought it would be a good idea to volunteer for the Indian military. Then I could bring my family to India. I felt it would be harder on my family if my father volunteered. I did not want my father to join the military and thought it would be better if I did. Although it was a difficult decision, I felt it would be so wonderful if I could do something to bring my mom, my dad, my sister, and my little brother (who was born in the refugee camp in Solukhumbu) to India. So I ran home and told my mom and dad what I decided. They could not believe that I would consider joining the military, and they could not accept the thought of it, especially because I was only 10 years old. Then one of my uncles, an incredible human being named Dorje-la, thought he would also volunteer to join the military so he could bring his family to India. The two of us, as well as many other Tibetan men and about 20 boys about the same age as me, decided to volunteer. That made it a little easier for my family to accept.
Both of my parents were very spiritual. They did prayers and rituals and prayed for compassion for all living beings. As I grew up in that environment, my mom would often say, “You are going to be a monk.”
Hearing her say that made me happy and excited, and I always thought, “I will be a monk one day!” And I have to admit, that I also could not believe that I was going to join the military, but I was willing to try my best in order to bring my family into India.
The day we were leaving, all of the Tibetans came to the train station to say goodbye to their loved ones. I was in the train looking out the window at my parents, my sister and my brother who were standing on the platform, and I was saying goodbye to them. It was much harder to leave that day than it was leaving Tibet. I tried so hard not to cry because I knew it would be harder for my mom, even though in the train station everyone on the train and on the platform was crying. The sound of sorrowful voices and cries were so loud in the station. There were some Indian families in the station as well, and some of them looked confused about why everyone was crying so hard. I was praying the train would move soon so that I would not break down in front of my mom! Luckily the train started to move away from the station. That felt a little easier. And then I cried for about an hour after the train started moving. The only thing I could think was that I would be safe because my dear uncle Dorje was next to me.
About 50 Tibetan boys and men travelled on the train with 6 or 7 Indian military soldiers for many hours.
Then we arrived at the military camp, a place called Dehradun. There were many Tibetans who had already joined the military, and because we did not speak more than a couple words in Hindi, they told us that within a day or two the military would give us a physical exam to determine who was fit to serve in the army. When we arrived they gave us blankets, clothing, and dishes. I remember the food in the camp was good and the beds were quite nice, especially compared to living under the shelter of a mango tree and begging for food. In my mind I kept thinking about my parents and focused
on when I would be able to bring them to India. I had many dreams of my parents, my sister and my brother during that time.
One evening, three days later, they told us that the next day would be the doctor’s appointment. Many of the Tibetans who were already selected for the military told us that we would be too young to be selected as soldiers, so they told us to stand extra tall and even to stand on our tiptoes. In the morning I wet my comb, combed my hair, straightened my clothes, and to tried my best to look like a man and not like a ten year old boy. One by one we went in to see the doctor. I took the suggestions of the Tibetans seriously, and I showed my tallest pose, acting like I was the tallest man in the group. I don’t have a picture, but I think at that time my neck was like a giraffe’s, stretched as long as I could make it. I was so scared of not passing the physical exam because I didn’t know what would happen to me and especially to my family. I was afraid they would send me back to Nepal, and I would lose my chance to bring my family to India.
The doctor looked at me, and I stood there. He asked, through the interpreter, for me to show him my back and then to turn around. He did not say much to me except, “Good, good! You can go!” Then he sent me out. Some people took a long time for their exam, but I was really fast! I thought I did really good. My uncle asked me how it went, and I replied that I thought I would be accepted. Then my uncle asked, “Did you stand on your tiptoes?” I replied proudly that I did. Then a couple people later my uncle went in for his exam; he came out very fast too. I thought we both must have done really well.
Later that day the military officers and the translator read out the names of the applicants who were accepted. When their names were called, we all cheered. I kept hoping my name or my uncle’s would be next on their list. My name was never so powerful and important as it felt on that day as I waited to hear the sound of my name be called. And then they read the names of those who were not accepted. For them we cried! My name and my uncle Dorje’s name were near the end of the list. We were both rejected. He was too old because he was in his 50’s, and I was too young, being only 10.
My attempt at stretching my neck like a giraffe and standing on my tiptoes was not enough to pass the test. After hearing the news, my uncle and I looked at each other. It was clear we were both feeling somewhat desperate trying to think of what we could do to bring our families into India. Although I never wanted to become a soldier, I was devastated to have been rejected. Later, after I arrived in the west and saw my first ballet, it brought back vivid memories of the time I stretched my neck and stood on tiptoes to pass the military physical exam. Old emotions washed over me!
At the end of the meeting, those who were rejected were told they would be taken to Dharamsala if they wished. Then we could decide what we wanted to do from there. They gave us a little pocket money, 10 rupees each (which is about 25 cents nowadays), and the next day we left the camp and traveled for 2 days to reach Dharamsala.
Dharamsala is a beautiful hill station in the high mountains. There are many pine trees, clean fresh air, and there is a beautiful waterfall near the town, called Bhagsu Falls. It is such a lovely town.
When I first arrived in Dharamsala, it reminded me
of Solukumbu. There were a lot of Tibetans in Dharamsala and His Holiness the Dalai Lama was already there. We were told we would have the chance to meet His Holiness, whom the people in Tibet referred to as Gyalwa Yeshe Norbu, which means precious jewel. Ever since my childhood, everyone talked about His Holiness the Dalai Lama and how precious he is. Although many people talked about him, few people in Tibet ever had the chance to meet him. Even though the Dalai Lama lived in the capital city, Lhasa, before he escaped from Tibet in 1959, those who lived there might never get to meet him and would not even know what he looked like. The chance to meet the Dalai Lama was so rare that I never imagined that I would have the chance. As I look back I realize that if I had remained in Tibet, I may never have met him! It was this difficult journey that brought me to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
I still remember so vividly the day I met His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I remember waking up that morning and washing my face and my hair. Then I picked up my only pair of pants and my only jacket and tried to shake out the dust to be presentable for him. I shook them gently, because I was afraid that these, my only clothes, may fall apart if I shook them too hard. Then we walked to His Holiness’ residence and waited. It was a public meeting, and there were many Tibetans, yet I remember the exact spot where I was standing among all the people. I remember that the group of boys and men who were rejected by the military were all standing together. I was there with my uncle, both in awe that we were about to see our inspiration and symbol of hope, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness emerged from his room and came over to us, with his beautiful dog by his side. It was like the sun rising in the east, so
bright and so beautiful.
We did three prostrations to him. Then he came over close to us, and he asked us where each of us was from. As he greeted us, he offered us the opportunity to make a request. We all asked His Holiness, “Please help us to bring the rest of our families from Nepal into Dharamsala.” My voice was one of the strongest in the group because I missed my family so much, but all the men and boys in our group cried like babies before him. My eyes were so small, but they were so full of water, and my shirt-sleeves became soaked with tears.
His Holiness listened to what we had to say, and he said, “Yes, don’t worry. Your family will come to India sooner or later. In the meanwhile, you children must go to school.” My uncle was a famous Tibetan opera master, and His Holiness asked him to teach at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts that had been established in Dharamsala to preserve Tibetan art, music, and culture. I was very relieved when His Holiness said that my family would come eventually to India, that I could go to school, and that my uncle could join the teaching staff at the Performing Arts school. The year was 1963 and on that day the joy I felt was indescribable. What I could never have imagined on that day was that one day I would become a monk, live and study in His Holiness’ personal monastery, and eventually be chosen by him to be one of his attendants.
On that day, I felt so much joy and hope. I am sure that I received blessings from His Holiness, but when I reflect on that experience, I am certain that the feelings of bliss also arose from within myself. I could not tell whether the feeling of bliss and joy originated from him or from within myself, or if it was a combination of both, but I knew at that moment that no matter what, my family would be okay.
Ever since then, I have returned to that spot many times and remember that day when I was a 10 year-old boy. I am grateful for all the experiences that I have had on my journey so far in my life, but the most significant one was the day I met my guru, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, from whom I received my vows as a fully ordained monk and who so generously gave so many remarkable teachings. The moment I saw him, a sense of hope for a new life for me and my family was awakened, and my life changed forever. This summer, when I return to India I will go back to where I was standing when I first saw him. My 60th birthday present to myself is to meditate on that spot.
I am sharing this brief glimpse of my life story with you as I am about to celebrate what I believe may be the day of my 60th birthday. I am sitting in a lovely home by the river just outside the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, at the lovely home of Fred, Sonya, and their beautiful daughter, Kaia. I would like to thank them for the hospitality and kindness they offered to me and my friend, Lori, who helped me write this. I give special thanks to Lori, who, as always, beautifully composed my story in writing. While Lori and I were writing this, we both laughed so hard, and sometimes we cried!
I hope and pray that no other living being, especially a child, goes through such incredible hardships as I did, yet I realize there are many children and families who are going through experiences much more difficult and painful than I went through. Many living beings have experienced incredible suffering in the past, at this moment, and will likely into the future, yet I pray that they always keep hope and never give up. I pray that they will one day have the experience of the sun rising in the east and shining brilliantly on them, awakening hope for a new life filled with joy and peace for them, as meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama was for me.