A Monk’s Challenging Journey to Education

If the price of an Emory education was not approximately $200,000, but rather the cost was running away from your family, embarking on a treacherous hike through the Himalayas and braving numerous encounters with Chinese and Nepalese police, it’s hard to imagine many students would pay the price. This is not the case for Tibetan Buddhist monk Sonam Choephel.

Sonam is one of the six Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars beginning his studies at Emory University as part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.

After completing work in various scientific courses, Sonam and his fellow monks will return to India to further the Tibetan Buddhist community’s understanding of modern science.

Slight of stature, Sonam speaks slowly and deliberately. He has a shaved head, as is customary for Tibetan Buddhist monks, and wears the traditional deep-red colored robes.

The prevalent stereotype of severe, strict monks and nuns quickly fades away as soon as Sonam begins to speak. He makes jokes and laughs easily and frequently.

Sonam was born in a small village in eastern Tibet called Wri. One of seven children, he spent his days leisurely.

“My childhood was not very interesting,” he said. “I just spent the whole time in that small village just doing nothing at all … just playing with my friends. No schooling or education.”

As an adult, Sonam understands that the Chinese government’s control of Tibet led to the oppression of his family.

But as a young boy, he was less aware of Tibet’s political situation. He recalls that his parents did have a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but that it was hidden away.

Less concerned with politics, Soman longed for an education; he was 14 and illiterate.

“At that time we had many people leaving for India,” Sonam said. “We had heard that the Dalai Lama was in India and that there was education there.”

Sonam’s uncle Yonten, to whom Sonam felt very close, was a monk in a local monastery.

Although the monastery provided some education — in the form of Buddhist prayers and teachings — neither Sonam’s parents nor Yonten advocated that he join.

“My uncle sometimes used to tell me that it is good to join a monastery in India because they have these education systems,” Sonam explained.

The only way to receive a decent education, Sonam decided, was to travel to India and join a monastery.

One fateful day in 1992 Soman was visiting his uncle Yonten at the local monastery when Yonten had to leave unexpectedly.

“I don’t remember where he was,” Sonam said. “[But] I was alone in his monastic house.”

At that moment, Sonam and his friend decided they should leave for India immediately.

“My friend who was running away [with] me could write a little bit in Tibetan,” he said. “So when we left, I left a short note for my parents that I was leaving … and then I ran away.”

Sonam and his friend embarked on what would become a treacherous journey to India.

First stop: Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

The trip to Lhasa was made primarily by bus and sometimes walking, Sonam said.

Once they arrived, the two spent a couple months roaming around. When Sonam’s parents discovered he was in Lhasa, they sent a letter asking him to come home.

“My father wrote in the … letter, if you don’t come back to home mother is very worried,” he said. “And she has already fallen sick worrying about you.”

Although Sonam felt conflicted and saddened by this news, he was determined to find a way to India.

Fortunately, the tide turned in his favor when his father sent a second letter.

Not only was Sonam’s mother feeling better, but she and his father had also found a guide to assist Sonam on his journey to India.

“So my father sent some money with [the guide] and also a letter saying I should go to India with him,” Sonam said. “I wanted to see His Holiness, I wanted to join a monastery [to] get some education.”

Sonam and a group of 20 Tibetans began their journey by each paying the guide 500 Chinese dollars and boarding a bus to Shigatse.

After six long hours, the group arrived in the city and spent the night. The next morning, they hopped into the back of a truck, which took them to a large forest.

“It was still day time, so we stayed in the forest waiting for it to get dark,” Sonam said. “When it was dark we started our long journey walking.”

The trek from the forest, through the Himalayas, to Katmandu, Nepal, took about a month on foot, Sonam said.

And as they approached the border between China and Nepal, almost free, Sonam heard the sound of gunshots and dogs barking.

The Chinese military personnel — security guards — had spotted them and were pursuing them with guns and dogs.

Frightened, the group ran as fast as they could, hoping to escape.

Luckily, the security guards were not as determined as the group.

“We just ran and ran and finally got away,” Sonam said. “It was very scary.”

This was not the last of the group’s run-ins with military officials.

Once they arrived in Katmandu, the group came across a Tibetan monastery on the outskirts of the city.

“We reached there in the morning and the monks were very helpful,” Sonam said. “We were tired and hungry. They cooked us food and gave us some fresh new clothes.”

A few nights later, Sonam and his traveling companions were dining in a very small town in a dark restaurant when of group of five to six men in uniforms appeared.

The men said they were Nepal police and had come to send the group back to China.

“[I was] very scared,” Sonam said.

The police started to converse with each other, arguing between themselves about what to do with the Tibetan refugees.

Sonam’s guide noticed that the men did not carry guns – a clear signal that these men were not police, but instead charlatans looking to be bought off.

While the fake police were speaking amongst themselves, Sonam’s guide gathered his group to explain his realization.

“Now get ready,” the guide said. “When I say run, everyone should run.”

One of the Nepalese men approached the group of Tibetans, saying that he took pity on them. If they paid the police, he would let them go.

“Run!” the guide cried, and Sonam and his friends scattered.

“We kind of shouted at these people [and ran],” Sonam explained. “They were just hoping to get some money.”

However, the last time Sonam was stopped, he was not so lucky.

“The third time we were … caught by real Nepal police,” Sonam said.

Sonam and his friends were walking on a small road along the bank of a river. The river was on one side and a large rock wall on the other. When the police came upon the group, there was nowhere to run.

“They had their guns and actually showed us their badges,” he said. “They were real.”

Sonam laughed and said, “That time we had to pay them.”

The Nepal police took what little money Sonam and his friends had, as well as their watches and some nice jackets.

“Luckily, some money we hid in our shoes, so they didn’t find it,” Sonam explained. “Somehow they let us go.”

It was not long after that Sonam arrived at the Tibetan reception center in Nepal. He was soon on his way to Delhi, India, where freedom was waiting.

Immediately upon his arrival, Sonam traveled to Drepung Loseling Monastery in southern India, where he took his vows to become a monk and began his life-long pursuit of education.

“My grandparents really wanted me to join a monastery,” he said. “My uncle, he had much influence on me I think. I just wanted to become a monk. So I did it.”

In the monastery, Sonam learned to read and write. He also became interested in science, participating in two science programs (Science Meets Dharma and Science for Monks), which prepared him for Emory.

Many monks in Sonam’s monastery, and other monasteries across India, were eager to attend Emory as part of the University’s Emory-Tibet Partnership. Sonam was one of six selected.

“I’m not sure how I was chosen,” he said. “I just got lucky.”

Since arriving at Emory, Sonam has expanded his scientific knowledge, as well as his understanding of American culture.

“Here people keep a planner,” he said. “This is really interesting for me. We don’t do that. Personally I don’t have this habit to keep a planner or, you know, do things on time. So this is really very helpful.”

There are many differences between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science, Sonam maintains, but also many similarities.

“In one of the scriptures the Buddha said his followers shouldn’t just follow his concepts just because he is Buddha, because he is the teacher,” Sonam said. “His followers should analyze and examine his concepts. So this is, I think, a big similarity, which I find interesting.”

In the next few years, Sonam and his fellow monks will continue studying modern science, examining the intersection of eastern and western thought.

Although Emory’s environment is very different than what Sonam is used to, he is excited to delve more deeply and continue his education.

“We are busy, but in a good way,” he said. “We are learning science.”

— By Arianna Skibell

Photo courtesy of Sonam Choephel

  • lhawang

    An excellent and thorough potray of Sonam Choelhel la…… Its the same situation everyone of Tibet born Tibetans. ADMIRABLE AND APRECIABLE piece of rhe magazine’s article. Good job.

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