Professor Ngawangdhondup Narkyid – 1931-2017
Many called Professor Narkyid by his nickname – Kuno. He was a Buddhist monk, scholar, and military general. He was born in a tiny Himalayan town, Thzetang, in central Tibet and joined one of the three great monastic institutions, the Drepung Monastery, when he was six years old. This was not unusual at that time since a high percentage of Tibetan boys were sent to live in monasteries when they were as young as three or four. Ten thousand monks once lived there, but since the Chinese invasion of Tibet the number has dwindled to about two hundred. For centuries it was the monastery of the Dalai Lamas. While there, Kuno became a close friend and confidante of the future Fourteenth Dalai Lama who was seven years his junior. In 1983, after many years of working to preserve Tibetan culture and furthering world-wide understanding of the Tibetan people, Kuno was asked by the Dalai Lama to be his official biographer. It was an honor preceded by decades of both personal struggle and success. Kuno’s life provides a remarkable story and also an extraordinary lesson in forgiveness.
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama – who died in 1933 – had foreseen the terrible times that lay ahead for Tibet and predicted what was to happen. Communist China first began its invasion in the eastern part of Tibet where they killed many people and devastated the monasteries. Increasingly violence was used to control the Tibetans, especially the Buddhist monks and nuns and many were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.As what the Chinese call the ”liberation of Tibet” continued, Kuno, along with many other monks, renounced his vows in order to defend Lhasa. In FROM THE LAND OF LOST CONTENT, the book that was used as the basis for the movie, KUNDUN (1997), Kuno was described as the mastermind of the defense of the Jokhang Cathedral, considered the most sacred temple in Tibet. Kuno recalled the violent destruction of human lives during the fighting and remembered being with dying defenders whose last request was, “Fulfill the wishes of Yeshin Norbu, the Dalai Lama. Don’t let him get into the hands of the destroyers, the Chinese.”
In 1959, as a General of the Tibetan Army, Kuno orchestrated the flight of the Dalai Lama and his entourage from Lhasa. Kuno later crossed the Himalayas himself, arriving in India a few months after the Dalai Lama. The Chinese had become more vigilant after the escape of the Dalai Lama and it had become even more difficult to flee over the mountains. In India – in Dharamsala – Kuno set up the Tibetan government-in-exile. He also wrote the Tibetan constitution, invented the Tibetan typewriter, and held many governmental positions. As the official biographer he was the sole author of the first thirteen books and then he trained the group of biographers who continue the work collectively.
In 1972, Kuno learned for the first time about the end of his mother’s life from a nun who had been held with her in the same Chinese prison. She told him that in 1962, following two years of torture, Kuno’s mother died after her hips were broken in ruthless beatings. A very devout woman, she had died meditating. With the news about her death, Kuno’s hatred of the Chinese became so intense that he could not tolerate the color red, he could not eat Chinese food, he could not bear to have contact with anything or anyone Chinese.
For years Kuno continued to be involved with academic studies and travelling to both Japan and the United States to teach. When the Dalai Lama first asked him to be his biographer, Kuno felt some hesitation because it meant giving up his wish to receive a PhD. But the last words of the dying fighters came back to him: “Fulfill the wishes of Yeshin Norbu, the Dalai Lama.” The importance of the request to be the Dalai Lama’s personal historian rose far above his own wishes, and he accepted. As he began the work of being the official biographer, Kuno had a series of conversations with the Dalai Lama who then learned of his great hatred for the Chinese. The Dalai Lama asked him, “What do you get from hating? You are just suffering with a burden.” About Kuno’s avoidance of Chinese food, the Dalai Lama said with characteristic humor, “You are missing a most delicious food.”
Kuno used to say that the Chinese tried to brainwash him but the Dalai Lama washed his brain. It took years of meditation and a very strong spiritual practice to clear away the hatred and replace it with compassion. Kuno called on the Tibetan bodhisattva Chenrezig who is seen as the personification of the compassionate gaze of the Buddha. Finally in 1989, while meditating at Sarnath, the holy place where the Buddha first taught The Four Noble Truths, Kuno dropped the last of his burden of hating everything Chinese. Then, not only did he wear the color red and eat Chinese food, but he also found pleasure in the company of Chinese people and went out of his way to meet them.
Following the Dalai Lama’s guidance, Kuno lived without discrimination in his mind or his heart towards anyone anywhere. For true well-being Kuno had to defeat the hatred that had become his enemy within. Having learned about the harm that comes from hating, he taught that we must forgive those who have injured us and that we need to have compassion for ourselves as well as for others. He went on to tell his story as a way of serving other people.
In Buddhism evil is seen as arising from the ignorance that is the common condition of humanity – and there are no national boundaries for ignorance. The Dalai Lama teaches that hatred, and indeed all negative emotions, are part of the veil of illusion that causes suffering and keeps us “asleep” and imprisoned. Being filled with negative emotions destroys our peace of mind, alienates friends and family, and can ruin our health. Compassion is the central precept in Buddhism and it’s not so simple as just having a kind and accepting attitude. It involves a complete way of life that includes doing our best to help all living beings.
Kuno’s very dear friend Gilah Yelin Hirsch wrote,
“All who met Kuno-la were immediately taken by his shiny brilliance, deep-hearted warmth, great benevolence – as well as his often stunning mischievousness. Those of us who knew him realize that we were privileged to be close to a rare, holy, yet essentially human, individual. We strive to continue to honor his compassion, love, care, truth, humor, justice, and wisdom.”
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FROM THE LAND OF LOST CONTENT: The Dalai Lama’s Fight for Tibet, by Noel Barber, Houghton Miflin, 1969.
The image that accompanies this post is of the Tibetan bodhisattva of compassion – Chenrezig.