rightIn 1950 at the age of 15 the Dalai Lama assumed full political authority as China was invading eastern Tibet and preparing to take over all of Tibet. At that time the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa, carried in a palanquin on the shoulder of the faithful. Heinrich Harrier wrote n National Geographic, “Pious Tibetans hurried from far-off settlements to see him, for being in his presence gave incomparable blessing...They lined the entire trail from Lhasa to Chumbi Valley 200 miles southwest with parallel rows of pebbles to protect their harried King from evil spirits.”

In 1947 a battle between the Tibetan Army and monks was triggered by arrests of the regent. The current Dalai Lama watch from Potala Palace with a telescope as monks shot at soldiers.

During the 1950s, the Dalai Lama avoided politics and tried to work with the Chinese occupiers. In 1954 the Dalai Lama declared himself a supporter of the Chinese Communist revolution, He was charmed by Mao when they met face to face but taken aback when Mao declared “religion is a poison.”

Dalai Lama in Tibet Under Chinese Rule

The Dalai Lama was 16 when the Chinese entered Lhasa in 1950. He responded to the crisis by taking over his duties as the temporal leader of Tibet, two years before he was officially supposed to do so. "I had to put my boyhood behind me," he said, "and immediately prepare myself to lead my country, as well as I could, against the vast power of Communist China."

He wrote in Time, "I was very young when I first heard the word communist...Some monks who were helping me with my studies...had talked about the destruction that had taken place since the Communists came to Mongolia. We did not known anything about Marxist ideology. But we all feared destruction and thought of Communists with terror."

As a young man the Dalai Lama was deeply interested in Marxism. He was impressed by Chinese reforms and wrote poems praising Mao Zedong. In 1954, against the wishes of his people, he left for a year-long tour through China. The trip included a stop in Beijing and meetings with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

"It was only when I went to China in 1954-55 that I actually studied Marxist ideology and learned about the Chinese Revolution. Once I understood Marxism, my attitude changed completely. I was so attached to Marxism, I even expressed my wish to become a Communist party member."

"Tibet at that time was very, very backward. The ruling class did not seem to care, and there was much inequality. Marxism talked about an equal and just distribution of wealth. I was very much in favor of this.” His view changed when “the Chinese Communists brought to Tibet a so-called liberation.” “Chinese Communists carried out aggression and suppression in Tibet. Whenever there was opposition, it was simply crushed. They started destroying monasteries and killing and arresting lamas."

"In the beginning, I had hoped that we could find a peaceful solution. I even went to China to meet Chairman Mao. We had several meetings in 1955...Until the summer of 1956, the Chinese had some level of trust in me." That changed after he made a visit to India with Beijing approval and visited Tibetan freedom fighters there.

Dalai Lama with a Gun

An elderly Tibetan monk named Tashi Passang told William Dalrymple in an interview published in the Paris Review: "On the evening of March 15, 1959, I was one of twenty-five monks who were told we would have the chance to meet His Holiness. We assumed we were going to join the crowds gathering at Norbulingka. I was excited since I thought I might get to hear His Holiness give one of his public teachings. But we didn’t stop at Norbulingka. Instead we continued straight into the darkness. We crossed the wide Tsangpo River in a small boat, and for the next two days we walked and walked, through empty plains, with only hard balls of tsampa to eat. The monks who were leading us refused to tell us where we were going or what we were doing, and since we were all very junior monks we had no option but to obey. We finally stopped to rest at the village of Chi Thu Shae, a three-day walk from Lhasa. After two hours a party of Khampa horsemen turned up. Among them, to our amazement, was His Holiness, with a rifle strapped to his back. [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]

None of us recognized him at first, since he was dressed as an ordinary guard, but his spectacles gave him away. He had fled Lhasa in disguise, and we were told that it was our job to escort him. None of us knew he was heading into exile. I am not sure that even he knew it at that stage. All we knew was that we had to escape from the Chinese, and to prevent their soldiers from seizing the Dalai Lama. Of course we were excited, and honored. It was a great responsibility. We walked for several more days through harsh country, struggling to keep up with His Holiness, until we reached Lhuntse Dzong in the southeast.”

It was here that we met a rinpoche in the street. We asked him to release us from our vows a second time, since we were still wearing our monastic robes. We couldn’t fight the Chinese army while still wearing the robes of monks, and we felt strongly that we had to end this ambiguity. The first, very brief ceremony of giving back our vows at Dagpo had seemed very inadequate and hurried, and we were not sure what our exact status was. Were we monks or not? So the rinpoche gave us a lecture. He said, Just because you are giving back your vows, it doesn’t mean you can indulge in loose living and worldly affairs. You are doing this to protect the Dalai Lama. If necessary, you must fight the Chinese and even kill them. But don’t do anything else that will go against your monastic vows. We shed our robes and were given ordinary chubas to wear, and guns to use. His Holiness hurried on ahead, since the Chinese were expected at any moment. We remained behind with the Khampa fighters of the Chu-zhi Gang-drung. We planned to make a heroic stand, and to die fighting for His Holiness. But that is not what happened.”

Tibetan Buddhist Oracle Advises the Dalai Lama to Leave Tibet

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Dalai Lama greets protestors
In the late 1950s relations between Tibet and Chinese were very tense. There were open revolts and more and more bloodshed. Promised reforms were delayed. Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: "In 1959, the Dalai Lama faced the choice of staying in Tibet or escape into exile. China was pressing a "socialist transformation"; the Dalai Lama was receiving reports of atrocities. For advice, he turned to what he calls his "supernatural counsel" — the official Tibetan Buddhist oracle. The oracle went into a trance, advised the Dalai Lama to escape, reached for a pen and paper, and drew a map of the route through the mountains." [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

The Dalai Lama “relies most heavily on the "state oracle," a deity called Nechung, who communicates through a human medium, usually a monk.” According to the Dalai Lama's description in his memoir, the medium slips into a trance "with bulging eyes and swollen cheeks. . . . His breathing begins to shorten and he starts to hiss violently." The Dalai Lama poses questions, and the oracle responds with enigmatic advice. On complex affairs of state, he writes, "I seek his opinion in the same way as I seek the opinion of my Cabinet." For further help, the Dalai Lama relies on a form of mo divination, in which choices are written on pieces of paper and placed in balls of dough. He then swirls the balls in a cup until the right answer tumbles out. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

When how he balances his trust in science with his faith in the supernatural, he told The New Yorker that he views the oracles as "consultants." "After I consult human beings and these oracles, if there's something clear, something which I can now decide, thenI decide,” he told me. He said he had made “all major decisions” from the age of sixteen with the help of the oracles, and he had become convinced that they are correct.

“These days, the Nechung medium is Thupten Ngodup, an amiable fiftyish monk who likes to garden in his spare time,” Osnos wrote.. “When I visited him one morning in Dharamsala, he explained that he’d been an ordinary monk, overseeing the sculptures and incense at a monastery, until one day, in 1987, when the deity suddenly chose him as the medium — a physical sensation that he compared to an electric shock. “My position is very difficult,” he said. He had joined the monastery at the age of nine, never expecting much drama. “When the oracle chooses me, I?m just a normal monk.” His job now requires him to be on call whenever the Dalai Lama needs a consultation. “Anytime His Holiness needs, he calls.”

Dalai Lama's Leaves Lhasa

In 1959, the Dalai Lama wrote, "the crisis had almost reached Lhasa. I had to leave." In March 1959, 30,000 Tibetans surrounded Summer Palace of Norbulingka, where the Dalai Lama was staying, as 30,000 Chinese soldiers were preparing to move on the palace. Followers of the Dalai Lama were worried he might be kidnaped, imprisoned or even killed. One pro-Beijing lama was stoned to death. The Dalai Lama later wrote he felt like he was between "two volcanoes, each likely to erupt an any moment.”

In her book: “Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959", Li Jianglin wrote in armed Khampa and Amdowa refugees surrounded the Dalai Lama’s residence at the Norbulingka park, fearful that he would be kidnapped by the Chinese. Both sides frantically prepared for war. (At this point, an unexpected hero emerged in the form of the Tibetan Women’s League which, originally organized by the Communists, rapidly went rogue and ended up burning effigies of Mao Zedong in the streets while the all-male Tibetan government dithered.)

The Dalai Lama decided it was time go. On the night of March 17, after mortar shells had exploded in the palace ground, the Dalai Lama disguised himself as a soldier — donning “unfamiliar trousers and a long black coat” — and flung a gun of his shoulder and fled Lhasa with 52 monks in similar disguises who pretended to be on patrol. His golden robe was left on a coach at Potala Palace awaiting his return. Monks and warriors aided the Dalai Lama's escape by staying behind and fighting the Chinese. Tibetans caught helping the Dalai Lama escape, were given long prison sentences and placed in horrible camps, where many starved to death.

At 4:00pm on March 17, 1959, the two mortar shells landed short of Norbulinka palace walls in a marsh. At 10 pm. on the same day, wearing a soldier's uniform with a gun slung over his shoulder, the Dalai Lama climbed the back wall of the garden, crossed the Kyichu river on a yak-skin coracle, and left Norbulinka for the danger-filled road to India. His mother and elder sister had preceded him. Before he escaped, the Dalai Lama prostrated before the wrathful protector Mahākāla.

In his autobiography, “My Land and My People", the Dalai Lama wrote: “When the Chinese guns sounded that warning of death, the first thought in the mind of every official within the Palace, and every humble member of the vast concourse around it, was that my life must be saved and I must leave the Palace and leave the city at once", "There was no certainty that escape was physically possible at all - Ngabo had assured us it was not.. If I did escape from Lhasa, where was I to go, and how could I reach asylum? Everything was uncertain, except the compelling anxiety of all my people to get me away before the orgy of Chinese destruction and massacre began". ~

Dalai Lama's Escape from Tibet

The 23-year-old Dalai Lama left Lhasa on March 17, 1959. The Dalai Lama was 23 years old Dalai when he left Lhasa. He traveled with 37 people, including his chamberlain, an abbot and three bodyguards. His family, monks, cabinet ministers and other bodyguards were in other small groups. Many senior monks also left.

The Dalai Lama traveled most of the distance on a brown horse with richly embroidered saddlebags. After crossing the Kyichi River in skin coracles, the Dalai Lama and his group traveled down the Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra) as far as it would take them and then traveled by horseback and on foot on trails through the Himalayas. There are stories that the Dalai Lama created a belt of clouds to hide his retinue from the Chinese Air Force.

The journey from Tibet to India almost killed the Dalai Lama. He endured thunderstorms, long stretches without water and a dangerous blizzard at Lagoe Pass. "We had to cross high passes," the Dalai Lama wrote. "By the time we reached the border, we were exhausted and sick with fever and dysentery."

The Dalai Lama was followed by thousands of refugees, many of whom expected a short stay; when they were urged to plant trees in their settlements, they scoffed at the idea. "People said, 'We're going to be going back in a few years,' " Thubten Samphel, a writer and spokesman for the government in exile later told The New Yorker. "Trees will take fifty years to grow, so what's the point?" [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

Book: “In Exile in the Land of the Snows” by John Avedon describes the 1959 flight into exile by the Dalai Lama.

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Mao and the Dalai Lama in 1954

Dalai Lama Makes It to India

C.I.A. officials were notified of the Dalai Lama escape. They contacted the Indian government and arranged to have the Dalai Lama and his entourage granted asylum in India. After two weeks of trekking and hiding in the Himalayas, the escape party reached the Indian border. The Dalai Lama arrived to exile in India on March 31. By the time he reached the Indian border he couldn't walk or ride. "I was too ill even to ride a horse. I was put on the back a hybrid yak to be carried out my native land," he said.

Jiang Zemin told the Times of London that the Chinese could have captured the Dalai Lama as he was fleeng to India if they wanted. He said, I have myself looked at the record to see what happened, The Dalai Lama was surrounded on a hill. Mao was consulted on what to do. He sent an instruction not to capture him, but to let him leave.”

The Dalai Lama and his party crossed the Indian border at Khenzimane Pass on March 31. Pandit Nehru announced on April 3 in the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) that the Government of India had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama. The party took a couple of days to reach Tawang the headquarters of the West Kameng Frontier Division of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), now known as the Tawang District of Arunachal Pradesh. ~

The Dalai Lama arrived in India in the Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh. In his autobiography ‘Freedom in Exile’, the Dalai Lama writes: From Lhuntse Dzong we passed to the small village of Jhora and from there to the Karpo pass, the last before the border. Just as we were nearing the highest point of the track we received a bad shock. Out of nowhere, an aeroplane appeared and flew directly overhead. It passed quickly — too quickly for anyone to be able to see what markings it had — but not so fast that the people on board could have missed spotting us.

Gylelong La is a 17, 200-foot pass with wonderful views of barren moonscapes, snowcapped mountains and green valleys. The Dalai Lama traversed the pass when he made his dramatic escape from Tibet in 1959. Pilgrims paying homage the Dalai Lama have left numerous cairns and paved the top with flat stones. The Dalai Lama stayed four days in Tawang where he had the opportunity to visit the beautiful monastery Tawang Gompa and Urgyeling, the place where the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyaltso spent his first years. The Dalai Lama later proceeded to Bomdila where he was officially received by an envoy of the Indian Government a welcome message from Nehru. After a few days of rest, the party left for the plains of India. On April 18, 1959, the Dalai Lama, his mother, sister, brother, three ministers and around 80 other Tibetans crossed safely into India at Tezpur, Assam, to be greeted by Indian officials and a Press corps of nearly 200 correspondents. ~

Altogether around 100,000 Tibetan fled from Tibet around the time the Dalai Lama left. Most settled in India, primarily around Dharamsala and Darjeeling. A large refugee camp was established near Darjeling. Some settled in Nepal, Europe and the United States.

Why Did the Dalai Lama Flee to India?

Jianglin Li, author “Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959", told the New York Times: ““Mainly he hoped to prevent a massacre. He thought the crowds around his palace would disperse once he left, robbing the Chinese of a pretext to attack. In fact, not even his departure could have prevented the blood bath that ensued, because Mao Zedong had already mobilized his troops for a “final showdown” in Tibet. [Source: Luo Siling, Sinosphere, New York Times, August 14, 2016]

“When the Dalai Lama left, he didn’t plan to go as far as India. He hoped to return to Lhasa after negotiating peace with the Chinese from the safety of the Tibetan hinterlands. But once he heard about the destruction in Lhasa — several days into his journey — he realized that plan was no longer feasible.

On the kidnapping concerns that set in motion the revolt in 1959, Li said “For Tibetans, he is a sacred being, to be protected at all costs. He had traveled to Beijing to meet Mao in 1954 without setting off mass protests. By 1959, however, tensions had risen, and Tibetans had reason to fear the Chinese theater invitation might be a trap.

“The trouble actually started in the Tibetan regions of nearby Chinese provinces — Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu, home to about 60 percent of the Tibetan population. When the Chinese Communists forced collectivization on these Tibetan nomads and farmers in the latter half of the 1950s, the results were catastrophic. Riots and rebellions spread like wildfire. The Communists responded with military force, and there were terrible massacres. Refugees streamed into Tibet, bringing their horror stories into Lhasa.

“Some of the most frightening reports had to do with the disappearances of Tibetan leaders in Sichuan and Qinghai. It was party policy to try to pre-empt Tibetan rebellion by luring prominent Tibetans from their communities with invitations to banquets, shows or study classes — from which many never returned. People in Lhasa thought the Dalai Lama could be next.

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Deng Xiaoping and the Dalai Lama in 1954

Dalai Lama in India

When the Dalai Lama arrived in India in 1959 he was still largely ignorant to the ways of the modern world. "While I was leaving Lhasa...many of us made a calculation that things would be solved within a short period," the Dalai Lama told Reuter. "But after reaching India, then we began to realize that it may take a few decades." The Dalai Lama continued his education in Kashmir, Ladakh and refugee camps in Simla. He finally settled for a life in exile in Dharamsala, a small Himalayan town in northern India near the Tibet and Nepal borders. He lived off of donations and gold and silver that he astutely deposited in Sikkim in 1950 when the Chinese arrived. In the early 1980s, he tried to negotiate with Deng Xiaoping and succeeded in sending several fact-finding missions to Tibet.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “In the sixties, reports from inside Tibet told of ill-fated farming experiments and brutal ideological campaigns. The Dalai Lama focused on absorbing refugees, while deepening his religious studies, especially Buddhist conceptions of compassion, interdependence, and “emptiness,” according to which any person or phenomenon is by itself devoid, or “empty,” of intrinsic identity. He studied the religious and political lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Baba Amte, and they left a lasting impression on him. “ By1971,”he had come alive philosophically.” The Dalai Lama was travelling and lecturing, and he had discovered that esoteric teachings had a limited Western audience; he developed talks that focussed on a more accessible concept of “basic human values.”

"Exile has made me tougher," the Dalai Lama said. "We planned and founded large communities to preserve Tibetan culture and atmosphere, where we could establish monasteries and build Tibetan schools for our children." The Dalai Lama's younger brother Tenzing Choegyal said, exile has "enabled him to realize his full potential. In the Potala, he was secluded and isolated. If one good thing has come out of his having to leave, it was that he was exposed to his own people and the world. He was given the chance to see things as they really are."

In Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama and his followers have set up a mini-Tibet with monasteries, Tibetans running around in traditional clothes, a Constitution, an elected government and schools that offer instruction in English and Tibetan. He is well known and respected in India outside of Dharamsala. On July 6, 1995, when the Dalai Lama turned 60, there was a three day celebration in New Delhi.

In July 2010, the Dalai Lama celebrated his 75th birthday in India. He greeted hundreds of well-wishers and looked over a series of posters that depicted him at various periods of his life. He received gifts of white scarves and listened to children play flutes and beating drums. In 2014, he praised India for proving that communities can live peacefully together, and said India must show its example of religious harmony to the rest of the world. “"India is the only country where all major world religions live together, not only in modern time but over 1,000 years," he said.

Image Sources: Dalai Lama com, Purdue University, Cosmic Harmony

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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