Yeshi Palden escaped from the Kham region of Tibet in 1999. He was 21 and was trying to free himself from China’s persecution of his religious believes. Last year, Palden settled in Atlanta. (This interview was translated by fellow Tibetan monk Thupten Tendhar.)
I’m from the eastern part of Tibetan, a place called Kham. China invaded Tibet in 1959, so China already existed in Tibet before I was born. When I was little, I saw the Chinese torturing the monks, who were accused of cheating people with religion. They were handcuffed and made to stand two to three hours in public and humiliated.
I was from a nomadic background. I didn’t have access to education. I started to see people in monks’ robes, and they were practicing and performing the religious ceremonies. My parents and my family asked me if I wanted to join the monastery. They said that by living a monk’s life, I would be happier. There would be more opportunity for social service. I went to the local monastery, and I saw the monks in their robes. At very first sight, I was excited to become a monk. I stayed at the local monastery for about five years. But after joining, there wasn’t freedom for education or practicing dharma. That was the situation at the time.
In order to become a monk, one should first receive the novice vow. And then afterward, one receives the fully ordained vow. The novice vow consists of 36 vows, and the fully ordained vow consists of more than 200 vows. But basically, there are four root vows, which consist of not committing murder, not engaging in sexual activity, not lying, and not stealing. The most challenging of these is the sexual activity, because attachment and desire arises.
I escaped from Tibet in 1999. I was 21 then. I took a train to Nachu, a part of Tibet, and then from there I took a bus that took 13 days to get to Lhasa [another part of Tibet]. From there I went to the Tashilhunpo monastery. And from there I [and a group of men] started walking towards Nepal. There are several routes for escaping from Tibet, and one of them is a passage through Mount Kailash. I went through the Mount Kailash pass to get into India. There was lots of snowfall. I had limited food and clothing. We thought that it might be better if we went directly into India, but at the border we were caught by the border patrol. And we were imprisoned for about nine days. We were interviewed, but they didn’t beat us or torture us. And after nine days, we were deported to go back into Tibet.
As we went back, we tried to find another route, through Nepal. It took us one month and 18 days to get into Nepal. Sometimes on the road, when we saw a small village, one or two of us would go beg for food. And sometimes people gave us a little bit of rice or bread. And then we would boil it and would share.
Our group consisted of adults. We were prepared, with additional shoes for the snow. We had to sleep in the snow for many days. Luckily, we all survived. However, there are groups that come with young children, and many of those children die under the snow, and some of them get lost in the thick snow. There are also many sad stories of amputations once they reach Nepal. Some of them had to get their toes, fingers, and hands cut off after the trip.
After we were in Nepal, we took a bus to Kathmandu, the capital. It wasn’t safe, even after getting to Kathmandu. Many Tibetans who escape from Tibet and get into Nepal thought they were free. But they were caught by the Nepali police and were deported to the Chinese authorities and got into deep trouble. For us, we were lucky to see some Tibetans who helped us get into a Tibetan reception center in Kathmandu, and they helped us get housing and food. They also helped us arrange our transport to India. That’s how we knew we were safe. If we ran freely outside, it was not safe.
I liked the people in India. They are kind and friendly. I came to Atlanta from India in February 2008. When I came to Atlanta, it was great. The facilities available here for education are so wonderful. In the monastery, I get up at 5:30 in the morning, and all of the monks get together in the prayer hall and do chanting and meditation until 7:30. We serve breakfast after that. Then from 8 to 9 a.m. I go to my spiritual master for class. From 9 to 11 a.m. is the morning debate. After that we have lunch, and from 12:30 to 2 is literature class. We study Tibetan poetry, grammar, and calligraphy. Then from 2 to 5 is the afternoon class. We have dinner at 5, and from 6 to 7 p.m. is the refurbishing of the scriptures that we have memorized. At 7, all of the monks get together again and do chanting for 2 hours. From 9 to 11 p.m. is the night debate. We go to bed at 12:30 or 1 a.m.
We have one day off, Monday. Monday is the time when we do laundry by hand. We clean. And then in the afternoon we play a game called carrom ball. And in the evening, we get some time for a walk.
There is a huge difference between Tibet and Atlanta. The most important difference is that the area around Kham is overrun by fear and insecurity, and it is controlled by the government, by the communists. Here in Atlanta, I see equal rights, freedom, opportunities — everyone enjoys freedom and opportunity.
Between 2006 and 2007, I got some opportunities to speak with my family in Tibet. But since 2008, there has been more restriction and surveillance, so it’s really hard to get through. And even if we get the opportunity, immediately the phone connection gets cut off .
I have a strong hope of returning to Tibet in my lifetime, and to see my parents and my relatives there. Not only my family, but thousands and thousands of Tibetan families were separated. I hope and pray for the reunion of the families. Also, millions of people inside of Tibet are waiting for the day that the Dalai Lama returns to Tibet for the opportunity to see him.
I was happy that Obama spoke with the Chinese [last week]. From my understanding, he talked to the Chinese about the importance of human rights and religious freedom. That is very practical. We lack those rights in Tibet. And I’m glad he mentioned those rights to the authorities.
The best thing that we can achieve as monks is happiness. There is a lot of transformation of the mind from negative to positive. By transforming one’s mind, in spite of conditions and causes, we are able to peace of mind. Not only do we create happiness for oneself, we also help others achieve peace of mind and happiness. We believe that if we accumulate positive karma in this life, this will bring positive results. If we do good, good comes to us. And if we do bad, bad comes to us. Considering the oppression I had to endure and the opportunity I’ve been given, I believe I might have done something good in my previous life.