By Tseten Wangchuk
WASHINGTON, DC, US, 5 May 2020
When I learned of Kasho Jamyang Choegyal la’s passing in a London hospital, my connection to the Coronavirus turned another corner. From first hearing of a mysterious pneumonia in Wuhan through the Chinese social media last December, to mid-January when I was fixated by a flood of stories and video clips of unreal scenes shaking China, I quickly became alarmed and anxious about the safety and protection of my own family and Tibetans in Tibet. Then in the early morning of March 24th, I lost a friend to this strange new virus.
In my life I had only a few personal encounters with Jamchoe la. But each left a vivid and distinctive impression. During the Cultural Revolution, someone told me that Jamchoe la was a beautiful speaker of English. I once happened to hear him speaking to his brother Tsewang Sethar la who was a colleague of my father’s at the time. I noticed Jamchoe la dropping English words, here and there, each time lowering his voice for fear of being overheard but beaming with a grin of satisfaction on his face. In those desolate years in Lhasa, the other-worldly sounds of English words were like a glimpse of a whole other universe of possibilities to my young mind. These were the sounds of the songs I had heard clandestinely sung — Tsewang Sether la’s Que Sera Sera and my father’s favorite, Oh Susanna! At the time, as I recollect, Jamchoe la was visiting Lhasa from Ngari where he was working in places that were extremely remote, even by Tibet’s standard. The word was that he had been banished there.
The next time I met him was in the early 80s, a time when Lhasa was quickly moving out of a dark era and some kind of incoherent sense of hope and possibility was filling the air. One night at a friend’s wedding, Jamchoe la had a few drinks and was energetically giving a lecture about the outside world and how it worked. From time to time he would switch completely from Tibetan to English, even though only one person among us was able to understand.
Jamchoe la was at the height of his life, it seemed to me, and running one of the top luxury hotels in Lhasa. All the well-connected foreign visitors who came to Lhasa would need his help — he was the person who could go between Lhasa’s party boss and western VIPs.
Two years later, when I arrived in the US, I saw some Tibetans in New York irritated by Jamchoe la’s appearance on CBS’ 60 Minutes. I was told that Jamchoe la had been interviewed by CBS host Ed Bradley and had been asked about being regarded a traitor by exiled Tibetans. He responded by saying that he considered Tibetans in exile to be the real traitors. I had not seen the interview myself, and at the time I had no idea how important 60 Minutes was in the US, but assuming that account was accurate, I was dismayed by Jamchoe la’s comments. Just a year earlier, I had left my job at an academic institution in Beijing and had no illusions about how hard — almost impossible — it was for people working within the Chinese system to publicly deviate from the official party line.But as my late friend and fierce Tibetan writer Yidam Tsering always liked to say, the CCP’s four cardinal principles — its red lines — are like four walls. Within these walls is a courtyard; instead of staring at the walls, you can move around inside — and in fact the courtyard is sometimes big enough for riding a horse or even shooting arrows. I thought Jamchoe la could have walked inside that “courtyard” and chosen different words to answer Ed Bradley’s provocative question.
Years later, I met Jamchoe la once again. In 2013, I went to visit him with my wife Tashi while we were attending a conference in London. Kate Saunders, who had been a close friend to Jamchoe la for years, took us to his residence.
By then Jamchoe la had been through much more turbulence in his life in exile — losing his only son outside Tibet, surviving liver cancer, and now in the middle of another cancer treatment. Yet in some ways, he was still the same Jamchoe la I had encountered during the Cultural Revolution and at the riotous wedding party in the early 1980s — energetic, emotional, and full of aspiration. He told us about his life in these two small rooms on the ground floor of a worn-down low-rise apartment in London. One minute he had tears in his eyes, the next minute he let out unrestrained laughter and joy. He seemed delighted with our visit.
To my surprise, our conversations returned again and again to his daily spiritual practice. Jamchoe la adamantly told us that he had been a devoted Buddhist all his life. Back in Lhasa, I cannot say my impression of him was as a pious Buddhist.
But in London, his life had changed.
In the early morning hours, and again in the late evening, he spent much of his time in meditation and in prayer. In his small bedroom, his busy chösham, a Tibetan shrine, took up nearly half the space and featured a large portrait of His Holiness with many small signed photos of well-known Rinpoches displayed around it. Jamchoe la told me that listening to audio-taped teachings of these great Tibetan Buddhist scholars helped him overcome the difficulties of life in London. Without prompting, he added that he is at peace with all his life decisions.
Jamchoe la’s apartment was small and cluttered. But from the postage-stamp size backyard where he had strung fresh prayer flags in the air and planted an unruly mix of vibrant flowers in the patch of earth in the ground, I could see that he was still a man full of exuberant spirit and a strong will to survive. He had reinvented himself yet again.
At the time, Jamchoe la was writing his father’s biography. While I offered my services to help do some research for his book, I actually never did anything besides read through the manuscript. Still, he sent us a copy of the handsome published book with a generous handwritten inscription saying Tashi and I “were amongst the foremost in encouraging me to write this book.”
These days whenever I hear news of the passing of senior Tibetans, I would tell myself, another Tibetan who had lived in a pre-Chinese controlled Tibet has left this world. We have one less witness of what Tibet once was. Sad and feeling a sense of loss for a disappearing world, I sometimes even forget to murmur an Om mani padme hung for the death.
But to my mind, Jamchoe la was in a different category. Over the past seven decades, we Tibetans have been forced to live in vastly different worlds. The worlds we have lived in are not only physically separate and distant from each other, they are entirely alien to each other.
Jamchoe la lived in an old Tibet like many of my older family and friends — a Tibet without the Chinese. He briefly went to school in India in the 1940s as did my uncle and father. He then went to school in China and worked for the Chinese-controlled state before abruptly leaving to start a new life with Tibetans in exile, as I did too.
Most of us only get a chance to live in one or two of these different Tibetan worlds. But Jamchoe la not only lived in all these worlds, with his mastery of Tibetan, English, and Chinese languages and social norms, and perhaps even more, his exuberant and expansive personality, he managed to deeply immerse himself in all of them.
Kasho Jamyang Choegyal la — the man who lived fully in all these different worlds of contemporary Tibet — found joy in each of them while also enduring the worst. I can’t think of anyone quite like him.
About the author
Tseten Wangchuk is a Tibetan journalist based in Washington DC.