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Buddhadharma : Fall 2008
36 a word of E nglish, Choegyal had to learn the ABCs and fig- ure out how to fit in. “I was handicapped in math,” he says, “and I wasn’t a very hard-working student. I was very lazy; slothful is the word.” He had a lot of friends and spent most of his school days daydreaming and socializing. When he graduated nine years later, he enrolled in a nearby college in Darjeeling, but he was soon restless and looking to try something new. He applied for and won a scholarship to a community college in Wash- ington State, packed his bags, and moved stateside. His goal was to transfer to Seattle University in a couple of years, but things didn’t go as planned. While he did maintain a B+ aver- age and a strong affinity for Starbucks coffee, an unexpected obstacle befell him. He got homesick. “I had culture shock,” he says, “so I became a college dropout.” Back home in Dharamsala, he got a teaching job at the Tibetan Children’s Village, a boarding house and school for Tibetan-refugee children founded by his sister, Jetsun Pema. That’s where he met his wife, Rinchen Khando, then a secre- tary in the administrative office. (She later went on to become the government-in-exile’s minister of education and founder of the highly successful Tibetan Nuns Project.) His daugh- ter was born when he was twenty-eight, and his son fifteen months later. For a few years, Choegyal, a new father, stayed close to home. But he still had an itch to go somewhere new and do something different. So in 1979, he joined the Indian Army and became a member of the Special Frontier Force. The SFF is a covert unit in charge of gathering intelligence and fighting terrorism at the country’s porous borders. When Choegyal joined the SFF, it was comprised almost entirely of Tibetans. (Today the SFF ranks are more diversified, but there are still an estimated 10,000 Tibetans serving in the force.) Two and a half years in the army was enough to destroy Choegyal’s spirit. The once-determined young paratrooper was deeply disillusioned by the blatant corruption among the top ranks of the SFF. He slowly lost all confidence in his commanding officer. “I couldn’t serve under somebody I didn’t respect,” he says, “so I sought premature retirement.” He was thirty-six. Choegyal’s experience in the army left him with deep emo- tional scars. He went home to Dharamsala, depressed, and eventually began taking medication to cope with his extreme emotional swings. It took him nearly two years to get well enough to rejoin society. This time, Choegyal went to work for the Tibetan government-in-exile. After a brief stint at the Security Office, Choegyal was chosen to be His Holiness’s private secretary (a post that is currently held by Choegyal’s only son, Tenzin). Most siblings would scoff at the idea of being their broth- er’s secretary, but Choegyal occupied the post with sincerity, integrity, and honor. He handled all of the Dalai Lama’s cor- respondence, kept his schedule, and traveled the world by his side. “I had a wonderful boss to serve,” he says. When Choegyal talks about the Dalai Lama, the edge in his voice completely dissipates. The sarcasm drops, and the snide jokes are naturally replaced with unmistakable rever- ence. Without the sharpness, his voice sounds exactly like the Dalai Lama’s. “My sister, myself, and His Holiness get together sometimes. We are the three youngest in the family,” he says, smiling. “First and foremost, we’re brother and sister. But we also have a tremendous interest in the same cause. His Holiness is my teacher; he has made me into what I am today. It probably wasn’t intended.” He takes a moment to reflect on his turbulent past, and laughs. Then he continues, his voice turning to a whisper, “He has affected so many people’s lives. It’s unbelievable. I share his philosophy of life. I share his views wholeheartedly. I mean, the guy cares, you know? Any other guy would be engrossed in just Tibetan problems, but he’s taking all of humanity’s problems as one. World peace and religious harmony are two of his top agendas. The way he treats people amazes me. He treats everyone the same. Being the Dalai Lama hasn’t gone to his head at all. He’s still a simple human being, with a tremendous sense of fun.” He Lisa Katayama was born and raised in tokyo and now lives in san Francisco. she is a freelance magazine writer and the author of Urawaza: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan (Chronicle Books, 2008). “We’re very, very close. When we’re together, it’s like we’re at the top of the world.”— the Dalai Lama (Facing page) Tendzin Choegyal (right), with his brother, the Dalai Lama, during their escape from Lhasa to India in 1959. arChivesofThenorbuLingkainsTiTuTe,siDhpur,inDia