Flight of the Bön Monks

New book by local authors Harvey Rice and Jackie Cole traces the remarkable journey of three Bön monks

By Donna Gable Hatch

A new offering by Galveston authors Harvey Rice and Jackie Cole presents a narrative of courage, camaraderie, and resilience that traces the remarkable journey of three Bön monks - Tenzin Namdak, Samten Karmay, and Sangye Tenzin - who fled Tibet during the tumultuous uprising against Chinese rule. 

 Flight of the Bön Monks: War, Persecution, and the Salvage of Tibet’s Oldest Religion, which includes maps and photos, delves into the remarkable journey as three friends recount their harrowing escape and go on to spearhead the revival of their culture through unwavering resilience, determination, and boundless passion.

 “As a student attending Bön teachings over the years, I began to hear stories about our teachers’ escape from Tibet. As time went on and we all got older, I heard there were only three masters left who had escaped from Tibet and were still alive,” said Cole, a seasoned Bön scholar, who penned the work with her husband, a veteran journalist who spent almost two decades working as a reporter at the Houston Chronicle. 

 “I felt a great urge to record their stories before they were lost and to record them for a widespread Western audience. I talked to Harvey about it, and he thought it would be a great book and agreed that we could work together. The three main characters in the book were the most instrumental in the establishment of the Bön community in exile.” 

 After becoming a Bön monk and completing a pilgrimage around Mount Kailash, Namdak's plans for a peaceful life at Menri monastery are shattered when he becomes a fugitive, narrowly escaping death at the hands of Chinese soldiers, enduring grave injuries, and surviving captivity in a concentration camp. 

 Meanwhile, Karmay and Tenzin witness Tibet's turmoil and flee to Nepal to protect invaluable and irreplaceable Bön scriptures. A chance meeting with British scholar David Snellgrove alters their path. 

 Tenzin goes on to establish an exiled Bön settlement in India. Sangye becomes the thirty-third Menri Trizen, and together, the trio of friends revive the Bön tradition, marking a significant moment in Tibet's history. 

 “Tenzin Namdak and Sangye Tenzin, who was the head of Bön at the time, were my teachers,” Cole said.

 “Once we heard about their miraculous escape, we wanted to know more. And with each interview, we discovered other people who were influential in the story and begin to interview them as well. The kindness and courage that they showed while telling us their story made it imperative for us to tell the story accurately, in a way that highlights their struggle and resilience.” 

 The tale begins with Namdak's fervent desire for a life devoted to spiritual practice in Menri, the heartland of the Bön faith. 

However, his journey takes a harrowing turn as he flees through treacherous landscapes, narrowly escaping death at the hands of Chinese soldiers. 

 Simultaneously, lifelong companions Karmay and Tenzin bear witness to the ruthless suppression of Tibetan resistance, compelling them to seek refuge in Nepal where they undertake the formidable task of safeguarding Bön scriptures.

 Their fates collide dramatically with that of British scholar David Snellgrove, propelling them to London through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. 

 “We found out about Snellgrove during our interviews with the main characters. Fortunately, we were able to interview Snellgrove before his death, and he has written extensively about the time he spent with the main characters,” said Rice. 

 The couple spent a decade writing the book, which included travels to Nepal, India, Tibet, France, Italy, Estonia, the United Kingdom, and New York City to conduct interviews and research.

 “Without the connections they made in Europe, it’s likely Bön would have been greatly diminished with little chance for forming a Bön community in exile,” Rice said, adding the monks endured great hardship, including grave injury and time in a concentration camp, in order to fulfill their self-appointed mission. 

 “Tenzin came from humble beginnings and showed his dedication to his religion by defying his uncle and insisting on staying at a monastery to devote himself to the Bön religion. Sangye Tenzin’s devotion to his religion was especially impressive. He defied his family and insisted upon becoming a monk instead of joining the family business. Even while escaping Tibet, he exasperated his fellow travelers by conducting religious ceremonies at every opportunity along their escape route,” he said. 

 Placeholder imageSince the tumultuous annexation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China in 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader and symbol of Tibetan resilience, has resided in exile in India. Despite the physical distance from his homeland, his unwavering dedication to advocating for Tibetan rights and global peace remains unyielding. 

 The exile of the Dalai Lama is well-known, but the saga of these three monks also holds great historical significance, offering deep insights into Tibetan resilience, Cole said. No other departure from Tibet, save the Dalai Lama's, has had such profound and widespread repercussions. 

 His Holiness - who will celebrate his 89th birthday on July 6 - wrote a forward for the book which says, in part: “I am confident that readers will appreciate the efforts that authors Harvey Rice and Jackie Cole have made to shed light on the Tibetan Bönpo religious tradition.” 

 Although Cole has participated in teachings led by HH the Dalai Lama, she said the couple hasn't established a personal acquaintance with him. It was through connections within the Bön community that they secured the foreword. 

 Their close friend, Geshe Denma Gyaltsen, a resident lama in Houston, has ties to a Bön representative within the Tibetan government in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, India. The representative forwarded their book to the Dalai Lama's office, accompanied by a recommendation. 

 “We are thrilled and honored to have his endorsement,” she said. 

 “We want the world to know about this little-known religion and the remarkable monks who kept it alive. Their story shows us how to deal with adversity with courage and love. This is a piece of history the world needs to know about,” Cole said. “It is also a reminder of the dangers of authoritarian governments.” 

 The Flight of Bön Monks: Chronicles of War, Persecution, and the Preservation of Tibet’s Ancient Religion can be purchased for $29.99 in paperback and $20.99 on Kindle. The book is available at Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Amazon, Inner Traditions Bear Company, and Bookshop.org. For more information about the book, visit www.Flightofthebonmonks.com.

 Placeholder imageMeet the Authors, Harvey Rice and Jackie Cole, at a book signing on March 23 from 10am to 4pm, at the Author Book Fair at the Rosenberg Library, located at 2310 Sealy Avenue in Galveston. For more information, visit www.friendsoftherosenberglibrary.org. 

 In addition, the couple will give a presentation and be available to sign copies of their book on March 8 at 8pm, at The Jung Center of Houston, located at 5200 Montrose Boulevard. For more information, visit www.JungHouston.org.