Reviewing My Youth In Tibet: Recollections of a Tibetan Woman
Sevahn Vorperian, Fall 2017

My Youth in Tibet is a two-part narrative written by Tseyang Sadutshang, the niece of the 5th Reting Rinpoche (Thupten Jampel Yishey Gyantsen) during the first half of the 20th century. Part 1 is Tseyang’s autobiography of her childhood in Rheting and Lhasa: the sacred festivals, adventures with friends, her relationship with her mother and grandmother, and her arranged marriage. In Part 2, Tseyang gives a biography of Reting Rinpoche, the regent responsible for appointing the present Dalai Lama, where she depicts the events leading to his recognition of a regent, his interaction with the Dalai Lama that lead to his poor fate, his kindness to others as a regent. The story concludes with Rinpoche’s incarceration and how it is believed that he was poisoned to his death. With this work, she intends to (1) provide insights into the life of an average Tibetan girl and (2) establish a compassionate portrayal of Reting Rinpoche.

Tseyang Sadutshang was born in 1926 in Reting, Tibet and was raised by her mother and grandmother, Rinpoche’s older sister and mother respectively. Describing her childhood as ‘carefree,’ and indeed living it so, Tseyang seeks many playmates as an only child. Growing up, she would visit her aunt’s nomad camp, where she played with her cousin and the young girls who tended to the calves. She also played ‘truant’ (8), once walking to a village and befriending two girls who were grazing their cows, and another time running away with her cousin. Within these anecdotes, readers experience cultural standards of the time for clothing, food, religious/spiritual practice, and living conditions. As her connections to Reting Rinpoche inevitably pervade her childhood anecdotes, Tseyang immediately begins legitimizing her ability to give Rinpoche’s biography in the second half of the story.

This relationship to Rinpoche tangibly taints her childhood from that of the intended ‘ordinary Tibetan girl’ (vii) she wishes to establish. As an only child, Rinpoche arranged for her to play with cousins to prevent her loneliness. She sits in special seating at sacred festivals and describes her observations of the pubic as outsiders. Her favorite folk story as a child consists of a rural girl identified as his wife by a king disguised as a beggar, where she learns of his special status at a sacred festival (17-18), likely influenced by her family ties. These dimensions of Tseyang’s story reveal the role of hierarchy – and its importance – in her childhood and Tibetan culture.

Tseyang moves with her family to Lhasa as Rinpoche moves for his appointment as a regent. Here she starts attending ‘regular school’ (19), where corporal punishment is common and two break days are permitted monthly. In one anecdote, she does prostrations around the Lingkhor, the outer circular path surrounding a temple in Lhasa, with friends and observes many well-respected people also come, whose descendants marry hers later in life. Her friends are daughters of the Tana noble family, and the one she is closest with marries a well-off Chinese official. Later in life she describes her visit to this friend, commenting on the many contrasts to the Tibetean lifestyle with respect to food, lifestyle, and drugs. Though never explicit in the story beyond this anecdote and Tseyang’s mention of her escape to India, the reader observes how Chinese rule greatly influenced Tibetan society and culture.

Tseyang returns to Reting with her mother and grandmother at age fifteen after Rinpoche gives up his regency. Her grandmother’s medical condition worsens in severity and she suddenly becomes very ill. Though both Rinpoche and a doctor arrive, she dies that night. Sacred rituals, including Rinpoche having prayers said for his mother by all the incarnate Lamas and having her body cut up and offered to the vultures as a final act of compassion, produces ‘a rainbow... all around the sun which (everyone) saw’, indicating that Rinpoche’s mother was ‘spiritually special’ (24). This anecdote further humanizes Rinpoche as faithful to his family and provides additional insight into Tibetan culture surrounding death.

Tseyang had two arranged marriages, finally marrying her husband Rinchen Sadutshang at age sixteen. Her first arranged marriage occurred when she was fourteen to the heir of Lhasa aristocrats Mr. and Mrs. Choktey (26). Only after all the paperwork is signed do the Chokteys communicate that they do not have a son and that their heir is Mr. Choktey’s younger brother. Tseyang’s mother becomes distrustful, and upon observing Mr. Choktey berate his wife over a trivial matter during a visit, she requests that Rinpochebreak off the engagement. Rinpoche obliges, instead approving her marriage to ‘the very wealthy Khampa family by name of the Sadutshang’ (26). The Chokteys attempt to stop the wedding (27) by spreading false remarks. Though the wedding proceeds, the Chokteys continue spiteful rumors against Rinpoche throughout Tseyang’s life. Nontheless, Tseyang disregards the drama and is grateful her mother spoke up, saying that karma enabled this positive, yet difficult, switch in her life (29). Once married, Tseying has six children and serves as the banker of all Sadutshang family cash. She also maintains the storerooms of food for trading and commodity items. These activities ended when she went to India with her husband to escape China’s harsh rule of Tibet and ‘life became much simpler’ (32).

The 5th Reting Rinpoche was born in central Tibet within the Gyatsa of the Dakpo region. Various incidents during his childhood established that he was ‘a unique child’ (37), and his mother suspects he is an incarnation. One day, monks from the Reting Monastary arrive at the Rinpochehome disguised as beggars, sent by the 13th Dalai Lama to identify the new Reting incarnation. Reting Rinpoche passes the criteria, and the Dalai Lama requests that monks recognize the 5th Reting Rinpoche, taking him to his new home at age nine.

The author then relays what she believes were the fateful events of Rinpoche’s demise that transpired during 13th Dalai Lama’s visit to Reting. During a special ceremony, in which Rinpoche would receive a sacred scarf from the Dalai Lama, Rinpoche is instructed ‘not to get up on any account’ (42). Out of nervousness he rises when the Dalai Lama leaves the room, and the Dalai Lama becomes very upset upon walking back in and finding Rinpoche standing; Tseyang speculates that this accidental disobeyance is what caused Rinpoche’s later hardship in life. The Dalai Lama also gave Rinpoche his book of divination and how to interpret the results. Since this action is only performed by a regent until after the Dalai Lama dies, the author speculates that the Dali Lama clairvoyantly knew it would be Rinpocheto search and recognize his successor, which Ringpoche does after becoming a regent in 1934 at age 23 when the 13th Dalai Lama passes away.

Rinpoche is further humanized through several anecdotes of his kindness to others. Beyond stopping Tseyang’s catastrophic marriage to the Choktey heir, once he found a poor nobleman working in a vegetable garden to make a living (50), and after becoming a regent appoints him to a district magistrate’s post, a position providing a sustainable income. Another time, Rinpoche appointed a long-time servant to a prestigious position, switching the location upon the servant’s request to live close to home. Finally, Rinpoche helps the Tseyang conceive her first son after she gives birth to two girls, arranging for her to circumambulate the Khando Sangwa Yeshi Rock, known to help women give birth to boys, and walking with her.

Vagueness increases towards the end of Rinpoche’s life, enabling the reader to sympathetize with Rinpoche through the previous accounts of his kindness and innocence. After prolonged upheaval during his regency, Rinpoche elects to go on a three-year spiritual retreat and appoints Tatrak Rinpoche to perform his regency tasks. When he returns, his regency is not returned, instead being arrested by 250 soldiers. Rinpoche is then led on a humiliating trip back to Lhasa and is imprisoned. In prison, he becomes very sick and is diagnosed with severe depression. Given medication by an aid of Tatrak Rinpoche that will help his condition, it is actually poison that kills Reting Rinpoche, marking the conclusion of Tseyang Sadutshang’s narrative.

Despite Tseyang’s intention of providing a ‘glimpse into the life of an ordinary Tibetan girl, one not born into the privileges of nobility’ (vii), her relation to Rinpoche and the associated privileges inevitably pervades her childhood experiences, underscoring the value of hierarchy and nobility in Tibetan culture. All told, the autobiography-biography coupling within My Youth In Tibet enables an understanding of the human dimension of the 5th Reting Rinpoche, an important facet to consider while interpreting alternative reports of Rinpoche’s story.