Tibetan Buddhist monk, Palden Gyatso, spent 33 years imprisoned by the Chinese and drew deep on his Buddhist practice to survive his brutal treatment. He escaped to the West to tell his story and I met him in London to discuss his experiences his searing memoir, Fire Under the Snow
Palden Gyatso has put on weight since the first press photos were taken shortly after his escape from Tibet, where he spent 33 years in Chinese-run prisons. The flesh is no longer so cruelly shrunken on his face, the lines etched by decades of hunger and suffering are less clearly visible. That was the first thing I noticed when we met to talk about his memoir, Fire Under The Snow. As he greeted me, his face shone with an extraordinary warmth, before settling back into a stern, grave sobriety.
Following Palden’s release from prison in 1995, the Tibetan underground smuggled him out of the country along perilous escape routes over the Himalayas. They hoped he would tell the world about his experiences in the Tibetan gulag. Since then he has testified before a United Nations tribunal, addressed pro-Tibetan protests in the West and, with the help of his translator Tsering Shakya, written a book. Fire Under The Snow is a prison memoir in the genre of Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi, the story of how a man’s humanity survives the extreme inhumanity of his captors.
With Palden, however, there is a Buddhist twist. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is his lack of resentment towards his tormentors. How had he been able to avoid hating the Chinese? After Tsering had translated my question, Palden shook his head vigorously. I had not understood.‘It is not that I was without hatred. Especially when I was being tortured by my guards, I had immense hatred against them because I was being hurt. But, as a religious person, after the event I could reflect on what had happened, and I could see that those who inflicted torture did so out of their own ignorance. As a religious person I have to sit back and ask myself, what is all this? Buddhist teachings say, don’t let your calm be disturbed and do not respond to anger with anger.’
Theory is one thing, but Palden’s ability to put this into practice is remarkable. Before the Chinese takeover he was a monk at Drepung, the largest monastery in Tibet. Palden was caught up in the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, arrested and sent to a prison camp. As he came from a wealthy family, Palden was singled out for beatings and torture. Prisoners were put to forced labour and many died of starvation in the famine that affected the whole of China.Palden escaped with several companions and had nearly reached the border with Bhutan when he was recaptured. ‘At first I thought, this is it, they will execute me. But they didn’t. Then feelings of anxiety and fear overcame me. I began to remember all the terrible things we had en-dured before – the beatings, the starvation. I thought, now all that will be repeated.’
As part of a ritual humiliation in front of all the prisoners, Palden was knocked over and his face was ground into the earth while his attacker shouted: ‘The earth is the Party, the blue sky is the people, and between the earth and the blue sky there is no escape for you.’Communist propaganda had always been drummed into prisoners, but once the Cultural Revolution started the prisoners were subjected to savage re-education sessions called thamzing. They were forced to ‘confess’, and learnt to use the language of Communist rhetoric against themselves. Palden mentions that he would confess to having gone to the latrine too frequently to avoid work, thus subverting socialism and hampering production. Most serious were the times when prisoners were forced to denounce each other. Often these meetings ended in mass beatings of the accused prisoner.
Having spent half of his life under Communism, what does Palden think of it? ‘If you were to read the teachings of Marxism, you would get the impression it is very peaceable and compatible with Buddhism. But in Communism, the emphasis is on the material world and material gain; in this way it is fundamentally different to Buddhism. Secondly, the Party has become more important than the ideas, and the ideas of equality, justice, freedom are used as a means to keep the Party in power.’One of the harshest truths to emerge from Fire Under The Snow is the extent to which many Tibetans have co-operated with the Chinese and are sometimes the cruellest agents of Communism.
Near the end of his captivity Palden was tortured by a Tibetan guard called Paljyor, who beat him with an electric baton and eventually thrust it into his mouth. Palden woke up in a pool of blood and vomit, and over the next few weeks his teeth fell out. How did Palden view Tibetans like Paljyor? ‘When I wrote about Paljyor I merely wanted to illustrate what happened to me. These people are caught in a system that encourages such actions. They exist because the system urges them to be that way.’
The end of Palden’s first prison term in 1979 coincided with a period of political liberalisation. Palden returned to Drepung monastery where, amid crumbling buildings, former monks were trying to revive some of its former life, although they were still under tight Communist control. Palden used his brief taste of relative freedom to write wall-posters, which were posted in Lhasa, demanding independence for Tibet and denouncing the destruction the Chinese had caused.Before long Palden was re-arrested and, now classified as a hardened opponent of the regime, was given another long sentence.
I asked Palden if during this second 15-year stretch he had ever regretted his protests: ‘I never regretted what I did. I did not put up the posters to alleviate my own suffering, but for the good of Tibet. The whole country was in prison, so it was not important what happened to me’.
How had he been able to sustain himself through all his difficulties? ‘I was always able to practise Buddhism. It is not a question of merely reciting prayers and moving your lips. It is a question of inner development. Meditation can be done under any circumstances. When you drink tea with compassion, that is also meditation.
‘You may just be walking along, but if you have a purpose, and your mind is on the Buddha-dharma, that can be a spiritual practice. I was helped enormously by the teaching I had received on understanding human nature, and also the little meditation I had learnt. This enabled me to control my body and my feelings.’
In 1989 Lhasa was swept by a wave of protests led by students and young people. Palden and the older prisoners found this new generation of protesters deeply encouraging. ‘These young people had been brought up in a completely materialistic way under Communism. And yet many were monks. Even after 30 years of Chinese rule they showed a hunger for Buddhist teaching, not for material wealth. This amazed me.’
Palden is convinced the Tibetans are still a deeply Buddhist people and that brain-washing by the Chinese has not been effective. ‘Buddhism is there even in children who were born under Communist rule and went to Communist schools. We say the first words a Tibetan child learns are om mani padme hum. That mantra is a natural sound in Tibet.’
Although in the Tibetan literary tradition biographies tend to be the inspiring lives of religious practitioners, Palden insists that in writing Fire Under The Snow he was merely hoping to share his experience as an ordinary man with a story to tell. The book is written simply, but very well. It is a vivid evocation of the fate of the Tibetan monks who were unable to escape the country. Nevertheless it leaves the reader with a deep admiration for the author.
Asked what he intends to do now he is free, Palden said he will devote himself to campaigning for Tibetan freedom. ‘Having been fortunate enough to survive, I now have the chance to struggle for the freedom of Tibet. This is what I will dedicate myself to.’ With Fire Under The Snow Palden has made a powerful contribution to western awareness of the experience of the Tibetans. I hope he also finds time to pursue his Buddhist practice in peace. He deserves it.