Tibet Foundation

A portrait of Tibet

Nov 22, 2014

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Reflecting upon his most recent visit to Tibet during Autumn 2014, Phuntsog Wangyal highlights the latest news from the region, as well as our ongoing aid projects.

Reflecting upon his most recent visit to Tibet during Autumn 2014, Phuntsog Wangyal highlights the latest news from the region, as well as our ongoing aid projects. His observation of Thangkas - paintings on cotton, or silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala - is a key theme to the visit as he travels across the plateau, as well as re-visiting some of the places he was raised as a child.

Phuntsog in circumambulation of the Lingkor in Lhasa, with pilgrims performing prostrations
Phuntsog in circumambulation of the Lingkor in Lhasa, with pilgrims performing prostrations

Tibet Foundation started its Aid to Tibet programme in 1992, with a strong focus on education, healthcare and economic prosperity in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Prefectures in the People's Republic of China, working mainly in rural and nomadic areas. All projects are created with initiative taken by local people, approved by the authorities and monitored by the Foundation staff for the entire project.

Since 1992 I have visited Tibet almost every year. With each consecutive year, however, I notice enormous changes taking place, especially through development and the growth of transport and infrastructure. The Chinese economy itself has expanded so rapidly that it has  reached a point when it seems to be slowing down, with unoccupied houses a familiar sight as I travelled by train across the region.

One of the most significant purpose of my visit was to see first-hand the current situation of traditional Tibetan thangka and wall paintings - ranging from immaculate museums in bustling cities, to isolated monasteries in some of the remotest corners of Tibet - focusing on the skill and intricacy of Tibetan Medical Thangkas - which took me to Chengdu, Sershul, Yushu, Lhasa and monasteries in TAR such as Drepung, Sakya and Samye.

For this, I first met Professor Kunchok Tenzin, a well-known expert on Tibetan paintings in Chengdu University, Sichuan. The exhibits of paintings in his institution were very impressive, and the tradition of thangka painting has been well maintained; in fact, it has become a popular subject for young students. One could see new temples and monasteries, as well as individual houses, across Tibet, wonderfully decorated with traditional paintings, and displayed proudly. 

Prof Kunchok Tenzin, a research fellow and teaching professor in Tibetan art and antiquities related history at Chengdu University
Prof Kunchok Tenzin, a research fellow and teaching professor in Tibetan art
 and antiquities related history at Chengdu University

I also had the opportunity to visit thangka exhibitions in Sershul, Yushu and Lhasa Tibetan Medical and Astrological institutes. I was told that the most famous set of 80 Medical Thangkas by Desi Sangye Gyatso during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama are kept as a national treasure away from the gaze of the general public. Those that I could see are replicas of original thangkas and used for training Tibetan doctors. I also visited a number of temples and monasteries to see this historical work, including Samye, Sakya, Mindroling, Tashi Lunpo and Drepung. During the Cultural Revolution most of these religious sites were destroyed but, luckily, many precious wall paintings remained as many of these temples were used for grain storage. Although the government has taken certain measures to protect these precious paintings, it appears that many are being ruined, partly due to a lack of knowledge among the general public, and also because of a lack of skilled workers to maintain them. I met a Chinese expert in ancient paintings who works in the National Museum in Beijing and is on a tour of Buddhist temples in Tibet. He remarked that it is very common for many pilgrims to take pieces of wall paintings as relics, and even eat the dust as a blessing, adding: “Tibetans seem to value new golden statues as more important and precious than centuries old wall paintings”.

Director of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute in Lhasa describing medical thangkas displayed in the exhibition hall
Director of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute in Lhasa describing medical thangkas displayed in the exhibition hall 

To understand more about Tibetan paintings, I met Mr Norpu Sithar, a well known professional thangka painter, who successfully runs the Academy of Tibetan Thangka Paintings, which trains youths in this traditional practice. He also hosts exhibits of his paintings and works from different schools in a huge exhibition building co-funded by the Lhasa Institute of Tibetan Culture. Going through the exhibition one could get a glimpse of the ancient art of this unique skill - using natural ingredients for the colours, the brushes, and the canvas itself. I was very impressed by the depth of our tradition of arts, and his knowledge and expertise in training young Tibetans to keep our culture alive.

It is through such meetings and dialogue, as well as a meaningful discussion with the authorities, we are now able to offer the proposal of an exhibition of some of these unique medical thangkas in the West in 2015, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Tibet Foundation. A team of three professionals – a thangka expert, a professional thangka artist and a Tibetan medical doctor, will visit the UK, bringing with them a set of unique medical thangkas to share and discuss this precious aspect of Tibetan heritage. 

Aside from meeting thangka experts and the groundwork for this exhibit, I also personally visited our on-going projects in Tibet, seeing how they are being administered by our local partners, with the care and supervision of our local representative in the region.

The first projects that I visited were in Gyalthang (Shangri-la) where Tibet Foundation has been supporting a children's home and a nursery. This children's home was founded by a Tibetan couple from Switzerland, who live in Gyalthang for 6 months of the year, then return to Switzerland and raise funds for the school for the remainder. Their eldest son has since moved to Tibet and started a business, one of a growing number of Tibetans from the diaspora who are now contributing towards the community in their homeland.

The Ringa Community Nursery that the Foundation supports provides day-care for about fifty pre-school children from six hamlets that make up the Ringa valley in Dechen - a scenic and charming area.

Phuntsog with Dolma, a teacher at Ringa Community Nursery in Dechen Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture
Phuntsog with Dolma, a teacher at Ringa Community Nursery in Dechen 
Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture

The nursery itself was established by a local Tibetan monk, Lobsang Geleg, from Sumtsen Monastery, with support from both the local community and authorities. I found the accommodation and playground very clean and the children looked happy and well. The students are brought up amid Tibetan culture amidst a natural environment. Such nursery schools are in great demand as they give time and freedom for parents to do their work in the fields, or when collecting herbs in the rolling mountains surrounding the valley, which itself offers a very important source of income. I was pleased that the money, which the Foundation provides to them, is used effectively to benefit the local community as well as providing children a safe and happy environment upon which to begin their first and vital steps in education.

The school is funded solely through individual donations and in urgent need of funds, not only for upkeep, but also to build a long term sustainable education for the children attending. I am interested to hear from anyone who may like to learn more about this project.

Following this, I went to Rongpatsa – my home area. It was here that I have some of my relatives and many others with whom I grew up with as a child. The village, however, has changed beyond recognition since my youth, and the area is fast being turned into a town. There are now good roads and an airport being built nearby, to be known as 'Gesar Airport'.

It was here that Gyalten School became the first private school in the area, established by Gyalten Rinpoche in 1992. Tibet Foundation has been supporting the school since it began, which was officially recognised by the government in 1994. It has now become a fully fledged primary school with 435 students, accommodating girls and boys in dormitories in a well-constructed building. Its academic achievements have been recognised by the community, as well as the government. The school, situated far away from any major river, town or village, has an acute shortage of water. Although a benefactor has generously built nice bathrooms and toilets, I noticed that they were kept locked due to the lack of water. We have a project plan to remedy this problem, and are asking anyone who may be able to help, or to introduce us to an organization that might consider supporting us in this.

In 1996 the Foundation funded a Tibetan medicine clinic, which is attached to Gyalten School. It has a team of 8 doctors and nurses, and this year we provided funding to buy 11 different basic machines and equipment to produce Tibetan medicine, such as grinding and processing machines. The project is proving highly successful, and four doctors and medical trainees from Gyalten Clinic will be sent to Yushu for further medical training in 2015. As winter is approaching we have provided the children with warm clothing.

Students at Gyalten school, which has received ongoing sponsorship from Tibet Foundation
Students at Gyalten school, which has received ongoing sponsorship from Tibet Foundation

It was also in this area of Kham that I once studied as a monk at Dhargye Monastery. Today the monastery has 235 monks in two colleges, specialising in academic studies and tantric rituals respectively. I was told that the academic monks from this monastery came to be among the top grade in inter-monastic debates in Kandze Prefecture. We made some offerings, as well as prayers for peace.

For the first time since I left in my youth I went to see the old residence of my teacher Geshe Champa Khedup, a man who made me the person I am today. It was he who inspired my interest in learning Buddhism itself, and he was also the lama who has turned Dhargye monastery into one of the best centres for studying Buddhism in the area.  His residence and compound were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, but some parts of the building, such as the wooden panels once taken by the villagers were later returned to rebuild his residence. Some of the paintings and old panels were therefore very familiar to me. When I would sit and learn from him, I would look up at these images, and seeing them again brought back quite a lot of emotions, and was at times quite sad.

Geshe Champa Khedup, Phuntsog's teacher when he was a monk at Dhargye
Geshe Champa Khedup, Phuntsog's teacher when he was a monk at Dhargye

Monks debate at Dhargye Monastery
Monks debate at Dhargye Monastery

Printing blocks stored at the rebuilt residence of Geshe Champa Khedrupn near Dhargye Monastery
Printing blocks stored at the rebuilt residence of Geshe Champa Khedrupn near Dhargye Monastery

This is also the same place where some of the reincarnate lamas - once my classmates - studied. Many of them left Tibet. However individuals such as Gyalten Rinpoche remained behind and played key roles in rebuilding the monastery, as well as our lama’s residence. Geshe Champa Khedup remained influential in my life, though sadly he died in prison during the Cultural Revolution. He is the one who told me to leave Tibet, stating: "do not return until you are able to be helpful to others". These last words during our meeting in 1958 had an enormous impact on my life; although I could not become a Geshe - I thought he meant for me to become one - I became an ordinary individual; making an effort to help others. His words became almost a prophecy, for it was only until I could become of some help to others that I could return again, first as a member of 2nd Delegation sent by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1980, then as founding trustee of Tibet Foundation starting aid projects in Tibetan areas in China in 1992.

During the five days I stayed in my home village we were visited by a steady stream of people coming to see me from dawn to dusk, mostly asking us for support. At times I felt frustrated – all of them deserved help and support – either for the elderly in the community, or for their children to receive a better education.

In addition to our continued support to existing university students, we have also given a few more scholarships students in High Schools (sometimes known as Higher Middle Schools) and universities. Success with good marks in High School is essential for both getting a good job, as well as getting admission into universities. Contrary to Tibet Autonomous Region, there is no government grant for students in High Schools or university in Autonomous Prefectures. I would like to welcome those interested in helping to sponsor a student in High School to contact us at the Foundation, as this provides vital support for the academic journey of so many hard working pupils - a real investment in their future.

Yak for Life is a very successful programme run by Tibet Foundation, helping nomadic people in some of the remotest expanses of grasslands. Giving a dri, (a female yak) with calf to a poor family provides sustainable, long-term support.  Khakyoe Dolma, a single mother of six children in Rongtsa Nang, Derge County, could not support her family and was about to sell her herd to a slaughter house to pay for her children’s education. We bought 15 dri and 10 goats for her family as tsethar - the practice of saving lives, which disallows slaughter - yet allows the families to use the milk, and wool of the livestock. If you buy a new dri with a calf – it costs 4,000 Yuan. But if you save its life through tsethar it costs 3,100 Yuan.
This donation has not only relieved her hardship but also saved the life of the yaks. Khakyoe Dolma is remarkably hard working, and brings up her children traditionally as nomads. I noticed how fearless and helpful the children were with the animals; even her four-year old assisted with the herd.

Nomadic areas such as Rongtsa Nang, Derge County are full of beautiful wildflowers
Nomadic areas such as Rongtsa Nang, Derge County are full of beautiful wildflowers

One could see a general trend of urbanisation, even in Tibetan areas. Many farmers and nomads go to towns and cities to earn a living through labour. Young people leave, and families can’t cope, so they try to sell some of their livestock in nomadic areas and farmland in rural areas. The government seems to be giving incentives to farmers to till the land, but many people choose to move to towns and cities, and wish not to remain as farmers.
Such a trend is bound to transform traditional Tibetan lifestyle in the long run. Although huge sums of money have been invested, there appears to be some misunderstanding. Good dialogue and better communication between people and the authorities would certainly improve the situation and, make investment more effective and meaningful.

Meeting Khakyoe Dolma with her children and livestock in the nomadic region of Derge
Meeting Khakyoe Dolma with her children and livestock in the nomadic region of Derge


After the snow disaster in Sershul in 1996 we rebuilt the Sershul Tibetan Hospital and set up a long and sustainable programme of training Tibetan doctors and producing Tibetan medicine from local medicinal herbs. Since then, the hospital has been renovated and rebuilt with funds from the government. It was a great pleasure to see the doctors with whom we worked in the wake of this catastrophe, along with the new doctors we trained doing so well. It was indeed a very successful project that has truly benefited the community.

Meeting the medical students in Yushu who are now working full-time
Meeting the medical students in Yushu who are now working full-time

The vast majority of the students we trained in Tibetan medicine are now fully fledged practising doctors, recognised by the government and working in hospitals bringing enormous benefit to their local communities upon their return, thanks to the ongoing support of our donors.

Phuntsog with Sershul Tripa
Phuntsog with Sershul Tripa

Monks at Sershul Monastery
Monks at Sershul Monastery

 

This time I was fortunate to meet Sershul Tripa, a highly acclaimed lama who was a key figure in rebuilding Sershul monastery, one of the best centres of learning Buddhism in Kham, and establishing the elderly people’s home of which Tibet Foundation has been supporting.  

Following this I visited Yushu, to see the remarkable progress being made at Yushu Tibetan Hospital, having been rebuilt beautifully. After the Yushu earthquake, we established a five-year plan of training Tibetan doctors. Three years of the medical training programme have been successfully completed, and almost all of these trained doctors have professional jobs, with some of them are fully paid staff working in the hospital. We agreed their proposal for a 4th year of training, for 45 doctors in 2015. Some medical students from Gyalten clinic will also join them.

Wherever I went to see our projects and whomever we supported - be it in Qinghai or Sichuan or Yunnan provinces - I could confidently say that all of them succeeded in benefiting the whole community, which offers reassurance to our partners running them. This was partly due to being very carefully assessed and planned in the first place, and also due to hard work by our partner organisations, and from receiving good co-operation from the government, as well as being monitored by our own staff on a regular basis.

In Lhasa I had the opportunity to revisit Drepung monastery, a location where I also studied as a teenager. Here I visited Loseling College where I studied, and Tehor Khangtsen where I once lived. Although lots of improvements have been made - the muddy streets now paved and the dark corners of the monastery now illuminated with electric lights - the whole area somehow appeared to me as empty. We were told that some 500 monks have been officially approved to be there, but we saw very few, and those we did had little interaction with us.

During my time in the monastery in the 1950s, I used to have lots of opportunity to mix with other monks, to discuss and debate, and we used to assemble with hundreds of others in the monastery grounds. Upon returning I felt sad that this was no longer the case. Nechung, the seat of the state oracle, is another monastery that has been well preserved, and is full of statues of deities, along with monks chanting inside the monastery. But there was no oracle, only a statue – a striking contrast with that of Nechung in India, where the oracle is regularly consulted for important matters. 

Circumambulation, in Lhasa, with the Potala Palace in the background
Circumambulation, in Lhasa, with the Potala Palace in the background

I also visited Samye, known as the first monastery built in Tibet, as well as Sakya, which holds the library of ancient Tibetan Buddhist texts. The hand-written Kangyur collection (texts regarded as buddhavacana or 'Buddha-word', translated into Tibetan) is held there, and it is believed each one was painstakingly hand written before the printing press was established in Tibet. They are regarded to be very old and retain a wealth of knowledge and history.

There was great concern about the preservation of the ancient paintings in the monasteries in Tibet. The government has taken some steps to preserve them; however, damage is being done in part due to the lack of knowledge of local people, as well as the lack of skilled people to preserve them. These sites receive hundreds of thousands of visitors on pilgrimage each year. More effort is needed to preserve these ancient invaluable paintings for future generations, by investing money in training keepers, and creating practical methods of keeping them safe and protected.

A Tibetan Thangka painter, working with unique skill and studying in Lhasa
A Tibetan Thangka painter, working with unique skill and studying in Lhasa

I noticed increasingly across Tibet, however, the strong will for Tibetans to return relics and material culture, and to rebuild statues from their past. Many objects dismantled during the Cultural Revolution are now being rebuilt and restored in the monasteries from the pieces that have been saved. There is a strong will amongst the community to rebuild them, though this is not always shared by the authorities.

Travelling across the plateau and visiting our projects, as well as meeting the countless remarkable people who are committed to doing everything they could to preserve their culture and to improve life of the community, is both remarkable and very encouraging. This also offers further opportunity to reflect, and gain another chance to see the lives and stories of a portrait of my homeland.

Although more students are being supported for their studies by the government, there are still many who do not receive a higher education, mostly due to the lack of funds. This is one area I would like to ask our supporters in the west to consider assisting. Adequate medical care in rural remote areas is still greatly lacking, and there is great demand for funds to strengthen local capacity to support existing projects, and to give training for younger generations to be able to adopt sustainable programmes of development. 

On the whole, I felt satisfied that the projects that the Foundation have supported since 1992 without interruption are now having a huge impact, making remarkable improvements to the lives of local people in the regions we work. This is thanks to the hard work of those we help on the ground at a local level, as well as those who are administering the projects effectively, and the positive cooperation received from the authorities.

The range of support we have been able to continue to offer this past year is outstanding. Owing to ongoing donations from our supporters, we have been able to continue to help where it is needed the most, and to help build a brighter future for the Tibetan people. We look forward to the further development of our projects, with continued support from our members and supporters. It is only with your help that we have been able to achieve so much.