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An account of how obstacles were transformed into opportunities by the Tibetan Buddhist masters during the events of 1959

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An Account Of How Obstacles Were Transformed into Opportunities By The Tibetan Buddhist Masters During The Events of 1959

An account of how obstacles were transformed into opportunities by the Tibetan Buddhist masters during the events of 1959

By Ven Hungtram Khen Rinpoche


From karma, the diverse circumstances of the world originate.—Vasubandhu


After the 1959 Communist Chinese invasion of the Land of Snows, Tibet, , His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, then political and spiritual head of the Tibetans, together with over 100,000 of his country people, fled Tibet and sought asylum in India, Nepal and Bhutan.  This was the first time in the history of Tibet that she and her subjects lost their precious freedom and total darkness prevailed.  Of course, there were many factors that led to the catastrophe, but being Buddhists, Tibetans have always believed that their actions (karma) in this and their past lives had a significant role in this tragedy.  This in a way shows that, unlike the common tendency, among everyone from individuals to entire nations, of always blaming others for all the problems that are faced, the Tibetans have exhibited the wonderful inner quality of accepting responsibility for the unavoidable truth:“We are the part of the problem.”



Those who are driven mad by the demon of negative emotions,

And pitifully bring ruin upon themselves and others through their reckless actions—

May such impudent beings gain the vision of what to adopt and abandon,

And meet with kind and loving friends!

​​​HH the 14th Dalai Lama


During the early Chinese occupation and the imposition of its communist regime, especially during the Cultural Revolution, over 6000 monasteries, the great seats of Buddhist learning in Tibet, were destroyed in the span of almost twenty years. Thousands of lay and ordained Buddhist practitioners were killed, persecuted, jailed and tortured, as a result of which the rich Buddhist cultural heritage that combined both study and practice, which had prevailed for over a thousand years, was greatly endangered.  Along with other fundamental human rights, the freedom to practice religion was snatched away from the Tibetans.  Throughout her history, Tibet hadnever witnessed such a large-scale destruction of lives and property,or its distinct language, religion and culture.  What happened was “cultural genocide”.


Foreseeing the danger of losing the Tibetan identity, and also the rare and precious treasure in this world—the Buddhist teachings—that can bring benefit and happiness to humanity, many Tibetan masters, scholars and lineage holders of the four major traditions, along with the Bön school, headed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have till now successfully established over 174 monasteries and 24 nunneries in different parts of India, Nepal and Bhutan despite great challenges.  At present there are more than 40000 monks and 4000 nuns who are engaged in studying and practicing the teachings of Lord Buddha, both sutra and tantra, and as such preserving, upholding and disseminating the rich tradition that originated in the prestigious Indian monastic universities of Nalanda, Vikramashila and others.  


Apart from the great leader and Nobel Laureate, HH the Dalai Lama, other great masters who strove to preserve Tibet’s unique Buddhist culture in exile include Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Jadrel Rinpoche, Dodrupchen Rinpoche, Penor Rinpoche, TsetrulRinpoche and others from the Nyingma School; Sakya TrizinRinpoche, Sakya Dagchen Rinpoche, Ngor Luding Khen Rinpoche, Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk and others from the Sakya School; the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, the previous KaluRinpoche, Drukpa Thugse Rinpoche, Khamtrul Rinpoche, DrikungChetsang Rinpoche and others from the Kagyü School; Gaden Tri Rinpoche, the then Abbots of Sera, Drepung, Gaden monasteries and many others from the Gelug School; and finally Minri Trizin Rinpoche from the Bön school.


From establishing monasteries and nunneries with temples and dormitories, to gathering and enrolling monks and nuns; providing the basic necessities of accommodation, food, clothing and so forth; to training the monastics with the basic spiritual education of reading, writing, Buddhist rites and rituals, higher philosophical studies and retreat practices, the Tibetan Buddhist masters and scholars in exile have been greatly successful in reviving the rich and vibrant Tibetan Buddhist religious and cultural traditions in the Tibetan diaspora ranging through India, Nepal and Bhutan.  


Of the first generation of Tibetans who escaped as refugees to the Indian subcontinent, those who were religious practitioners managed to nurture the second generation of practitioners by transmitting their priceless wisdom. Thus they ensured that the culture of wisdom and compassion that comes from Lord Buddha, the subsequent Nalandapanditas of India, and the great masters of pre-1959 Tibet, was not lost but preserved, upheld and disseminated for the benefit of all sentient beings.


There were many factors that led to this success.  First and foremost was the indomitable spirit, enormous potential for resilience andpatience, enlightened courage and determination, wisdom and compassion, and vision and farsightedness of the great masters in the face of tremendous external and internal difficulties.  The large-heartedness, kindness and support India and her people displayed in these troubled times, by providing the Tibetan people outer and inner space, is no doubt a major factor in this accomplishment.  Some of the significant and noteworthy achievements by the Tibetan masters in the face of adversities in exile are as follows:

  1. With the continuous effort of the Tibetan masters, over 800Tibetan Buddhist centers have been established around the world
  2. Being free from dogma and blind faith, and having the freedom to question and placing an emphasis on reason over belief and faith, Buddhism has appealed to the modern mindset influenced by science and scientific inquiry, and as a result there has been a significant increase of interest in Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular, leading to Buddhism being the fastest growing religion on earth in the present time
  3. They uninterruptedly preserved and continued one of the only precious Gurukul traditions that is alive in the world, in which there is the sacred Guru-shishya(teacher-disciple) bond and relationship 
  4. HH the Dalai Lama’s worldwide efforts to resolve the Tibetan issue through the main principles of peace and non-violence, mutual respect and understanding, dialogue and trust won him the Nobel Peace Prize and many other prestigious awards.  He has risen from the leader of the six million Tibetans under Chinese occupation and the Tibetan refugees outside Tibet to a global icon of peace.  As a result of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s more than thirty years of effort, a dialogue between Buddhist science and modern science is generatinggroundbreaking discoveries about the importance of contemplative meditation practice for mental and physical health.
  5. Fulfilling the urgent need for the legacy of Nalanda to be revived in India and other parts of the world
  6. Offering a lesson to the world on how to transform hatred into love by embracing the enemy in the spirit of forgiveness, kindness and compassion
  7. The monastic institutions they have built are the seats for preparing warriors of non-violence, love and compassion, who,rather than overcoming external enemies with the use of force and violence, vanquish the internal enemies of negative emotions, the roots of all conflicts, battles and warfare, through a combination of study and practice.
  8. Taking advantage of being exposed to other major world religions, HH the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan masters have made great efforts to establish inter-religious harmony by holding seminars, ceremonies, prayers and dialogues with other faiths.  These have resulted in the generation of genuine respect within different religious traditions and contributed greatly to the resolution of conflict caused by religious intolerance.
  9. Their monasteries and nunneries are not only seats of spiritual learning but also they are the holders of the sophisticated literary culture of the Tibetan language



Achievement in terms of individual spiritual progress in the face of adversities



Sweet are the uses of adversity. — Shakespeare—




The following are a few selected accounts of Tibetan Buddhist masters who were able to take suffering onto the path by turning adversities into spiritual opportunities to enhance their realization and achieve liberation and enlightenment.


Khenpo Munsel, one of the main disciples of Khenpo Ngakchung(Nyingthig lineage holder), practiced Dzogchen teachings when he was put in prison by the Chinese army.   This was during the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. Khenpo Munsel was a frail person and appeared to be weak, hence the Chinese thought that he was diseased and didn’t bother to put him into the prison labor group.  Khenpo would sit out in the open and gaze at the sunrays (a part of Dzogchen Thögal practice)for a long time.  As a result, it is known that he achieved high realization and even had many great disciples like Lama GarchenRinpoche and Gar Migyur Rinpoche, both from Drikung Kagyütradition, and Gyalse Achen Rinpoche and Drubchog Adeu Rinpoche,both from the Drukpa Kagyü lineage, to whom he taught while in the prison.


Kharleb Tulku from Muksang Monastery, Eastern Tibet, spent many years in prison and nurtured many of his students like Tulku WangyalDorje, Tulku Ngedon, and Troru Tsenam by transmitting secret instructions, reading transmission and empowerments in addition to common traditional sciences including astrology, medicine, poetry and grammar.  All of them became renowned scholars and masters upholding rare and precious lineages.


Khenchen Achö Rinpoche achieved rainbow body at Ase LumoMonastery at Nyakrong, Kham, region of Tibet on the 7th day of the 7thmonth of the Earth Tiger Tibetan Year (1999). He studied Buddhist philosophy and practice at Sera Monastery in Kham. He received Dzogchen teachings from Dudjom Rinpoche Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje at the age of 26 and later served as the Khenpo (Abbot) of Ase LumoMonastery.  During the Cultural Revolution, he suffered very much due to the atrocities of the Chinese army.  After the revolution was over and when the prohibitions against practicing religion wererelaxed a little bit, he practiced hard and achieved enormous spiritual feats with many miraculous powers.  He could walk through walls and finally he achieved rainbow body.  After he passed away, his body started to shrink, becoming smaller and smaller day by day, and on the morning of the eighth day his body entirely vanished without leaving even his hairs and nails.


Khenpo Tsultrim Lodroe from Serta Monastery heard of this incident in the Earth Rabbit Year (21st May, 2000) and set out to this monastery in order to search out how far there was truth to this claim.  He inquired of the nephew Tsultrim Gyatso, and the attendants of Khenchen Acho, and found out the details of the miraculous event and felt assured that there was no exaggeration to this claim and that it was true.



Tonglen practice by Gelugpa masters and others in prison


Many of the Gelugpa masters practiced tonglen when they were imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese after 1959, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Tonglen literally means to give and take—to mentally give one’s happiness and joy to those who create harm, and to take their suffering upon oneself.  This is a distinct Mahayana practice found in the teachings of Lord Buddha and later stressed by Indian Mahayana Buddhist masters like Shantideva.

Fear of losing compassion for the Chinese who tortured him


Many years back, a Tibetan practitioner from Amdo province who greatly suffered in a Chinese prison in Tibet managed to come to India to see HH the Dalai Lama and receive his blessings. The Dalai Lama asked this person about his prison experience and questioned him as to what was the greatest challenge that he faced while in prison.  The practitioner replied that whenever the Chinese police tortured him physically, his greatest fear was that he might lose his compassion for the torturer.  The Dalai Lama was amazed at the reply and appreciated this example of the height of Mahayana practice in the midst of great suffering.


Khenpo Tsewang Rigzin from Tibet who flew to Khecharawithout leaving his body remains


Khenpo Tsewang Rigzin, a great scholar and Dzogchen master, was from a place called Mekok in the Kham province in eastern Tibet.  In 1958, the Chinese army caught him on a mountain where he was practicing and he was put in prison where he was beaten and tortured many times.  On the 10th day of the eighth Tibetan month, the Chinese authorities gathered over a thousand Tibetans near Deugen Monastery in order to conduct a thabzing. Chinese soldiers Liu Ti Hran, Nyingkar Bum, Tsering Bum and others brought Khenpo Tsewang Rigzin out from the prison of Dzongkhar tightly bound on a female yak to perform thabzing on him. When they reached halfway to the Deugen monastery where they were in the middle of the mountain pass, Khenpo started to recite the Vajra Guru mantra and after crossing the pass and arriving on the plain at the foothill, suddenly a huge storm occurred.  The place where this event happened was called Sado Donglam.  The Chinese soldiers and others had to cover their heads with their clothes to protect themselves. Once the storm subsided, they found out that the Khenpo was not on the yak and when they looked up, they saw that the Khenpo was rising higher and higher up in the sky with rainbows amidst the clouds, before he completely vanished.  This phenomenon according to Buddhist scriptures is called migrating to Khechara pure realm without abandoning the body.  They could still hear the tune of Vajra Guru mantra at that time.  The soldiers were totally astonished and shocked at the incident. They didn’t know what to do.  Khenpo had left his clothes including his upper garment. The soldiers quickly buried themin the earth and informed the people that Khenpo had died on the way.The thabzing was performed on a piece of paper with his image drawnon it.


Khenpo Tsultrim Lodroe from Serta Monastery heard of this story after forty-four years and went in search of the people who might have witnessed it with their own eyes or heard of it through authentic and reliable sources. Khenpo purposely went to the place where the incident happened and in his investigation, he came across people who actually witnessed it and those who had heard about it through trustworthy sources.  The details of his investigation can be found in the first volume of Khenpo’s collected works.


Another example concerns Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (1933-2004), whowas the most influential teacher of the Nyingma Tradition in contemporary Tibet.  Being a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master and renowned teacher of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, he established the Serthar Buddhist Institute in 1980, known locally as Larung Gar, a non-sectarian study center which now houses approximately 10,000 monks, nuns and lay students.  He played an important role in revitalizing the teaching of Tibetan Buddhism following the liberalization of religious practice in 1980.


Between 1960 and 1980, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok evaded the People’s Liberation Army, the Red Guard and Chinese authorities by wandering as a goad herder and nomad in the remote valleys of Serthar in eastern Tibet.  During these years, he continued to practice meditation, write commentaries on Buddhist philosophical texts, as well as informally transmit teachings to students.  In Kham, stories abound today of Khenpo’s miraculous abilities to evade capture during this period. 


The approach to hatred caused by suffering inflicted upon oneself by others

in the Buddhist texts that Tibetan masters study and practice 




Love can conquer hatred.

Good can conquer evil.

Generosity can conquer miserliness.

Truth can conquer untruth.

​​The Buddha


The one who has conquered hatred will sleep in peace.

The one who has conquered hatred will not suffer.

​​The Buddha


There is no evil like hatred,

And no fortitude like patience.

Thus I should strive in various ways

To meditate on patience.

​​Shantideva, Bodhicharyavatara—




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