One of my friends and teachers, Geshe-La, is a Tibetan monk, scholar, and lama (spiritual teacher). He holds a couple of PhDs from his nation’s most prestigious monastic universities.
When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, he was able to escape over the Himalayas into India. While his party was making their way up the steep mountain path, the Chinese sent planes to attack them. The path was so narrow, the Tibetans had to ascend on foot, single-file. There were monks and nuns, young and old, and many ordinary men, women, and children of all ages.
Any goods they had carried earlier on their flight had had to be abandoned along the route. By the time they were climbing up the perpetually snow-covered face of the Himalaya, no one carried more than a backpack; most finally abandoned even such remaining possessions in order to travel faster and lighter up the mountainside. Many carried children in their arms or on their backs, others carried on their backs elderly and/or wounded fellow escapees.
The trail was extremely narrow, extremely steep, and covered in treacherously slippery ice. The increasing altitude made breathing labored. Everyone was exhausted from days of desperate, rushed travel and scant food, sleeping rough, in the open, under constant fear and occasional attacks.
Now as the unarmed party of fleeing refugees was stretched out, one by one, on the open side of the mountain, showing up from afar as dark specks against the wall of snow and ice, the airplanes caught up with them. The machine guns fired on them as if they were “sitting ducks” in a pond or mechanical “sitting ducks” in a carnival shooting gallery. My friend Geshe-La was 28, he had been a monk for almost twenty years. In front of him walked his beloved elderly teacher, abbot of Geshe-La’s monastery, a great scholar in his nineties who also had been a monk since his childhood. Behind the two men climbed a young mother carrying her child. Above and below them, close to a hundred other people were stretched out along the trail.
When the attacking Chinese planes strafed the line of refugees, the bullets missed Geshe-La, but struck and instantly killed his teacher in front of him and the young mother behind him, as well as many, many others in the party. Geshe-La found the young woman’s infant was unharmed. He was able to rescue the tiny child, placing her inside the fold of his monk’s robe. Although he had no food, he was able to give her tiny clumps of snow to suck on from time to time. In this way they eventually made it to India with the other surviving members of their party. Once over the border, safe from further Chinese attacks, Geshe-La was able to place the child with a Tibetan family. She had no known surviving relatives.
The Chinese soon destroyed almost all of the many monasteries and convents in Tibet, including the monastic college, one of the largest of the nation, where Geshe-La had resided and studied with his now dead teacher.
When I first met Geshe-La, he was 56 and slowly teaching himself English, using a first-grade Dick and Jane-style primer, “like I little boy,” he told me, beaming. Often chuckling quietly, sometimes chortling aloud, he seems to be one of the happiest fellows around.