Jul 062018

Today is the birthday (1935) of the 14th Dalai Lama of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. His name at birth was Lhamo Thondup, but the more usual name used now is Tenzin Gyatso, a shortened from Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso. He was born into a farming and horse trading family in the small hamlet of Taktser, or Chija Tagtser, (Hongya (红崖村) in Chinese) at the edges of the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo. His family was of Monguor extraction. The Monguor are a small ethnic minority related to Mongols. He was one of seven siblings to survive childhood. His eldest brother, Thupten Jigme Norbu, had been recognized at the age of eight as the reincarnation of the high Lama Taktser Rinpoche. His sister, Jetsun Pema, spent most of her adult life on the Tibetan Children’s Villages project. The Dalai Lama has said that his first language was “a broken Xining language which was a dialect of the Chinese language,” a form of Central Plains Mandarin, and his family did not speak the Tibetan language.

Following reported signs and visions, three search teams were sent out to the north-east, the east, and the south-east to locate the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama when Lhamo Thondup was about two years old. Amongst other omens, the head of the embalmed body of the 13th Dalai Lama, at first facing south-east, had turned to face the north-east, indicating, it was interpreted, the direction in which his successor would be found. The Regent, Reting Rinpoche, shortly afterwards had a vision at the sacred lake of Lhamo La-tso which he thought indicated that Amdo was the region to search. This vision was also interpreted to refer to a large monastery with a gilded roof and turquoise tiles, and a twisting path from it to a hill to the east, opposite which stood a small house with distinctive eaves. The team, led by Kewtsang Rinpoche, went first to meet the Panchen Lama (second highest leader), who had been stuck in Jyekundo, in northern Kham. The Panchen Lama had been investigating births of unusual children in the area ever since the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. He gave Kewtsang the names of three boys whom he had discovered and identified as candidates. Within a year the Panchen Lama had died. Two of his three candidates were crossed off the list but the third, a “fearless” child, the most promising, was from Taktser village, which, as in the vision, was on a hill, at the end of a trail leading to Taktser from the great Kumbum Monastery with its gilded, turquoise roof. There they found a house, as interpreted from the vision—the house where Lhamo Thondup lived.

At the time, the village of Taktser, according to villagers themselves, stood right on the “real border” between the region of Amdo and China. When the team visited, posing as pilgrims, its leader, a Sera Lama, pretended to be the servant and sat separately in the kitchen. He held an old string of prayer beads that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and Lhamo Thondup, aged two, approached and asked for it. The monk said “if you know who I am, you can have it.” The child said “Sera Lama, Sera Lama” and spoke with him in a Lhasa accent, in a dialect the boy’s mother could not understand. The next time the party returned to the house, they revealed their real purpose and asked permission to subject the boy to certain tests. One test consisted of showing him various pairs of objects, one of which had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and one which had not. In every case, he chose the Dalai Lama’s own objects and rejected the others.

From 1936 the Hui ‘Ma Clique’ Muslim warlord Ma Bufang ruled Qinghai as its governor under the nominal authority of the Republic of China central government.  According to an interview with the 14th Dalai Lama, in the 1930s, Ma Bufang had seized this north-east corner of Amdo in the name of Chiang Kai-shek’s weak government and incorporated it into the Chinese province of Qinghai. Before going to Taktser, Kewtsang had gone to Ma Bufang to pay his respects. When Ma Bufang heard that a candidate had been found in Taktser, he had the family brought to him in Xining. He first demanded proof that the boy was the Dalai Lama but the Lhasa government, though informed by Kewtsang that this was the one, told Kewtsang to say he had to go to Lhasa for further tests with other candidates. They knew that if he was declared to be the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government would insist on sending a large army escort with him, which would then stay in Lhasa and refuse to leave. Ma Bufang then refused to allow him to depart unless he was declared to be the Dalai Lama, but withdrew this demand in return for 100,000 Chinese silver dollars ransom. Kewtsang managed to raise this huge sum, but the family was only allowed to move from Xining to Kumbum when a further demand was made for another 330,000 dollars ransom: one hundred thousand each for government officials, the commander-in-chief, and the Kumbum Monastery; twenty thousand for the escort; and only ten thousand for Ma Bufang himself, he said.

Two years of diplomatic wrangling followed before it was accepted by Lhasa that the ransom had to be paid to avoid the Chinese getting involved and escorting him to Lhasa with a large army. Meanwhile, the boy was kept at Kumbum where two of his brothers were already studying as monks and recognized as incarnate lamas. The payment of 300,000 silver dollars was then advanced by Muslim traders en route to Mecca in a large caravan via Lhasa. They paid Ma Bufang on behalf of the Tibetan government against promissory notes to be redeemed, with interest, in Lhasa. The 20,000-dollar fee for an escort was dropped, since the Muslim merchants invited them to join their caravan for protection; Ma Bufang sent 20 of his soldiers with them and was paid from both sides since the Chinese government granted him another 50,000 dollars for the expenses of the journey. Furthermore, the Indian government helped the Tibetans raise the ransom funds by affording them import concessions.

On 21st July 1939 the party traveled across Tibet in an epic journey to Lhasa in the large Muslim caravan with Lhamo Thondup, now 4 years old, riding with his brother Lobsang in a special palanquin carried by two mules. As soon as they were out of Ma Bufang’s area, he was officially declared to be the 14th Dalai Lama by the Central Government of Tibet and after ten weeks of travel he arrived in Lhasa on 8th October 1939. The ordination (pabbajja) and giving of the monastic name of Tenzin Gyatso were handled by Reting Rinpoche.

Tibetan Buddhists normally refer to the Dalai Lama as Yishin Norbu (Wish-Fulfilling Gem), Kyabgon (Saviour), or just Kundun (Presence). His devotees, as well as much of the Western world, often call him His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the style employed on the Dalai Lama’s website. According to the Dalai Lama, he had a succession of tutors in Tibet including Reting Rinpoche, Tathag Rinpoche, Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche. At the age of 11 he met the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who became his videographer and tutor about the world outside Lhasa. The two remained friends until Harrer’s death in 2006. In 1959, at the age of 23, he took his final examination at Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple during the annual Monlam or Prayer Festival. He passed with honors and was awarded the Lharampa degree, the highest-level geshe degree.


Historically the Dalai Lamas or their regents held political and religious leadership over Tibet from Lhasa with varying degrees of influence depending on the regions of Tibet and periods of history. This began with the 5th  Dalai Lama’s rule in 1642 and lasted until the 1950s (except for 1705–1750), during which period the Dalai Lamas headed the Tibetan government or Ganden Phodrang. Until 1912 however, when the 13th Dalai Lama declared the complete independence of Tibet, their rule was generally subject to patronage and protection of, first, the Mongol kings (1642–1720) and then the Manchu-led Qing dynasty (1720–1912).

China claims that the Kuomintang government ratified the 14th Dalai Lama and that a Kuomintang representative, General Wu Zhongxin, presided over the ceremony. The British Representative Sir Basil Gould was also at the ceremony and bore witness to the falsity of the Chinese claim to have presided over it. He criticized the Chinese account as follows:

The report was issued in the Chinese Press that Mr Wu had escorted the Dalai Lama to his throne and announced his installation, that the Dalai Lama had returned thanks, and prostrated himself in token of his gratitude. Every one of these Chinese claims was false. Mr Wu was merely a passive spectator. He did no more than present a ceremonial scarf, as was done by the others, including the British Representative. But the Chinese have the ear of the world, and can later refer to their press records and present an account of historical events that is wholly untrue. Tibet has no newspapers, either in English or Tibetan, and has therefore no means of exposing these falsehoods.

In October 1950 the army of the People’s Republic of China marched to the edge of the Dalai Lama’s territory and sent a delegation after defeating a legion of the Tibetan army in warlord-controlled Kham. On 17th November 1950, at the age of 15, the 14th Dalai Lama was enthroned formally as the temporal ruler of Tibet. Dalai Lama’s formal rule was brief. He sent a delegation to Beijing, which, without his authorization, ratified the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. In September 1954, together with the 10th Panchen Lama he went to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong and attend the first session of the National People’s Congress as a delegate, primarily discussing China’s constitution. On 27th September 1954, the Dalai Lama was selected as a Vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, a post he officially held until 1964.

In 1956, on a trip to India to celebrate the Buddha’s Birthday, the Dalai Lama asked the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, if he would allow him political asylum should he choose to stay. Nehru discouraged this and reminded him of the Indian Government’s non-interventionist stance agreed upon with its 1954 treaty with China.

At the outset of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his retinue fled Tibet with the help of the CIA’s Special Activities Division, crossing into India on 30th March 1959, reaching Tezpur in Assam on 18th April. Some time later he set up the Government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamshala in India, which is often referred to as “Little Lhasa.” After the founding of the government in exile he housed the approximately 80,000 Tibetan refugees who followed him into exile in agricultural settlements. He created a Tibetan educational system in order to teach Tibetan children the language, history, religion, and culture of Tibet. The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts was established in 1959 and the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies became the primary university for Tibetans in India in 1967. He supported the re-founding of 200 monasteries and nunneries in an attempt to preserve Tibetan Buddhist teachings and the Tibetan way of life.

The actual role of the Dalai Lama is poorly understood by most Westerners. The title, Dalai Lama, is a combination of the Mongol word dalai meaning “ocean” or “big” (coming from the Mongolian title Dalaiyin qan or Dalaiin khan, translated as ‘Gyatso’ in Tibetan) and the Tibetan word བླ་མ་ (bla-ma) meaning “master” or “teacher.” The Dalai Lama figure is important for many reasons. Since the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, his personage has always been a symbol of unification of the state of Tibet, where he has represented Buddhist values and traditions. The Dalai Lama has always been an important figure in the Geluk tradition of Buddhism, which was politically and numerically dominant in Central Tibet, but his religious authority went beyond sectarian boundaries. While he had no formal or institutional role in any of the religious traditions, which were headed by their own high lamas, he was a unifying symbol of the Tibetan state, representing Buddhist values and traditions above any specific school. The traditional function of the Dalai Lama as an ecumenical figure, holding together disparate religious and regional groups, has been taken up most actively by the 14th Dalai Lama, who has worked to overcome sectarian and other divisions in the exiled community and has become a symbol of Tibetan nationhood for Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile. Just remember that while the current Dalai Lama is an important spiritual and secular leader, he does not, in any sense, lead or represent Buddhism in general. He leads one faction of one sect of Buddhism (Tibetan Buddhism), which is important, but neither the most numerous, nor the most dominant sect of Buddhism in Asia.

Finding a dish for the Dalai Lama’s birthday is a no-brainer. Droma dresil is made throughout Tibet for special occasions, and the Dalai Lama’s executive chef for decades states that he made it on special occasions. It is a sweet rice dish that requires droma and yak butter, so you will not be able to replicate it at home unless a friend has recently returned from the Himalayas and has smuggled these items in.


Droma is a wild root with a unique taste, and yak butter is what it is. Tibetans outside of Tibet make dresil without droma and without yak butter, but it is not the same. It is also common to add extra fruit and nuts to the dresil as the cook desires. Any rice is suitable, but basmati is the most usual.

Droma Dresil


6 cups freshly cooked rice, warm
6 tbsp yak butter
½ cup cashew nuts
1 cup raisins
¼ cup sugar
extra nuts or dried fruits, as desired
1 cup droma


Scrub the droma well, and boil it in 3-4 cups of water for 35-40 minutes until softened but not mushy. Drain and rinse very well to remove remaining dirt.

Mix all the ingredients together well, and serve in small bowls with sweet tea or po cha (butter tea).

Oct 242014


Today is the birthday (1868) of Alexandra David-Néel , first foreign woman explorer of Tibet. She was also a spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist and writer. She is most known for her 1924 visit to Lhasa in Tibet when it was forbidden to foreigners. David-Néel wrote over 30 books about Eastern religion, philosophy, and her travels. Her teachings influenced beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, philosopher Alan Watts, and esotericist Benjamin Creme.


She was born in Saint-Mandé, Val-de-Marne, and moved to Ixelles in Brussels with her family at the age of six. During her childhood she had a very strong desire for freedom and spirituality. At the age of 18, she had already visited England, Switzerland and Spain on her own, and she was studying in Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. She joined various secret societies – she would reach the thirtieth degree in the mixed Scottish Rite of Freemasonry – and played major roles in feminist and anarchist groups. In 1899, she composed an anarchist treatise with a preface by the French geographer and anarchist Elisée Reclus. Publishers did not dare to publish the book, though her friend Jean Haustont printed copies himself and it was eventually translated into five languages.

In 1890 and 1891, she traveled through India, returning only when she was running out of money. From 1895 to 1897 she was prima donna with a touring French opera company in Indochina, appearing at the Hanoi Opera House and elsewhere in La Traviata and Carmen. In Tunis in 1900 she met and lived with the railroad engineer Philippe Néel, marrying him in 1904.

The 13th Dalai Lama

In 1911 she left Néel and traveled for the second time to India, to continue her study of Buddhism. She was invited to the royal monastery of Sikkim, where she met Maharaj Kumar (crown prince) Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal. She became Sidkeong’s “confidante and spiritual sister” (according to Ruth Middleton), perhaps his lover. She also met the 13th Dalai Lama twice in 1912, and had the opportunity to ask him many questions about Buddhism – a feat unprecedented for a European woman at that time.

In the period 1914–1916 she lived in a cave in Sikkim, near the Tibetan border, learning spirituality, together with the young (born 1899) Sikkimese monk Aphur Yongden, who became her lifelong traveling companion, and whom she would later adopt. From there they trespassed into Tibetan territory, meeting the Panchen Lama in Shigatse (August 1916). Sikkim was then a British protectorate and when the British authorities became aware of their presence Alexandra and Aphur were forced to leave the country.


Unable to return to Europe in the middle of World War I, David-Néel and Yongden traveled to Japan. In Japan she met Ekai Kawaguchi, who had visited Lhasa in 1901 disguised as a Chinese doctor, and this inspired them to visit Lhasa disguised as pilgrims. After traversing China from east to west, they reached Lhasa in 1924, and spent two months there.

In 1928 Alexandra legally separated from Néel, but they continued to exchange letters and he kept supporting her until his death in 1941. She settled in Digne (Provence), and during the next nine years she wrote books about her experience and philosophy. In 1929, she published her most famous and beloved work, Mystiques et Magiciens du Tibet (Magic and Mystery in Tibet).


In 1937, Yongden and Alexandra went to Tibet through the then Soviet Union, traveling there during the second World War. They eventually ended up in Tachienlu, where she continued her investigations of Tibetan sacred literature. David-Neel evidently remained in Tachienlu for the duration of the war. While in Eastern Tibet Alexandra and Yongden completed circumambulation of the holy mountain Amnye Machen.


The pair returned to France in 1946. Alexandra was then 78 years old. In 1955 Yongden died at age 56. She continued to study and write at Digne-les-Bains until her death there at the age of nearly 101. According to her last will and testament, her ashes and those of Yongden were mixed together and dispersed in the Ganges in 1973 at Varanasi, by her friend Marie-Madeleine Peyronnet.


Tibetan dishes have become available in restaurants in the West in recent years. When I lived in New York I was a regular visitor to the Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights in Queens, specializing in Tibetan and Nepalese foods. Unless you have a steady supply of yak butter and yak cheese I’d suggest leaving preparation of these dishes to the locals.


Tsampa is the staple food of Tibet. It is made by dry frying barley grains then grinding them into flour. Butter tea and water are added to form a stiff dough which is then kneaded thoroughly until it can be pinched into pellets. Tsampa is easy to carry, suitable for the pasturing life. When Tibetans go out to tend herds they take a wooden bowl with a “tanggu” (a bag to carry Tsampa) strapped on their waists and a little tea. You can also add some meat and vegetables to tsampa and make it into a barley porridge called tuba in Tibetan.

On New Year’s Day in  the Tibetan calendar, Tibetan families put out an auspicious wooden bucket named zusuokima on a table filled with tsampa and decorated with moon and star designs, and maybe whole barley ears. When neighbors or relatives visit, the host will present the “zusuokima” and the visitors will pick up a little tsampa and throw it into the air three times, and then pick up a little and eat it saying “tashi delek” (“everything goes well”) as a blessing.

For more on Tibetan cuisine with excellent recipes go here:




May 292013

Everest-First-Ascent-Sir-Edmund-Hillary-Iconic-Photo-Of-Tenzing-Norgay-On-Everest-Summit-May-29-1953           tenzing


Tenzing Norgay and Qomolongma (Mt Everest)

Today we celebrate the birthday of Tenzing Norgay, who with New Zealand beekeeper, Edmund Hillary, reached the summit of Mt Everest (jo mo glang ma; Chomolungma or Qomolangma “Holy Mother”) on this date in 1953. Norgay did not know the date of his birth because there were no records kept at that time. He did not even know the year, but he knew he was born in the Tibetan year of the rabbit, so it seems likely he was born in 1914. Based on what he was told about the crops and the weather when he was born he conjectured it was late May.  After he and Hillary reached the summit of Everest on May 29, he celebrated his birthday on that date thereafter. He’s occasionally referred to as the Buzz Aldrin (2nd man on the moon) of Everest.  Yet the iconic photograph of their conquest of the summit is of Norgay (see picture). Norgay says that Hillary refused to have his picture taken. Some say it was actually because Norgay did not know how to use a camera, but Hillary’s modesty at not wanting a photograph of himself is entirely in keeping with his character (and the idea that an illiterate Nepalese peasant could not press a shutter, or even try, seems a bit racist to me).

There are conflicting reports as to where Norgay was born and raised because his autobiography proved to have inconsistencies in it. He was not born a Sherpa despite his common appellation “Sherpa Tenzing,” but he may have wanted it to appear so because he lived most of his life as a Sherpa.  It is now generally accepted that he was born in Tsa-chu in Nepal, and raised in Thami, a Nepalese village near the Tibetan border and close to Everest. He was originally called “Namgyal Wangdi,” but at some point his name was changed, for reasons that are obscure. Tenzing Norgay translates as “wealthy-fortunate-follower-of-religion.” He ran away from home twice in his teens, first to Kathmandu and later Darjeeling. He was once sent to Tengboche Monastery to be a monk, but he decided that it was not for him, and left. At the age of 19, he eventually settled in the Sherpa community in Too Song Bhusti in Darjeeling, West Bengal, where he settled with Sherpas and married a Sherpa. In that way he became integrated into the Sherpa community. He could speak 7 languages, but could not read and write.

Norgay began his mountaineering experience at the age of 20 as a high altitude porter for three official British attempts on Everest in 1930’s. He was also part of teams of mountaineers in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. He scaled Nanda Devi, which he described as the most difficult climb he ever took. In 1947, he took part in an unsuccessful attempt at Everest by an unofficial expedition consisting of the Canadian born Earl Denman and two Sherpas. Lacking proper support the attempt was risky, but when a massive storm hit them at 22,000 ft (6,700 m), they were forced to abandon the effort. Also in 1947, Norgay took part in a Swiss ascent of Kedarnath in the western Garhwal Himalaya, and was instrumental in the rescue of sirdar (head porter), Wangdi Norbu, who had fallen almost 1,000 ft (300 m) into deep snow, taking another climber with him, crampons first.  Subsequently Norgay was promoted to the position of sirdar.

In 1952 Norgay took part in two Swiss expeditions led by Raymond Lambert, the first serious attempts to climb Everest from the southern Nepalese side. On the first attempt he and Lambert reached the then record height of 28,215 ft (8,599 m). On the second attempt they were less successful, but it was at this time that Norgay was named a full member of the expedition.  Norgay said that this was “the greatest honor that had ever been paid me”

In 1953, he took part in Sir John Hunt’s expedition, Norgay’s seventh expedition to Everest. It was on this attempt that he and Edmund Hillary became the first men to reach the summit. On a previous climb Hillary fell into a deep crevasse and Norgay saved him from hitting the bottom by quick action, securing Hillary’s rope with his ice ax.  Hence Hillary chose him as his partner on Everest.  A first attempt at the summit on 26 May by two other members of the expedition had to turn back within 300 vertical feet (90 m) of the prize when one of the oxygen systems failed.  Hillary and Norgay set out on 28 May, and reached the summit at 11.00 on 29 May. They stayed 15 minutes to take enough pictures to prove they had reached the summit and headed back down. Norgay became an instant celebrity in Nepal and was showered with honors.  He wrote: “It has been a long road … From a mountain slave, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of a coat with rows of medals who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax.” He spent the rest of his life as a mountaineering instructor.

Although Norgay was not born a Sherpa he adopted the culture, and so I have chosen a Sherpa recipe, Lamb and Barley Soup.  Sherpa cooking is heavily influenced by two factors: what they can grow at high altitude and what is most nourishing and warming in a cold climate.  So their dishes feature of lot of hearty soups made with potatoes, barley, and cold weather greens such as spinach. I focused on this one because it reminds me of Scotch Broth, a lamb and barley soup I grew up eating, and still love to make when I have a lamb bone left over from a roast.

Sherpa Style Lamb and Barley Soup


1 cup barley
1 lb (½  kilo) lamb, cubed
4 cups mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped tomatoes
4 oz (120 g) spinach, washed and torn into small pieces
1 cup chopped onions
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon curry powder
4 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper
3 cups lamb broth or water


Heat the butter in a large heavy bottomed pot.

Add the onions and sauté until lightly browned.

Season the lamb with curry powder, salt, and pepper and add to the onion mixture. Brown the meat well.

Add the mushrooms to the lamb mixture and sauté for 5 minutes over low heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and, turmeric and stir to coat the ingredients in the pot.

Add the tomatoes, soy sauce, and broth. Increase the heat and bring the soup to a boil.

Add the barley and stir well.

Lower the heat and simmer for about an hour or until the barley grains and lamb are tender.

When almost ready to serve, add the spinach to the soup and wilt it for one minute.

Serves 4-6 as a main meal