Palden Gyatso’s life as a modest Buddhist monk changed forever when he was wrongfully sent to prison by Chinese military personnel at the age of 28. China, who invaded Tibet in 1950, kept Gyatso imprisoned and tortured him for a total of 33 years because he was unwilling to conform to Chinese ideology. Since being released, Palden Gyatso has amazingly offered compassion towards his oppressors while working for the rights of the greater Tibetan community. Now 83-years-old, the celebrated Buddhist monk as written two books and taught the world about the importance of loving-kindness and resilience.
Palden Gyatso Profile:
Name: Palden Gyatso
Birth: January 1st, 1933 (83-years-old)
Spiritual Role: Tibetan Buddhist Monk & Human Rights Activist
Focuses On: Compassion, Peace, & Justice
Palden Gyatso Overview:
In 1933, Palden Gyatso was born in the small Tibetan framing village of Penam. As he was being born, it is said that his grandmother distinctively noticed a number of unusual signs that made her belief he was a Tulku, or a reincarnation of a highly respected Tibetan Buddhist monk. While Gyatso would never formally be anointed as an important spiritual lama, he has still taken on a tremendously important role for the Tibetan people. It was only one month after Gyatso’s birth that his mother unexpectedly passed away. Soon there after, the young child’s aunt and uncle, who were living with their two sons in the nearby village of Gyatso Shar, compassionately adopted him as their own. Palden enjoyed a normal childhood and spent his time playing with other children in the village until he was 10-years-old. This changed, however, after he was sent to the Gadong monastery to become a novice Buddhist monk. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is not uncommon for families with multiple children to push their youngest child towards monastic life.
It was in 1952, just two years after China invaded Tibet, when Palden enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity to continue his studies under the Indian Buddhist monk Gyen Rigzin Tenpa. For the next seven years, Gyatso purposefully studied the Buddhist religion at the renowned Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In 1959, almost a decade after Chinese military forces moved into Tibet, citizens in Lhasa staged a revolution that is now referred to as the Tibetan Uprising. By using brute force, violence, and strict governance, however, the Chinese military quickly put an end to any of the Tibetan’s revolutionary dreams. It was during this chaotic time that Chinese military commanders came to the Drepung Monastery and accused Rigzin Tenpa of espionage. After taking Rigzin Tenpa away, Chinese officials quickly arrested Gyatso in hopes of having him verify their accusations. Gyatso, however, knew this to be untrue and refused to condemn his teacher. During interrogations, Chinese personnel also asked the 28-year-old monk if he had participated in protests. Being honest, Gyatso told them that he had peacefully demonstrated at the Dalai Lama’s palace, which resulted in a seven year prison sentence.
Over the next 33 years, Palden Gyatso would spend the vast majority of his time in Chinese prisons, labor camps, and detention centers. In hopes of having their military actions go unnoticed, the Chinese worked toward ‘re-educating’ Tibetans about governance and leadership in Tibet. It is widely reported that torture and starvation methods were used during this process, and Gyatso, who wouldn’t alter his beliefs about the Chinese invasion, can testify to this truth first hand.
In one particular instance, he was faced with a especially tough security guard who was displeased with his nonconformist track record. Taking the standard protocol of physical abuse to a new level, the security guard placed a electrical cow prod in his mouth and sent teeth-shattering electronic shocks into his mouth. After waking up in a pool of blood, Gyatso’s teeth would fall out over the coming weeks.
In 1992, at the age of 61, Palden Gyatso was finally released from the Chinese correctional system. Because he was unwilling to budge on his stance that Tibet should be an independent country, he was forced to spend 23 years in prisons and another 10 years in labor camps and detention centers. In order to completely free himself from Chinese governance, Gyatso had to hire a private guide who led him on a 20-day journey to Dharmsala, India, which has become a safe haven for exiled Tibetans. Amazingly enough, Gyatso has remained compassionate towards many of his oppressors.
Today, Palden Gyatso, now 83, still calls Dharmsala home and has made it his life’s purpose to work towards freeing Tibet from unethical Chinese oppression. He has written two books: ‘Fire Under the Snow: True Story of a Tibetan Monk,’ and ‘The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk.’ A naward-winning documentary, also called Fire Under the Snow, was made to tell his story. Gyatso also made international headlines by going on a 13-day hunger strike to oppose the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He regularly travels to various countries and speaks about the Tibet-China conflict. It is estimated that over 1 million Tibetans have died through the actions of the Chinese military.
3 Messages to Take from his Teachings:
- Compassion and forgiveness can set you free: There are many Buddhist teachings that focus on the importance of compassionate living. The Buddha talked about how important it was to be compassionate towards others because they are suffering just as we are. Similarly, having the ability to forgive others is important for anyone that wants to find true and lasting happiness. Palden Gyatso has exhibited incredible levels of compassion and forgiveness even though he was treated so inhumanely. When discussing the guards who inflicted so much pain onto him, he said “These people are caught in a system that encourages such actions. They exist because the system urges them to be that way.” While the circumstances that he was put in would kill many of us, or at least leave us with unwavering resentment, Gyatso has become known for his calm demeanor and and warm smile. If you are dealing with letting go of resentment or forgiving another, remember that only through acceptance and forgiveness will you find freedom. Nelson Mandela thoughtfully told us, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” and Palden Gyatso has shown how compassion and forgiveness can set you free.
- You can handle much more then you think: In the western world, there is a serious societal issue with how much people like to complain. Every single day we hear people complain about the weather, how hard work is, and how unfair life is. Instead of conforming to this mindset, it is important that you understand what you are capable of. Palden Gyatso was unfairly abused for 33 years, but instead of complaining about the cards he was dealt, he has used his circumstances to fuel his long-term goal of helping Tibet gain independence. In the grand scheme of things, your life circumstances cannot be that bad. You unquestionably have the ability to withstand much more then you think. Remember Palden Gyatso’s story before you are about to complain or quit on any task. If he can live through hell for 33 years, we all certainly can get through the day. Taking this truth even a step further, use his story to reminder yourself about how lucky and fortunate you actually are.
- Stand up for what you belief is right: Unless your habitual patterns of action reflect your deepest held beliefs, you will remain unsatisfied with yourself at the deepest level of your being. Palden Gyatso continually refused to change how he felt about China’s governing role in Tibet even though it lead to 33 years of torture. Far too many people in society today live with the conformist mindset and undermine their truer beliefs. When people act in ways that go against their deepest beliefs, they will never be able to fully accept themselves. It is vitally important that you listen to your intuition, get in touch with your deepest desires, and act in ways that reflect them completely. Palden Gyatso is a perfect example of how staying true to yourself will ultimately lead to internal contentment.
- “Because I always prayed from the depths of my heart, my prayers were eventually answered.”
- “How can we gain independence? Because we have truth on our side.”
- “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.”