High Peaks Pure Earth is publishing obituaries for the late Kasho Jamyang Choegyal authored by his friends.
Kasho Jamyang Choegyal (Jamchoe) passed away in London, UK on March 24, 2020. An article remembering him by Woeser was published here last month. The touching contributions below are by Kate Saunders and Tseten Wangchuk.
*May 11, 2020 Update*: On the occasion of the 49th day since his passing, we are publishing a third piece written by Robert Barnett. Please scroll down to read.
Kashö Jamyang Choegyal Obituary
By Kate Saunders
Our dear friend Jamyang Choegyal Kasho – Jamchoe la, a formidable and strong-willed Tibetan translator, scholar and writer of astonishing erudition, insight and a keen sense of fun – died peacefully in the early hours of March 24, 2020, in Kings College Hospital in London at the age of 81. Jamchoe la survived ‘re-education’ and hard labour during the Cultural Revolution, the loss of almost all his family, defection from the PRC and three serious bouts of cancer before succumbing to the Coronavirus in the strange and rather tense days before its current peak in London. He died in the hospital that had earlier saved his life, in the compassionate care of the NHS staff he valued so highly, and with a picture of the Dalai Lama by his bedside.
Jamchoe passed away knowing that he had fulfilled his self-imposed task of honoring his family legacy and restoring the place of his late father, Kashopa Chogyal Nyima, in the recent history of Tibet. Jamchoe’s book, ‘In the Service of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas’ – published in 2015 by Tibet Haus in Germany thanks to the late calligrapher, his relative Puntsok Tsering Duechung – gave a detailed and insightful account of the life of his father in the context of Lhasa politics in the momentous period of the Chinese invasion, March 1959 Uprising and escape of the Dalai Lama and the Cultural Revolution. The story of the rise and fall of Kashopa “is worthy of a great Russian novel by Tolstoy such as War and Peace”, Professor Tsering Shakya observed in the book’s foreword. This could also apply to the life of his son Jamchoe who became the first, and probably the only, Tibetan official and Party member of his rank to defect to a western country.
Almost unique in his mastery of Tibetan, Chinese and English, Jamchoe grew up in a family devoted to both the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas, and was brought up under the family’s motto ‘khorwa-la nyingpo meypa-re’: ‘there’s no essence in worldly things’. He worked or lived under each of the four main systems of government that have run Tibet in the last century. From a lavish lifestyle in Lhasa with large house, chauffeur and servants, he spent his remaining years following his defection to Britain in 1991 in a humble ground-floor council flat in south-east London. But he was rich in friendships, and inherited his father’s optimism and sense of gratitude to Tibetan Buddhist teachings – which he described as “a wonderful gift, one that has helped me to be a happy man, as happiness is, after all, a state of mind.”
Jamchoe faced death with the same fortitude and devotion as his late father, who passed away praying in his bed in Lhasa at dawn in December 1986, at the age of 85. Jamchoe had spoken a few weeks before of a dream of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which led him to understand that he might die this year. For many years, he had been preparing through Buddhist instruction from Geshe Tashi Tsering (of the Jamyang Centre in London, now abbot of Sera Mey monastery in India), a morning routine of prayers, reading the Dalai Lama’s works and contact with Buddhist masters. Ever since his beloved son Jamphun took his own life at the age of 32 in 2008, Jamchoe had also been making personal offerings in the form of feeding pigeons in the local park each day without fail. (He was also proud of successfully training his beloved cat Tsikki not to hunt the birds he loved to feed in the small garden of his flat in Elephant and Castle.)
In his book, Jamyang Choegyal Kasho recounts that he was born in Lhasa in 1938 into “an aristocratic family that was warm, happy and religious”. He and his three brothers “grew up imbued with religious values and a firm belief in the sanctity and blessings of Kunchoksum, the Three Precious Jewels – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha”. From an early age he became fluent in Chinese and English as well as his mother tongue. At the age of six, he spent a brief period at Lhasa’s newly-opened, and first, English school, before it was shut down due to pressure from the conservative monastic establishment.
Because his Pala believed that one should never be like a frog at the bottom of the well, able to see only the little patch of sky above and think it is the whole world, Jamchoe was one of ten boys sent to study in India from Lhasa. Before he left to attend St Joseph’s College in Darjeeling, a Jesuit missionary school, his beloved Amala gave him a lesson he continued to speak about for many years. Taking him into the store room for “snacks” (a common feature of aristocratic homes at that time), she revealed behind the tins of Ovaltine and Butter Puff biscuits an interior room packed full of unpainted boxes containing objects about the size of a television remote control with a lion embossed on the surface. They were gold bars, and his mother told him that while the boxes were for him, she and his Pala could not guarantee that they would still be there for his future. “That is why we are sending you to India to study – because the knowledge you receive there will be yours for life,” she said. Her words turned out to be prescient, as not a trace of gold remained in the family after the Cultural Revolution, while Jamchoe la’s learning endured.
Jamchoe was still at the British school in India when China invaded Tibet in 1950 and did not return until 1953. He then studied at the Central Institute for Nationalities in Beijing for around 14 years, graduating with distinction in 1967 – a year into the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Because his father Kashopa was an aristocrat who had clearly shown himself to be a devotee of the Dalai Lama, he was singled out for particularly harrowing treatment, and later came to be admired widely in Lhasa for his strength and courage.
In an image taken by Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser’s father, a photographer at the time, Kashopa is shown flanked by two Red Guards, wearing a paper-tipped hat, with “Cow Demon and Snake Spirit, an evil, power hungry man, Kashö Choegyal Nyima, completely destroyed” written on it in Tibetan. Woeser writes: “Going to work in the day, and subject to struggle sessions until late at night, his days were spent bowing from head to toe, and bowing to the ears without any complaints”.
On one occasion, Red Guards had grabbed Kashopa and forced his head down to the ground while reciting a litany of his supposed crimes, when a noise became clearer and clearer – the sound of snoring. To everyone’s surprise, it was coming from Jamchoe’s Pala, who was supposed to be paying attention. He was of course punished even more for this act, regarded as defiance. Jamchoe writes in his book that the level of violence against his father “terrified us: we could not believe that he survived. Later we learnt that Kashopa had learned from his spiritual gurus some special skills in meditation that he had practiced long and hard during his second imprisonment in Lhokha Nedong, and that it was this technique that he had used secretly to endure these terrible periods in his life.”
The Jokhang Temple and numerous other monasteries around Lhasa were looted and smashed during that period, and the huge mani (prayer) wheel, that stood two storeys tall, was destroyed. Once, while Jamchoe was looking after his Amala at home in Lhasa, Red Guards made a bonfire in their courtyard, and for five days and nights, burned all of their belongings including large gilt statues of the Buddha and whole volumes of Kagyur and Tengyur scriptures. One night, Kashopa and Jamchoe’s brother Tsewang Sither were dragged out of their Mani Chapel and almost beaten to death after being accused of “looking at” Red Guards as they looted items from their house.
In his book, Jamchoe recalls how his mother became depressed at the devastation, but that his Pala referred to an infamous Tibetan king who had destroyed Buddhism in the 9th century, saying: “Don’t worry, it’s just like we’re living through the dark age of King Langdarma again. Believe me, our Buddhism will survive and there is no doubt it will flourish again, as it did after those desperate times.”
Given his aristocratic background, it was inevitable that Jamchoe would be ‘sent down’ to the countryside, and he was despatched to Gertse county in remote Ngari to be ‘re-educated’ by nomads and ‘transform the mind’ through labour. It was during this period that his son Jamphun was born, and because Jamchoe and his then wife did not want him to suffer with them, he grew up under the care of his grandparents in Lhasa.
While in Ngari, because of his excellence in Chinese and despite his class background, Jamchoe was unofficially requisitioned to work with Party administrators running the local county. In a vivid example of the workings of cause and effect, as he later described it, Jamchoe first suffered when he sought to alleviate a terrifying situation for several nomads labeled as ‘class enemies’ by removing the labels. Although he did this under the pretext of Mao’s position that such labels could be taken on or off, like a ‘hat’, his actions were first seen as supporting ‘class enemies’ and he had to endure struggle sessions. But later, when Deng Xiaoping came to power, and ‘reform and opening up’ replaced ‘class struggle’, Gertse was praised as the first county in Ngari to remove the labels. Officials knew that Jamchoe had done this, so he was given Party membership, thus beginning his fast rise through Party ranks.
Since both Jamchoe and his late younger brother Tsewang Sither both spoke English well, after the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao in 1976 they were both appointed to the burgeoning tourism administration in Lhasa.
Jamchoe’s older brother Kasho Tseten Dondrup did not survive the Cultural Revolution. He served as Deputy Director of Tibet Daily in the 1960s but was arrested, suffered repeated struggle sessions, and committed suicide in December 1966 at the age of only 44. Tsering Woeser writes: “He once accompanied the Chinese Communist Youth League delegation to Budapest to participate in the World Youth Festival in 1956, as the deputy chairman of the Tibet Patriotic Youth Association. In an earlier time, he was a fourth-ranking official of the Tibetan government. He served as English secretary to the Dalai Lama after attending a famous school in India. I have seen a picture of him before a young Tibetan nobleman, elegant and handsome, but unfortunately, he became a collaborator of the new regime and was eventually destroyed by them.”
Jamchoe’s youngest brother, Kashö Lhundup Namgyal, was a poet and editor-in-chief of Tibetan Literature and Art. He is remembered with great affection by Woeser, who worked as a Chinese editor at the journal. Showing the same loyalty to his friends that characterized Jamchoe’s life, after she was removed from her position for publishing a collection of essays with “serious political mistakes”, Lhundup Namgyal risked political opprobrium to keep in touch with Woeser and “His affection moved me deeply”, Woeser wrote in her obituary of Jamchoe.
By the mid-1980s Jamchoe was a prominent Executive Director for tourism, effectively in charge of all the hotels and travel agencies in the region, all run by the government. He later became General Manager of the Tibet Hotel, a position that gave him a comfortable life with a secretary and chauffeur. But he was no ordinary Party apparatchik; Jamchoe was innovative. He hosted an exhibition by American artist Robert Rauschenberg in Lhasa, the first such initiative of its kind, and an act that landed him in an uncomfortable political situation. He was accused of having ‘ulterior motives’, with his detractors saying that such an exhibition was designed to please ‘separatists’ who believed that Tibetan culture was separate to Chinese culture. Jamchoe‘s professional career only survived because he was able to point to the example of the Tenth Panchen Lama, saying that such activities were allowed under ‘reform and opening up’ policies.
On another occasion, Jamchoe was asked to approve some videos that a foreign manager at the Holiday Inn in Lhasa had brought to show on the hotel’s TV cable channel. One of the films starred Richard Gere – Jamchoe recalled it was probably ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’. Jamchoe knew he should have censored the film because Richard Gere was close to His Holiness and prominent as a Tibet advocate. But, for exactly the same reason, Jamchoe chose to screen the film, and kept postponing the ban. The movie was shown for such a long time that he forgot about it – until some Party officials from Beijing checked into the hotel. They were furious to see the known ‘separatist’ actor on the hotel’s cable channel and reported Jamchoe, who was severely criticized and almost demoted from his post. Years later, Jamchoe told me that he was only saved by a more senior local government official who had praised him in public, and knew that it wouldn’t look good for him if Jamchoe fell from grace.
Jamchoe maintained an uneasy balance between his professional card-carrying Party role and his inner loyalties to the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist faith that infused his life, and his knowledge and personal experience of the wrenching suffering his people had endured under Communism. He surely knew deep down that attempting to reconcile the two in the long term was ultimately untenable.
He was once part of an official delegation of Party officials to Nepal when there was a demonstration by Tibetans against Chinese rule, directed at the group. While Jamchoe and his fellow officials had to publicly dismiss them as ‘separatists’, he said later that he was very happy; their actions had shown that the Tibetan spirit of resistance was still strong in exile and that Tibetans in the diaspora cared passionately about their homeland.
Jamchoe endured a particularly testing time in the turbulent years of 1987-89, when a pro-independence protest by Drepung monks in Lhasa was followed by a wave of demonstrations and ultimately by the imposition of martial law in March 1989. Jamchoe’s own son, Jamphun, only 13 at the time, took to the streets and marched with monks, nuns and laypeople. During our conversations over the years before his own tragic death, Jamphun, who had joined his father in exile in the late 1990s, recalled that he ran through the streets of the Barkhor to escape arrest, occasionally seeking shelter in someone’s courtyard, or hiding behind a high wall. When he reached a temporary sanctuary at the home of an elderly relative, she suggested that he kneel down in front of the family shrine and vowed to the Dalai Lama that if he were to be caught, he would not disclose the names of any of his friends who had participated in the protest, even under torture.
Jamphun knew that the security apparatus would spend as long as it took gathering intelligence to identify participants, and that if he were arrested, this could bring down his entire family. Although he knew they would be heartbroken, Jamphun decided to escape from Tibet. Unable to say goodbye to his family for fear that they would be accused of helping him, he went to his father’s office on the last morning of his stay in Lhasa and hugged him without saying a word. He had already collected winter clothes, socks, thick coats and some money, and left Lhasa on a day that was an official holiday, when most families went out for a picnic.
Making the dangerous journey across the Himalayas and into exile, Jamphun crossed the border into Nepal via the Nangpa Pass safely and successfully, but nearly died on his downhill journey to Kathmandu. Attempting to evade the Nepalese police who were arresting and repatriating Tibetan refugees, he slipped descending from a steep slope. Finding himself hanging from the cliff, a deathly drop below him, he had to pull himself up using the root of a tree. Later, some Nepalese attacked him and his friends, beat them badly, and stole their money. When he arrived at the refugee centre in Kathmandu established by the Tibetans in exile, he had nothing but the clothes he was wearing. He asked someone to call his family in Lhasa and to say only three words: “He is safe.” Jamchoe and his son were finally reunited after Jamchoe was granted refugee status (a process that took more than five years) and was able to bring Jamphun to the UK.
Despite the tensions between his public and private personas, Jamchoe admitted that he had not considered escaping before 1991. His position in Tibet had afforded him the space and power to help other Tibetans, overtly or covertly. He never talked about the details, although some others did; he would have regarded it as inappropriate bragging. He did mention one incident at an official meeting, just after word had just reached him of some nuns who had been tortured after they had held a peaceful demonstration calling for the long life of the Dalai Lama. Unable to hold back his anger, he banged his fists on the table. He noticed other officials glancing at each other, and knew the incident could be recalled later to his detriment.
The breaking point came in November 1991. While on a Chinese government delegation to London for a travel fair, Jamchoe was informed by a friend that the authorities had become aware of some of his religious activities and the help he had arranged for monks who had been tortured. These were serious crimes. Moreover, if they came to light, he believed that past accusations against him would also resurface and he could be suspected of involvement in all kinds of ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities, and face serious consequences.
Jamchoe knew that he could not return to Tibet. Defection was also a huge risk. He says of that night in his hotel room that he had never felt so lonely in his life. Then, in the early hours of the morning, he remembered an encounter when he was managing the Tibet Hotel in Lhasa. He had secretly gone into the room of the venerable Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a tutor to the King of Bhutan who was visiting Lhasa at the time, and asked for his blessings. Jamchoe’s father had been one of his patrons. When the Rinpoche’s assistant learned that Jamchoe would likely be visiting London on official business at some point in the future, he passed on phone numbers of two lamas in the UK, which Jamchoe had kept in his pocket diary.
When Jamchoe called one of the numbers, he was scarcely able to breathe for fear; the hotel was owned by the Chinese government and other officials were on the same floor. He made an appointment to see the Rinpoche and gave a plausible excuse to the other delegation members. With his Chinese passport in his pocket and briefcase in hand, he sat down and prayed before leaving the room. “I recalled the faces of the monks and nuns whose arms had been dislocated and whose legs had been broken by the Communist Party’s People’s Armed Police. This was to reassure myself that although I was in the sad position of leaving my family behind I should be happy because I had at least managed to help some of my suffering brethren in Tibet,” he wrote in his book. He also reminded himself of one of his father’s key mottos for those critical moments when steeliness of will was required, “Fetch the salt from the Changtang wasteland even if nine yaks die”.
Following Rinpoche’s recommendation, Jamchoe made his way to the Office of Tibet where Mrs Kesang Takla, the then Representative of the Dalai Lama, called Robbie Barnett, then head of Tibet Information Network, to help advise Jamchoe, as he had to make the decision to defect or not. By the time Robbie had laid out all the legal and practical options, with all their uncertainties, he had only 15 minutes to make a decision before his absence from the Embassy would be noticed and his decision would become irrevocable.
Robbie had a second career at the time as an actor. As chance (or cause and effect) would have it, he was appearing in a play about the life of Kafka at the King’s Head Theatre. Robbie remembers: “It’s unheard of in the theatre world for an actor to be late, let alone to delay the curtain going up. But when I left the Office of Tibet and reached the theatre, 20 minutes late, with the entire cast standing there, watching and waiting for me, and on the other side of the curtain the audience all waiting too, a truly extraordinary thing happened: no-one said a word about me being late, no-one asked me anything, before or after, or ever indicated even the slightest doubt or grievance about the delay I’d caused, not even the director. I was never asked why I was so late, and I never spoke about it either, since at the time it had to be kept totally confidential. I have no idea how this happened, but somehow they all knew that whatever had delayed me was more important than anything that to do with that show that night, or perhaps any show on any night. And now I feel that they were right.”
Unbeknownst to Jamchoe, the Dalai Lama would arrive in London the very next day. This was to be the first and most significant of a number of encounters Jamchoe had with Kundun. An audience was hastily arranged as was transportation for Jamchoe from the safe place where he was staying. It was the happiest, most miraculous moment of his life, as he tells it in his book, and he dedicated himself in his exile to study the teachings of the Dalai Lama.
Throughout his life in the UK he was also guided by various Tibetan teachers, including the Ven Dagpo Rinpoche in France, and Geshe Tashi Tsering of the nearby Jamyang Centre in London who came to his house to teach him direct before he moved to India. Jamchoe was inspired by a note from His Holiness conveyed through Geshe Tashi in 2011, urging him to “continue to strive hard”. Jamchoe wrote in his book that he was very touched and humbled by these words, just as he also felt blessed when the Dalai Lama jokingly called out to him either ‘Gyagpa-lodroe’ or ‘Gyag-loe’ – Jolly Fatman – when seeing him in the crowd on visits to London.
Jamchoe received asylum status and was deeply appreciative of the skillful work of his late lawyer and friend, David Burgess, who was married to a Tibetan, Youdon Lhamo, who also became a close friend. His MP at the time, Simon Hughes, helped him achieve his dream of securing a small ground floor council flat with a small garden where his close friends planted colourful flowers that gave him much joy. So many birds were attracted to his feeders that sparrowhawks, rare in central London, sometimes hovered overhead.
Jamchoe worked as a trilingual translator, advisor and political analyst in London for around 15 years at the independent news and research organisation Tibet Information Network (now closed), founded by Robbie Barnett and Nick Howen, and together with Tsering Shakya, Palden Gyal, Chonpel Tsering, Jane Caple, Torty Conner, Clare Wilshaw, Francisca Van Holthoon, Jan Willem den Besten, Ben Carrdus, myself and others. He called a few of us his “Charlie’s Angels” and loved to join us at the pub for a special celebration or Friday night drinks. Torty taught him to touch-type and he became adept at using a computer and email, thanks to his good friend Sonam Dugdak’s continual support in setting him up online at home, moving on from doing translations in his neat cursive script by hand.
Scholar Jane Caple recalls: “For those of us working out of the London office, it was an immense privilege to be able to go into the library room where he regularly worked to talk with him as we grappled with understanding and analysing events and developments unfolding inside Tibet. His deeply nuanced insights into official Chinese Communist Party policy, thinking, and language, his ability to read between the lines, and his remarkable lack of hubris despite his extraordinary life and extensive knowledge were just a few of the ways in which he served as a great teacher to us all.”
Among his strongest qualities were a deep loyalty to his friends and a commitment to the truth and to plain speaking – it was a poor friend, he believed, who did not tell the truth, however painful. At the same time he was deeply concerned to acquire cultural as well as linguistic literacy and to avoid making faux pas that might cause inadvertent offence or hurt (for instance telling a female colleague that she was getting fatter!) He enjoyed often heated conversations on any number of topics – politics, history, literature – over spicy pork dumplings and Pret A Manger lemon cheesecake. He understood the machinations of power and politics so well that we lamented his absence in the kitchen cabinets of unwitting 21st century British leaders over Brexit (Jamchoe held the same view as the Dalai Lama on this matter, that it is a major mistake). Late in life, Dugdak – who, like two other former neighbours who became good friends, did so much for him over many years – helped him to set up an Instagram account @kashopabook, still online, and he enjoyed posting images of historic interest and importance, family photographs, and pictures with friends in London.
For years, Jamchoe insisted that his English wasn’t good enough to write a book, but friends finally convinced him otherwise. His book went through a number of edits, painstakingly detailed in his long acknowledgements, mainly because of his desire for absolute precision in his writing. As Robbie Barnett and others have observed, it was remarkable how much advanced literary English he retained from his few short years of education in India. His command of the language, including complex writing, was extraordinary, even when he first arrived in London, having hardly used it for 40 years. He had a constant appetite for learning new English idioms, phrases, and vocabulary, and a vast knowledge of proverbs and sayings in Chinese and Tibetan. And he remembered them all – even a decade later, he would make a joke using a phrase he had learnt, recalling a specific incident or something someone had said.
The first time that Jamchoe was diagnosed with cancer, he was desperately ill and anxious, waiting for a new liver. At the time the newly enthroned Ganden Tripa, the Venerable Rizong Sras Rinpoche, was in London and Jamchoe managed to attend his White Tara Initiation at the Jamyang Buddhist Centre. Rinpoche grasped his hand and immediately said to him, “Your Pala, Kashopa, saved Sera Jey monastery, do you know that?” Jamchoe knew. He tells the story in his book of how Kashopa had been instructed to lead the Tibetan army destroy the monastery in 1947 but had instead compelled the rebels to give up without causing greater damage. Rinpoche prayed for Jamchoe to find a liver donor as soon as possible. The next morning, he received a call from Kings College Hospital to say that a liver was available, and he was rushed in for the successful transplant.
Three years later, in 2005, the cancer returned again, this time in Jamchoe’s small bowel. Doctors were worried that another bout of surgery might be too dangerous for Jamchoe in his fragile state, and no hospital beds for surgery were available. But Dagpo Rinpoche in France assured Jamchoe that he would be treated successfully and that they would meet again. Some weeks later, while Jamchoe was still waiting for treatment, a message was conveyed to him that the Dalai Lama had prayed for him. That same morning, the hospital called to say that a bed was available and Jamchoe had his second successful surgery for cancer.
Jamchoe had been suffering from cancer of the lungs for more than a year before he fell seriously ill with Coronavirus. But he did not seem to suffer from any symptoms, which his doctors found unusual, and which he attributed to a type of Tibetan medicine he had been taking as well as the direct blessings of His Holiness and other Tibetan lamas. His resilience and continued energy was remarkable, particularly as he had been deeply affected by the passing of younger friends and relatives in recent years: Gen la Tsering Dhundup, who taught at Oxford; the calligrapher Puntsok Tsering Duechung, and the scholar Gyurme Dorje. The death of his son Jamphun in 2008, who had struggled with mental turmoil for years, had been a particularly bitter blow. Jamphun, a brilliant and deep-thinking young man, had also worked as a translator and advisor at Tibet Information Network after graduating with distinction from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
Eight years after Jamchoe’s defection, Jamphun made a bold demonstration in London that featured prominently in the British media. At the time, the then President Jiang Zemin was in London for a controversial visit as a guest of the Queen. Jamphun had found out what route his convoy would take and hid in a small shop on the Strand. As the car carrying Jiang Zemin passed by, Jamphun shot out onto the road on his bicycle, holding aloft the Tibetan flag. He later said that thinking of the singing nuns of Drapchi Prison gave him the courage to do so, much as his father summoned the same images to mind as he deliberated leaving his hotel room that fateful day to defect. For a moment, Jamphun looked directly into the eyes of the Chinese President. Jamchoe was tremendously proud of his son. As we watched him being manhandled to the ground by British police on BBC News afterwards, Jamchoe marveled: “Look at how many police it took to arrest him!”
Jamchoe used to say that the time in his life that he was proudest of was caring for his elderly parents in the family’s freezing Mani Chapel during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution. While his mother was sick in bed, Jamchoe’s 67 year old Pala was undergoing struggle sessions. Before coming to the bedside he would wash and clean his cuts and bruises so that he could pretend nothing had happened. Once the Red Guards had to carry him back because he had been beaten so badly he was unable to walk. When he stumbled into her room, Amala was visibly alarmed. So he turned to Jamchoe and requested him to sing a lively Tibetan song describing a man walking in good spirits to see his guru. As Jamchoe started to sing, trying to choke back tears, Kashopa began a vigorous tap dance to cheer up his wife, hiding terrible pain.
Later in life, Jamchoe’s devotion to his own parents, firmly grounded in Tibetan tradition, was extended to the parents of his friends, including mine. Robbie’s mother Barbara, a writer in her nineties, helped to edit his book. When my father Peter died in 2011, Jamchoe sent my mother a generous donation in his memory. Concerned that it might be counter to his Buddhist faith, my mother Sheila asked him if he would mind if this donation was used to buy new Bibles for her Church of England church; he replied that he would be delighted and happy for the money to be used in this way.
The circumstances of Jamchoe’s parents’ deaths were remarkable. When Jamchoe’s Amala was dying, the family servant rushed out of the room to say that flowers were falling upon the bed. Amala was sitting bolt upright in the dim light as if in meditation. Then all of a sudden, they heard the sound ‘ped’. Kashopa shouted “Tashi Delek!” and wept, as he knew this was her last breath. The sound was a sign that Amala was practicing the ‘pho-wa’, a traditional ritual for the transference of consciousness outlined in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The dying person visualizes their consciousness leaving the crown of their head into the Buddha realm, with a ‘ped’ sound.
The night before his own passing, Kashopa had touched his forehead with his sons one by one and prayed for a long time, as if they were “leaving home instead of the room”. Jamchoe found him the next morning with his hands folded in prayer position, lying flat on his back. A few days before his death, Kashopa had told his son that his teachers would remind him that in Tibetan language, the word for the body means ‘to be left behind’ as the consciousness, the guest, will leave behind the guest house of the body.
Jamchoe passed away at 1.25 GMT on March 24, 2020, in a quiet ward at Kings College Hospital. Two nights before his death, he told a nurse that he was ready to go, and messages were conveyed to him of prayers that were being performed by Rinpoches and butter-lamps being lit at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.
In his introduction to Jamchoe’s book about his father, Professor Robbie Barnett wrote that the work might explain to some outsiders the remarkable recovery of Tibetan identity and religion after the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death in 1976: “It might also help to explain what must be an even greater surprise to Chinese rulers in Beijing: the resurgence of Tibetan identity and nationalism in the last 30 years, despite the huge efforts of the Chinese authorities to promote socialism, modernization, ‘patriotic education’, Chinese nationalism, and similar ideologies. It may turn out to be different with the younger generation today, at least in towns, but Jamyang Choegyal’s writing and life decisions show that, in terms of his sense of who he is and what community, tradition, heritage and nation he belongs to, the fundamental issues have not changed over the course of his life despite the massive reversals in politics that he has lived through.”
Jamchoe ended his book on a positive note, true to his character and family legacy, writing: “The way my journey has turned out has not only enhanced my faith in Buddhism, it has also given me a new kind of hope for the society and the nation in which I grew up and lived for so many years. Tibet has suffered crises and catastrophes of so many kinds – the factional fighting and decay of the interregnum, incorporation into the Chinese state, the flight of our leader into exile, the terrible suppression of the Uprising, and the mindless destruction of the Cultural Revolution, to name a few. But I believe that the Tibetan people in the different Tibetan areas will survive these, and in the future will achieve a degree of autonomy worthy of the name, in which both Tibetan and Chinese language will be used, and in which Tibetan Buddhism language and culture will flourish, enhancing China’s reputation while adding immeasurably to the treasure-house of cultures in the world. And I pray that the aroma of tsampa and yak butter tea will smell stronger than ever under the clear blue sky of the Tibetan plateau.”
Jamchoe la leaves a beloved daughter and grandson, and many friends.
Kate Saunders is a writer, journalist and Tibet specialist who was until recently working for the International Campaign for Tibet as Research Director. She is the author of ’18 Layers of Hell: Stories from the Chinese Gulag’ and numerous reports for publications including the Washington Post, Guardian and The Times.
“Kasho Jamchoe, the Man Who Lived in All Our Worlds”
By Tseten Wangchuk
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 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 24, 2020, 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 be nearby as he and his brother Tsewang Sither la, a colleague of my father at the time, were talking with my father. 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 otherworldly sounds of English words were like a glimpse of a dream of a whole other universe of possibilities to my young mind. These were the sounds of the songs I had heard clandestinely sung – Tsewang Sither 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 extremely remote places, 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 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’s 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 and 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 with him 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 aspirations. He told us about his life in these two small rooms on the ground floor of a worn-down 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 listening to audiotaped 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. I offered my services to help do some research for his book. While I never did anything besides reading through the manuscript, when his book came out he sent us a copy of the handsome book with very generous handwritten inscription saying that 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 fewer witness of what Tibet once was. Sad and feeling a sense of dread for the loss of a disappearing world, I sometimes even forgot to murmur an Om mani padme hum for the death.
But to my mind, Jamchoe la was in a different category altogether. Over the past seven decades, we Tibetans have been forced to live lives 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 like 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 naturally 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 like him.
Tseten Wangchuk is a Tibetan journalist based in Washington DC.
Kashöpa Jamyang Choegyal, 1938-2020
By Robert Barnett
The formidable Tibetan translator, analyst, and writer Kashöpa Jamyang Choegyal, known as Jamchoe, died in London at 1.25 this morning, local time, from the coronavirus. He was 81.
In 2015 Jamchoe published an account of his father’s turbulent career as a bka’ blon in the 1940s and subsequent decades, In the Service of the 13th and the 14th Dalai Lamas: Choegyal Nyima Lhundrup Kashopa. The memoir offered an unusually nuanced account of political life and factional dynamics within the Tibetan elite at that time. In it Jamchoe presented an important and understudied perspective on that history, one that contested the framing found more widely in English-language writings about that period. Those had reflected primarily the views of Tibetans who were closer to the regent Taktra than to his rival, the former regent, Retreng. Jamchoe’s work sought to balance that approach by showing the internal conflicts at the time, including the little-known pro-Retreng view. This was typical of his resistance to simplified or polarised positions on any issue, whether it was about politics, history or any other topic. It was also a reminder of his unshakeable commitment to Tibetan culture and religious beliefs, and to his la rgya or pride in the nation. Remarkably, these seemed only to have been increased by his thirty years of work as a mid-ranking cadre in the Chinese administration in Tibet.
Kashöpa Jamyang Choegyal was born in Lhasa in 1938 and from an early age became fluent in Chinese and English as well as his native Tibetan. He was studying in a British school in India when the Chinese invasion of Tibet took place in 1950 and returned to Lhasa only in 1953. He was then sent for further education in Beijing and was at university there at the time of the uprising in Lhasa and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959.
By the time Jamyang Choegyal had completed his studies and returned from Beijing to Lhasa, the Cultural Revolution had already begun. He lived through the violence and humiliation of its early years in Lhasa until he was sent down to work in the rural areas of Ngari in western Tibet. While there, despite his class background, because of his excellence in Chinese, he was requisitioned unofficially to work with Party administrators running the local county. He became indispensable as an assistant to those officials, who were judged by the quality of their reports to their superiors, yet could not themselves write easily in Chinese. As a member of the aristocracy and the class of former elite officials, he was endlessly amused by the irony of that situation.
Once reform and opening-up began after the death of Mao in 1976, he and his older brother Tsewang Sither were appointed to leadership positions in the new tourism administration in Lhasa, since they both spoke English well. By the late 1980s Jamyang Choegyal had become widely known for his innovative management of the Tibet Hotel in Lhasa and was publicly feted in the official media at the time. In 1991, whilst a member of an official Chinese delegation in London, suspecting that his hidden religious and other sympathies had become known to the authorities, he became the first, and probably the only, Tibetan official and Party member of that rank to defect to a western country.
Jamchoe worked in London for some fifteen years with Tsering Shakya, the poet and journalist Palden Gyal, Tenzin Gelek, Kate Saunders, Torty Connors, myself and others for the Tibet Information Network (TIN), an independent news and research organisation. He was not just a trilingual translator, but an advisor and political analyst of exceptional ability and insight. He gave unstintingly of his knowledge and experience during his years of work for TIN.
He will be remembered by all who worked with him for his always vivid and precise insights and sharp analysis, as well as for his endless ebullience and jocularity, always leavened with a wealth of carefully-chosen proverbial sayings in Tibetan and Chinese. The many friends and former colleagues who worked with him closely and with great admiration over the years since he came from Lhasa to the UK will miss him greatly.
SOAS, University of London
London, March 24, 2020