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Escape from Tibet: Fifty Years Ago

Fifty years ago, many of the greatest teachers in Tibet made their escape from Tibet to India. As a result of the chaos and violent disruption of their culture, it became clear that the protection of the dharma would only be possible if they carried the teachings to a new home. Years later, Chögyam Trungpa reflected on this:

We can find . . .  wisdom even in the midst of the worst of the worst situations. The politics and the policies in South Africa were terribly problematic for many years. However, South Africa still produced the Krugerand, such a good gold coin. In any situation, there is always some dignity, some goldlike element. Tibet is a lost country, at this point. The Chinese occupied my country, and they are torturing my people. It is quite horrific, every bit as bad as South Africa. We Tibetans were unable to avoid that situation. Nonetheless, the Tibetan wisdom has escaped. It has been brought out of Tibet. It has something to say, something to offer. It gives us dignity as Tibetans. (Great Eastern Sun, page 35)

Chögyam Trungpa was among those who made a daring escape from Tibet in 1959. His was a particularly long and dramatic escape, which lasted more than ten months. He writes about his early life in Tibet and about the long dangerous journey to India in his autobiography, Born in Tibet.

Trungpa Rinpoche left from a neighboring monastery, with a price on his head. He was not able to return to his home monastery, Surmang Dudtsi-tel, because of the danger, so he never said his good-byes directly to his family or to the monastic community. He tried to keep the party small, but it grew to several hundred, as people joined him on the road. Because he travelled from Eastern Tibet and because he and his party wanted to avoid the roads built by the Chinese and the areas controlled by them, he took a circuitous route through remote areas and over many high mountain ranges. He led his party using both common sense and a form of mirror divination, which miraculously were successful in guiding his party to India.

About six weeks before the end of the journey, the group had to cross the Brahmaputra River, and the Chinese were alerted to their crossing. Many were captured trying to cross. Only about fifty of them made it across.

As Western practitioners of the dharma, we have benefited from the success of these journeys. The story is still a gripping one. A website dedicated to chronicling the life and teachings of Chögyam Trungpa, appropriately called The Chronicles of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is posting excerpts from Born in Tibet, including diary excerpts written by Rinpoche during the escape.

Also available on the Chronicles is a film about Rinpoche’s escape from Tibet, called Touch and Go. You can access it at here.

Knowing the outcome of the journey, we can feel somewhat relaxed from the vantage point of our armchairs. But imagine what it must have been like at the time! This is one of the greatest escape stories of all time.