Ani Pachen wanted to spend her life in simplicity and quiet contemplation in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Instead, she became a resistance fighter against the Chinese invaders in the 1950s, was captured and spent over 20 years in prison. But she was finally able to fulfill her lifelong dream. Her story is one of great courage and steadfast endurance.
Ani Pachen was born in 1933 and she grew up as a privileged daughter of a chieftain in eastern Tibet, in the town of Lemdha in the Kham province. Buddhism was the religion of Tibet, and she had an early calling to be a nun.
At 17, she overheard her parents discussing a man they were going to force her to marry. She was NOT going to marry, she decided. She got help from one of her parents’ servants when she threatened to jump off the roof, and she went to a monastery. Her father finally relented and said she didn’t have to marry; only then did she agree to come home.
When she came back, she settled into her life of contemplation. Then, in 1950 everything began to change. The Chinese invaded Tibet.
Ani as Rebel Leader
Her father was a chief and he and others began resisting as they saw the Chinese takeovers of villages and the humiliations and torture of Buddhist monks. The Chinese first promised a lot of things, but gradually things got worse, and it was obvious the Chinese were going to wipe out the Tibetans and their Buddhist heritage. “We have to make plans,” her father said.
In 1958, her father’s health began to decline and he died. He had groomed her to take over for him, even training her how to shoot if necessary. She wasn’t sure she could do it, but she knew she had to fight for Tibet.
Tibet’s culture at the time was one of equality; women and men worked side by side and women were fighters. As soon as her father died, the resistance fighters turned to her as a leader.
“That day I passed from my childhood. In a moment, I knew that my dream of a life devoted to meditation and prayer was no longer possible. Unable to follow my heart, I was bound by duty to carry on my father’s work. With my country threatened and my family in danger, I set about making preparations for war. From that time forward, my life was never the same.” (SM, p. 123)
Ani Pachen had to make decisions on where and when to fight. She was responsible for many lives and she had to keep encouraging them to fight. She had to be tough with her “troops;” at one point she ordered a man whipped who disrespected her. She hated doing that; it went against all that her non-violent Buddhist training had instilled in her. Even though she had a gun, she wasn’t sure she could kill.
More and more Chinese troops were pouring into eastern Tibet. The resistance fighters were able to buy weapons and the American CIA began to help them, mostly training resistance fighters. Ani’s troops headed for Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, but then they learned it had already fallen to the Chinese. They learned later that the Dalai Lama had already fled to India.
Capture and Prison – For Over 20 Years
“Fear always followed us: fear of being captured, fear of being killed. At times the fear had no object, but floated like a vapor around us.” (SM, p. 163)
The Tibetan resistance fighters and their families lived scattered about Kham province, waiting for food and weapon drops by the Americans. Then the Chinese attacked from all directions. Ani and her fellow resisters tried escaping over the Himalaya mountain passes to India, but Ani and about 100 others were captured and marched away.
Ani Pachen spent the next 20+ years in various prisons and work camps. Each one was terrible, some more so than others. Her autobiography Sorrow Mountain tells of her life during those years. She was interrogated, beaten, starved, tortured, lived in squalor, held in isolation, and denied the ability to worship. Her treatment was worse than for other women because of her “crimes” (resistance) and her status as a “commander in chief.”
Many times she was told to give up and confess to receive special treatment. She didn’t believe the Chinese and she said she would never confess.
In one prison she worked in a laundry washing the clothing of Chinese soldiers; the clothing was full of lice. In keeping with her belief in no-violence, she would brush off the lice and seep them onto the ground so they wouldn’t be boiled and killed. She had to be careful not to let the guards see her.
For several years she was in a prison close to her mother and she was able to see her occasionally; after she was moved from that prison, she never saw her mother again.
During the Cultural Revolution in 1966, she was forbidden to speak Tibetan, wear Tibetan clothing, or practice Tibetan customs. The sacred texts were burned all over the country and any monasteries still left were destroyed.
“Seeing the smoke rise up from the direction of Sera [monastery] was more painful to me than being beaten.” (SM, p. 220).
She had a special turquoise bead that she had kept hidden in her clothes for many years. She hit it in a chink in a wall above a toilet. The guards tried to find it but didn’t. When she went back for it, it was gone.
After Her Release – a Dream Come True
Someone asked her many years after she came to Dharamsala, “What kept you going?”
“The wish to see His Holiness….”
The 14th Dalai Lama is a special person to Tibetan Buddhists. They call him “The Precious One” and believe he is the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He was the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet and he is still a symbol of Tibetan freedom. The Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959 freed the Tibetans to continue their resistance.
Since his escape, the Dalai Lama has been living in Dharamsala, India, as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Thousands of escaped Tibetans have come to this city to be near him.
After her release, Ani Pachen spent several years on pilgrimage throughout Tibet, including several years in solitude in a cave. Then she came to Lhasa to participate in the continuing resistance there. Finally, in January 1981, with the Chinese watching her again, she was persuaded to escape to India.
It was shortly after her arrival in Dharamsala that she was able to meet with the Dalai Lama. They talked for a long time and cried when they spoke of their sorrow at what was happening to Tibetans.
Ani Pachen continued to live in Dharamsala in a nunnery. She died in 2002, at the age of 69. At the end of Sorrow Mountain, she said,
“As for me, the story will go like this: She led her people to fight against the Chinese. She was present at the protest in Lhasa. She worked to save the ancient spiritual teachings. When I die, just my story will be left. “ (SM, p 282)
Ani- Pachen’s life, her resistance, and her 20-year endurance were a testament to her faith. Could any of us endure as long as she did, continuing to fight for what we believe in?
Most of my information and the quotes above are from this book:
SM: Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun. Ani Pachen and Adelaide Donnelly. Kodansha International. 2000. It’s part autobiography and part reflections. Although the accounts of her ordeals in prison were disturbing, I found the book interesting and inspiring.
You might also be interested in another book called Escape from the Land of Snows, which tells more of the dramatic story of the fall of Lhasa and the young Dalai Lama’s “harrowing flight to freedom.” I found this book at a library book sale and it has started a multi-year study of Tibet, Tibetan adventurers (like Alexandra David-Neel), and the history of Buddhism.