A conversation with Thupten Dadak, one of the first Tibetans in Minnesota

    STILLWATER, Minn. – Alongside booksellers, gift shops, restaurants and antique stores lining Stillwater’s Main Street – a thoroughfare that attracts thousands of visitors each year – sits Kmitch Girls and Heart of Tibet Imports, a store that sells clothing, furniture and other goods from Tibet. For you or me, it is a place to find unusual, one-of-a-kind artifacts with which to decorate our homes. For store owner Thupten Dadak, the business is a way to keep his native homeland alive in the hearts and minds of as many people as possible.

    With a quick smile, his eyes shine when he expresses his optimism that one day, he and his people can return home.

    In 1950 – just as 15-year-old Tenzin Gyatso was recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of the Buddhist nation – Communist China invaded Tibet. At the time, there were an estimated six million people in Tibet. The Chinese army destroyed 6,500 monasteries, some more than 500 years old. Monks and nuns were imprisoned and killed. In 1959, an uprising against the Chinese failed. The Dalai Lama, joined by monks, nuns and his countrymen, fled into exile across the Himalayan Mountains and established the Government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamsala, India.

    Also fleeing Tibet at the same time was 5-year-old Thupten Dadak, joined by his sister, mother and uncle. They crossed part of Mount Everest and entered Nepal, where they spent a year in refugee camps before arriving in India.

    A Year of Tibet
    It is in a spirit of remembrance, and in honor of the spiritual lineage of his people, that Mr. Dadak has worked to help organize the "2007: A Year of Tibet in Minnesota" festival. It will feature Mrs. Jetsun Pema, sister and personal assistant of the Dalai Lama, as well as a tireless advocate for the education of Tibetans, along with performances by the visiting Gyuto Tibetan Tantric Choir and the 2007 Twin Cities Tibetan Film Festival. Proceeds will benefit the Tibetan American Foundation of MN, Society for Gyuto Sacred Arts, and the Rime Foundation, which are committed to preserving Tibet’s rich heritage and providing access to its spiritual and cultural resources.

    Mr. Dadak, who in 1986 became the second Tibetan to relocate in the Twin Cities, says the timing of the festival is significant, because Beijing, China will host the 2008 Summer Olympics. He expects China will "go into misleading about how wonderful is Tibet under Chinese, but reality is not."

    "Today the world knows about it," he says. "Probably maybe 30 years ago world doesn’t so much know about what the Chinese done. So, we try to educate more people to what really happened in our country."

    He said the visiting Gyuto monks will remind Minnesotans about how to live simply, in inner harmony, within a society that creates so many distractions to peace.

    "Every day their practice is to simplify the life and to see what’s the meaningful your life have, and then how that can create it – harmony to the world, to our planet," Mr. Dadak says. "This is their main goal of doing their spirituality practice, to learn about compassion, learn more about the kindness, and love…. I’m talking about how to create it, love and compassion to your own enemy, and how to create love and compassion unconditionally, to all the lives that exist on our planet, and how we can respect a different faith."

    Mrs. Jetsun Pema, the Dalai Lama’s sister, is known in Tibet as a great educator, Mr. Dadak explains. She runs more than 17 schools outside of Tibet – in India, Nepal and Ghutan. She was honored with an international children’s award for the service she does for Tibetan children. While in Minnesota, he says her local events during the festival will support an effort to build a university to educate Tibetan youths in India. Because of the increased emphasis on technology in India, Mr. Dadak says universities in India are becoming so competitive that Tibetans graduating from high school are not being accepted. He said such a university created by Tibetans will not be just for Tibetans, but will promote a multicultural environment for students.

    "This is our mission, to set up own Tibetan universities," he says.

    The 2007 Twin Cities Tibetan Film festival will present new, as well as classic, glimpses into the plight of the Tibetans. Film is a powerful medium through which the lost national identity of Tibet is being presented worldwide. Dreaming Lhasa, the first major feature film by a Tibetan to deal with contempory Tibet, opened April 13 in New York City, despite Chinese pressure behind the scenes to discourage film festivals from showing it, according to the International Campaign for Tibet. The film, not part of the Minnesota festival, will be screened in seven cities across the U.S. this spring. It is a film of political struggle and family reconciliation set among the exile Tibetan community in India.

    The filmmakers, RituSarin and Tenzing Sonam, posted a personal letter online in connection with the New York City opening, about why they made the film.

    "Nearly 50 years have passed since Communist China invaded and occupied Tibet. The situation in Tibet remains grim and shows no sign of easing up. At such a critical time, we believe it is imperative for us Tibetans to tell our own stories to the world. Since China rules Tibet with an iron hand, Tibetans inside Tibet have no voice, no possibility of expressing themselves. It is therefore up to those of us who live in exile to speak out on their behalf and keep the Tibetan struggle alive.

    "…Two generations of Tibetans have grown up, either in exile, having never seen their homeland, or under Chinese rule. Their connection with the past, with a time when their country was independent, is becoming increasingly tenuous. Their very identity as Tibetans is being questioned, threatened, mutated. How is the younger generation dealing with this crisis? What does being Tibetan mean at this point in time?"

    Mixed feelings
    Mr. Dadak, who served as a great influence is helping the Twin Cities to attract one of the largest populations of exiled Tibetans (1,500 people) in America, second only to the New York City area, has returned to Tibet three times since his family fled the homeland. Now that he is an American citizen, he says China does not consider him a dangerous visitor. Mr. Dadak said he had mixed feelings when he visited Tibet the first time as an adult.

    "It was sad, and the same time I was happy to see again," he says. "Of course, I’m sad Tibet is no longer as Tibet, you know? There are probably around 150,000 Chinese in the armies and this is not pleasant to see that. Supposedly, when I grow up in the monasteries, no guns and no checkpost. Now every town you go to there is a checkpost, like traveling from another country to another country, even though is town to town. So, it’s a very sadness to see that."

    He remains optimistic that Tibetans eventually will be allowed by China to to return to their country and practice their way of life in peace. He says that can happen when the Chinese people themselves begin to expect more personal freedom. The example of the Dalai Lama, seen by people around the world, can help make that possible, Mr. Dadak says.

    "The Dalai Lama has become a leader of the whole world, one of the most respected non-violence leaders. He respects all the religions on our planet, and is respected as someone who has spirituality values. He provide those values to our planet, to creating harmony, creating the balancing our beliefs. So hopefully China majority of people will understand that and see that values and bring back to their own country. Slowly it might be an influence to Tibet, our own country. This is one hope."

    Big challenge
    Here in Minnesota, where the exiled Tibetans have found great support in learning English, finding jobs and locating places to live, the greatest challenges facing these people is the preservation of who they are – not only with China’s longstanding refusal to acknowledge the Dalai Lama’s exile government, but with the young people here becoming more and more immersed in American society, far away from the support of monasteries and Tibetan schools in Nepal, Bhutan and India.

    "America is a big challenge," he says. "…We have Tibetan Cultural Center, but the center is not our daily life. Daily life is dealing with American way of life, and the school, work, busy life. Almost every one of my age of Tibetans are concerned of the young Tibetans, especially who grow up here in this country, might be able to lost our whole beliefs and our culture.

    "At the moment all the Tibetans we have very close, tight families, tight community, doing very well, but I don’t know how far it will go, because the younger generation keeps growing. Hopefully we can maintain that and be able to maintain our spirituality beliefs…. We have already set up small monastery that can provide education to younger Tibetans… The mission is to keep our spiritual alive outside of Tibet, and also promoting our spirituality to non-Tibetans who see as a value to have opportunity to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism…."

    "Tibet is most important for me," Mr. Dadak says. "That’s my ancestors. That’s where I was born. That’s my blood come from. Even though we have ‘non-attachment’ and all of that, but there still as a human, this is my priority…. There’s a part of this still like me who lives under the Chinese Communists who suffer almost every daily life – and we need the voice. We need a human understanding, not necessarily just in Tibet. Even living in China on their people. Many different religious are banned there. Many freedom movements are banned in China…. We need to say China to stop that. China’s people like to have a freedom. They desire same as my happiness."



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