Irene Luo
19 March 2017

A Review of Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family's Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom (2012) by Yangzom Brauen

Abstract

In this memoir, Yangzom Brauen, half-Swiss and half-Tibetan, recounts the story of three generations of a Tibetan family spanning from the birth of her grandmother, Kunsang Wangmo, in the early 1920s to their lives among the Tibetan diaspora in 2010. Born in Rege, Kham, Kunsang became a devout Buddhist nun of the Nyingma school and studied for many years under Ape Rinpoche in Ngabö. Afterward, she married a monk, Tsering Dhondup. They lived in a monastery in Pang-ri with their children into the late 1950s when Chinese communist violence and suppression prompted them to flee to India. Over a decade later, Kunsang’s daughter, Sonam Dölma, fell in love with a Swiss man, Martin Brauen, who was studying Buddhism in India. They married and resettled in Switzerland where they had two children, the older of whom is Yangzom, now an actress and Tibetan activist. In writing this story, she seeks “to prevent the culture, traditions, and true story of Mola and Amala’s country from being forgotten,” she says (279).

The Story

From a very young age, Yangzom’s grandmother Kunsang Wangmo desired to be a nun. After the passing of her father, she accompanied Ape Rinpoche, the highest guru in a nearby village, on a pilgrimage to Ngabö in Kongpo. Touched by Ape Rinpoche’s goodness, Kunsang made him her root guru, and she stayed there for many years devoting herself to Buddhist rituals and prayer and meditation. Sometimes, she would go on pilgrimages, most notably to see Dudjom Rinpoche, who became an important figure and guide throughout her life.

In the spring of 1945, a young monk named Tsering Dhondup came to Ape Rinpoche’s hermitage and fell in love with Kunsang, now in her mid-twenties. They soon married, which was possible, Yangzom notes, because the Nyingma school had relatively lax restrictions on celibacy and marriage. She became pregnant four times in the next few years, although only the third child, Sonam Dölma, reached adulthood.

At the request of Trishul Rinpoche, who asked them to take care of his small monastery in Pang-ri during his absence, they moved to a humble abode next to the monastery.

As Chinese communist suppression increased, they heard more and more stories of violence, especially in the east. Soldiers came twice and ransacked the monastery for valuables, prompting their decision to flee to India. They traversed the Himalayas and ended up at a stiflingly hot and humid Tibetan refugee camp in Assam, in the northeast of India. Sonam’s younger sister soon fell sick and died. After a few months, they were allowed to go to Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, which had a much cooler climate.

At Shimla, they worked at a construction site breaking rocks, but the difficult manual labor took a toll on Tsering’s health, who eventually passed away. While Tsering was in the hospital, Kunsang found a job working at Sterling Castle, an orphanage, clinic, and school for Tibetan children. One day, the Dalai Lama came to visit Sterling Castle to see the Tibetan refugee children. It was an extraordinary moment for Kunsang to see His Holiness in person.

Within a few years, Kunsang and Sonam were uprooted again and moved to Mussoorie when the Sterling Castle orphanage project was closed. One day, Martin Brauen, a student from Switzerland studying Buddhism at Delhi University, spotted Sonam working at a Tibetan restaurant. Immediately captivated by her, he made repeated advances towards the shy Sonam. At first, when Kunsang consulted with Dudjom Rinpoche, he advised against their going to Switzerland because he foresaw great misfortune. Heartbroken, Martin Brauen returned home alone, but he continued to send lots of letters to Sonam. Eventually, Kunsang consulted Dudjom Rinpoche again, who now gave his complete support after seeing a change in their fortunes. They married and after overcoming many bureaucratic hurdles, Martin successfully brought Sonam and Kunsang to Switzerland. The couple had two children, Yangzom and Tashi.

In Switzerland, Martin worked at the University of Zurich’s ethnographic museum, and he also wrote books on Buddhism and the history of art and culture in Tibet and other Himalayan states.

In 1986, after the Chinese government relaxed entry restrictions for tourists and exiles, the family went to visit Tibet together. It was a bittersweet journey meeting relatives and hearing about their suffering in past years, especially during the Cultural Revolution.

After they returned to Switzerland, they moved to Bern. Sonam started to take art classes and soon became an abstract artist. Yangzom, who had loved theater from a young age, became an actress and a model. At the same time, she became actively involved in the campaign to free Tibet in 1999 with Jiang Zemin’s visit to Bern. She also became president of the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe and went to protest in Moscow where the International Olympic Committee was holding a conference in 2008.

Eventually, job prospects brought Martin, Sonam, and Yangzom to New York City, while Kunsang remained in Switzerland.

Overall

This story provided valuable insight into an ordinary Tibetan family living through nearly a century of turmoil and movement. Unlike the big people histories focusing on generals and aristocrats and lamas, this details the story of a common family as they travel first to India and then to Switzerland. While World War II waged, Kunsang and those around her remained totally oblivious. Even after the communist invasion of Tibet, life continued. “Neither my grandmother nor most of the other people in Tibet's remote mountainous areas knew anything about the military and political embroilments. All they knew was that the Chinese had come into the country and that their soldiers had committed atrocities. Everything in their small world was the same as ever: The years came and went, the gods were merciful, and they had all they needed to survive” (68).

What this memoir really succeeds in doing is providing a window for Westerners to understand Tibetan culture. As half-Swiss and half-Tibetan, Yangzom grew up within a family rooted in Buddhist beliefs and saw her mola, or grandmother, praying for several hours everyday. But at the same time, Yangzom is entrenched within Western culture. She thus spends much of the book building a cultural world for readers to understand her mola’s culture—one where death is merely passing into another life, where rituals must be performed to guide souls to a fortuitous rebirth, where rainbows in the sky or the spotting of milkmen with cartons full of milk can promise good fortune. Throughout the narrative, Yangzom describes different vignettes of her mola’s culture, creating an entryway for Western audiences to understand these seemingly superstitious beliefs.

She also grapples with the cultural clashes, particularly with social hierarchies. Although she has her own beliefs, she also strives to understand and showcase Kunsang’s perspective. As she notes, for Kunsang, “It was the most normal thing in the world to her that aristocrats and rich people had different rights and opportunities from common people. For my grandmother, hierarchies were God-given, karmic, and fixed. She would never have dreamed of questioning them, and she still thinks that way to this day. For her, anyone who has achieved a favorable rebirth, such as an aristocrat, a rinpoche, or a wealthy person, must have collected so much good karma in their past life and done so many good deeds that they have earned their first-class rebirth” (51). And although Tibetan society always favored men over women, Kunsang never felt excluded or discriminated against because of her gender. While Sonam developed different ideas about inequalities, Kunsang never did.

At the same time, Yangzom argues that Tibet was not an oppressive, feudal system as the Chinese communists claimed it to be. “[The Chinese communists] never understood that the Tibetans did not feel like a backward, subjugated people in the grasp of the clerics and aristocrats. Nor were they willing to believe that the Tibetans would have developed their society, of their own accord and in their own way, to meet the demands of a new era" (90).

Yangzom is of course not a historian, and her narrative is to some degree colored by the narrative of the campaign for Tibetan autonomy. For her, Tibet was always a unified and culturally homogeneous place even back in the 1920s. And the Chinese oppressors, whether they were the Chinese communists in the 1950s or the Chinese nationalists in early decades, are treated the same. To her, they all belong to the same lineage of dangerous, oppressive invaders seeking to control Tibet and its future.

Ultimately, this is not a historical account of Tibet, but rather a story of three women and their inspiring journey within this larger historical context. Throughout all the turmoils of their life, Kunsang proved herself to be an extremely industrious woman taking on a stunning variety of jobs. She made sweaters, performed difficult manual labor, worked as a caregiver with orphaned Tibetan children, and at one point, even started a distillery business (before abruptly ending it due to ominous signs of bad karma). She took everything as it came, with her Buddhist beliefs as her anchor, never questioning nor faltering. For Sonam, it was much more difficult to adjust to the constant resettlements, and her perspective was always changing. Just like their family experienced great change through the generations, so too did the landscape of Tibet under Chinese communist occupation, as they painfully realized in their travels back to Tibet later on. In her ultimate goal—to preserve the eroding culture and story of her mother and grandmother—Yangzom is wonderfully successful.