On Tuesday morning, we met with Ama Adhe to hear her story after surviving 27 years as a political prisoner and then escaping into exile in India. Now 89 years old, Ama spoke with us through our wonderful translator, Yeshi, who I wrote about earlier.
“Please, help me share my story with the world,” Ama asked us. “I don’t have any education, nothing at all, but I will never forget what they did to me, and I will share my truth.”
Ama remembers that at first the Chinese came with what were called “sleeper coins.” They’d give the Tibetans a little money to present themselves as friendly and helpful. Then they called a big meeting in the village and told everyone that anyone who was following the Dalai Lama was making a big mistake. And from now on, no one would be allowed to follow him. From then, the local Tibetans started their resistance.
“It was better to die than to go against His Holiness.” Ama said.
From 1956-58 in the Eastern regions of Tibet, there was a strong resistance. The men would hide in the forests and plan their strikes against the imposing Chinese, and at night, the women would bring them food and supplies. Eventually though, because of a larger army and more weapons, the Chinese took over. And all who resisted were either killed on the spot or arrested as political prisoners.
At 31 years old in 1959, mother of a baby and a 4-year-old, Ama was captured and imprisoned with 400 other women from her village in rural Tibet. “When the Chinese came and caught me, my son was four years old. They kicked me in the head, and I still can’t hear in this ear. That day, my son followed me, and he went into the river. We never saw him again.”
“When they captured me, they said to me, ‘Now you will have a life full of suffering. You will be full of suffering in your whole life.’ And right then, in my eyes, I saw so many dead bodies. There were mountains of dead bodies. My friends.” Of the original 400 arrested, she and three others were the only survivors in the end.
At first, many died of starvation. “We ate all the leather off our shoes, and when we were done with all our shoes, we were so so hungry.”
“One day, we went back out to Tibet, and we saw all the Tibetan ladies dead on the side of the road. All black — no burial — a little bit of salt and that was it. At that time, I promised to myself that I will share all this suffering with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I promised this inside myself, if I would not die.”
10,000 people died there.
I won’t go into all of Ama’s stories here. Her book is called The Voice that Remembers, and I wholly recommend it. Here’s a little clip of her speaking so you can hear her voice:
I asked Ama if during those 27 years in prison, she had a mantra or a prayer that she repeated to keep herself going. She said no, not exactly. “I dreamed so many beautiful things even in a place of such torture. I didn’t have a prayer, but I had the most beautiful dreams. Because I always thought about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and all the beauty he was bringing to me.”
“Now I am old, and I wish for all the young people to be nonviolent. I always say the compassion mantra. I always wish for no suffering like me.” —Ama
Two years ago, after we met with Ama, I wrote this poem:
“Please, ask me. Now I am alive.” —Ama Adhe
Twenty-seven years in prison. What did you eat?
“We tried to eat our clothes, but they’re clothes, and you cannot eat clothes. We tried to eat the leather off the soles of our shoes.”
How did you keep your sanity?
“In jail, I was so mad. If I laughed, I could not control my laughing. If I cried, I could not control my crying.”
How are you not full of hatred?
“I always say the compassion mantra—you know this? Om mani padme hum. If you really work from your heart, you know this compassion. I don’t want to see people die in front of me anymore.”
A block up, Tibetan children play a game where they call out for their lost sister. Through the open window, women wash dishes from the morning tea. These are normal things. So is listening to a person’s story—a normal thing to do. I can hear the intrinsic lamentations.
“I am telling you the truth. I am not educated, but I am telling you the truth as I saw it. I always tell the truth.”
I’m in the liminal place where my eyes and ears are having separate experiences. I think about how many people in these mountains are experiencing confusion.
“I always pray that all the world will not feel what I felt.”
I hold Ama’s hand with both my hands. If the whole world felt grace right now, there would be no such thing as torture. There would be no cattle prods for prisoners. All we’d know is how to look at a mountain. We’d know it so well that we would have the ability to look at it even while not standing near it. Its presence inside us would become innate. Its sound would redefine silence.