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Buddhadharma : Fall 2008
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 08 38 For Choegyal, normalcy meant running in the elections for Tibetan parliament in 1990. The Tibetan parliament consists of thirteen representatives from different regions of Tibet. Choegyal was chosen to represent the Amdo region, where his parents are from. He served five years in elected office, meeting every six months with other representatives to discuss issues like rehabilitation, cultural preservation, and refugee rights. Choegyal was often accused of being hawkish; it was his frustration with complacency that made him both a revolu- tionary and a threat to the pacifist stance of the government- in-exile. “A lot of people think that this model has been a success, but I don’t think we are giving it that extra push,” he says. “I think we can do much more. Whether the Tibetans in exile go back to Tibet is not the issue. Whether the Dalai Lama goes back to Tibet is not the issue. The issue is what kind of fair deal will the Tibetans in occupied Tibet get from the government of China. There’s a tremendous opportunity if you look at how much sympathy we have from the free world, but I don’t think we are utilizing it. We’re just bogged down with solving small problems, when we can be doing much bigger things, like making sure that Tibetans in India have employment, and that nobody is living under the pov- erty line.” But Choegyal’s stance was not well received among the rest of the community. “I was rocking the boat,” he says. Feeling out of place and frustrated, he voluntarily left his post in 1995. “We have become complacent. Stagnant is the word.” On a brisk spring evening in the McLaren conference room at the University of San Francisco, Choegyal sits center stage in front of two dozen students, discussing the meaning of justice with the university’s president. Although it’s meant to be a moderated panel, Choegyal dominates the stage with his charisma and willingness to speak over others if he thinks they don’t make sense. Despite his insistence that he is not a spiritual leader, the audience has come to see the Dalai Lama’s brother; they are seeking his guidance. After an hour of listening to the heated debate, the floor is open to questions and a woman in the front row stands up to speak. “One of my daughters died in an accident,” she begins, sobbing. “And now, my other is suicidal. What do you suggest I do?” “Acceptance,” Choegyal says, nodding. “Acceptance.” A heavyset blond woman from stage left stands up. She is already on the verge of tears. “I went to Tibet,” she sobs, “and saw so much suffering. I don’t know what to do to help. I don’t know how you deal with knowing that your country is in such turmoil.” Choegyal interrupts her rambling. “Acceptance,” he says again, letting a slightly inappropriate chuckle slip out. (“You know that one lady who displayed a tremendous amount of emotion?” he says to me later. “I think she was frustrated with her own life and tried to make it look like she was worried about Tibetans.”) The woman sits down, thanking Choegyal profusely for his sage advice. For the past thirteen years, Choegyal has been enjoying what he calls “big-time retirement.” He spends most of his time at home in Dharamsala reading the New York Times and People’s Daily online (“I want to know what the Chinese are saying!”) and studying Buddhist and world history. “I used to be into photography and editing film,” he says. “And I was a good mechanic. But now my hobby is reading.” He listens to Handel’s “Messiah” (“It’s very uplifting”), reads the Heart Sutra (“The Lord Buddha and his boys are hanging out...”), and watches Saving Private Ryan (“That movie is so good at showing how bad war is”). He occasionally flies to the U.S. for teaching stints at the University of San Francisco, where he used to teach the Bud- dhist section of a course called Pathways to Spiritual Wisdom. His students call him TC; the nickname is perhaps another way for him to discourage any reverence toward him for being the brother of a holy man. He doesn’t consider himself a teacher either (“I think that’s a very arrogant word”), but rather sees himself as a facilitator who helps people realize that there are different ways to approach a problem. Choegyal simultaneously exudes large doses of wisdom, peace, and conflict. “I have a very bad temper,” he says. “I’m LisakaTayamaCourTesyofuniversiTyofsanfranCisCo