Agu Urgen

A lesson on kindness

Following the brutal Chinese invasion of Tibet, Tibet’s political leader the Dalai Lama was forced to fled his own country in 1959 and go into exile. He has been living in India ever since. Thousands of Tibetans left their homes to follow their beloved leader, crossing borders to enter the sacred birthplace of Buddhism, where they would at least be free to practice their religion.

Mr. UrgenGyalbo is 70 years old. When I was introduced to him in his home in Ladakh, Mr. Urgen was making lunch in his kitchen: Tibetan dumplings, or momos, a staple in almost every Tibetan meal. His face, tanned and worn from the sun, struck me as extremely kind – indeed, a trait that is shared among the majority of the Tibetans I’ve met. His mannerisms were gentle and sincere, confirming my impression.

I took my seat beside him, observing his nimble fingers as they folded the dough around the meat filling elegantly. Swiftly, he pinched the edges of the dough, forming a beautiful crescent with neat, ribboned edges. I hopelessly tried to do the same. He laughed at my ugly dumpling, with a belly-deep laughter that came from some place deep within – the same laughter that the Dalai Lama has been described to have. Padma, his 22 year old daughter, poured me a cup of butter tea from a huge flask. He was her age when he left Tibet.

Mr. Urgen’s family lived peacefully as nomads in Tibet, tending to their livestock in the nomadic region. That was the way life had always been for generations — until the arrival of the Chinese changed everything. Through a translator, the Chinese assured the locals that they were good people there to help them. Yet the elders in Mr. Urgen’s village told the children that these Chinese were in their country “not for good reason”. So began the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet.

“I had 4 uncles and 1 aunt, all of whom were close to me. One of my uncles was good at Tibetan and became the secretary of a village. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese interrogated him. He was arrested and imprisoned, tortured so badly that his whole body was swollen. But one night, he had a dream that the Oracle told him he was not going to die. In the morning, a Chinese lady gave him 2 injections. He then urinated a few times before all the water in his body was gone. He survived.

But the rumour reached to my family that he had died. His brother, my other uncle, could not bear the grief and killed himself by cutting his own throat. He was 40 years old.

My aunt also committed suicide. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese littered Buddhist scripture everywhere. It was unbearable for the Tibetans who witnessed this profane act against their own religion. My aunt said, it’s too much, please don’t do this. In a moment of desperation she said that the Chinese are demons destroying Buddhism, expressing her frustration. Those words were heard by a Chinese officer nearby, who then said that she was a hindrance to economic development who needed to be eliminated. When my aunt heard that, she assumed she was going to be imprisoned. She bought sweets and chocolate for her 2 children, and asked them to stay at home. Then she jumped into the river and drowned.”

All this happened when Mr. Urgen was a teenager, about 15 years old.

Some 40 Chinese army personnel were later stationed in Mr. Urgen’s village – a village that housed about 10 families near the border of India. These army men would patrol the area, staying at the camps of the villagers, hawking over the Tibetans and their way of life. In the evenings, the Tibetans were forcefully indoctrinated with Chinese ideology, an atheistic creed which clearly conflicted with their own religious beliefs.

Consider 4 types of people, said the Chinese. The first goes out to fetch fuel to keep the houses warm. The second is a shepherd in charge of livestock. The third stays home, managing household chores. The last sits in a prayer room, studying scripture. The implication is that everyone is doing an important job, save the last person, whom everyone else is working to feed. Based on this perspective, then, rinpoches and llamas were propagated by the Chinese to be useless exploiters of everyone else’s effort.

To say that all Tibetans are practicing, devout Buddhists would be an overstatement. Yet it is irrefutable that religion has governed and guided the Tibetan way of life for centuries. By attempting (and failing) to strip the Tibetans entirely of this belief system, the backbone of their existence, the Chinese had unwittingly cast themselves as demons. There is no quicker way to lose the respect of the Tibetans than to insist that religion is poison. Religious scripture was burned, sometimes used as fertiliser, other times used as padding for shoes. Religious paintings and images of the Dalai Lama were prohibited. Monks were publicly humiliated and monasteries were demolished.

Stifled by the repression of their own religion, they longed for freedom – a concept now foreign to them despite being in their own country. A window of opportunity opened for Mr. Urgen’s village in 1968, when the Chinese personnel returned to China due to a political dispute back home. Wasting no time, they escaped.

It took Mr. Urgen and his company a week, by foot, to journey from their village to the border of India. A river separated them from India, the country in which their beloved leader was now living in exile. They tried to give 40 sheep to the Indian military personnel as payment to be let in, but the Indian army personnel chased them back to Tibet, beating them with sticks. They were now back to where they started the day before. It was time for a different route. They climbed a mountain and descended into Indian territory, passing a different army post. Thankfully, this time round they were not expelled from the country. When they left Tibet, their livestock of goats, sheep and yak totalled about 1000. Some of these animals that could not complete the journey were abandoned. Others were sold in exchange for food. Others were killed by dogs from the nearby army camp. After a year in India, they had only 40 livestock remaining.

Mr. Urgen’s first few years in India as a refugee was immensely difficult. Yet in this foreign land, he and his close ones relished the freedom to practice Buddhism freely. The conditions were challenging: they lived in camps at a high altitude, where winters were merciless and where food was scarce. Due to heavy snow, some of their tents would collapse. Snow slides and avalanches also resulted in the deaths of many. Summer brought respite; but not without floods from the melting of the snow.

Such were the dire conditions of the refugee camp in Serchu, where Mr. Urgen had lived. From the months of September til May, the heavy snow cut off all accessibility to their camp, leaving them isolated from the rest of the world. There were no food supplies to be re-stocked when their rations were exhausted, no relief or medicine when someone fell sick. Yet, imprisoned in the mountains, Mr. Urgen and his company found refuge in the freedom to practice their religion.

“During those difficult times, we used to pray. We are not scholars in Buddhism, but we did everything whole-heartedly. When some of my friends were killed by an avalanche during winter, we couldn’t find their dead bodies. We usually carry out our prayers and rituals when someone leaves us. But that time we couldn’t. So all the time we lived in constant fear of landslides, afraid that one day it would take more people away from us.

After 3 years living like this, the Dalai Lama visited Nubra. The settlement officer then brought the plight of Serchu to His Holiness. His Holiness travelled to Serchu and saw our situation. He said it was not a place for human beings to live in. Immediately, His Holiness requested the Indian government to shift us to Choglamsar. Within two weeks, we shifted there.”

It was in Choglamsar where Mr. Urgen started building his home. Here he met his wife, and now lives with his family. For about 6 years, Mr. Urgen worked as a labourer, making mud bricks for a living. For every 1000 bricks he made, he got paid 300 Indian Rupees. A young, fast and diligent worker, he took about 5 days to make 1000 bricks. He was not to stay a labourer, however, but moved on to tailoring and carving stones — a niche skill that not many possess, as I have been told. Today, Mr. Urgen continues to pour his life into making Buddhist prayer stones and flags.

My third conversation with Mr. Urgen took place in a small Tibetan restaurant in Choglamsar. He turns his prayer beads whenever the conversation falls into silence, chanting quietly in a foreign tongue. Damdul translates his answers for me and I ferociously write everything down. My notebook is filled with notes from this conversation, most of which is verbatim from Damdul, notes waiting to be spun into a story. If story-telling is a means of activism, a way of giving a voice to the unheard, then this is Mr. Urgen’s story. This story, powerful on its own, is but only one of the millions of stories of lives displaced, unsettled, and lost. After listening to a few, they all start to sound terrifyingly similar, but the least we can do is not to forget.

“What would you tell the world if you could share anything?”

“Three things. Firstly, as advised by His Holiness, we must follow the path of truth and non-violence. Secondly, whatever religion you follow, do it for all sentient beings, not just for yourself. Thirdly, being a Tibetan at the present moment, our situation is difficult. We request for support from people of the world and wish for their help in whatever capacity they can manage. There are many different ways to help our cause. I myself am doing something religious — I hoisted 150 prayer flags dedicated to the 150 Tibetans who have self-immolated, and for all sentient beings.”

My interview with Mr. Urgen took place over three conversations, two in his home and one over lunch. One moment sticks out in my memory, a moment in his kitchen while we were making dumplings. In the midst of my folding an ugly dumpling I hear him say to me, “mouse.” I look up. He points to his cupboard. A tiny mouse scrambles around the metal cups. He grins cheekily because he knows the English word for mouse. I nod approvingly and return the smile. The mouse disappears and we resume our dumpling-making.

In that moment I thought, ashamedly, that in my own home my mother would have freaked out over the same mouse. We would have set a mouse trap to be rid of it. Yet all life is sacred to Buddhists — no matter how small. The Dalai Lama has always insisted on the path of non-violence, even in response to China’s brutality. None of the 150 Tibetan self-immolators chose to injure anyone else, not even the Chinese, when they set themselves on fire. To this day, the Tibetans I have crossed paths with remain the kindest and most sincere people I have encountered, despite all the tragedy they have witnessed.

There is no need to be religious to recognise the importance of compassion. True compassion is revealed in the face of utmost cruelty. In the face of hostile injustice, one can still choose tenderness and sympathy. In the face of suffering, one can — and perhaps, must — choose love. If only we saw past our different facial features, skin colours, and spoken tongues. If only we recognised our own lives to be but a tiny figment in the common thread of humanity; if only we saw all other lives to be as important as ours, if not more. This is what Tibet can teach us, and what we must learn.


By Lycia Ho (Singapore)