It was freezing cold and pitch dark when Dakpa Topgyal was woken by his family. The 6-year-old Tibetan boy was told to pack his things and taken out into the night. After decades of slow but steady incursion, the Chinese had reached Western Tibet and the Topgyals were no longer welcome. His parents had selected their best yaks and horses for a trek to Nepal. The year was 1968.
Leaving their yak-hair tent behind, they traveled through ice and snow, climbing high over the mountains. It took them several days to reach the Nepalese border, where they had to leave their animals and walk on with only their essential belongings.
Their exodus led to the sweltering heat of Varanasi, an Indian city on the banks of the Ganges. The family was placed in a refugee camp on the city outskirts. The camp was surrounded by a fence that had a high gate and armed guards. Holes were dug in the ground and packed with cartons to make outhouses. Over the course of 45 days, 80 refugees died from the heat. Many of them were cremated in a corner of the camp.
Life got worse for Topgyal and his family. When Southern India accepted 50,000 Tibetans, they were sent directly by train from the camp to Hubli, a major railway nexus in the state of Karnataka. During the journey, Topgyal's younger brother Sangpo developed a high fever. Unused to the extreme temperature in the train, his parents gave him no water, thinking it would be bad for his illness. Sangpo died of dehydration, and his body was removed by an undertaker, either to be discarded or cremated. The family was never told.
In Hubli, Topgyal was taken by truck through a moonlit jungle. He heard the wolves, wild elephants, pigs, and cobras as he was put in a tent by his parents. Soon after, the refugees moved to a grass hut. This was worse than a tent. The animals made nests in the walls. Topgyal found snakes in his shoes and fighting scorpions would drop onto his head.
Each day, the Topgyals didn't know where their food would come from or whether they would survive. Sanitation and medical care were practically nonexistent. All the while they thought they'd go back to Tibet. They lived like this for two years.
After months of misery, foreign governments took pity on the refugees and built a camp with much safer brick houses. It became apparent that the displaced Tibetans would not be returning to their homeland any time soon.
On my way to the Charleston Tibetan Center, I wonder what to expect. I'm going there to interview Dakpa Topgyal.
The center is an unassuming white house on Parkwood Avenue, right near Johnson Hagood Stadium. I knock on the door, and there's no answer for a while. I'm about to knock again when the door is opened by a tall, white-haired man named Leon "Buzz" Edwards, the level-headed treasurer of the Charleston Tibetan Society. He's dressed in street clothes, friendly and talkative. He ushers me upstairs toward a small office. Documents cover the desk, the chairs are mismatched, and there's just enough room for three people to squeeze in for a meeting. The place is no different than other nonprofits I've visited.
Apparently, Topgyal is in the kitchen making a cup of tea. He greets me and I give the slightest indication of a bow, faintly aware that this is how one shows respect to a geshe, a monk with a doctorate in religion and philosophy. Since it's chilly in the center that morning, he wears a bright yellow zip-neck sweater over his traditional brown robes. There's kindness in his eyes, but it appears to be tempered with caution.
In his youth, Topgyal had no reason to become a monk. But as he grew up in India, he saw how devoted his father was to Buddhism. Topgyal's father was visited every week by his spiritual mentor, who taught him for two and a half hours. The respect paid to this mentor inspired Dakpa. "The teacher was like a most kind parent," says the geshe. "But I had no idea about the need to preserve Tibetan culture."
That came later, after the young man trained in the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta and eventually toured the United States. He first came here in 1993 to increase awareness of Tibet and spread a message of peace and compassion, using lectures, sand mandalas, temple music, and dance as the tools to do it. He visited 97 cities, including Charleston, in more than 30 states across the country.
Tibetan centers are few and far between in the South. There are Thai and Zen Buddhist centers, particularly in cities where immigrant communities have brought a monk with them. But for Topgyal, the Holy City is the perfect place to offer guidance and comfort to people of all religions. "Charleston is more open-minded than most Southern cities," he says. "Here we provide authentic, traditional Tibetan practices. One day we will see ripe fruit."
The center is supported financially by devoted members and contributors, with one or two fundraisers held every year. Drop-in visitors don't have to leave a donation, and they aren't pressured to return. If students like Edwards are inclined to tell people about the center, they "invite them to come but don't push them." He admits that when he tells people of his involvement with the center, "they think it's queer and strange." But that doesn't seem to dampen Edwards' enthusiasm.
The monk splits his time between here and Columbia at the S.C. Dharma Center, a place for instruction and meditation sessions. In the state capital in 2009, He made a heartfelt speech about China's grudge match against his homeland. "Tibetans have been jailed, tortured, and killed," he told his audience. "They have experienced human rights abuses and cultural and religious genocide ... because China cannot digest Tibet, despite decades of attempting to do so."
Remorselessly, China still tries. The Dalai Lama demands autonomy for his country, but not independence. The Chinese consider him a trouble-making separatist. "World leaders should oppose China's use of Tibet for its own economic, political, and military interests," Topgyal declared. "[They] should pressure China to change its policy toward Tibet and improve its disgraceful human rights record."
Rather than condoning the Tibetan riots of 2008, Topgyal asked his listeners to join him in prayers for world peace, Tibet, and the economic crisis. Sitting in his office, I ask him if he feels powerless with his native country under the thumb of a global giant. He shakes his head, relating the situation to two Buddhist terms: ahimsa (do no harm) and satyagraha (insist on the truth).
"One versus many is not overwhelming," he says. "The truth will never be revealed as false. Lies, exaggerations, and deceptions will reveal themselves as wrong. This was the belief of Buddha, Gandhi, and, I think, Martin Luther King. Once you have trust and insistence in these, the problems will be solved. It might take eons — it is like an elephant facing an ant — but the truth will shine one day."
For a guy-next-door perspective, I turn to Buzz Edwards, who also believes that "wishing for change, praying, can help." He uses this positive philosophy in his personal life. He says he's been volunteering at Roper Hospital since his wife died of cancer. "Sometimes sick people can't be helped, but you can still give them support."
Edwards is the kind of open-minded South Carolinian that attracted the geshe here in the first place. A child of World War II, he was fed anti-German thoughts by his father. Growing up as the U.S. went toe to toe with the Soviets, Edwards vividly remembers regular duck-and-cover drills. It was enough to instill disquiet in any child. "They permeate you," he says. "These delusive emotions not based on fact." He found that meditation helped. He practiced yoga at Holy Cow and then went to India.
Edwards doesn't believe Buddhist beliefs conflict with Christianity or Christian services.
Topgyal cites the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity. "The Bible says, 'As you sow, so you reap,' " he points out. "This is karma. What you do today is cause for tomorrow. What you do in this life affects your experience in the next life."
After more than a decade in Charleston, Topgyal doesn't consider himself to be a local. But I ask the geshe if life in the States has had an affect on him. "I came here trying to change Americans," he tells me, "not for America to change me."
He uses food as an example. "I teach how to prepare homemade, healthy food, and how it comes to the plate. It is a way to gather a family around the table so that they can't talk and ask each other if they have fulfilled their responsibilities."
With more than 6 billion humans on the planet, Topgyal doesn't expect them all to share the same culture. But there's no reason why they can pay attention each others' positive traits. Over the past 13 years, he's developed a distinct perspective on how we live and behave.
"American culture is based on family values, giving, and sharing," he says. "At the same time, there are some parts of that culture than need to be corrected or avoided, especially overindulgence. When I ask people why there's so much consumption, they just say, 'It's in our culture.' "
Topgyal also notes the negative aspects of our independent spirit. "This leads to selfishness and eventual loneliness," he says. "When children grow, they forget the kindness of the parent."
The monk also sees too many greedy Americans. "They want more of everything, bigger, better, in a different way. They waste so much food while other parts of the world go hungry." The geshe sees this as pure negligence. "Why don't they change these negatives? They expect joy from material things. If they're unhappy, they go and shop."
For some, this may sound like a foreigner coming over and criticizing how we live. But Topgyal says it all with a kind expression on his face, charming me with his common-sense attitude. He says what many of us think but neglect to mention out loud.
According to Edwards, visitors at the center include those from a variety of religious backgrounds, including Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. As he points out, visitors don't need to be hardcore Buddhists to attend the center. But although a website helps to spread the global word about the Charleston Tibetans, Topgyal doesn't want folks from his homeland to move here anytime soon.
"Tibetans would sink into American culture like water sinks into sand," he says. "They would be financially and materially better off. Their lives would be easier, with more physical comfort. But they would lose their family values, and the conflict between their old and new environments would cause psychological illnesses. The young are exposed to Western culture. They think it's paradise. If they come here, they will have to live and die with their wrong decision."
Topgyal doesn't want to transform Charlestonians into card-carrying Buddhists either. For him, a little enlightenment goes a long way. "I'm not a missionary," he says. "I put no effort into conversion. It's about producing a good human being. We don't say, 'As long as you're not Buddhist, you're junk.' "
The Charleston Tibetan Society owns a 28-acre patch of land in Dorchester County. This wooded area, roughly halfway between the Holy City and Columbia, is the future site of the Radiant Mind Retreat Center, a place for society members to learn, meditate, and gather. A colorful Tibetan entry gate already stands in place, ready for the rest of the retreat to be built. Designs have been drawn up for a meditation hall, dormitories, a boardwalk, and other eco-sensitive structures.
It's been a long, rugged path from the Himalayas to St. George, but Topgyal keeps moving forward with determination and enthusiasm. "Love, respect, simplicity, mental wealth, knowledge and wisdom, and strength of heart," the geshe says. "These are Buddha's teachings."