Buddhist Monk Urges Awareness, Understanding Amid Political Tension in Tibet

Nov 1, 2012

Lama Sonam (R) and Khenpo Choephel work on a sand mandala.
Lama Sonam (R) and Khenpo Choephel work on a sand mandala.
Credit April Ashland

The sand mandala, a traditional Buddhist art form, is not a craft for the undedicated. Using unique metal tools to dispense sand over a flat surface, hours of focus and, oftentimes, physical discomfort are required. And when it's all said and done, the entire thing is dismantled, and all that's left is the memory.

Memories are all that the Venerable Lama Konchok Sonam has of his homeland, Tibet. Due to political strife and religions persecution under Chinese rule, Lama Sonam tried to escape Tibet in 1990. He was caught and returned to Chinese authorities, whereupon he was imprisoned and tortured.

Among other things, his back has given him great discomfort from the beatings he would receive in prison—two decades ago.

"My back always hurts because, you know, they would beat me. When the weather's good, like heat, it makes me look like I'm very healthy. And then with raining and the cold season, my back hurts."

Just one year later, Lama Sonam ran again—and this time, he made it. He says a desire to preserve his people's culture drove him to try again.

"My teacher, my parents, my friends—they said, 'Sonam, now you're good enough. First time, you got beat, a lot of challenges, dangerous situations with your life, and now you stay here.' My country's beautiful, like Utah: mountains, nature, no pollution. But unfortunately, no choice. No excuse. We must go somewhere to protect our culture, language, identity. And if I stayed in my hometown, I am not alive right now. The Chinese kill [me], or arrest [me] alive in jail."

My country's beautiful, like Utah: mountains, nature, no pollution. But unfortunately, no choice. No excuse. We must go somewhere to protect our culture, language, identity. And if I stayed in my hometown, I am not alive right now. The Chinese kill [me], or arrest [me] alive in jail.

Lama Sonam, who speaks in confident but broken English, says Tibet is in a dire situation, but it hasn't received the media attention it deserves.

"Right now the situation in Tibet is very terrible. Some countries like Syria, there are a lot of news reporters sent every second, every minute to the situation what's going on. Unfortunately, in Tibet, they don't have the freedom of speech, the freedom of human rights, all those. It's completely isolating."

Over fifty Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule, but Lama Sonam says this is because Tibetans are a peaceful people with no intention of starting a violent revolution.

"How long [can] the Chinese control [Tibet]? Forever? I don't think so. But [we] need to show what a struggle in Tibet. These people are taking their own lives, but nothing damages Chinese people or government buildings. But Tibetan Buddhism is, of course, non-violent. We're not touching any single Chinese people. This is not our goal. We're fighting for freedom in Tibet from Chinese government, not Chinese people."

Lama Sonam doesn't think the Chinese can rule Tibet forever, but he wants to make it clear that he and the people of Tibet have nothing against the people of China. That's something he'd like Chinese students in America to know in particular.

"So sometimes the Chinese students misunderstand. For myself, I have a lot of Chinese friends. I love Chinese food, too. This is a true story!"

When asked what he misses most about Tibet after over twenty years of exile, he doesn't mention the culture, language, or religion he takes with him. Instead, Lama Sonam misses the people he left behind, like his brother.

"I miss at first, for example, my brother. He was four years in jail. In 2010, he passed. We talked every morning five minutes, four minutes. Last minute he's a brother: 'Now I think this is my final voice for you.' So why [did] he pass? He's young, 37 years old. Two kids left behind. The Chinese beat and beat and beat, then his organs were damaged. Then he had cancer to die. I miss him. You cannot see [him] again. A lot like my father, who passed away. I had no chance. This is, for me, my own experience. It's not only me. Six million Tibetan people, one of their relatives  [is separated]. Some parents have no chance to go to their children. Whatever we want [we] cannot say. This we need to change."

As Lama Sonam's mandala is meant to remind us, our time with others is fleeting, so it's best to treat others with compassion. But we're also reminded that Tibet, as a place, a people, and a tradition, is worthy of the same compassion, for it too could one day be gone.

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