By nature, I am not a political person, and I knew almost nothing about Tibet — or China, for that matter ­— when I first became involved with this project. I did not know, for example, that in 1950 the Chinese government initiated a series of invasions that, within a decade, would result in the occupation of the whole of Tibet and the eventual death of more than 1.2 million Tibetans — about one-sixth of the total population — due to political persecution, imprisonment, torture, and famine. I was not aware of the destruction of 70 percent of the rich forest reserves, the massive dumping of nuclear wastes, and the dynamiting of all but a handful of the six thousand monasteries that before 1950 had dotted the Tibetan landscape. Nor did I know that more than 130,000 Tibetan refugees had fled their motherland.

The escape to India is a dangerous journey through the snow-covered mountains of the Himalayas. There, Tibetans fleeing Chinese persecution endure snowstorms, sub-zero temperatures, frostbite, starvation, snow blindness, and raging rivers filled with ice. They make their way over peaks where the snow is up to their necks. Children and elders, the infirm and the disabled, nomads and farmers, monks and nuns — the flow of refugees is constant.

The journey requires, at the least, thirty days of walking and climbing. Ninety days is not unusual. The Tibetan border is heavily patrolled by armed soldiers, so there is the very real possibility of arrest by the Chinese. To be captured trying to escape from Tibet means imprisonment and possibly torture. If the refugees are fortunate enough to make it to Nepal without detection and capture, there is the likelihood of robbery at the many border checkpoints there. And then, as if that weren’t enough, they can be arrested in India, for they are there illegally, without passports. They have lost their country and have no place to call home.

Yet, in spite of this upheaval, I found many Tibetans had graciously gone on with their lives and radiated generosity, kindness, and compassion. As a psychiatrist, I wondered: How could so many people have been brutally beaten and abused over so many years and yet not bear the deep psychological scars that I usually see in my work? How could so many monks and nuns be severely tortured and yet harbor so little hatred and desire for revenge?

The title Whispered Prayers originated from the many stories I heard of imprisoned Tibetans who were punished mercilessly by Chinese guards for uttering their prayers. But these prayers proved impossible to stop. Tens of thousands of prayers spoken daily tethered the Tibetans’ minds not to hatred and revenge, but to compassion and understanding. Their actions speak to the indestructible strength and unyielding power of the human spirit, and to our ability to take an active role in the creation of compassion, courage, and happiness.

As of this writing, the United Nations refuses to recognize Tibet as a country. The United States continues to grant China most-favored-nation trading status. China’s human-rights record continues its descent with a vigorous policy of cultural and religious oppression and environmental destruction. In spite of its abysmal record, China is now being seriously considered for permanent membership in the World Trade Organization.

Most of the subjects in this project were interviewed with the assistance of a translator. Artistic license has been taken to put these interviews in readable form. Because of the sensitivity of the information presented, as well as the attitude of the Chinese government, the identity of the subjects has been protected as much as possible. In many cases, the names and locations have been deliberately changed.

—Stephen R. Harrison

The photographs from this selection are available as a PDF only.

The Nun Who Meditated in Prison

As life worsened and many Tibetans were being executed, my friends and I formed a group called Free Tibet. There were twelve of us, all nuns. I was the youngest. One night, we created and put up a total of five posters, which read: “Free Tibet,” “Stop Destroying Tibet,” and “Don’t Stop Buddhist Religion.” Certain young men who helped our group had secret connections with the Chinese police. They told the police about our posters in order to receive a reward of about thirty dollars. At midnight, the police came to get me and placed me in a Chinese prison for the next three months.

During the interrogations, which took place about twice a week, I was beaten and tortured. To stay alive, I meditated on peace and nonviolence every possible moment. I tried my hardest to think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and of peace for all humankind. I did not feel particularly sad or angry. If the police noticed my lips moving, they told me to stop or I would be punished further. So I whispered my prayers secretly, barely moving my lips at all.

A group of us in prison celebrated the Dalai Lama’s birthday by singing traditional Tibetan songs. As punishment for this, the Chinese guards removed my clothing and put me in an ice house for three days. Then the beatings resumed. They went on and on for weeks. My prayers for peace and nonviolence also went on and on, with even greater intensity.

Finally, my parents pleaded with the Chinese officials to let me go. After three months, the Chinese relented and released me. My friends had no mothers or fathers to fight for their release, so they had to remain in prison for two or three more years.

The Gift That Created Suffering

In 1994, my family and I were on a pilgrimage in Shigatse, and we stopped at the Tashilhunpo monastery. There were many American tourists present. I walked up to one of them to inquire about the Dalai Lama. I did not speak English, and there was nobody to translate, so communication was difficult. Finally, one tourist reached into his pocket and graciously handed me five hundred pictures of His Holiness. Photographs of the Dalai Lama are forbidden in Tibet, and the police are always searching for more to destroy.

It was not long after my return to my hometown in the province of Amdo that people learned I had photos of the Dalai Lama. One by one, I gave the photos away. News of the photos traveled all over the village, and Tibetans everywhere sought me out.

One day, eight Chinese policemen surrounded me and said they had many questions to ask. They brought me to the police station and demanded to know what I had done. I admitted that I had given away many pictures of His Holiness, but I denied that I had been interviewed by American tourists. They started to kick me as if I were a football. They used a special finger cuff to lock my thumbs together. When I fell down, they pulled me up by my fingers. They continued their torture for the next five days, beating me three times a day for two hours at a time. Over and over, they asked me the same questions. After five days, they finally gave up and let me go.

I came to India to tell the world what the Chinese are doing to Tibet. I feel it is my duty to communicate this information so that my country will not be forgotten.

Two Monks with Artificial Legs

In this photograph, my good friend Nawang is standing on the left. We are both monks who lost our legs due to frostbite. The pressure by the Chinese for monks and other Tibetans to denounce our country’s independence and our spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has been constant for many years. There were only twelve monks remaining in our monastery, and we were forced to enroll in special work units under the supervision of the Chinese police. We had increasingly frequent propaganda meetings and re-education classes in Chinese history. Finally, the time for our formal renunciation of Tibet was only twenty-four hours away. We could not bear to denounce our beloved country, so we went home to gather our belongings and flee to India.

In February of 1994, we began to cross the Himalayas. It was winter, and the mountain peaks were like snow white conch shells. After some time, we became disoriented and ended up wandering in the knee-deep snow for three days. I was the first to lose all sensation in my feet, and by the third day, I was unable to walk. I had to crawl in the snow, certain that I would die. Some nomads found us and took us to their tent and gave us food and tea. Eventually, we ended up in a military base in Nepal. The doctors there amputated my friend’s legs first. They told me my legs would also have to be amputated. For two months, I resisted making a decision, but my condition worsened, and, in the end, my legs were also removed. I spent the next six months in a prison in Nepal. Under normal circumstances, Tibetan refugees who get caught by the Nepalese police are returned to Tibet, but an exception was made on account of my situation.

I grieved for a whole year for my missing legs, feeling angry and bitter. Then, almost overnight, I realized that this must have been my karma and my destiny. This is what fate had brought me, for whatever reason, and what was important was not my lost legs but my response to my plight. I have been at peace ever since.

The Nomad Who Lost His Tranquil Life

I was a nomad in Tibet before I was impri­soned by the Chinese. Upon my release, I fled to India, where I now work in an office building in New Delhi. It is a big change for me, and I do not like life here in the city. It is too busy and confusing. My old nomad’s life was wonderful and peaceful. I spent much of my time with animals. My family had more than two hundred yaks, seven hundred sheep, and fifteen horses. We had two houses. Our summer home was a tent made out of yak hair. We lived there when we herded the animals into the mountains to feed on the green grass. In the winter, we stayed in a solid house to protect us from the cold. Our life was our own.

Then the Chinese came and took almost everything away, even our family treasures, like our jewelry and valuable clothing. My father joined the resistance movement and was shot in the stomach during a struggle. I was about ten years old when he died from his wound.

After that, I continued to help my family raise the few animals we had left. The Chinese government taxed us heavily. I remember the Chinese police coming around to collect taxes in the form of cheese, butter, meat, and yak and sheep wool. They would come in autumn, when the animals were very healthy and strong. They intruded on our home, drank our tea, and threatened to imprison us if we didn’t kill a yak and give it to them.

My family life fell apart even further when my sister, a nun, was raped by three Chinese policemen who’d been drinking. Several days later, the police came to our door, and I recognized the one who had raped my sister. Without warning, I attacked him and was arrested. I was nineteen years old at the time and was sent to prison for sixteen years. After three years, I was released, and I fled to India. My sister dropped out of the nunnery and has never returned to her old self.

The Woman Who Whispered Her Prayers

My name is Ama Adhe, and I am sixty-five years old. I spent twenty-eight years of my life in eight different Chinese prisons as a political prisoner. My chuba, the traditional dress of both Tibetan women and men, became my protection at night from the cold and damp of my small prison cells. In many of the prisons there was no bedding or blankets, so I used one side of my chuba as a mattress, the other side as a blanket, and my sleeve as a pillow. Often, when I worked in the prison vegetable gardens that fed the Chinese guards, my chuba became a secret hiding place where I would conceal food to bring to other prisoners who were starving. I was caught and severely punished for this on many occasions.

The inscription you see on the flag in this photograph is the Dolma prayer. I attribute my survival to the ceaseless repetition of this prayer. When I was first in prison, I tore a strip of cloth from my chuba and tied 108 knots in it to make a rosary. It is a tradition for Tibetans to count the repetitions of our prayers, because it helps us to maintain our attention and concentration. When the Chinese guards noticed this knotted cloth, they beat me. So I began to say my prayers alone in my small cell. But the guards waited secretly outside, and whenever they heard the sounds of my prayers, they would beat me again. And so I learned to whisper my prayers. When they saw my lips moving, the guards placed duct tape over my mouth. Then I learned to say my prayers in my mind, counting them on my fingers. When the guards saw my fingers moving, they beat me and placed duct tape over my fingers. And so it was that I learned to pray silently in my mind without making any gestures, so the guards could see nothing at all.

The Man Who Made Posters

As a young boy in Tibet, I was trained in the film industry by the Chinese. By the time I turned twenty-seven, I was a successful photographer with my own house and an automobile. I worked for the police, and my job was to photograph alleged criminals, both Tibetan and Chinese. My photographs were used to convict them. Eventually, I began to notice discrepancies and contradictions in the statements of the Chinese authorities. I became increasingly uncomfortable in my role as photographer. I saw people who had done nothing wrong being harmed and even killed. I realized that the Tibetan people were being fed propaganda and lies and false promises, and I felt it was my duty to tell them the truth.

Over the next several years, six friends and I created thousands of posters and distributed them at night. These posters were handwritten and emblazoned with slogans such as “Stop Forcing Abortions on Tibetan Women,” “Chinese Are Violating Human Rights in Tibet,” and “Free Tibet.” I placed the last of our posters on the police-station door. It read, “Chinese, Go Home!”

The police traced my handwriting and arrested me. I took all the blame in order to protect my friends. I went from being a successful young man to surviving like an animal. I was subjected to eight months of severe torture. I was repeatedly shocked with electric currents and cattle prods, punished in ice rooms, beaten with clubs, and hung from the ceiling so that my feet would not touch the floor. I was burned with cigarette butts and chained to walls and hooks. I lost consciousness repeatedly.

During the beatings I received in prison, I would pray, “May Tibet be free.” I knew that the Dalai Lama wanted a nonviolent solution to the problem of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. So I accepted that I would endure my pain for a worthy cause. It was important that I saw my tormentors as people who, like myself, were injured. I took the attitude that they could do whatever they wanted to my body, but my mind was free to think for itself. I concentrated my thoughts on His Holiness so intensely that, as I was being tortured, I could actually feel his presence. So I did not feel the pain. I did not pray for myself, but for peace for all beings. The Tibetans believe that the body is not important. What’s important is where your mind is. So I practiced this every minute of every day. I was released from prison in 1995 after serving four years.

The Saddest Day Of My Life

I was thirty-five years old and living in the Amdo region of Tibet when the Chinese police first came to my house. It was an ill-fated day. I had three sons, and I was pregnant with a fourth child. In my village, it is Chinese policy that every woman who has two children must be sterilized. Nearly all the other women in my village were already sterilized. If a woman who is not sterilized should become pregnant, and she already has two children, she is often forced to have an abortion, regardless of the status of her pregnancy. In addi­tion, the Chinese government demands a tax for every child who is born. If we do not have the money to pay the tax, they take part of our land away from us as payment. They told me I would have to pay the tax if I bore my child, in essence trying to force me to get the abortion.

In Tibetan Buddhism, it is a sin to get an abor­tion, so I begged the police not to make me abort my child. Sadly, I agreed that, after my child was born, they could sterilize me. Thus, my fourth child was born, and when he was eight months old, the police again came to my home to force me to become sterilized.

My husband and I walked many days to the hospital. I cried a great deal. At the hospital, I saw many young women also waiting to be sterilized, and they were crying, too. I lay on the bed and was given an injection of anesthesia, but it didn’t work very well, so I was awake and saw what the three Chinese doctors did to me. We had to pay for the sterilization and all the expenses. Eleven women were sterilized that day, and one was forced to have an abortion.

When our child turned one, we were asked to pay the tax for him. As we were very poor, we were not able to pay it. I had no energy to work in the fields, and my children were all young and were unable to help me. Eventually, we had to move. To this day, I have bad dreams about the sterilization.

The Woman Who Refused To Surrender

My father really wanted a son, and since I was not a boy, he would dress me up as one. He was a leader of our resistance movement against the Chinese, and whenever he went out, he was accompanied by six or more riders. I would join them and carry a gun and wear a man’s apparel. I could handle guns and shoot fairly well.

When my father died, the other chieftains said that I should take over the resistance movement. So I took command of our forces. We rode day and night. The Chinese troops attacked us from both the ground and the air. One morning, we woke up at dawn, and as we were preparing our tea, gunfire exploded around us. The Chinese were firing machine guns, and we lost all of our possessions except for the horses’ saddles and the gold and silver ornaments we wore on our bodies.

The Chinese pursued us across the high mountain passes. Another young woman and I stayed close together. We fired at the Chinese with our gun barrels side by side. I do not know if I managed to hit anyone, but she did. We had only two waist belts of bullets, and the hills were filled with Chinese troops. We fired as economically as possible to save our ammunition, and then we retreated on our horses.

We stayed on the run for two more months, under the delusion that American support would arrive. We ended up seeing only eight American planes, which air-dropped M1s, pistols, bazookas, grenades, and radio sets. This was all the help we received.

Five days later, the Chinese mounted an offensive and dispersed our forces. Two hundred of us rode all night and crossed many mountain peaks in total darkness. The long ride was too much for my grandmother. We dismounted, and I carried her piggy back. We went on like that for twenty more days, walking and riding over mountainous, rocky terrain. “Let the Chinese capture us,” I told my grandmother, “but I will never surrender!”

They did finally capture us. I never did surrender.

I spent the next twenty-one years in Chinese prisons. I went into prison at twenty-five and came out an old woman. After I was released, I organized and participated in nine different demonstrations against the Chinese government before I was forced to flee my beloved homeland.

The Boy In A Suit

I am ten years old. I have just arrived in India from Tibet, and I am dressed in the clothes I wore over the snowy mountains. My mother paid a guide to help me escape to India. I said goodbye to her, and she returned to our village. There were twelve adults and four children in our group. I began to cry on the first day of our journey, and the guide told me to be quiet, or I would bring them bad luck.

Our trip over the mountains was treacherous. We hit snow up to our chests and were able to sleep for only a few minutes at a time. The snow became so deep that we could no longer walk, so we found a cave and stayed there until it stopped snowing. Days passed. There was no food to eat or water to drink, and it was so cold that we could not even speak. The guide thought for sure that the four of us children would die of starvation. Dressed as a beggar, our brave guide walked in the falling snow to a small village to beg for food. As we watched him descend, we could see Chinese troops below with their long guns drawn. Eventually, he returned with some fat, powdered barley, and matches, which he had begged from the villagers.

Every night, the guide let me sleep next to him in the cave. Four days later, we felt better and continued on our way, only to be robbed by border guards at each Nepalese checkpoint we crossed, until we had nothing left. All the money my mother gave me was gone. We begged for food as we walked the last ten days of our journey. Finally, we arrived in Katmandu. One of the other children had to have his feet amputated at the hospital there because of frostbite. I am now at the reception center in Dharamsala. The day that this photograph was taken was the first time I cried since I began my journey.

“Whispered Prayers” is excerpted from Whispered Prayers: Portraits and Prose of Tibetans in Exile, by Stephen R. Harrison. © 2000 by Talisman Press. It appears here by permission of Talisman Press,, (800) 914-9299.