John Billington , our Patron, writes on Tibet...




My own involvement with Tibet goes back a long way – to 1952 when, still at school, I read Christmas Humphreys' Buddhism, Fosco Maraini's Secret Tibet and Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet.   My empathy with Tibet's culture drew me to India as soon as I left university (in 1958) and a year later I was in Darjeeling meeting Tibetans face to face.  Three years later I took a teaching post in Darjeeling.  And on my return to the U.K., I was soon involved in defence of Tibet politically and was invited to join the Tibet Society of the U.K. which in those days was the only pressure group speaking up for Tibet.   When cracks in the bamboo curtain that obscured the oppression of the communist party in China began to open up in the 1980s, other groups supporting Tibet came into being, along with Dharma groups and the first opportunity ever for ordinary people to visit Tibet.  Sympathy for Tibet grew almost overnight and opportunities arose for political education and action to help.   Out of this, and co-inciding with circumstances leading to the declaration of the Strasbourg Statement by His Holiness (proposing a genuine autonomy for Tibet within China), arose the establishment of Tibet Foundation (TF).   Although my priority during the first half of TF's 35-year history was with another Tibet group I have always admired what TF stood for and achieved.




After leaving Tibet in 1959 Phuntsog Wangyal was unable to return until 1980 when he was a member of the Second Fact Finding Delegation sent by HH the Dalai Lama to Tibet primarily for three purposes:  to convey greetings to the people in Tibet from the Dalai Lama; to inform them about the Tibetans in exile; and to assess the actual situation in Tibet.  On their return Phuntsog wrote their report (Tibet News Review  Special Issue Vol.2 No 3/4 Winter 1980/81).  After that he visited Beijing in 1991 and 1992 where he met various high Tibetan officials in the Chinese Communist Party, including  Ngawang Jigme Ngabo  (aka Ape) from Central Tibet, Bawa Phuntsok Wangyal (aka Phunwang) from Kham, and Guru Tsekho (aka Ou Ze Gao) from Amdo.


Ngabo was the last Tibetan Governor in Chamdo who surrendered to the Chinese in 1950, unofficially signed the 17-Point Agreement in 1951, and thenceforth held many senior positions in the Communist Party of China (CCP). Phunwang was one of the first Tibetan communists who led the People’s Liberation Army to Tibet in 1950 and who was later imprisoned for many years during the Cultural Revolution.  Guru Tsekho was a leading Tibetan officer who was best known for having brought huge development to Tserta County in Sichuan province. 


Ngabo's advice was that Tibet Foundation (TF) should co-operate with the Tibet Development Fund (TDF), the only NGO working for Tibetans in China. The head of TDF was Ape Jigyuan – a son of Ngabo Ngawang Jigme.


An understanding was established that the focus of the Foundation’s operation was to be education, healthcare and the relief of poverty. Request for aid projects was to come from the local people and to be approved by the authorities, and the Foundation reserved the right to monitor the projects. This co-operation bore early fruit in three areas: support for a Tibetan Medical Centre in Ngari (western Tibet) – the first since the Cultural Revolution – under Bon Lama Tenzin Wangduk; support for the Nyarong Shar Medical Centre in Lhasa, run by Ms Trinlay Paldon, – an institution attended by Phuntsog himself in the 1950s; and support for the Gyalten School in Rongpatsa (eastern Tibet), established by Gyalten Rinpoche with whom Phuntsog had studied under the same Buddhist master, Geshe Champa Khedup, who died in prison in the 1960s.


Operating projects in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was never easy but TF also supported a primary school in the remote village of Pezong and an irrigation project in east TAR.  Recently a project to help with renovation at Reting monastery was discussed but failed to materialise.  Monitoring the important projects at the medical centres in Ngari and Lhasa also became more difficult and had to be discontinued.


In recent years the main thrust of TF's aid to Tibet has been in the eastern provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan – Kham, Amdo and Mili to Tibetans.  Here, some twenty schools have been supported, chief among them the Gyalten School in Rongpatsa.  This private boarding school for Tibetans has grown to over 400 pupils and has a long waiting list.  Its results are hugely impressive and a tribute to its dedicated staff.  Many of its students have gone on to university or to become local government employees.  Morale is high and is reflected in the children's pride in their own Tibetan culture, including their national dress and dance.   In recent years the Foundation has also provided scholarships to deserving candidates from all over Tibet to attend universities such as the Law University in Beijing, North West Minority University in Gansu, and Bao Zhang university near Chengdu where they may qualify for government employment and so create a growing educated middle class to help their own people.


The Foundation's success rests on good understanding with the local people and government and meeting people’s needs. The Foundation was at the forefront of responding to emergency needs such as the Snow Disaster in Sershul in 1995, and the Earthquake in Yushu in 2010, bringing immediate humanitarian relief to the largely nomadic communities.


By listening to and understanding local needs the Foundation was able to develop long-term, sustainable projects such as the Sershul County Health Initiative – generating income to the local people for collecting medicinal herbs, organising production of herbal medicine for Tibetan hospitals and clinics, and training doctors and health workers in Tibetan medicine.  Such a sustainable approach worked well with the people in remote Tibetan areas and has been a central feature of TF's aid to Tibet.  I saw for myself in 2018 just how valued this aid was when we visited the Sershul County Tibetan Medicine Hospital, the Yushu Khul Mentsikang and the Rongpo Mentsikang.  These hospitals had impressive up-to-date facilities, including for research and the provision of information on how to combat common afflictions such as AIDS and tuberculosis. And donations from TF have helped to train nearly seventy doctors in Sershul and many more in Yushu through 5-year Medical Training courses. Many of these trained doctors and nurses practise throughout the region.


The region, of course, is unusual in being vast in size, sparsely populated and predominantly agrarian.   Supporters of the Foundation will be familiar with the hugely successful Yak for Life scheme set up by TF after the devastating snowfalls in 1995 to assist small-scale nomads, and with the scheme to enable nomads to supplement their meagre incomes by gathering herbs for use in Tibetan medicine.  Other key areas of support inside Tibet have been the Old Peoples' Homes such as the one at Sershul which I visited and where food, clothing, medicine and a communal meeting area had been contributed by the generosity of TF's supporters.  Nor, of course, has the religious and cultural side of Tibetan life been neglected, with substantial support and encouragement going to Dhargye Monastery, Nyagyen and Hardu nunneries and others in the region.  Despite some intrusive government oversight, Buddhism in Tibet remains central and is flourishing.


In the 35 years that the Foundation has operated there have been huge changes both within Tibet, China and the world in general.  Within China and Tibet the economy has vastly improved, as has the standard of living.  Education in Tibet is much more widely available, and with it opportunities for employment in non-agrarian occupations have increased.  This has led to a shift, especially among young people, away from the local village community to the town.  Globalization has changed everything.  Television is no longer a novelty but brings the dominant Chinese culture and take on world news into even the remotest nomad tent on the Tibetan plateau, and every nomad family now has mobile phones and, often, a motor-bike or car.  The working yak and horse and the small farm are less central and although they will continue the magnet of urban life with its excitement, entertainment and opportunities exerts a strong pull, especially for the young.


A price has been paid for all these improvements.  They have come with a loss of liberty and choice.  State surveillance in Tibet, as in China generally, is omnipresent and threatening; security officers are everywhere, enforcing conformity and dependence on the state and stifling individual initiative.   For Tibetans to be happy – as indeed for Chinese people also – political change must come.  I share Phuntsog's belief that it is in this area that supporters of Tibet must direct their efforts.  Materially, Tibetans are surviving well, but they will miss the morale-boosting support that Tibet Foundation has provided and that comes from knowing they have friends outside China.  China has used soft power very effectively to gain access and influence in many countries but its motives are now coming into question.  Under its communist dictatorship China wants control.  It will be enough to have control of the economy and the Internet.  The West has finally woken up to the reality that its freedom is at stake.   In the immediate future it is the freedom of Hong Kong and Taiwan that are most in danger of going the way of Tibet, Inner Mongolia and the Uighurs of Xinjiang.  At some point the non-Chinese powers may need to combine to confront China if the democratic way of life is to survive.


The TF Newsletter has kept members constantly informed and up to date with all aspects of the Foundation's work and has played an important role in educating its members with scholarly articles on a wide variety of matters relating to Tibetan culture.  And the staff at the Foundation deserve great credit for organising events, raising funding so successfully and for utilizing resources so effectively. But funding has become a problem for all charities.   A charity can be useful only so long as it is supported and support depends on awareness and publicity.   The good moment has gone when opportunity might have been seized, and the people – Richardson, Ford, Harrer – who knew from direct experience what life was like in pre-communist Tibet before the Chinese takeover in 1950 have long gone. Tibet as an “issue” is no longer active and young people today – even their political leaders – are uninformed about Tibet, with the result that funding dries up as older supporters pass on.


Behind the Foundation's work has been one man – Phuntsog Wangyal – who has driven, advised and negotiated (especially with the Chinese authorities) tirelessly on behalf of his fellow countrymen.  Phuntsog has been a natural spokesman for Tibet, speaking incisively, with authority and clarity when interviewed or challenged, and without exaggeration.  He has the wisdom and compassion central to Tibetan Buddhism that enables him to engage constructively and without rancour with Chinese personnel and which influenced me personally to abandon confrontation with the Chinese and to adopt a more nuanced and persuasive approach, seeing the Chinese communists as brothers and sisters in need of persuasion, rather than as enemies.  But Phuntsog himself is not immortal.  He has given up 35 years of his life to the Foundation, and before that was His Holiness's Representative in London; and before that – at the age of 16 – he was doing his bit with other Khampas to defend his country from the Chinese onslaught.  That amounts to sixty years in the service of his country.


Some hundred years after Buddha Shakyamuni preached in the Deer Park at Varanasi the Greek playwright, Sophocles, wrote that:


                                       To help his fellow-men

                    With all his power is man's most noble work.”    [Oedipus Rex]


This Phuntsog has done.   There is no point in hanging around on this planet – I speak as one in his mid-eighties – unless you are useful to your fellow-men and -women, and I have no doubt that even in retirement from Tibet Foundation, Phuntsog will continue to be useful to the cause of Tibet.


                                                                                                          John Billington