Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

A Hundred Thousand White Stones - Selections

An Ordinary Tibetan's Extraordinary Journey

1. The Invasion

Beginning in 1949, the mountains and magic protecting Tibet were
conquered by the technology and will of the Chinese Red Army. It isn't true
that Tibetans never resisted this invasion violently. Before Dharma teachings
from India reached Tibet, the people were once fierce warriors similar to the
Mongolian horde. When our land was invaded, the fire in Tibetan hearts was
still too strong to be held back by the peaceful influence of Buddhist
teachings. Many people resisted as best they could with whatever weapons they
had. Unfortunately for us, loosely organized farmers and shepherds with
simple weapons were no match for a modern army. Resistance was virtually
suicidal and ultimately a failure.

Life during the early years of occupation was little different than
slavery. Villagers were forced to work for the Red Army without pay, and the
soldiers could brutally beat them for any reason, or no reason at all. Hunger
was the most serious problem. Prohibited from cooking on their own, villagers
were forced to eat only at the single collective kitchen put in place by the
soldiers. The kitchen served just one item, a thin soup made with a little
flour mixed into a lot of water. When my parents looked at the soup, all they
saw was the water. They always looked for meat and vegetables, but there
never were any.

The villagers ate this soup for each meal every day for years. By the
time circumstances improved enough for the villagers to get better food,
their throats had become so weak from only drinking this thin soup that it
was painful to swallow anything else. Even small pieces of bread softened in
tea had become difficult to eat.

My mother worked in the kitchen in her village, where one of her jobs
was serving the soup line. Each person was allowed exactly one ladleful of
the soup for each meal. Forced to perform difficult physical labor while
receiving such meager portions, everyone in the village was desperate to get
as much soup as possible out of that one scoop of the ladle. Every single
drop was a big deal to them. The extra time my mother took to let every drop
from the ladle fall into each person's bowl has not been forgotten. During my
youth many years later, I witnessed village elders express their passionate
gratitude toward my mother for waiting for the drops to fall into their
bowls.

Some other villagers assigned to the kitchen preferred to keep the
line moving. After pouring the soup into each bowl, they pulled back the
ladle right away, letting the extra drops fall back into the pot. That hasn't
been forgotten either. Complaining about someone who didn't give them the
extra drops was a common topic of conversation among elders during my
childhood. As a child, unable to understand the suffering that these elders
had lived through, I thought it was ridiculous to hear them talking so much
about drops of soup.

My parents have told me that they often felt like dying right there
where they sat after finishing their own bowls of soup. They were still so
hungry when the soup was gone that they wished they could just give up. They
felt as though there was no way they could get back up off the ground.
Motivation was provided by the soldiers, who beat them until they started
working again.

Many people died during this time. Some entire families died off. When
the last member of a household died, it was known as "closing the gate."
Every house in the village had a wall around the property with a gate in
front. These gates were left open during the daytime to allow family members
and visitors to come and go and locked closed at night. "Closing the gate"
meant leaving a gate closed permanently. The village's closed gates stood
out, silently reminding survivors of their lost friends and neighbors.

Neither of my grandfathers survived the occupation, and my father's
mother died as well not long after the soldiers left her village. My father
was still a teenager at this time and lived at home with his parents, doing
his best to help them. He once managed to steal some flour and a few
potatoes, which he tried to cook for his parents during the night. Although
soldiers had taken away the pots and pans, my father could still prepare the
potatoes in traditional Tibetan style nestled in the embers of the fire (the
result is like a baked potato covered in ash). Smoke rose from the chimney as
my father prepared the food. He didn't suspect the smoke would be a problem
that late at night. It turned out the Chinese soldiers were watching after
all; they did see the smoke and came to the house to grab my father.

Soldiers tied him up out in the sun the next day in a forced standing
position, placed where everyone could see. He received no food or water all
that day. Painful as the experience was, it wasn't enough to prevent him from
trying again. He tried to steal food for them a few more times and always
ended up getting caught and punished. Sometimes he was made to stand for long
periods; other times he had to kneel on two overturned bowls while holding
his arms up in the air. His body never fully recovered from the abuse, which
has left him with lifelong pain. My father is a very flawed man, but I
respect that he went to such great lengths to try to save his parents.

Working in her village kitchen gave my mother better opportunities for
food theft. She prepared food for the soldiers as well as the villagers, and
she once managed to steal a small chunk of the soldiers' meat. Her plan to
give the meat to her mother ran into one problem: Her mother did not come
home until very late that night. The chunk of meat had to wait out on the
counter until she came home. Expecting that their mother would share part of
the meat with her, my mother's sister was very excited to see it. While they
waited for their mother to come home, my mother and her sister were tormented
with hunger looking at this piece of meat that they were determined to save
for her. They eventually went to bed before their mother returned, with the
meat still on the counter. A cat soon saw its chance and jumped up on the
counter to snatch it. The cat was too fast to catch and escaped beyond their
reach, where it noisily chewed on the meat. Lying in bed in the darkness, my
mother and her sister could hear every bite, knowing they would not be able
to get the meat back from the cat. They both still think about that sound
sometimes.

One of the best tricks local people used to steal food was to sew long
thin bags to the inside of their pants. The idea was to slip barley grains
into the bag a few at a time while working out in the fields. Villagers had
to rub the barley between their hands and slip the individual grains into
their bag without the soldiers, who watched them constantly, noticing what
they were doing. If successful, they could chew on the raw grains later. If
they were caught, they were beaten.

My mother's sister was very good at this trick, but my mother was not.
Her sister often complained that she should have been trying harder to bring
grain home for the family, but my mother was too scared and too tired to
sneak many grains into her pouch. It was already so hard just keeping up with
the work demanded by the soldiers that she didn't always have the energy to
attempt this stressful and complicated practice. She succeeded only once. My
mother's sister was steadily filling her bag that day while my mother held
onto a few grains tucked in the palm of her hand. When the soldier watching
them searched and caught her sister, my mother was able to quickly throw her
little bit into her mouth.

Not all Chinese people are like these soldiers. There are ethnic
Chinese farmers in some villages, and everyone has been getting along fine
for as long as anyone can remember. The soldiers typically came from parts of
China far away from Tibet. They weren't happy to be there, and they didn't
respect the local people. Although most men in the village knew some Chinese
language, these soldiers weren't very interested in communication. The
soldiers just told people they were in charge and that everybody else had to
shut up and get to work.

The Chinese soldiers were very proud of themselves for some reason.
They seemed to have thought that they were very important people doing a very
important job, but they didn't know anything about compassion. During the
first few years of Chinese occupation, the soldiers were watching over a lot
of people dying from hunger and severely beat these same people. Chinese
soldiers today aren't much better. They still beat Tibetan people who are
suffering under the occupation. It's hard to understand how one person could
be so cruel to another. The cruelest insult heaped on these abuses during my
parents' youth was that the villagers were regularly forced to sing patriotic
Chinese songs in praise of the government in the midst of so much starvation
and suffering.

The soldiers were allowed to steal anything they wanted. Most families
in the village owned jewelry for weddings, typically coral necklaces, and
tried to keep their jewelry safe from the soldiers by burying everything
somewhere it wasn't likely to be found. Many of those secret locations were
known to only one person and when that person died were lost forever. Even
survivors sometimes forgot the exact place they buried their belongings. My
mother's mother was one of the lucky few who both survived and found her
jewelry again.

After the first few years of the occupation passed, the situation
under Chinese control slowly improved. The soldiers started to leave, and
people got the use of their land back, ending the time of starvation. It's
not as though the occupation of Tibet turned out fine in the end, but it did
get better. For me, when I look at what is happening in Tibet right now, I am
angry and frustrated. For my parents, no matter what the Chinese government
does now, they're always glad that at least the current situation is an
improvement over the days of hunger.