March 23, 2023

The Venerable Palden Gyatso at the Gyuto Wheel of Dharma Monastery in Minneapolis. (AAP staff photo by Tom LaVenture)


AAP staff writer

MINNEAPOLIS (Feb. 20, 2010) – The Tibetan people through peace, faith and education will prevail as a nation with a homeland even if it is not in Tibet, says one monk who has as much right to talk about the value of human rights as anyone.

“Never in the history of man has the abuse of another human being gotten the abuser benefit,” said the Venerable Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who was released from Chinese prison in 1992, where he had been in a cell or a forced laborer for 33 years – said to be the longest serving monk to be released alive.

“You cannot break the human spirit,” he added.

Upon his release, Gyatso promptly escaped to India to live with the Tibetan Government in Exile at Dharamsal, India. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was said to have encouraged Gyatso to write about his captivity as a way to help the world better understand the experience of Tibetan prisoners of conscience.

The result was “The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk” released in 1998 through Publishers Group West. The book is now a feature documentary “Fire Under The Snow” ( directed by Makoto Sasa and released in 2008. The Tibetan Youth Congress is working on getting a Twin Cities screening.

“Just like that I am the living proof that after 33 years of torture they have not broken me down and I am still to date going out in the world and talking about justice and abuse of human rights in Tibet,” said Gyatso.

When American visitors saw that Palden Gyatso was in visibly failing health, he was invited to stay at the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia, where he would make regular visits to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, with support from the Tibetan community of Minnesota and the Tibetan Youth Congress.

“I have not been feeling well and that is the reason I am here in Minnesota,” said Gyatso.

The Tibetan community of Minnesota is hosting Gyatso throughout March, as an outpatient at the Mayo Clinic and staying part time at the Gyuto Wheel of Dharma Monastery in Minneapolis.

Gyatso said he is happy that Tibetans in exile continue thrive as a culture in free democracies around the world. At the same he said that at the same time Tibetans will continue to feel emptiness until they have their own country and are secure in knowing the people of Tibet are also safe and happy.

He said it is encouraging to see new generations of busy, working Tibetans taking time to remember the people of Tibet at rallies and protests.

“They take time to be there and it gives me a sense of pride that the Tibetan people out of Tibet have retained true to the culture and the identity and have not lost the history or the understanding of what has happened,” he said.

Gyatso compared the Tibetan resilience to that of the Jewish Diaspora, which continued on for centuries around the world, without a home and often not welcomed. They persevered by maintaining the culture, faith and traditions and by educating their youth to succeed in both cultures.

A time came when the Jewish people were able to demand and influence the creation of Israel. He said this may be the only possible solution for Tibetans if there is no positive resolution with China.

Born in 1933, Gyatso entered the monastery at age 10 and was an ordained Buddhist monk at age 18. He continued as a student at Deprung Monastery and following the Chinese invasion in 1950, he was imprisoned with other monks and nuns in 1959.

Asked about how he felt about the guards he encountered over three decades, Gyatso answered carefully through a translator Jigme Ugen, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress of Minnesota. He said he remembers equally the soldiers that were good to him and the others that did bad things to him.

“I have nothing against them,” he said.

Torture was a daily occurrence for both men and the women. He lost all of his teeth from electrocution and endured unimaginable techniques – the tools of which he shows people to demonstrate that peaceful and nonviolent people are still suffering barbaric torture at the hands of guards to this day.

The worst of times were from 1961 to 1963 when he said about 100 monks were more or less ordered starved to death and about 70 percent of them died. He recalls slowly tearing off pieces of a leather shoe and sharing it with others to survive. There was also a young Chinese cook that would hide leftover food in newspapers for him and others.

“That is how I survived,” he said. “Even today I think about that young Chinese soldier, and as much as that I think about the people who electrocuted my mouth and feel sorry for them and try to reason as to why they did that.”

It was in prison where Gyatso said he discovered the true strength of his Buddhist teaching and meditation training to endure and prompted his interest of the human condition.

“My belief in Buddhism, my faith, grew stronger through those years in prison,” he said, noting that the experience taught him that “anger knows no age and anger knows no boundaries.”

“We have to be very careful with the anger,” he said. “For example, a husband and wife may have arguments and the anger grows until the one is hitting the other. That is if you don’t control the anger.

“Nations around the world that don’t control anger go into wars,” he added. “One thing to learn is not to be angry. Anger is a very dangerous thing so always keep in mind to keep it under control and to not let it overtake you.”

The Chinese government claims that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China. From the time of the invasion countless Tibetan monks, nuns and citizens have been sentenced to prison for protesting.

The Chinese government may look friendly but Gyatso said it is a very dangerous and competitive system internally that believes in ruling with the gun. He said nations encourage this behavior because they are more concerned about China as a trade partner and don’t want to disappoint or lose favor.

“Which really saddens me because I see that human rights, and freedom and justice is taking a back seat and the economy, money and trade is taking the forefront,” he said.

Trade is important but he said there is a long standing approach to international human rights and that no country should go to war with China over this but that there are principles to uphold.

Having this personal experience, Gyatso said that his mission remains to teach others one person at a time about the crisis in Tibet. To hear news of executions and extrajudicial killings is a crime of genocidal proportion that is allowed to continue.

He said that to believe Chinese government propaganda is nothing short of stupidity. He said that if Tibetans were happy under Chinese rule then why at every opportunity since 1959 have Tibetans risked their lives and liberties to convince the world that they want independence and His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet?

“In 2008 just recently the Tibetan people were out in the street demanding freedom and independence,” he said. “Now from what sense are the Chinese trying to tell the world that the Tibetans are happy in Tibet?”

Gyatso said he is quick to note that his testimony is not meant to inspire hatred, violence or war against China. His goal is to let people know the truth about what happened and to inspire nations to again value the common bond of human rights and to show that persecution will not bring benefit to the persecutor.

“I forgive them for what they have done. But at the same time I am alive to talk about that,” he said. “…What they did and what they were trying to achieve, they weren’t successful because I am still alive and I am here talking about it,” he said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *