Tenzin Choephel has been living in exile for half of his life. He belongs to the new ambitious generation of Tibetans that wants to conquer the world and help its country as well as people gain their long lost freedom back. Read about his life story and ambitions.
I know that the Tibetans don’t really know their exact date of birth but do you happen to know yours?
You are right. The date of birth is not really important in our society. It is, however, very much needed in the Western world – you can’t even get an email account without it! Most of us – refugees that come to India – choose a date of birth randomly. For example, I picked mine in January. About two years ago, I asked my mom about my date of birth for the first time in my life. To my big surprise, she sent me a picture of my birth certificate! Apparently, I was among the first children in our village in the Trango region, Kham (Sechuan), who was registered. I was born in 1990 but according to the Tibetan custom, I am 28 years old this year (2017) because we count the day we are born as our first year of life.
Since we’re talking about dates… Do you believe in horoscope?
That’s a tricky question. I’m not really familiar with the Western-kind of horoscope but according to our calendar, I was born in the year of Iron Horse. Some of the characteristics match my character but not entirely. We, Tibetans, also have a long tradition in astrology and people believe in that, in general. If we want to start a new business or get married, for instance, we go to see a Mopa (person who does a divination called mo for us). He will give us an auspicious date in order for our venture to be successful which we respect. I occasionally see a Mopa in Dharamshala, too, usually when I face a major decision.
I know that there is a special way how the Tibetans name their children. Can you tell me more about that?
Traditionally, when a baby is born, we go to see our local lama to request a name from him. Since we generally think that a lama is not an ordinary person like you and me, we believe that he is able to choose a name that would most suit or reflect the child’s character. He also blesses the name so that it brings the baby nothing but auspiciousness in his or her life. These days, people go to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple to acquire a name for their newborn. The first name every boy or girl is given is Tenzin (after HH’s name, Tenzin Gyatso). That’s why the name Tenzin has been the most common name in the last 80 years – and my name is no exception. The second part of the name is chosen for boys and girls separately. Since words in Tibetan have very deep meanings owing to Buddhism, so do our names. Mine means The Dharma Holder. Since we don’t acquire family names in our culture, we have to face a lot of confusion and problems while dealing with paperwork. No form can be submitted without a family name and explaining this is such a hassle!
I guess that there are more cultural differences that you have to face every day than I can imagine. How hard is it for you to live in India?
Oh yes, there are. We (the Tibetans) are grateful that we are allowed to live in India but it’s not always a piece of cake. Especially in the countryside where people are uneducated but still look down on us. I think it may be because they’re jealous that we get to be better businessmen and earn more money than them. People are friendlier and more open-minded in bigger cities, though. Also, I am really disgusted by the way the Indians treat their environment. Everything is dirty and smelly here. Compared to the pristine nature we have in Tibet, Indian apathetic and disrespectful mentality toward nature seriously needs to undergo a big change! But don’t get me wrong, I have many Indian friends and I really like that we’re so different – how else could we people learn from each other if we were all the same?
Tenzin, what do you miss the most about Tibet?
My family and relatives, of course. When I was six, my parents sent me to live with my grandparents in a different village because they didn’t have enough money or time to take care of me and my two siblings while working hard. I came back to live with them a few years later when I was old enough to help them out with my little brother and sister as well as around the house. I didn’t stay for long though, as I had a strong wish to become a monk. Even though my mom begged me not to leave them again, I ran away from home and got ordained in a big monastery near my house. A year later, when I was thirteen, I left for India with a group of monks.
What made you leave Tibet in the first place?
Since I was very interested in studying Buddhism, my uncle, who was in South India at that time, asked my family to send me to him. See, when the Chinese invaded my country in 1959, they also demolished many monasteries in order to prevent us from learning the Dharma. Therefore, the three biggest monasteries were rebuilt in South India for us to be able to study Buddhism freely. That is why I set off for a very long and exhausting journey across the Himalayas and scorching Indian subcontinent.
How long did the journey take?
Long! (laughing) I was lucky because we took jeeps and buses most of the time. Other people walked on foot while crossing the Himalayas and a lot of them died while attempting to do so. It took some two weeks to get from my province in Eastern Tibet to Lhasa and another 10 days or so to get to Kathmandu in Nepal. We needed a special permit in order for the Chinese to let us cross the border.
Was it easy to get that permit?
I vaguely remember that back at home, I had to send a letter to the authorities explaining why I wanted to visit Nepal. I made up a story about a blind uncle who lived in Kathmandu and who desperately needed my help. Fortunately the Chinese bought it and I got the permit without any problems! (laughing hysterically)
What happened when you got to Nepal, then?
In the beginning, we stayed at a reception center for refugees in Kathmandu. It was really harsh because we slept with another 1000 people on a plain ground under a metal roof. Some got bunk beds but me and my friends we slept on the ground on mattresses that we had brought with us from home. We were given basic food three times a day but the whole experience was no picnic, believe me. I had to endure it for 3 months and 27 days before we left for Dharamshala where all newcomers have to register and then they are granted an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama who welcomes them to their new life in India. After that, I could go to the south and finally meet with my uncle for the very first time in my life!
How did it feel to meet His Holiness for the first time in your life?
It was like a dream! We believe that His Holiness IS a Buddha; in Tibet, we secretly keep his pictures on altars and treat them as holy with utmost respect. Any photos of the Dalai Lama are prohibited in Tibet but not every home is searched by the Chinese police so we get to keep them. If the police found a photo of His Holiness, we would be in serious trouble. I hear that people had to tear the photos (that may not sound that bad to you but it’s a big deal to us!), got beaten or even had to go in jail! Anyways, seeing the Dalai Lama in reality was simply unbelievable and I felt in trance! Even though I couldn’t really understand anything he was saying to us because back then I was only used to the dialect of my region, it still counts as one of my most treasured memories that will never fade!
Since then, you have spent your life in exile. Has it been difficult for you?
The only family I had here was my uncle who returned to Tibet a few years ago. I’ve been here on my own ever since and to answer your question – yes, it has been difficult. I have many good friends here but they can’t replace your parents’ love. Last year, my parents obtained a visa from the Chinese government so they were able to come visit me. You can’t imagine how happy I was to see them after such a long time! Before that, we had only sent each other voice messages on Wechat (as my parents don’t know how to write in Tibetan) and exchanged photos from our daily lives. All this can hardly replace a conversation in person. Seeing me and the environment I grew up in made my parents understand my life more. They couldn’t believe how much I had changed!
Why haven’t you visited them in Tibet before?
It’s not that simple for a refugee to go back to Tibet. We need to apply for a Chinese visa as anyone else but the problem is that not many of us actually get it. I have a lot of friends who applied several times in the last 10 years but their applications were always rejected. I, on the other hand, got extremely lucky when I applied a few months ago. Just because there haven’t been any self-immolations or riots in my region for a very long time, I have recently been granted a Chinese visa which means that I can finally go back home soon!
That is great! But does your family know that you’re not a monk anymore?
Haha, they don’t! And since they don’t speak English, we can talk about it here (he winks). They know of course that I don’t wear the robes anymore; I had to start wearing laymen’s clothes when I attended Kunpan – a boarding school where I was studying English. I disrobed secretly later and I didn’t tell anyone about it. Not even my uncle geshe la (a title that monks receive after some 25 years of rigorous studies) knew about it when he was still in India. I looked really funny because I had zero taste in fashion so everyone could actually tell from my “style” that I was a monk! (Tenzin is laughing)
May I ask you why you disrobed then?
Even though Buddhism flows through my veins and I love studying it, I felt like I needed more. You see, life of a monk is very easy: you don’t need to worry about money, accommodation, or food… Everything is provided by the monastery so that you can devote yourself completely to your studies and spiritual path. On the other hand, I was genuinely interested in history and English language which I couldn’t really study in the monastery. That is why I enrolled in a university and got my bachelor degree in Tibetan studies. I was still a monk when I graduated. But then I started to see the bigger picture – if I want to be really useful for the Tibetan society, I need to get a better education and work hard toward my new goal.
So how do you intend to help the Tibetans in the future?
One of the main problems in our society is that for centuries, we concentrated merely on studying Buddhism and we didn’t really care about the rest of the world. The gap between the common knowledge that an average Westerner compared to an average Tibetan has is strikingly enormous – most people have no clue what the Eiffel Tower is or who Christopher Columbus was. And I would like to change that. I believe that if we started translating books from the West into Tibetan, not only would the Tibetans read them with interest, we would also help to preserve our language which has been suppressed since 1959. That’s why I long time ago decided I would set up a translation institute one day. I know that I’m on a long, rocky road which also involves more schooling for me. Therefore, I am extremely excited that I have recently been accepted into a Master’s program at Oxford University! It means that I’m one step closer to achieving my goal!
Congratulations! I hope you don’t mind me asking but how does a refugee and an ex-monk get to afford to study at a prestigious university such as Oxford? Did you get a full scholarship?
I have applied for several scholarships, indeed, but I haven’t heard from their part yet. As strange as it may sound to you, there are many people in Tibet who believe in me and the fact that I can greatly benefit our society in the future. We’re talking about countless lamas as well as affluent people whom I’ve never met in my life and who are willing to pay for the education and costs of living at Oxford for the whole period of my studies. As you can imagine, it’s a lot of money… They place absolute trust and hope in me and I’m definitely not going to let them down.
It would be a great experience if you went to Oxford. Have you ever been to the West?
I have, twice. I participated in two conferences for Tibetologists – one in Germany and the other one in Norway. It was amazing to meet people from all around the world who are interested in the Tibetan culture! I also got to visit the Czech Republic and Slovakia which I liked very much.
What did you think about the people?
People were a bit different in each country but all in all, everyone was very nice with me. Also, I really liked the way everyone was hard-working and organized. Chaos rules in India so seeing how people obey the rules in Europe and how one’s personal space is respected was very refreshing. Also, everything was so clean and I could drink water straight from the tap!
European food is completely different from the food you’re used to. How did you like it?
I loved it! Tibetan cuisine is very limited, you know. We mostly eat tsampa (roasted barley flour), meat (cooked or frozen during winter), and vegetables that we grow ourselves. Chinese culture has influenced us a lot, so we eat potatoes and noodles these days a lot, too. I tried some typical Czech and Slovak meals that reminded me of Tibetan food a little bit as we make steamed dumplings and noodle soups, too. Even though I like Indian cuisine, it tends to be greasy and not very healthy. On the contrary, European food has so much to offer! I’ve never tried that many breads or cheeses in my life!
To be honest with you, I think that the Westerners don’t even realize how much spoiled they are – you can get pretty much anything you can think of at a mediocre grocery store! Life in India or as a nomad in the Himalayas is way more difficult and makes you appreciate and be grateful for what you have. At the same time, I can’t wait to live in Europe and enjoy the same luxury that you guys do! (laughing)
I know that we agreed not to talk about politics in order not to get you or your family in trouble. But do you believe that Tibet will gain its independence one day?
Believe it or not but many centuries ago our current situation was predicted. It was also said that if we don’t manage to get our independence back within ten years after the invasion in 1959, it’ll be very difficult to get our country back. Nevertheless, the Tibetans will never give up and we hope that one day, when China becomes a democratic country, we will get our autonomy, just like Hong Kong did. All we want is to be able to preserve our culture and language, lead a free life without oppression, and most importantly, be able to finally greet His Holiness the Dalai Lama back home where he belongs.