A man who spent more than three decades behind bars as a political prisoner in China gave San Quentin’s prisoners an eye-opening account of how fortunate they are to be prisoners in a free country.
Lama Palden Gyatso, an 80-year-old Buddhist monk, who spent 33 years in various Chinese prisons, addressed a crowd of prisoners through his assistant and interpreter, Tenzin Sherab. The gathering of prisoners, volunteers and staff solemnly listened to him recount horrifying brutality and torture at the hands of his captors.
“During my imprisonment, I have seen countless people die from starvation and torture. They gave us so little to eat; we didn’t worry about dying or suffering, we were worried about eating,” said Lama Gyatso.
After the Chinese government invaded Tibet in 1959, Lama Gyatso and other Tibetans began a peaceful protest around the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for fear the Chinese planned to arrest him. The protesters insisted that the Chinese government had no right to be in Tibet.
“I was imprisoned because on March 10, 1959, we made a rebellion against the Chinese government to go home. Many thousands were affected,” said Lama Gyatso
TYPES OF TORTURE
During his incarceration, Lama Gyatso was subject to many types of torture. In 1990, for example, he was tortured by having an electric cattle prod put in his mouth, resulting in the loss of all of his teeth. He recounted beatings, being forced to kneel on trays of broken glass for hours as he was interrogated, and being hanged by his arms and naked for seven days while being shocked repeatedly with electric cattle prods. However, hunger was his worst enemy. Over 70 percent of the prisoners starved to death, according to Lama Gyatso.
“In the prisons, just for minor mistakes, you will be beaten and chained. Sometimes the chains would remain for years,” he told the horror-struck crowd.
In 1992 — after years of work by NGOs and human rights organizations working in his behalf — Lama Gyatso was released. Amazingly, he forgave his captors and from exile in India has been championing autonomy for the Tibetan people from Chinese rule.
“But all the time I was in prison and I was being tortured, I tried to have peace of mind and develop inner peace,” said Lama Gyatso at a human rights forum in Oslo, Norway, in 2009.
“I have no hatred toward or anger either toward the Chinese government or those individuals who have tortured me; this is because, as a Buddhist monk, I believe that anger is one of the biggest negative emotions, and that it’s no use being angry.”
Before his departure, the Lama Gyatso told the prisoners that though they have lost their liberty not all is lost.
“In every nation there is law and it is possible that we can make a mistake and break the law. But you can always become a better person and lead a better life.”
He also told the crowd that it was a blessing just to have enough food to eat while in prison and that American prisons are clean and seem more like schools.
Lama Gyatso’s visit to San Quentin was sponsored by the Insight Prison Project. The entire account of his incarceration can be read in his book, “Fire Under the Snow,” which is available in the prison library.