Wednesday, Sept. 15

For Tibetans, a Flight from History to Minnesota

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Every morning in a small apartment here, Rinzin and Dadon, recent immigrants from Tibet, rise and fill seven small silver bowls with water, light some sticks of incense, and pray to heal the whole earth.

“ We ask God to fill the world so every being has enough to eat and drink and will not suffer,” Rinzin explained. Both he and his wife have only one name, following Tibetan tradition. “We ask for compassion for every living being, including humans and animals, insects and trees. We say ‘How happy I am, I want every being to be happy.’”

In the evening, the water is sprinkled over flowers in the front yard and the night prayers begin. “We say ‘God, if I did anything bad towards other beings today, forgive me,’” Rinzin says. “Our religion is compassion. The Dalai Lama says that what makes us happy is to help others before we help ourselves, and to pray for others before we pray for ourselves.”

It is something of a paradox that Rinzin and Dadon’s own lives, their morning and evening prayers notwithstanding, have seen a lot of suffering. Their life in Rochester, now that both are in their late 60’s, is the latest step in an epic journey through one of the great historical events of the 20th century – the invasion and brutal subjugation of Tibet by China.

Killed for Praying

The invasion began in 1950 and by 1959, the Dalai Lama himself was driven into exile, being forced to walk through the Himalayan mountains to safety. Some 80,000 Tibetans followed him on that journey, Rinzin and Dadon being two of them. They were newlyweds then, with one child.

Rinzin had been a herder, living in a tent on the high northern Tibetan plateau, tending 1,000 sheep, 400 yak, and 50 horses. As the Chinese tightened their grip on Tibet, more than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed, and ordinary herders were executed for owning an image of the Dalai Lama.

“We would be killed if we were caught praying,” Rinzin recalls. “We wanted to be free to practice our religion. If the Dalai Lama is leaving for India, we thought it would be a good idea to follow him.”
The perilous trek through the Himalayas killed many hundreds from cold and exposure. In Rinzin and Dadon’s traveling group of 20, four died.

It was colder than Minnesota,” Rinzin said. “Our shoes fell apart and we had to tear our clothes and use the rags to protect our feet. We had no food and begged from villagers along the way.”

A Long Road

Dadon’s eyes brimmed with tears that spilled over as she recalled those days. “The worst part was having to leave my father behind,” she said. “I wasn’t able to find him to say goodbye. I remember like it was yesterday.”

After walking for months they reached Kathmandu, Nepal. There they stayed until the Dalai Lama arranged, in talks with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, for the 80,000 Tibetan refugees to resettle in northern India. In return, the refugees would help India build the narrow, twisting, harrowing mountain road connecting India to Nepal – which Rinzin did for the next eight years.

Today, Rinzin and Dadon live with their daughter, Sherab, who won a visa lottery to immigrate to the U.S. in the early 1990s, and has lived in Rochester since. A single mother, she helps supports her son, and fully supports her parents and herself, on a single income.

“ My hope is to go back to see my home village once before I die,” Rinzin says. But that is unlikely as long as the Chinese continue to dominate Tibet, which they now rule and are culturally subjugating by the resettlement of tens of thousands of ethnic Han Chinese in Tibet.

God's Compassion

Rinzin and Dadon always brighten when the talk returns to prayer.

Rinzin chants “Om Mani Padme Hum” as he fingers prayer beads, once for each bead, 108 beads in all. It is the ancient “Jewel in the Lotus” mantra of Tibetan Buddhism, with each of the six spoken syllables said to contain the vibrations needed to purify the soul of pride, jealousy, desire, prejudice, possessiveness, and aggression.

Meanwhile Dadon, her head bowed, also is chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” as she rhythmically spins a small silver “mani,” a prayer wheel that contains within it a tightly-packed scroll of prayers asking for God’s compassion to reach all beings in the world.

One is meant to see rainbows of energy thrown from the prayer wheel as it spins around and around, the bright colors spraying down upon the whole globe as a warm, sparkling, healing rain.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report