WORDS ON PRAYER FLAGS
After spending the past two years living in Peru I’ve just arrived home to Canada for a visit. The sound of the bells jingled as the shop door closed behind me. It was nearing the end of October and coming in from the brisk autumn air and bustling city streets, I could feel the warmth as I entered the little shop.
I hadn’t been in this particular shop before, but I’d been in others like it. Traditional Tibetan artifacts, jewelry, prayer flags, colourful clothes, the smell of incense wafting in the air. It was hard to believe that in a few days I’d be boarding a plane to China, en route to Tibet. Being in the store was like a window into the world I would soon be stepping into.
I came in to browse and instead I found myself engaged in a conversation that enraptured my soul. He was a beautiful Tibetan man who appeared to be about my age. There was another couple in the shop. I listened as he explained that the inscription on a silver bracelet was the Tibetan prayer of compassion. He was so real and genuine. He glanced at me briefly and I felt the warmth emanating through his eyes and smile.
The couple left and he came to me. His face lit up when I told him I was leaving for Tibet in just a few days. He’d never met anyone that was going to Tibet. His eyes danced with excitement for me but I also noticed what appeared to be a glint of sadness. He told me his story.
Tibetans were beginning to feel the grip of China tighten on their country and it was then that his parents made the decision to send him with a group of monks in an escape to India. He was 11 years old and they knew that this was his only opportunity for a better life. The love that his parents must have felt for him, knowing with high probability they would never see their son again, to me is incomprehensible.
Along with the monks and children from other families, this young boy embarked on a journey through the Himalayas from Tibet into India. That was the last time he saw his parents and family. The journey lasted 27 days.
“I am one of the lucky ones”, he tells me. “There were children much younger than I that were sent by their parents. We ran out of food, some lost their fingers and even their limbs due to frostbite and extreme weather conditions. Others were too young to remember their parents names. If their parents are still alive, they have no way of knowing what ever became of their children.”
Upon arriving in India he was taken to a Tibetan Children’s Village where he lived with over one hundred children. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto. I’d never heard a story like this and was shocked to hear that these villages actually exist, many of them. (After some research later on, I learned that in almost six decades of existence, many of these villages have been established in India, extending from Ladakh in the North to Bylakuppe in the South, with over 16,700 children in their care.)
He told me how the older children helped to care for the younger ones and to this day he is still in touch with a number of them. “Those children became my family. I’m closer to them now than to my real family.” Many of those children grew up to be professionals living in India, Nepal and abroad. Even though many lost ties and contact with their families in Tibet, they fulfilled their parents’ wishes and created a new life.
“I just found out that my sister will be getting married” he tells me. “It’s strange because I have never met the man that she is about to marry and I will not be at the wedding because I can’t go back.” “Why?” I asked. He explained that when he was in university in India, he participated in a demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy for a cause that had gripped his heart. In 2006, a group of 75 Tibetans attempted to escape into India along the same path he took when he was a child. Bullets were fired by the Chinese border guards and one of the young girls, a 17 year old Buddhist nun, was killed. The event was caught on video by a foreign tourist at which point the event was brought to the attention of the international community. In India, there is freedom of speech so he wasn’t doing anything wrong but because he spoke out about this incident he believes that he is black listed from ever entering into Tibet again. He believes his phones line is tapped. He said he calls home when he can but can only ask about their well-being. It has happened on several occasions that when he begins to ask or speak of anything political, the phone line goes dead. Coincidence? Who knows.
He had been through so much. My heart ached trying to imagine what it would be like to leave my home and my mom at age 11, never feel her arms around me again. I was shocked when the next thing he said was, “I am happy. When bad things happen to Tibetans, we are happy because we believe that we are burning off some of our bad karma from past lifetimes”. I asked how it is that the world could let this happen and not intervene to which he responded, “The UN is comprised of powerful countries that are often more concerned with national interests than individual wellbeing. China is part of that elite group and while many of these powerful countries have something to contribute to global economy, the only thing that Tibet can bring to the table is Truth. And in today’s world, the Truth has no value to economic driven policies”.
The fact that I happened to be born in Canada has allowed me the privilege of obtaining a little blue book with 24 blank pages with the word CANADA etched across the front in gold letters. This one document makes it possible for me to enter freely into pretty much any country on this planet and this man can not even return to his own country to visit his family.
I believe that we all come into this world with specific things that we need to learn and experience. I also know first hand that loss can often be the greatest opportunity for growth. Regardless of this knowing, his story affected me in a profound way. It was in that moment I realized that part of my purpose is to tell the stories of people I meet along the way so that they may have a voice and their stories be heard. While they may not be able to cross borders as freely as I can, may their stories be carried by the wind, like words on prayer flags into the hearts of people who hear them.