On the anniversary of the death of Lobsang Chokta, writer and vice-president of PEN Tibetan Writers Abroad, we remember his unwavering commitment to freedom of expression, to linguistic rights, to literature and to the Tibetan people.
Tribute for Choedak Trotsik (Lobsang Chokta) at the 81st PEN International Congress in Quebec, Canada
by Kerry Wright, his English teacher, a voluntary educator at Dharamsala, member of Sydney PEN and strong supporter of PEN Tibetan Writers Abroad.
October 14 2015 – Lobsang Chokta, or Choedak as we called him, was my first English student in 2007, in Dharamsala. I was on a break from Australian education. I teasingly called this serious young man the ‘organiser monk’ as he started each meeting by giving me a long list of topics for discussion, and he was anxious not to miss a single opportunity for conversation practise. I was struck by his energy, intelligence, open-mindedness, motivation and discipline. Over time he became a brother and son as well as a dear friend.
A teacher in his own right from a young age, and later a scholar, he published his first book ‘Tibetan Culture and Tibetan Values’ in 2007. Our class ran on and off for several years in a café; he was keen to motivate his friends and others to speak up and represent their nation in English.
One evening we had planned to all share a dinner he cooked in his room, but the other students were called away to the monastery. To my surprise he calmly carried on cooking, quite relaxed, and served me, his teacher, as an honoured guest. I remember that the neighbours were all lined up outside his room on chairs as I left, looking rather severely at us!
All hell broke out in Tibet, in March 2008, and he had to speak to international media in his newly-acquired English, as his 15 year old cousin Lhundup Tso, a schoolgirl, was shot dead putting up a poster. His hometown was in chaos and trauma. It was a terribly difficult year for Tibetans, and all of us who were trying to assist them. It had been such a long and painful 60 years for them all, and the pain just boiled over!
Lobsang’s life changed then, and he joined PEN in 2009. He told me he wanted to make a difference, was keen to work for the survival of his nation, and was very impressed by PEN. He had a lot of energy, and Tibetan PEN soon revived. He was elected Vice-President in 2012. By 2014 things were in full swing. The writing activities and workshops went well, and I was at the launch of several excellent publications.
By sheer willpower, Lobsang made it to Poland and the Iceland Congress in 2013, and attended Girona, Spain with Genthon Gyatso. Lokdun, Woser and I were all with him at Bishkek.
Lobsang told me he was deeply touched by the PEN people he’d met and the kindness and encouragement he received from PEN International. He showed me photos and told me all that happened after each journey. I remember he was particularly moved by meeting John, and all who were supportive and so very welcoming, and deeply appreciative of everyone’s assistance and advice with any issues that arose.
He visibly gained confidence after each trip, and asked for my help at times with the wording of his speeches, the resolutions he had written and was determined to speak on behalf of those imprisoned in Tibet. He returned very excited that people could actually understand his English!
It was useful and moving for him to see firsthand the serious issues that so many others in the world faced. He learnt a lot, and quietly expressed to me deep sadness for the suffering that many of the people he met here had experienced, and were still experiencing. His compassion for the suffering of others was profound.
He often spoke about his mother, loved her deeply, but had not seen or held her for 18 years. Like for many Tibetans, the pain of separation had been unbearable, and even speaking occasionally to family by phone was a rare joy and freedom over these years. It would not even be possible right now, for example.
He told me many stories, but one that I particularly remember was when he and his mother were called to the police station to collect someone after interrogation; Lobsang was a baby monk at the time. The soldiers had trashed his shared room at the monastery, and he was particularly peeved that they had stolen his small pile of carefully saved pocket-money! The Chinese soldiers called his mother into a private room, and said they had grave concerns about him, and would be watching him closely in future. ‘He is just a child’ she protested. They had apparently found a small pencilled message ‘Long Live the Dalai Lama’ in one of his exercise books!
He also told me about their dangerous journey across the Himalayas to India, when he was just 18, and of the people in his group who died on the way.
After leaving the monastery he held several positions, worked very hard, and popularly taught Literature, History and Tibetan language at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. He shared his enthusiasm for his full-time Tibetan dictionary work with many of you. Like many Tibetans he was adamant that their language and ancient scholarly traditions will not be destroyed, and must be adapted and extended to modern times, and subjects.
Lobsang shared things easily, and connected people often. He was insightful, very very funny, frank, sensitive – and often right. He was proud of what he achieved, and enjoyed what he did. He loved meaningful challenges, and enthusiastically took on many with passion. In many ways, he liked to trailblaze, and show others around him the way forward.
His tragic death in February came as a huge shock to us all. His life at 34 was at a peak, and he had been pushing himself hard. He had planned to write his own story, one of many from this unique refugee community. He had also hoped to meet Richard Gere one day, but sadly did not make it; the next life for them both, maybe!
The exile community grieved deeply the senseless loss of two precious scholars. We may never know the truth of what actually happened, it was all quite bizarre and inconceivable.
PEN International, thank you. You were an amazing support, quickly mobilised in difficult times. Thank you for all your kind tributes, they meant a lot, and were translated and circulated in Tibetan.
Lobsang is very missed. The legacy of his work and the people he touched will continue to resonate. The tragedy of his home and the people there is simply unacceptable.
And I know I am not the only person here who remembers his hilarious efforts on the dance floor in Bishkek.
Thank you for these precious few minutes today. I have no doubts our friend is enjoying every word.