The Monk Who Renounced His Vows

The above photo is of Tenpa Woser wearing a sword similar to one he took from an altar in 1960 after renouncing his vows. He was a monk at Menri Monastery in Tibet when he renounced his vow of non-violence in order to protect the lamas, the highest ranking and most learned monks, as they fled the Chinese. He used the knife in hand-to-hand combat with Chinese soldiers. Aside from Tenzin Namdak, Tenpa Woser is the only surviving member of the party of monks that fled Menri Monastery with Chinese troops in close pursuit.

He and his wife were photographed at their Katmandu apartment in 2014, dressed much as he was when he arrived in Nepal following his escape from Tibet. His wife is the mother of Tenpa Youngdrung, the khenpo (chief administrator) of Triten Nortbutse Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal. Tenpa is the closest associate of Tenzin Namdak, one of three central characters in the book. Tenpa Youngdrung’s father died after escaping from Tibet. His mother later married Tenpa Woser.

We interviewed Tenpa Woser in his apartment, with scholar John Bellezza interpreting for us. Tenpa’s wife served us butter tea while we sat on a couch in his living room. There were Tibetan ornaments on the walls and shelves, but otherwise we could have been in a living room in Texas.

The interview was one of three with Tenpa on our second trip to Nepal. We interviewed him twice on our first trip in 2012. He was 71 when the photo was taken and had a clear memory of those harrowing events.

By 2014, Tenpa had been spending the winters in Katmandu and in the summer returning to his home in Dhorpatan, a remote Himalayan village about 200 miles northwest of Katmandu. Tenpa settled in Dhorpatan along with other Tibetan refugees after his escape in 1960. He married there and supported his family by growing potatoes. Dhorpatan is at about 9,500 feet and is reachable by jeep along rough roads. One recent traveler reported that a jeep took her party only as far as a river crossing and that they had to hike about six hours to reach Dhorpatan. Tenpa usually takes a bus as far as he can and walks the rest of the way.

We first met Tenpa in 2012 at a Bon monastery in Katmandu, Tritan Norbutse, founded by Tenzin Namdak. The monastery is built on the side of a hill overlooking the city. We had to climb concrete steps that snaked up the hill about 200 yards. At the top is a cluster of buildings, each several stories high, including a dormitory, a temple and a building housing Tenzin Namdak’s quarters and a salon where he receives visitors. We interviewed Tenzin Namdak in his salon, furnished with richly embroidered rugs; thankas painted with vividly-hued gods; comfortable couches and an easy chair.

As Tenzin Namdak sat in the easy chair and told us his story, Kenpo mentioned that Tenpa Woser was the only other surviving member of the group who escaped. Upon further inquiry we discovered that he was in Katmandu. Kenpo contacted him, and he showed up the next day in Tenzin Namdak’s salon. He remembered in great detail his escape. The following day we brought maps and he traced his escape route for us.

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