This Is My Tibet

How Thubten Jigme Norbu’s Tibetan Cultural Center came to be located in Bloomington, Indiana, is an incredible saga of changing identities, forced exile, international intrigue, and one family’s rags-to-riches rise to prominence. The players include the Dalai Lama, the CIA, an Eli Lilly heiress, celebrities, scholars, Buddhist monks, and reincarnated spirits. It’s the story of how one Tibetan immigrant became a Hoosier.

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Dalai Lama
Thubten Jigme Norbu

Photo by Tony Valainis

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the April 2002 issue.

 

T

o see flags waving proudly over the landscape of Southern Indiana is not unusual in these patriotic post-9/11 times. As you drive south from Bloomington on Snoddy Road, where suburban housing developments creep ever further into the countryside of Monroe County, one red-white-and-blue flag flies high above the others, masted atop a pole that dwarfs even the majestic hardwoods that blanket the rolling hills.

Unlike its American counterparts, this flag has only 12 stripes. And instead of 50 stars, it has only one—a bright yellow sun rising boldly in the center. This is the flag of Tibet, a vast Himalayan region of East-Central Asia surrounded by the nations of Nepal, Bhutan, India, Burma, and the People’s Republic of China, the last of which claims the territory as its own.

The flag belongs to Thubten Jigme Norbu, an immigrant who also claims Tibet as his own, even though he has spent more than 30 of his 79 years living in this small corner of the Midwest. He has erected the flag of his homeland over the Tibetan Cultural Center, an institution he has spent more than two decades building.

The flag and the center are symbols of independence—Tibetan independence. How they came to be located here among these gentle Southern Indiana slopes, some 8,000 miles from the rugged mountain village of Norbu’s birth, is an incredible saga of changing identities, forced exile, international intrigue, and one family’s rags-to-riches rise to prominence. It’s the story of how one Tibetan immigrant became a Hoosier.

 

Among Bloomington residents who aren’t versed in the nuances of Tibetan religion and politics, or the complicated and tragic story of Tibet’s occupation by Chinese communists starting more than 50 years ago, Thubten Jigme Norbu is known casually as “the Dalai Lama’s brother.” Norbu is known by many names, in fact. To former students and colleagues at Indiana University, where he taught Tibetan studies for 22 years, he is known as Professor Norbu. To most Tibetans and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, he is known as Rinpoche, a title signifying his identity as Taktser Tulku, the reincarnation of an enlightened monk and teacher from the 15th century.

Although Norbu has been exiled from Tibet for more than half a century, he has maintained prominence in Tibetan national affairs, most notably through the Tibetan Cultural Center (TCC), which he founded in 1979 on a 90-acre tract of land donated by Eli Lilly heiress Kathy Noyes and her husband, Tom Canada. Since the inception of this outpost of Tibetan culture in the least likely of places, rural Indiana, the Dalai Lama—the supreme spiritual and political leader of Tibet, a Nobel Peace laureate, and Norbu’s little brother—has visited the TCC three times. His most recent visit, in August 1999, attracted all the buzz, pomp, and circumstance one would expect at the appearance of an internationally regarded faith leader. The occasion for the visit was the Kalachakra for World Peace 1999, an important Buddhist teaching and initiation ritual. Under the spotlight of national media coverage, the Dalai Lama, his large retinue of monks and attendants, Buddhist religious figures, State Department agents, local dignitaries and law-enforcement officials, faithful followers, curious onlookers, and celebrities such as Steven Seagal—a total crowd of about 5,000 people—descended on Bloomington for the event.

Before doctors discovered an infected lump growing in the Dalai Lama’s stomach in January 2002, he had planned to return to his brother Norbu’s center on April 13. The visit was not expected to draw as much interest from the international community as the Kalachakra did. But it was to mean even more to Norbu. On this visit, His Holiness—as the Dalai Lama is often called by his followers and even his family members—was coming to dedicate the new Chamtse Ling Temple, which Norbu has constructed on the grounds of the TCC. The temple honors not only the Dalai Lama but also other Nobel Peace Prize winners and will eventually house a small community of Tibetan monks.

The fact that the Dalai Lama has had to postpone his April trip to the TCC is perhaps more significant than his visit would have been. For even though the Dalai Lama is regarded as the reincarnation of a divine spirit, his body is human—and mortal. And even though he and Norbu have been two of Tibet’s strongest advocates for the past half-century, their frailty grows evermore apparent. Norbu’s mobility is still hampered by a stroke he suffered several years ago. At 79 and 66, respectively, every meeting of Norbu and his brother takes on special significance.

When the Dalai Lama would be able to return to Bloomington to dedicate the completed Chamtse Ling Temple was uncertain. But one thing is sure: The temple is now the cornerstone of Norbu’s center. He has spent the last 23 years turning a large plot of forested gullies into the impressive compound of shrines and buildings that comprises the TCC. Until construction of the temple was completed, the centerpiece of the grounds was a trapezoidal, two-story building fashioned after traditional Tibetan architecture that housed the center’s gathering and office spaces. Over the years, Norbu has added two ornate, large-scale monuments; four retreat cabins (built to resemble Mongolian yurts); a pavilion where the Dalai lama spoke during his last visit; and a modest home in which Norbu and his wife, Kunyang, reside.

Although receiving the blessing of Tibet’s supreme leader will have to wait, Norbu’s temple still represents the culmination of a lifetime of work, a final step in making Bloomington not only his geographic home, but his spiritual home as well. “All my life I wanted to have a little temple,” says Norbu in heavily accented English. “The Kalachakra is very important. But I created this temple. This is my wish; all my life I wanted to do this. Tibetans wherever they go like to create temples.”

 

Dalai Lama
Norbu and the Dalai Lama at the TCC

Photo courtesy Tibetan Cultural Center

Norbu expresses excitement about building a “little” temple without a trace of irony, even though he once presided over a large, powerful, and wealthy monastery. Before Norbu fled Tibet, he spent nearly 20 years living in and around monasteries. Born Tashi Tsering into a peasant firming family in the remote eastern Tibetan village of Tengster, Norbu was singled out as the reincarnation of an important Buddhist teacher named Taktser when he was only three years old. At that time, a high lama came to Norbu’s home and gave him the name he carries today.

It should be noted that Norbu’s selection as Taktser was not hereditary, nor was it random: The followers of Taktser Tulku (Tulku means “reincarnation”) rely on an arcane process of divination and political protocol in identifying the current reincarnation. He remained with his family until the age of eight, when a group of monks from Kumbum, a large and influential community of about 4,000 monks located in the same province as Tengster (Tengster is, in fact, the original birthplace of the first Taktser), came to take him to his new life in the monastery. The previous reincarnation of Taktser had accumulated a good deal of wealth, located in a kind of estate known as the Taktser Labrang, which Norbu stood to inherit as Taktser’s reincarnation. In his 1960 autobiography, Tibet Is My Country, Norbu writes that “as a little boy I was already installed as master over my kingdom.” By circumstance or fate, the unwitting Norbu had set upon a life’s journey that has never ceased to present awesome challenges and incredible turns of events.

Although taking an eight-year-old child away from home and carting him off to a monastery may sound horrific to parents in the West, it was a great honor for Norbu’s family. Far from being only places of worship and religious study, monasteries in Tibet historically are important political and economic centers. Before the 1949 Chinese invasion disrupted the traditional politico-economic structure of the country, monasteries served as repositories of wealth, knowledge, and even food. They also functioned as de facto representatives to the central Tibetan government. Whatever personal anguish the removal of their child caused Norbu’s parents, the honor and opportunity for advancement that his recognition as a reincarnation granted the child must have far outweighed it.

Assuming the identity of a wealthy, highly honored reincarnation is not all privilege, however. Young Tibetans chosen to follow this path must complete a regimen of religious training befitting their ultimate station of respect and authority. They are also expected to take the strict vows of monastic life, which prohibit them from killing, stealing, lying, drinking, carrying weapons, and marrying.

When he returned to the humble place of his birth for the first time after leaving for the monastery, Norbu was greeted with all the adoration of a native son who has left home and hit the big time. He arrived to a shower of good-luck scarves, sour milk, butter, and pastries—traditional Tibetan gifts—and faithful villagers requesting that he lay his hands on them in blessing. He was only a young boy at the time, but even now, as a 79-year-old grandfather, he remains uncomfortable with the reverence that his identity has afforded him. “I don’t know if I’m really the reincarnation or not,” Norbu admits matter-of-factly. “Who knows? God knows. Remembering the previous life is very difficult. I cannot remember what I did yesterday.”

As anyone who now encounters the gracious and self-deprecating Norbu would attest, modesty must have been one of the most important lessons he learned in those early days of spiritual guidance. “Taktser Rinpoche, because of diaspora and exile, and having to represent Tibet as a people and as a culture, didn’t end up spending a lifetime studying the very highest things, or going on 10-year retreats and long meditations,” says Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University and a longtime friend of Norbu (and the father of actress Uma Thurman). “He ended up being an ambassador for his country and engaging with people. In that light, he has been living in the role of a regular person. It’s very endearing of him to say, ‘I’m just a normal guy.’ But he also has great depths to his character and personality that can be found if one approaches him in that way. He is a representative of Tibet in its earthly reality, not in some high-faluting religious reality.”

When Norbu was still a teenager, an even greater honor than his recognition as Taktser Tulku befell his rural family. After the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933, the search for his successor eventually brought a government delegation from Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) to Tengster to investigate the possibility that a boy there was the next Dalai Lama. The boy was Norbu’s younger brother, Lhamo Thondup. The story goes that one of the dignitaries sent out to find the reincarnation entered Norbu’s family home carrying several items that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, including a rosary, a walking stick, and a damaru (a small double drum). When he showed them to Lharao Thondup, the three-year-old boy immediately claimed them as his own and insisted that the old monk return them. It is also said that he addressed the men in the “high” Lhasa dialect and not his native, provincial Amdo dialect. Recognition of people and possessions from previous incarnations is a particularly strong indicator of reincarnation in the Tibetan tradition. It wasn’t long before Lhamo Thondup was confirmed as the 14th Dalai Lama, the incarnation of Chenrezig, Bodhisattva of Compassion and spiritual guardian over the Tibetan people.

One can imagine that this might have been cause for feelings of sibling rivalry on Norbu’s part, that he had been “outdone” by his little brother. Not so. “For Tibetans this is just fantastic, so of course I was very happy,” remembers Norbu. “My parents, my relatives, and all the village people were very happy. No question about this. You can be anybody’s brother, but you cannot be the Dalai Lama’s brother. That is really something.” In fact, over the years Norbu’s feelings about his brother’s being the Dalai Lama have started to resemble relief. “I never think I would like to be him—never, never. I’m really happy I’m not him. So much duty, so much responsibility. Since he became a Nobel laureate, everybody wants to talk to him. I ask him, ‘How you can stand all this?’”

As parents of Tibet’s theocratic leader, Norbu’s mother and father, who had been peasant farmers and goat herders, suddenly found themselves living in Lhasa in positions resembling royalty. Not unlike England’s Queen Mother, Norbu’s mother, whom his children later referred to simply as “Grandma,” came to be known to Tibetans as Gyayum Chenmo, or “Great Mother.” His father, Yabshi Kung, was called the duke of the Dalai Lama’s household.

Although he was still heavily involved in religious study at the Kumbum monastery, and certainly enjoying his own status as a reincarnation, Norbu longed to join his family. Not yet 20 years old, he departed on horseback on a treacherous 111-day trek through the mountain passes of the Himalayas accompanied by a large caravan of monks, nomads, and merchants, a journey he still considers to be among the greatest of his life. The mood of the near-octogenarian grows nostalgic as he recounts crossing one arm of the freezing, 400-yard-wide River Drichu: “I was on horseback—there was no saddle. I was holding onto the mane, and I could not see the horse. The nose sometimes came up, and that was all. Sometimes my butt was attached to the horse’s back, sometimes not.” When he finally arrived before the Dalai Lama, they did not embrace, as one might expect from two brothers recently separated by hundreds of miles and miraculous circumstances. Rather, according to Tibetan custom, Norbu prostrated himself three times on the ground before the country’s newly appointed, six-year-old ruler.

Norbu eventually returned to Kumbum and, despite his young age, became the abbot of the monastery, largely because of the influence he wielded as the brother of the country’s supreme ruler. But his authority in this position of great responsibility was not to last for long. In 1949, when Norbu was in his mid-20s, the newly victorious armies of Mao Zedong’s Red China, bent on expansion, massed along the eastern border of Tibet. They surrounded the area of Kumbum, which, though ethnically Tibetan, lay within Chinese territory.

As the highest authority of this important eastern monastery and the oldest brother of Tibet’s highest political figure, Norbu faced increasing pressure from Chinese agents to cooperate with their mission of “liberating” their western neighbors. “They started asking me to go on a ‘peace mission’ to Lhasa and ask my brother and the Tibetan government to cooperate with the communists,” recalls Norbu, the lines of horror reappearing on his face as he tells the story. “I thought it was a good time for me to get away. I already learned what they were going to do. They told me in five years’ time they were going to wipe out all our belief, our tradition—everything. If my brother was not cooperating with the communists, then I could kill him. Kill him. Then they would offer me the governorship of Lhasa, a great honor.” Considering the unfathomable ramifications of the deal, Norbu can only smile when he tells the story now, his expression disbelieving even though he’s had 50 years to think it over. “Sure, great honor,” he says sarcastically, “but to kill my brother is something different.”

Norbu decided then that the monastery would be better served by someone not on the receiving end of continuous communist brow-beatings, so he resigned his post as abbot. By now, reports of Chinese atrocities in villages and monasteries around Amdo were filtering into Kumbum. Without consenting to kill his brother, Norbu convinced the Chinese to let him journey to Tibet’s capital to report their intentions to the Dalai Lama. With a heavy heart, the future of his beloved country growing grimmer by the day, Norbu set off for Lhasa.

This brotherly reunion was not to be so joyous as the last. “I told my brother, ‘They are not human beings,’” Norbu remembers. “‘If you are going to stop them, it’s time to stop them. Because once they come, you don’t know when your head will no longer belong to your shoulders.’” The Dalai Lama, who due to impending crisis had assumed acting authority over the government, was only 15 (the normal age of majority was 18). “I told my brother His Holiness, and he just laughed,” says Norbu. “He’s only one person. What could he do? All these soldiers—thousands of soldiers—were already on the border.”

“It wasn’t spelled out to him that the Committee for a Free Asia was CIA,” says former operative John Kenneth Knaus. “But I’m sure it wasn’t a surprise to him. Nobody kept anything from Norbu.”

Unlike his brother, who remained in Lhasa for 10 more years after the communist invasion, Norbu didn’t stick around. Before he arrived in Lhasa, he had received reports that communist troops, facing little or no resistance, had pushed their way across the Tibetan border. Instead of confessing that he was fleeing the country, he told his family that he sought treatment for tuberculosis in India to allay their concerns, then embarked on the life of exile that awaited him across the southern border of Tibet into Sikkim (a Himalayan kingdom that’s now part of India) and eventually on into India.

Norbu still marvels at the courage of his brother, remaining in Tibet as he did. “I ask him, ‘How did you stay? How did you live?’ I think he’s just unbelievable.” Facing increasing danger, the Dalai Lama finally left Tibet in 1959, maintaining leadership of his people as the head of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala in northwest India, now home to more than 80,000 Tibetan refugees (the worldwide population of Tibetans-in-exile is estimated at 134,000).

Norbu has never regretted his own decision to leave. As he sees it, he really didn’t have a choice. “I thought this way,” he explains. “I lived with the communists, those brutal people, for almost a year. After what I heard, what they were doing to other people, I said to myself it is impossible to stay with these guys. I must go. Once I decided that, then I already had decided what my future would be. I knew the future would bring something.” It would be 30 years before Norbu saw his homeland again.

 

Thubten Jigme Norbu
Norbu in the TCC’s Kalachakra Stupa

Photo by Tony Valainis

The life Thubten Jigme Norbu now leads in the American Midwest couldn’t be any more different from the life he left behind when communist armies invaded the mostly isolated and undeveloped mountain nation of Tibet. He’s long since replaced the traditional robes and yellow hats of the majority Gelukpa sect—also known also as the “Yellow Hat” sect—with Western dress. Stooped over a cane and wearing a nondescript, button-down-collared shirt, khaki trousers, and hiking boots, he now looks the part of “Grandpa” (as his only grandson calls him), his Nike and No Fear baseball caps notwithstanding.

Unlike his brother the Dalai Lama, who has maintained his monastic life in exile, Norbu decided that his continued efforts to oppose the Chinese occupation of Tibet might threaten his vows. So he renounced the sacred oaths rather than compromise them. He had already gone from peasant to dignitary and was about to undergo yet another circumstantial transformation—from refugee to American. “Since you come from the mother’s womb, you change so many times,” he explains. “I enjoyed the monk life. But now I’m not in Tibet, not with Tibetans. I came to the West, so I think I should be like everybody else. If you take a vow, and one day you think you cannot keep the vow, then you must renounce.”

Indeed, the Cold War atmosphere of complicated political entanglements and shadowy espionage left little room for the spiritual reflection to which Norbu’s life had once been dedicated. A friend in Kalimpong, India, connected him with the Committee for a Free Asia, which invited Norbu to come to America for a year. Norbu claims that, at the time, he didn’t suspect the organization of working under the auspices of any other government agency. “I contacted the U.S. consulate in Calcutta. Right away they contacted the Committee for a Free Asia and told them, ‘This man escaped from Lhasa and he wants to go to the United States.’ So the Committee for a Free Asia sent me a letter and welcomed me. I think maybe that was my first contact with the CIA. At that time I didn’t know what that means, ‘the CIA.’ They never said, ‘We are the CIA.’ Later, when I came here, people told me, ‘CIA this, CIA that.’ But at the time I had no idea.”

Wanting to stop the spread of communism over all of Asia (read: Korea and Vietnam), the U.S. government took an interest in the Tibetan situation. Another of Norbu’s brothers, Gyalo Thondup, had fled Tibet shortly after Norbu and was trying to raise support for a resistance movement. The CIA got involved, even to the extent of bringing Tibetan freedom fighters into Colorado to train for an uprising against the Chinese.

Whether he actually knew that he was working with the CIA, it has been reported that Norbu, by then living in the United States, aided in the project as an adviser and interpreter. Says John Kenneth Knaus, a CIA operative who came onto the Tibet project in 1958 and headed it from 1960 to ’65, “I’m sure that it wasn’t spelled out to him that the Committee for a Free Asia was CIA. But I’m sure it wasn’t a surprise to him. Nobody kept anything from Norbu. He certainly knew he wasn’t dealing with the Department of Agriculture.”

After Norbu’s first visa in the United States expired in 1952, he spent the next few years casting about in Japan, India, and Europe until he was able to reenter the United States. It wasn’t until 1955 that he got permission to take up residence in America indefinitely.

In Seattle, where he was serving a year-long teaching stint with the University of Washington in 1960, he found the woman who would be his wife of 42 years. As though guided by fate, Kunyang, a prominent Tibetan refugee herself, had also left behind a life that, absent the mass disruption the Chinese invasion caused in Tibetan society, would have destined her for a life of celibacy in a religious order. Coming to America changed all that for Kunyang. She was just 17 when she and Thubten Jigme Norbu, then 38, fell in love.

The couple’s next stop was New York City, where Norbu took a position as the assistant curator of the Tibetan collection of the Museum of Natural History. It was his work there, his experience as an assistant to Tibet’s United Nations representative, and his increasing recognition as a speaker on the national circuit that brought Norbu to the attention of Indiana University’s Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies, which offered him a teaching position.

Surprised by the vibrant academic and cultural scene that he discovered on a visit to Bloomington, and with the welfare of three young sons now to consider, he decided that IU would be a good fit for him and his family. Despite persistent rumors circulating since reports of his involvement with the CIA first surfaced, Norbu flatly denies that the secretive intelligence organization had anything to do with his getting hired at IU. “Often I think to myself, ‘Why did I end up here?’ But only my friends helped me,” he insists with a chuckle. “Everything I have is all my friends—not CIA.” He remained at IU for 22 years, before retiring in 1987 at the age of 65. “Professor Norbu’s arrival on campus helped catapult IU Bloomington into the front ranks of university programs in Tibetan studies,” says Elliot Sperling, current chair of IU’s Central Eurasian Studies Department. “Today, Indiana retains its reputation in that field, in spite of the growth that has occurred elsewhere.”

By opening the TCC, exposing generations of university students to Tibetan culture, and travelling the world to speak and demonstrate, Norbu has been one of the world’s foremost advocates of preserving the traditions of his native land against Chinese propaganda and oppression. But while the juggernaut of communist occupation has presented an imminent and obvious threat to Tibetan culture, ironically, the insidious pervasiveness of American pop culture has had its own effect on Norbu. Reclining leisurely in the comfortable greatroom of his cultural center, he is the first to admit it: “When I came out of Tibet, I always thought I’d like to go back. Now, I think to go back is a question mark. I am spoiled by all this comfort. You go back to Tibet, put up the tent, then stay there in the winter, the temperature about 50 below zero? You think you can stand that? I question myself, you see. In Tibet we had to burn yak dung. When tea boiled, you smelled the smoke of the yak dung, and when you drank the tea the smell was still there. Here everything is so easy—just push a button.”

Norbu and son Jigme
Norbu and son Jigme

Photo by Tony Valainis

Norbu sees the same assimilation in his sons. Lhundrup is a sales clerk. Kunga is a Realtor. His youngest son, Jigme, owns the Snow Lion, a successful Tibetan and Asian restaurant in Bloomington. Jigme works tirelessly to help organize and promote the activities of the TCC, but with his Midwest accent, slicked-back hair, and savvy in promoting TCC events to the media, there’s no question that he is American. And while it would be impossible for children growing up with Norbu not to be at least familiar with their Tibetan heritage, he acknowledges that they haven’t had the same opportunity to experience it. “We have no country,” Norbu says. “Children cannot go there, cannot meet friends. Still we have some distant relatives. They should know each other, I think—keep in contact. My sons are all Americans. They like to go to McDonald’s, eat french fries.”

There is no note of bitterness when Norbu discusses his Americanization. Technically, the fact that Tibetans living abroad have refugee status means Norbu could be regarded as a displaced person himself. But this is a label he would probably deny. He is at home in Indiana. Even though he feels deep sorrow for the plight of his people, as an individual he refuses to express self-pity—not out of modesty or heroic stoicism, but because his contentedness is genuine. Many of us find it difficult to bear the expectations of immediate family and friends. But imagine shouldering the expectations of an entire community that considers you to be the embodiment of an ancient benevolent spirit. While being recognized as Taktser Tulku brought many a privilege, it came with a serious price tag.

To compound the problem, Norbu has never been entirely convinced that the monks who came to his boyhood home made the right decision—that he really is Taktser Tulku. Now the misgivings that Norbu was unable to voice publicly as an exalted holy figure no longer plague him. “Some people call me Taktser Rinpoche. But I’m just like everybody else. Mr. Norbu. That’s all. I meditate a little bit, chant a little bit, pray. I have nothing to hide behind. I never think, ‘Am I really, or not?’ Now I know— I am me.”

But there is little doubt among faithful followers that Norbu is a reincarnation. Ngawang, a quiet young Tibetan monk whom Norbu invited from India to live in the TCC, addresses him by his honorific title of “Rinpoche” and attends to him devotedly. Norbu’s visible activism and charismatic personality have attracted countless other admirers over the years, both to the cause of Tibetan liberation and the practice of Tibetan religion. An enclave of Tibetan Buddhism has grown up in Bloomington since his arrival. In addition to the TCC, for example, Bloomington is home to the Ganden Dheling Buddhist Temple and to the Dagon Gaden Tensung Ling Buddhist Monastery, a permanent institution—the only one of its kind in the United States—that houses a small community of Tibetan Buddhist monks.

But while the local community of Tibetan Buddhists thrives, it’s not necessarily harmonious. Several years ago, a declaration by the Dalai Lama offended a minority group of followers who observe a deity known as Dorje Shugden. The newly created rift in the worldwide Buddhist community exacerbated personal tensions that had already arisen between Norbu and some of his followers, and as a result, benefactor Tom Canada—who donated the land for the TCC—and several others cut off relations.

The Dagon Gaden monastery, whose land was also donated by Canada, came along in 1996 as a place where Shugden followers could worship. Says Jam Yang, a resident monk at Dagom Gaden: “While the Tibetan Cultural Center exists, there are still Buddhist people in the community who felt the need for another spiritual place, which is more dedicated and directed toward spiritual causes, rather than any sort of physical or political ideas mixed together.”

Clearly, as affable as he is, Norbu’s staunch support of the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government-in-Exile and his unyielding determination to see a free Tibert for future generations leads to disagreements. But more important to the international political community is a disagreement that Norbu shares with the Dalai Lama himself. Each of these strong-willed men is driven to combat the same problems: According to reports by the International Campaign for Tibet, the Chinese occupation of Tibet has resulted in more than 1 million Tibetan deaths; the large-scale destruction to temples, monasteries, religious artifacts, and social institutions; and the severe punishment of those expressing non-communist views.

“This is very good here in the Middle West, in Indiana,” says Norbu. “I think this is so quiet, so nice. This is independence.”

Both men also want the same outcome: self-determination for their country. Yet they disagree significantly on how self-determination is to be achieved. The Dalai Lama has long advocated nonviolent resistance and activism, taking the position that Chinese rule over Tibet would be acceptable if Tibetans were granted autonomy and the freedom to practice their traditional way of life unhindered.

Norbu’s stance is more radical, or, depending on the viewpoint, reactionary. He emphasizes that his regard for the Dalai Lama as a leader supersedes his family relationship, but there is little doubt that being the elder brother gives Norbu more room than other Tibetans to disagree. “He is my brother, but also not just like a brother,” Norbu explains. “He is the leader of the Tibetan people, so there is respect. He is a leader and also a younger brother. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree. But we are human beings. We talk. His Holiness, he sends compassion and love to everyone. He tries to go easy with the Chinese.”

Norbu’s voice hardens when he explains his own position on Tibetan independence, and something of the warrior emerges in the kindly contours of his face. “I think there is no reason to go easy with the Chinese. The Chinese already destroyed our country. Tibet belongs to Tibetans, not to the Chinese. We are completely our own country, an independent country. That’s what I think.”

 

Thubten Jigme Norbu
Norbu in the TCC’s Kalachakra Stupa

Photo by Tony Valainis

The future of Tibet remains uncertain. Most of those people who support the cause, both here and abroad, are optimistic about the future.

“I think the Chinese will inevitably reverse course and adopt a sane policy about Tibet,” says scholar Thurman. “They’ll realize that a federated Tibet—not a colonized, depressed sort of genocidal site, but a happy, cheerful place of freely contributing Tibetans to a kind of general East Asian union—is a much more sensible arrangement. Where Tibet would be a treasure is as a tourist mecca. They still haven’t completely destroyed all the seeds of Tibetan culture, like libraries, and thanks to the Dalai Lama, the human seeds are alive and well in India and around the world. So it can be replanted again.”

Larry Gerstein, who founded the Indiana-based International Tibet Independence Movement with Norbu, is also hopeful. “The situation will be solved not in this lifetime, but the next one,” says Gerstein. “Our organization is not going to stop. It will go on.” He estimates the size of the organization’s e-mail list at 15,000—including 1,000 members in Indiana.

And even though Tibet still doesn’t enjoy independence, much has been accomplished. “We don’t want to lose our country. We want people to know what Tibet is, what a Tibetan is,” says Norbu. Now more than ever, people do know. Once isolated from the rest of the world and shrouded in myth and mystery, Tibet now has an international voice. Since the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Prize, he has become one of the most recognized religious leaders in the Buddhist world, if not in the entire world religious community. Thanks to tireless campaigning by the likes of the Dalai Lama and Norbu, countless books and popular movies such as Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (both of which feature characters portraying Norbu), Tibet is on the world cultural map. Starting in the ’90s, it emerged as an American cause celebre. A string of Tibetan Freedom Concerts between 1996 and 2001 brought musicians such as Beck, Pearl Jam, Richie Havens, Sean Lennon, the Dave Matthews Band, and R.E.M. to the stage, and Richard Gere spoke out about the issue at the 1993 Academy Awards presentation. Hanging in the lobby of the Snow Lion are pictures of Gere, Harrison Ford, and Steven Seagal standing outside of the restaurant.

While the fate of his homeland is uncertain, Norbu, now in his later years, faces another uncertainty: the fate of his reincarnation. Once the Kumbum monastery housed several books chronicling the life of Taktser Tulku. The fate of the books is not known, nor are any English translations known to exist. With characteristic modesty. Norbu downplays the chapter that his life has added to the Taktser legacy, and the importance of finding the next reincarnation after he is gone. “My next reincarnation? Who knows? God knows. My previous one I think was a medicine man, an herbalist. He lived in Mongolia for many, many years. Many times I’ve heard now that the Kumbum monastery is not like a monastery. It’s like a Chinese town, there are so many Chinese there. Nobody is going to search for the next reincarnation, I think.”

Thubten JIgme Norbu

Photo by Tony Valainis

Thurman is not so sure. “The monks of Kumbum will definitely try to do it. And I’m sure the Chinese will try very rigidly to control that process.”

Wherever Taktser’s next reincarnation appears, and whether or not he is found, one thing remains certain: Norbu’s not going anywhere. “This is very good here in the Middle West, in Indiana. I think this is so quiet, so nice. This is independence. In Tibet you cannot have a Tibetan flag. You cannot go to temple—you would probably get jailed. But not here. I’m going to have my temple. The Chinese occupy Tibet. There they try to kill as many as possible, put in prisons as many as possible. Thousands and thousands in prisons. Many of them probably killed. But here I am free. This is my Tibet.”

 

Postscript: Thubten Jigme Norbu died in 2008. His son Jigme was struck by a car and killed in 2011 while on a walk to raise awareness of Tibet. The TCC is now known as the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center.

 

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