A Lesson in Compassion from a Tortured Monk 

A Lesson in Compassion from a Tortured Monk

By Jeffrey Tufenkian
Vision Magazine, June 1999 San Diego, CA

In the presence of Palden Gyatso

In a recent talk at San Diego State, the audience was kept in rapt attention listening to the words of a Tibetan monk, Palden Gyatso, who endured 33 years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Chinese. His warm presence and courageous spirit inspired all who attended.

When you see Palden Gyatso, one can't help but be struck by his peacefulness and radiant joy. Although his body and mind were beaten by his Chinese captors for 33 years, he harbors no ill feelings toward them. The experience of this humble monk and his life of courage and strength is symbolic of the plight of Tibet under China's rule. His life serves as a reminder of not only the need for the world to bring an end to Tibet's suffering, but a reminder of what Tibet has to offer us as we deal with challenges in our own lives.

How did this simple man maintain his inner calm and compassion through decades of torture, starvation and psychological abuse? What can we learn from his example?

Half a life of torture failed to break his will.

Palden Gyatso was born in 1933 and raised in a small Tibetan village. At the age of eighteen he became an ordained Buddhist monk at one of Tibet's most famous monasteries, Drepung Monastery.

On March 10, 1959, thousands of Tibetans lost their lives. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee into exile when the Chinese government, determined to solidify its hold on Tibet, cracked down on nationalists in Lhasa.

Under repeated beatings, Gyatso eventually was forced to "confess" that he was present at the Lhasa uprising earlier that year. For this he was handed a sentence of 7 years. Like other monks arrested at that time, he assumed the Dalai Lama would return from exile and they would all be freed. He had no idea that he would spend the next 33 years in prison or that Tibet would still be under China's brutal occupation.

He was far from alone. Gyatso was one of thousands of monks and nuns arrested during the same period for their religious and political beliefs. Tragically, many hundreds lost their lives at the hands of the Chinese through execution or as a direct result of the frequent, and extremely violent torture sessions. In fact, over one million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation.

Throughout his imprisonment, Gyatso resisted the Chinese repression and served as an inspiration to his fellow inmates.

He related the frequent experience of being made to kneel on cement floor covered with broken glass and sharp pieces of metal and endure abuse such as being doused with boiling water and shocked by electric batons capable of producing 70,000 volts.

Practice of Tonglen-Giving and Receiving

When asked how he survived over three decades of imprisonment and torture, Gyatso replied that his spiritual practice gave him the strength to endure and tolerate the unimaginable suffering. As a Tibetan Buddhist monk he follows a traditional path as practiced by the Dalai Lama. Gyatso described a practice known as Tonglen-giving and receiving-through which he would take on the pain of his torturers and give them back compassion.

In his book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche describes this important practice: In the Tonglen practice of giving and receiving, we take on, through compassion, all the various mental and physical sufferings of all beings: their fear, frustration, pain, anger, guilt, bitterness, doubt, and rage, and we give them, through love, all our happiness, and well-being, peace of mind, healing, and fulfillment. Rinpoche goes on to describe the steps of Tonglen:

1) ...sit quietly and bring your mind home...meditate deeply on compassion...

2) Imagine in front of you...someone you care for who is suffering...imagine that all of his or her sufferings manifest together and gather into a great mass of hot, black, grimy smoke.

3) Now, as you breathe in, visualize that this mass of black smoke dissolves...into the very core of your self-grasping at your heart...

4) Imagine now that your self-cherishing has been destroyed, that the heart of your enlightened mind...is fully revealed. As you breathe out, then, imagine that you are sending out its brilliant, cooling light of peace, joy, happiness, and ultimate well-being to your friend in pain, and that its rays are purifying all their negative karma...

5) ...it is essential to feel a firm conviction that all of [your friend's] negative karma has been purified, and a deep, lasting joy that he or she has been totally freed of suffering and pain...

Thus through his spiritual practices, Gyatso was able to not only survive unimaginable brutality, but to emerge with his sense of joy and lacking any ill feelings toward those who imprisoned and tortured him for so many years.

Telling the World

Released on August 25, 1992, from Drapchi prison in Lhasa, Palden Gyatso had served more years behind bars than any other surviving Tibetan that has reached the West. Prior to his flight out of Tibet into India, Gyatso procured instruments of torture like the ones which had been used on him in order to show the outside world. With the torture implements spread before him, his testimony brought to life the inhuman atrocities committed against prisoners in Tibet.

In 1997 Gyatso's story, The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk, was published by Grove Press. Gyatso's story, like many of his fellow Tibetans, shows the strength of the human spirit and stands as a shining example of the power of compassion.

The recent appearance in San Diego was part of a nationwide speaking tour organized by Global Exchange and co-sponsored by Students for a Free Tibet, the Milarepa Foundation and the International Campaign for Tibet.

Jeffrey Tufenkian does consulting for advocacy organizations on campaign strategy and media. He can be reached at www.towardsfreedom.com/jeffrey or (619) 584-6462. San Diego Friends of Tibet can be reached at (619)682-7188 or www.sdtibet.org.

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