Corin Bronsther
Tibet My Story An Autobiography by Jetsun Pema


Tibet My Story An Autobiography, was written by Jetsun Pema with the aid of Giles Van Grasdorf and was published in 1996 by Editions Ramsay. Jetsun Pema is the sister of the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and is one of the most important women in modern Tibetan history. This book demonstrates Jetsun Pema’s unwavering faith to serve all of the Tibetan people, both those in exile and those held captive in their native land. Tibet My Story chronicles Pema’s early life in Lhasa prior to Chinese occupation, her exile from Tibet, and her subsequent work as a member of the Tibetan government in exile establishing the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamsala, India. Pema wants her story to transcend just the narrative of her life and serve as the voice of the Tibetan people recounting the story of the suffering endured by an entire generation. Pema’s story is still incredibly relevant today; it has been over twenty years since the publication of Tibet My Story An Autobiography, yet the state of the Tibetan people has barely improved. In reading this book about her life and the struggle of the Tibetan people, Pema wants us to focus on the message of hope, and ultimately this narrative sows the seeds of an optimistic future.

Jetsun Pema’s autobiography opens with her carefree and happy life in Lhasa, where she was “born with a silver spoon in my mouth.” (5) Even though her family started as an ordinary peasant family, they became the most important family in Tibet as there were three reincarnations in her family, her eldest brother was reincarnated as the head of the monastery of Kumbum, her older was reincarnated as The Dalai Lama and her younger brother, was the reincarnation of Ngari Rinpoche, a close friend of the thirteenth Dalai Lama. As the sister of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, Jetsun Pema knew little discord. True to the Karmic virtue of reward, she had a loving and attentive Amala (mother) and Pala (father), she lived in a 60 room home, full of her extended family, servants and, at times, hermits, and she delighted in playing games in her magnificent gardens and going to school with her cousins. The influence of Buddhism in her life, like that of most Tibetan, was present from early childhood on and completely permeated her life with its notion of tolerance, respect, generosity, and kindness. Even those people who did not understand the fundamentals of the religion, had an inner awareness of Buddhism. Her Amalya was her first lama/guru of compassion, generosity and kindness, and she along with her brothers taught Jetsun the importance of respect. Tolerance on the other hand, was instilled in her, yet the impact of this virtue was soon to be tested.
In 1949, at the age of 10, Jetsun Pema’s life was about to change dramatically. Her family decided that she was to accompany her sister to India so that her sister could receive medical treatment. They also decided that she would be schooled at the Loreto covenant, where she would learn, among other things, the old and new testament, how to read and write English, and analytical problem solving. Even if Jetsun Pema was reciting a “hail mary” in a catholic chapel, she did not have any inward conflict because “I knew where I came from and who I was.” (49) The influence of Buddhism had permeated her being was was present in all of her action. Even at an early age Jetsun Pema understood herself and knew how to live at peace with herself, without fear of the future.

While Jetsun Pema was in school at the Loreto covenant, things started to deteriorate in Tibet. By the Winter of 1950/1951, the Chinese invaded part of country and were occupying Amdo, resulting in the Dalai Lama assuming state responsibility as the spiritual and temporal leader for the Tibetan state at the premature age of 16. It was clear by 1956 that the Chinese Communist goal was to control Tibet and its culture. Despite the brutal violence, the attacks on monks and monasteries, and the all-out gorilla warfare, Jetsun Pema knew that salvation could only come through faith and maintained her belief in Buddhism. After the 1959 uprising in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet and sought refuge in India. His thoughts did not dwell on the past, and he believed, as he still does today “that a solution exists for all difficulties.” (65) Part of that solution was the education of the Tibetan refugee children, as eduction was the hope for Tibet’s future. Jetsun Pema would ultimately take the lead for that future. She embraced what the Dalai lama said that the crisis was part of the collective karma of the Tibetan people and the resolution had to come from the Tibetans.

After finishing her schooling in Switzerland and England, Jetsun Pema worked relentlessly to assure the success of the Tibetan Children’s Village. In order to establish a base in exile, Jetsun Pema knew that she had to educate the children in a way that preserved the Tibetan language, culture, religion and identity because this was the only way to prepare for their eventual return to Tibet. Despite the constant influx of sick, malnourished children who crossed the Himalayan mountain range, Jetsun Pema found a way to wake them from their walking nightmares. Her thoughts did not dwell on the past, only the future. She found a way to foster the development of the thousands of refugee children by creating a modern educational system grounded in Tibetan culture and religion, and making them proud of their roots and religion.

In 1980, Jetsun Pema returned to Tibet as part of a delegation tasked with evaluating the educational system in Tibet. Once there she learned of the totality of the atrocities that have been perpetrated on the Tibetan people. Even though “the Tibetans live in Tibet like animal” and have “lost their families, identities, religion, houses, and monasteries,” (153), Jetsun Pema remained optimistic about the future of Tibet. In spite of all the suffering that she witnessed, she did not lose confidence that one day Tibet would be free and that she and the Tibetans in exile would return. She embraced the Dalai Lama's sentiment that it is merely a question of time as to when Tibet will be free, and said “however long it takes the day will come when we will return with dignity to a country that will once again be free.” (183) She knew that the illumination of the path towards a free and reunited Tibet depended on the education of the refugee children, and she had to continue preparing the children to take on their responsibilities in this movement.

Once Jetsun Pema returned to India she reaffirmed her belief that “both individuals and Tibetans must recognize their responsibilities to Tibet, to the 1,200,000 Tibetans who died and those who still suffer,” (182) and such responsibility entails preparing for the future of Tibet. She considered herself fortunate to live in India because in this host country, Tibetans were free people, they could prepare for our country’s future. When she heard her native language spoken in India, a foreign country, she new a “very distinctive atmosphere of our nation survived.” (133) While waiting for the ultimate return to Tibet, Jetsun Pema does not rest. She has not yielded to the force of the conqueror or resigned. Instead, she is dealing with the situation in a nonviolent way. She is preparing the children in exile for the return, instilling peace in the minds of the young and garnering support from the international community,

Jetsun Pema certainly earned the name Virtuous Lotus that her brother, the Dalai Lama, bestowed upon her. Like the Lotus, Jetsun Pema continues to rise and bloom above the murky waters towards enlightenment. She gave all of herself in her work for the children of Tibet. In recounting her people’s story, Jetsun Pema generates a sense of hope that someday Tibet will be at peace and have its autonomy from China, and that the hundreds of thousands of Tibetans cast into the diaspora can return from exile into their native land.