The vision of maroon-robed monks folded into the Lotus position, peacefully pondering the imponderable in monasteries high atop snow-capped mountains, is one view of Tibet which still persists for many despite the presence, even in many of the smallest American towns, of growing Tibetan communities.
The Tibet Oral History Project (www.tibetoralhistory.org) has been working to document, but also broaden that vision since its founding in 2003. Based in Moraga, California, the small ensemble of staff and volunteers involved with this non-profit have been quietly, but diligently preserving the life histories of Tibetan elders at the request of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
“When I met with His Holiness, I asked what could be done to help the people of Tibet. He emphasized the vital importance of recording the life experiences of older Tibetans,” explains the organization’s executive director, Marcella Adamski, Ph.D. “The Dalai Lama urged that the elders be interviewed before they pass away, their stories lost forever.”
The progress Adamski has made in fulfilling the Dalai Lama’s request has been impressive. Traveling to major Tibetan refugee settlements in Bylakuppe and Mundgod, India with American, Tibetan, and Indian subject matter and technical experts, Adamski’s spirited teams recorded detailed interviews with 120 elderly Tibetan men and women, several of whom have since passed away. Staff and volunteers in the U.S. and India then translated and transcribed the interviews, produced video clips and full-length transcriptions for electronic distribution, and made this information available on the organization’s web site, on YouTube, and in collaboration with Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan service.
“The refugees that we interviewed came from diverse backgrounds – nomads, farmers, housewives, traders, monks, nuns, and community leaders,” said Adamski. “We were able to obtain descriptions of their parents’ livelihoods, glimpses into the dynamics of typical Tibetan families, and even basic, but important historical data, such as the number of houses that were located in their respective villages, which helped us to understand how remote a particular elder’s civilization was.”
Adamski and her colleagues have preserved forever the flavor of daily Tibetan life in a time before the country was occupied by the Chinese. The memories described in the interview transcripts are so vivid that readers can imagine children chasing and pelting each other with snowballs, almost physically feel themselves dancing at a Tibetan family’s wedding, and sense the deep peace achieved from the sky burial of a loved one.
Recently honored with a rare audience with His Holiness in recognition of the Tibet Oral History Project’s achievements, Adamski updated the Dalai Lama on the progress the organization has continued to make, and described her plans for the future. Those plans include interviewing more elders here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Observers at the audience reported that His Holiness listened intently to Dr. Adamski, smiled that famous smile of his, and said, “This is very, very good.”
Adamski will bring even more of the Tibet Oral History Project’s work to life at the next monthly dinner forum of the United Nations Association East Bay (www.unausaeastbay.org) on Wednesday, February 23, 2011, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Location: The India Palace, 2160 University Avenue, Berkeley. Cost: $20 (students and new members of the UNA-USA East Bay: $10). Attendance will be limited. To RSVP, leave a message at: (510) 849-1752, or e-mail: UNAdinner@sbcglobal.net.
If you’re not able to attend the event, visit TOHP’s web site to learn more about the lives of Tibetans past and present: www.tibetoralhistory.org.
[Author’s Disclosure: The author of this article is a member of the Tibet Oral History Project’s Board of Directors.]