One Monk, One Yak

In 1968, hours before his death in Bangkok, Thomas Merton gave his last address to an audience of Christian and Buddhist monastics. Titled "Marxism and Monastic Perspectives," Merton analyzed the relationship between monastic and communist philosophies and used the Chinese takeover of Tibet as his touchstone.

Merton told the story of Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, a Tibetan lama who was forced to flee for his life in 1959 when the Chinese massacred thousands of Tibetans. Away from his monastery at the time, Trungpa Rimpoche sent a note to a nearby abbot asking what he should do. The reply was, "From now on, it’s each monk on his own." And so Trungpa Rimpoche fled to India (where the Dalai Lama established the Tibetan government-in-exile) with nothing but his yak. Merton concluded, "You cannot rely on structures; they will ultimately be taken away. We can only be about the business of total personal transformation, which leads to purity of heart."

For 37 years, Tibetans have been living without the structures of self-governance, without the presence of the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader (possessing his photo is grounds for arrest), and without access to basic human rights under the dictates of Chinese communism. Since the Chinese invasion in 1949, Beijing has enacted a policy of "population transfer," moving millions of Han Chinese into Tibet until today Tibetans are a minority in their own country. There are 70 times more Tibetan political prisoners than Chinese, and 30 percent of them are women.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1997
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