The Tibetan Uprising and the Flight of the Dalai Lama
“Take this sword and go southwest, I will take responsibility for everyone’s safety.”
- DLS: Shakya, Tsering (1999). The Dragon in the Land of Snows. Penguin Compass: New York
- MTR: Trijang Rinpoche (2000). Memoirs of H.H. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. Library of Gaden Shartse Monastic College: Mundgod.
The Tibetan uprising in 1959 is beyond dispute the most important event in modern Tibetan history. It is equally important to understand the shifting dynamic forces that hung in a delicate balance leading up to this. By this time, the Chinese had been implementing reforms in Tibet and the Tibetan government was having difficulty functioning within this new system. These reforms led to a revolt in Kham, and anti-Chinese sentiment was growing to an all-time high. The catalyst for disaster at this time was the dance arranged by the Chinese following the Monlam Chenmo of 1959 when the Dalai Lama took his Geshe examination.
In general, many Tibetans were worried that the Dalai Lama would be taken to China after his Geshe examinations were over, as he would no longer have an excuse to stay in Lhasa. Before the examinations, the Chinese General Tan Guansan met with the Dalai Lama on February 7th, 1959. Tan suggested that a dance performance could be held at the Norbulingka, but the Dalai Lama suggested it would be better held at the auditorium at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army headquarters. On March 7th, 1959 the date for the show was set for three days later. Many officials in the Tibetan government were not aware of this until the day before the performance. Based on many factors, including a prophecy by the Nechung oracle that the Dalai Lama should not venture outside and a request from the Chinese for the Dalai Lama to attend without his body guards, many Tibetan officials—including Barshi—began to fear that the Dalai Lama would be abducted at this dance. In order to prevent the Dalai Lama from attending the dance, Barshi invited monks from Drepung and Sera Monasteries to pay their respects and spread the rumor that the Dalai Lama would be abducted in order to mobilize the people of Lhasa. By the next day, thousands of people showed up at the Norbulingka demanding to see the Dalai Lama (DLS, 186-192).
According to Tsering Shakya, it seems very unlikely that the Chinese had any plan to abduct the Dalai Lama, and the cause of the revolt was “a trivial issue of courtly etiquette which could have been easily averted.” (DLS, 193). The Dalai Lama was forced to cancel his attendance to the performance, and the Chinese were made aware of the growing protest. The Tibetan mob even attacked and killed several Tibetan officials, and chaos spread all over the city. The Chinese blamed the Kashag for starting the uprising, but the Kashag had no power to sway the masses. They concluded that they could not hold the Norbulingka but had to go to somewhere else. They authorized Phala, the Dalai Lama’s lord chamberlain, to arrange for this. He contacted two Tibetan CIA operatives (who would play an important part later on) and the Indian government in preparation of potentially seeking asylum in India (DLS, 200). On March 17th, 1959 two mortar shells from the Chinese landed near the Norbulingka, which marked the start of the Chinese campaign to regain control of Lhasa. That day, the Nechung oracle was asked if the Dalai Lama and his retinue should leave and he consented. That night, they left the Norbulingka and headed out of Lhasa; the Chinese were not aware of the escape for several days (DLS, 200-201).
In that party that escaped was Trijang Rinpoche, Yongdzin of the Dalai Lama, who wrote about the arrangements of this flight in his memoirs as described here. On the eighth of the Tibetan month, on the north side of the Norbulingka the Red Chinese shot and killed two monks and blasted two artillery rounds at the Norbulingka. Due to this situation, the Kashag and monastic officials asked if refuge should be sought in another foreign country. Based on the divination in front of the Talking Lhamo image, Nechung and Gadong Wooden Bird oracles’s command, and the Dalai Lama’s recommendation, Trijang Rinpoche entrusted Rato Chuwar Rinpoche (1915-1992) to secretly go to the Panglung Hermitage near Sera Monastery in Lhasa, where one of the Gyalchen Shugden oracles resided, to receive a prophecy on how to proceed. Dharmapala Shugden said, “it is necessary to go right away without delay, if you travel on the southwestern route I will take responsibility for everyone’s safety. Take this sword and give it to a person named ‘Dorje’s who should brandish it, lead at the front of the Dalai Lama’s caravan and proceed.” He shot an arrow in the direction of Ramagang Monastery, southwest of Lhasa. Based on that prophecy, that evening at nine o'clock the first party, consisting of the Dalai Lama’s mother and family, left. Next the Dalai Lama and his retinue departed. Finally, a party of Yongdzin Ling and Trijang Rinpoche, Kalon Surkhang, Wangchen Geleg, Neshar Thubten Tharpa, Shankhapa Gyurme Topgye and other assistants left. They all dispensed their regular clothing and put on ordinary clothes. They went to the southwest ferry port of the Kyichu river in Lhasa that led to Ramagang and crossed the river there (MTR, 253).
Continuing from Ramagang, their escape route was in an area under the control of the Khampa resistance fighters where there was no interference from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (DLS, 204). They arrived in Lhunste Dzong near the Indian border where they met with the two CIA operatives to begin planning the next steps (DLS, 205). On March 28th, 1959 the Chinese announced they had regained control of Lhasa, the 17-Point Agreement was annulled and the Panchen Rinpoche would assume responsibility for the Tibetan leadership. Members of the escape party were named for severe punishment if captured. Upon information that Chinese troops were heading for their position, the Dalai Lama’s party crossed into India on March 30th, 1959 (DLS, 207). The number of casualties in the Tibetan uprising is disputed however it is most likely in the thousands.
Of course, this disaster meant ongoing suffering for many Tibetans; it also spelled the end of an era of Buddhism in Tibet. The silver lining is that this brought Indo-Tibetan Buddhism to the outside world, including the teachings of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. The resulting flight may symbolically reflect a new phase in Buddhism unfolding into a new era. Perhaps it is more than coincidence Dorje Shugden has been called as the End Times Protector, given his role is ushering out the Dalai Lama and his two masters. Many sympathizers of the Dalai Lama’s current opposition to this deity claim that there are many protectors that can be propitiated in the absence of Dorje Shugden. However, where were all of those other protectors on that fateful day to give concrete plans and assurance?