Tenzin’s Escape, by Harvey Rice and Jackie Cole

Bön monks flee the invaders of Tibet

In 1960, a year after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Tenzin Namdak, a Tibetan Bön monk, severely wounded by Chinese soldiers, was sent to a concentration camp in Tibet. This is the story of his escape to freedom.

The Editors

The site of the concentration camp drifted as the nomads followed their herds of sheep, yaks and ponies grazing from one area to the next until it was more than a day’s walk from Tenzin’s tent. Tenzin remained in place, making a show of being too weak to move or escape. At night he exercised in his tent to strengthen himself for the escape he secretly planned to make when the opportunity arose.

Sherab Tsultrim was allowed to visit Tenzin and regularly traveled from the camp to bring news, plot, and sip tea. Sherab Tsultrim became friendly with camp commander Tok and some of the Chinese officials who regularly checked on the camp. The Bönpos had been prisoners for about ten months when those good relations proved their worth. Sherab Tsultrim learned that the Chinese were moving all the prisoners to prisons controlled by the Chinese military. He was ordered to fetch Tenzin to the main camp so that he could be taken to one of those prisons. The news was expected but unsettling all the same. In a Chinese prison they would face brutal thamzings, torture, or execution. If they survived they would likely be returned to their home province and assigned a menial job unrelated to religion and calculated to humiliate them.

The news convinced Tenzin to seize an unexpected opportunity to escape. Sherab Tsultrim had befriended a woman in the camp from Kham who had two small children. Like Tenzin’s mother, she was married to two brothers. The brothers had survived a long and difficult escape to Nepal. In Nepal they learned from other refugees where their wife and children were being held by the Chinese. Without hesitation they trekked back through the snowy Himalayas to retrieve their wife and children. Making the journey the first time took courage and grit, but making the equally difficult trip back into Tibet, only to escape again within a matter of days, required a will and fortitude that can only be imagined. The brothers had found their wife and children and were preparing to help them escape when Sherab Tsultrim asked for their help.

The men were honored to be asked to assist a high lama like Tenzin. The encounter was fortunate for Tenzin and his party, who needed a guide. Chinese soldiers were guarding all the usual passes, and many fleeing Tibetans were dying in the unforgiving cold of the Himalayas as they tried to find new routes through the mountains. Although walking was still difficult for Tenzin after ten months of recovery, his leg was healed enough to travel.

As he finalized his escape plans, Tenzin’s concern turned to the sacred Nyame Kundung reliquary. A dream had convinced him that it could not leave the country, but must be kept safe from Chinese troops or looters. He decided to conceal it in a cave the abbot had discovered while hiding in the mountains. The cave had a small entrance on the south face of a mountain that opened into a large chamber. Although Tenzin had never visited the cave, after discussing the potential hiding place he realized it was one he had seen repeatedly in his dreams. Tenzin became convinced that the Bön deities were telling him that this was the place to hide the reliquary.

Tenzin asked Dhachoe to place the Nyame Kundung, three gilded copper statues, a set of gold ceremonial musical instruments, three large gold butterlamps, rare pieces of agate and coral, and other sacred objects in this well-disguised cave chamber. Only one other person was entrusted with knowledge of the secret location: Tsewang, a Menri monk. Tenzin drew a map showing the location of the reliquary and hid the scrap of paper in his clothing. He would hold on to this map for twenty-five years, until the Nyame Kundung was returned to its original home at Menri Monastery.

The drift of the main camp away from where Tenzin rested in Dhachoe’s camp complicated the escape plan. By this time the main internment camp was several days’ journey away. Although Sherab Tsultrim was permitted to travel freely between the camp and Tenzin’s tent, the Chinese were suspicious of high lamas like Tenzin. Camp officials restricted him to his tent. Moreover, many of the local nomads were informers and were certain to report any suspicious movements. Worried that any movement by Tenzin would be reported, Sherab Tsultrim decided to get a travel authorization letter they could show to locals. Using his friendly relationship with camp commander Tok, he persuaded officials that no soldiers were needed to escort the lama when it was time to move him to the main camp in preparation for a final move to a Chinese prison. Sherab Tsultrim assured camp officials that he would make sure Tenzin arrived at the main camp. All he needed was a letter showing that the movement was authorized. Tok duly issued a letter allowing Tenzin to travel with four monks to the main camp without an escort. Letter in hand, Sherab Tsultrim slipped away from the main camp at night with the brothers, their wife, and children. Evading the guards at night was relatively easy, and they headed for Tenzin’s tent.

At Dhachoe’s campsite, Sherab Tsultrim introduced Tenzin to the brothers and their family. Dhachoe donated seven yaks and helped load them with tsampa and other provisions as well as a number of sacred texts Tenzin had kept with him. Tenzin thanked and blessed Dhachoe for his hospitality and devotion. The nomad and the lama had formed a strong bond. As Tenzin prepared to face the dangers of escape, Dhachoe prepared to face the Chinese interrogation he knew would be coming. Each prayed for the other’s safety. The escape party set out, traveling fast to put as much distance as possible between them and the pursuers they knew would come.

As daylight broke, they found themselves near a frozen lake. At first there seemed to be no place to hide from Chinese patrols during the day on the treeless plain, but as they approached the shore of the lake they saw huge slabs of ice piled high on the shore by the fierce winds that arise on the Changthang. The tumbled slabs were so large they formed cavelike spaces where they could hide. They knew it was dangerous because ice can shift, causing a massive ice slab to come crashing down. There was nowhere else to hide. They unloaded the animals and turned them out to graze. Yaks were ubiquitous on the Changthang and would raise no suspicion. They spent the day under the ice slabs without mishap and set out again at dusk.

Tenzin and his party continued to travel only at night, hiding among rocks on mountainsides, ravines, or in caves just before dawn, unloading their yaks and releasing them to graze during the day. From their daytime hiding places they sometimes watched Chinese patrols pass.

They ate once a day to conserve their food, washing down cold tsampa with a mouthful of water. Most days they refrained from building a fire for fear the smoke would betray their position. On rare occasions they found a cave or a sheltered spot that masked flames and smoke, enabling them to brew tea to mix with their tsampa. To light the fire they used a gunpowder-like mixture that they could spark with two pieces of flint.

Tenzin and his party avoided everyone, even Tibetans, fearing they would be reported to the Chinese. Many Tibetans, especially the poorest, had been won over by Chinese propaganda. Others might try to curry favor with their new masters. When Tenzin and his party occasionally blundered into a shepherd, they passed themselves off as pilgrims.

Avoiding capture wasn’t their only worry. Two major geological obstacles lay ahead. One was the Yarlung Tsangpo, the river that lay between the Changthang Plateau and the Himalayas. The highest major river in the world, known as the Everest of rivers, the Yarlung Tsangpo has an average elevation of 13,000 feet. Eighteen thousand miles long, the river originates from the Angsi Glacier southwest of Mount Kailash. As it leaves the Changthang, it carves a gorge through the Himalayas so large it’s known as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon. The river winds all the way to India, where it becomes the Yarlung Tsangpo, then into Bangladesh, until finally spilling into the Bay of Bengal. The monks were uncertain about how they would cross the mighty river, which often flowed even in the heart of winter. They “worried days, days, days,” Tenzin said many years later. “How could we manage something to cross the river?”

South of the Yarlung Tsangpo lay the even deadlier Himalayas, standing like a wall between them and freedom in Nepal. They would climb into Earth’s highest mountain range, with more than a hundred peaks exceeding 23,650 feet. They would enter a landscape of avalanches, violent weather, subzero temperatures, and precarious paths along dizzying drop-offs. Facing this daunting mountain range was the only way out for fleeing Tibetans like Tenzin.

About ten days into their escape, they began their descent from the Changthang Plateau into the river valley. They thought they must be getting close to the river when they came to what appeared to be a frozen lake. They made their way carefully across the frozen surface, fearful of plunging through a thin spot in the ice. After crossing the lake they looked back, enchanted by the sight of stars reflected from the surface of the black ice. They walked on, expecting to find the river, but instead began climbing. Eventually it dawned on them that the frozen lake was actually the Yarlung Tsangpo!

“Oh my goodness . . . unbelievable,” Tenzin said. “That is really special. Just the right place where we come, and there is ice!” Tenzin chanted a prayer to the divine protectors he was sure had interceded to ease their way.

As they climbed into the Himalayas, they were forced to clamber over rocks that the yaks could not negotiate. The animals were set free, and each member of the group shouldered a portion of what remained of the tsampa and the sacred texts, their guides carrying their children on their backs along with their food.

The journey was difficult for everyone, especially Tenzin. Despite his months of recovery he was able to walk only with the aid of a walking stick, and each step brought a jab of pain from his injured leg. To cope, he visualized his pain as something separate. He was able to observe it as if it were displayed in a glass case, white hot and pulsating. Even with his mental ability to isolate the pain, every day was a test of will. Like everyone in the group, he was hungry, tired, and cold. As they climbed higher, the cold intensified, seeping beneath their thick woolen chubas. Snow dampened their clothing, increasing their misery. Several members of the party suffered frostbite. Frozen ears, fingers, and toes were quickly lopped off with a knife to prevent gangrene. Each morning they rose to another day of suffering.

As they climbed higher into the snow country they rested inside snow caves burrowed into immense, white drifts. They labored along the precarious edges of cliffs that fell thousands of feet into a seemingly bottomless void. The frozen ground made their footing treacherous. A slip could mean a plunge into oblivion.

As Tenzin took each painful step toward Nepal, he reminded himself that monks who had fallen into Chinese hands were suffering much worse than he was.

They finally topped the highest point in their journey, a crest unremarkable in the seemingly endless string of mountains. The downward climb was no easier. One day the party stopped for a short rest, and Tenzin lay down his walking stick. Distracted by conversation, he unintentionally left it on a rock when they moved on. Climbing over boulders was easier without the stick and he didn’t miss it until he reached a place where he could walk upright. Tenzin looked back and could see it. One of the monks offered to go back for it but Tenzin refused.

“No, it is finished now.” They were so far above the tree line that there was no chance of finding a replacement stick. One of the younger monks put Tenzin’s arm over his shoulder and they moved on together.

They ran out of food just as they reached a village after crossing into Nepal in early 1961. The journey had taken twenty-two days.

Even their hunger and pain could not dim the joy they felt at finally reaching freedom. Now they could travel during the day without fear and could greet strangers without mistrust. Tenzin looked back across the border into Tibet. The realization of all that was lost—many of his friends, his country, and his religion—swept over him. He was filled with an immense sadness.

The two brothers who had guided Tenzin through the Himalayas returned to their extended family in Nepal, and Tenzin and his fellow monks made their way to Pokhara, one of Nepal’s larger cities, where they were reunited with their abbot, Sherab Lodro.

Tenzin was comforted to be in a Bön monastery again, surrounded by sacred paintings and familiar images and texts, each oblong bundle of text tucked away in its own square shelf. That night, Tenzin took one of the texts from its silk wrapping and carefully placed it on a small table. He was overcome with emotion as he read the sacred writings for the first time since they began their journey from Sezhig nearly a year earlier.

Safe in the monastery, he had time to reflect on the destruction that had befallen his religion. Tenzin had paid a terrible price to save what he could of the Bon texts and sacred objects, but Bon monasteries were sacked, monks imprisoned, and Bonpo refugees scattered throughout India, Nepal, and Bhutan. As one of the leaders of his religion he felt a tremendous responsibility for Bon and Bonpos. He had to do something, but he was unsure of his next move. The outlines would begin to emerge after he made his way to Kathmandu, where he would encounter Samten Karmay, Sangye Tenzin, and an Englishman bearing an unusual offer. ◆

From Flight of the Bön Monks by Harvey Rice & Jackie Cole, published by Inner Traditions International and Destiny Books, © 2024. All rights reserved. http://www.Innertraditions.com. Reprinted with permission of publisher.

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2024 issue of Parabola, FREEDOM. You can find the full issue on our online store.