Tibetans in Southland Keep Faith : They Venerate Dalai Lama, Lead American Lives

Times Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, a divination dictated that 9-year-old Nawang Lhautara should leave Tibet. The Chinese were crushing a rebellion and rounding up Tibetans, so he embarked on a two-month trek to India.

Now, 30 years later, Lhautara is a manager for Transamerica Life Co. and raising a family in Ontario. He still sends money to his stepmother and sisters in Tibet and opens his home to newly arrived countrymen.

The 50 or so Tibetans scattered from San Diego to Santa Monica make up one of Southern California’s smallest ethnic communities but also one of its pluckiest.

Here, as professionals, monks, business people and students, they share a devotion to their homeland and to the Dalai Lama, their temporal and spiritual leader. “They lead American people’s lives, they work, go on vacations,” said Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen, 60, a teacher at the Thubten Dhargye Ling (“Land of the Buddhist Teachings”) Center in Los Angeles.


Remember Traditions

But they also celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Tibetan New Year and Buddha’s birthday at the center and are excitedly preparing for the Dali Lama’s visit to Los Angeles in July. They have a “Tibetan friendship” network to help those who are sick or alone in the United States. At occasional demonstrations, they protest the occupation of their homeland by the Chinese government, which Lhautara calls the “evil empire.”

They worry about family members back home, especially after this month’s pro-independence demonstrations in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, that escalated into rioting, shootings by Chinese police and martial law.

This month is already one of a somber anniversary: the unsuccessful anti-Chinese revolt on March 10, 1959, forced the Dalai Lama to flee for India on March 17.


China’s claims to Tibet date back to the 13th Century. Tibet was part of China under the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, but held de facto independence after the dynasty’s fall in 1911. In 1951, China took firm control of the area.

Gyeltsen was a 30-year-old monk in 1959, studying at a monastic university on the outskirts of Lhasa. A few days after the March 10 revolt, he recalled, the university got word that Chinese soldiers were approaching. Gyeltsen grabbed a few prayer books and some tsampa (roasted barley flour) for the journey, and left with about 500 fellow monks.

“Escape was very difficult, because the few good roads, the Chinese were holding already,” he said. It took nearly a month to reach the Indian border, including at least three days of trudging through the snow-covered Himalayas. At one point, the monks left a southern Tibet town only a day ahead of Chinese troops.

Lhautara, then a student-trainee in the Tibetan government, recalls that on the day of the revolt, thousands of restive Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s summer palace in response to rumors that the Chinese planned to kidnap their leader. For safety, Lhautara went to stay with his uncle, a monk at the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s main residence. He recalled rushing to the basement when the Chinese started shelling the palace.

A few nights later, Lhautara and his uncle went to their village, about 120 miles east of Lhasa. The boy wanted to slip away to India. “I think it was a childhood fantasy kind of thing. I thought it was a neat idea to leave, and we’d be back soon, when things cooled down. . . . I’d join the guerrillas,” Lhautara said.

‘Couldn’t Imagine Leaving’

But his family--his father and his two wives, two sisters and a brother--had a dairy and about 2,000 acres of barley and millet and “couldn’t imagine leaving all this and going to the unknown,” Lhautara said. They turned to oracles for advice.

At a nearby monastery, monks prayed, shook a bundle of sticks in a tumbler, and consulted the sticks that fell out and referred to certain scriptures. “It came out that I should go.”


Lhautara, his uncle, and about 60 monks hiked at night to avoid Chinese troops. “Non-Tibetans would have problems, surviving that elevation and terrain,” Lhautara said.

Once settled in India, Lhautara went to high school. He applied to colleges abroad and took the first offer, from Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.

About 115,000 Tibetans now live in exile, the majority in India, according to Tinley Nyandak, who lives in New York and is the Dalai Lama’s chief representative in North America. There are about 600 Tibetans scattered throughout the United States. Tibet has a population of 2 million, and there are about 4 million ethnic Tibetans elsewhere in China.

Make Return Visits

Some Tibetan exiles, such as Lhautara, have made return visits to their homeland. “They were so poor it was ridiculous,” he said, recalling seeing his family in 1981 for the first time in 22 years. Their land had been taken years earlier and “they lived in a shack about 20 by 8 feet with cows and everybody together in one room.” During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, his sisters and his father’s two wives had been beaten and ridiculed; his natural mother had died.

Lhautara said that mid-level authorities in Tibet invited him to a banquet. “They were saying, ‘You’re very educated . . . why not come back and rebuild Tibet?’ I said I would be glad to come back after the government of China and the Dalai Lama come to a compromise.”

“We don’t want to kill Chinese because we are Buddhist. . . . But we ask please, don’t stay here,” Gyeltsen said.

Tibet has been overlooked, Lhautara added, partly because “we don’t have power, we don’t have money, we don’t have educated people or millions of people that can expend their lives.”


“People I meet in the corporate world shake my hand twice; they say, ‘God, are you really from Tibet?’ It’s a sense of mysticism, romanticism. But other than that, what do we have? We have a just cause, but it doesn’t seem it will win. . . .”

Would Obey Dalai Lama

If the Dalai Lama called on him--say, to help at a refugee community in India--Lhautara would drop his “upper-middle-class Southern California life style,” sell the house and the Volvo and BMW (whose license plates read “TIBET”), and go, “not because I’m a religious fanatic, but because of the type of person (the Dalai Lama) is. He would only ask me to do something that would be good in the eyes of the world.”

Meanwhile, he has taken his two young sons to see Tibetan refugee settlements in India and, earlier this month, to chant in a pro-independence demonstration at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles. He helps the few newly arrived Tibetans find housing and apply for driver’s licenses. And every month, he sends money to his family in Tibet.

“My family (in Tibet) benefited; my brother was able to come out,” Lhautara said of the advantages of his leaving 30 years ago. “As a Buddhist, I would say it was my karma not to be left behind in Tibet.”