Everyone should read Sorrow Mountain. It is the latest of three ﬁrsthand accounts, in English, of Tibetans’ experiences as political prisoners of the Chinese. In fact, everyone should read all three. These memoirs join those of World War II Holocaust survivors and witnesses to other historical tragedies as part of our human legacy. Not only is it our duty to understand—so as to forestall—the functioning of so-called “inhumanity,” but it is also part of our inherited wealth as human beings to connect with the strength of people like these who survive torture and brutality, frustrating the most concerted attempts to take away their mental freedom.
Sorrow Mountain; Ama Adhe, the Voice That Remembers, by Ama Adhe as told to Joy Blakeslee (Wisdom, 1997); and The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk, by Palden Gyatso with Tsering Shakya (Grove, 1997) have much in common. All are well written with the help of talented collaborators. All describe a sequence of events and reactions whose general similarity lends weight and credibility to the stories as a group. First, we hear of life before the Chinese invasion, a time when families decamped for summer pastures where children ran barefoot catching wildﬂowers between their toes, and the narrators were free to develop their spiritual lives along traditional Tibetan Buddhist lines. Then, the ﬁrst Chinese soldiers appear, bringing on a period of confusion and denial. For nearly ten years, the Communist invaders disguise the scope and nature of their intentions, while Tibetans continue their way of life as best they can. This phase ends with the full-scale invasion in 1959, which conquers Lhasa, brings an end to Tibet as it once was, and eventually leads to the capture of each of these three narrators. Both women, Ani Pachen and Ama Adhe, are active in the Tibetan resistance movement for a time before being caught. Palden Gyatso, a monk in Lhasa, wonders at ﬁrst why he is suddenly dragged oﬀ to prison, since he has committed no crime, no harm to anyone.
Decades of imprisonment follow for each, and we see how Chinese authorities try to bring an end to the Tibetan way of life and perception, exorcising it from one person at a time via beatings, torture, starvation, punishment and overwork. Readers may weep at many of the anecdotes, such as how a starving man dies after gobbling up the intestines of a rotten horse carcass; how a ravine ﬁlls with corpses; or how a prisoner without bedding, huddled against a fellow prisoner during a long Tibetan winter night, knows that her neighbor has died by the slow loss of body warmth. The narrators recount many deaths at Chinese hands: parents, friends, siblings, fellow monks, prison buddies, admired lamas and tulkus.
And yet the appalling cruelty is rendered futile by an extraordinary, spiritually based resistance. “In a way,” muses Ani Pachen in the early months of her twenty-one-year imprisonment, “I began to look forward to the times when I was awake and not being questioned or beaten, for my mind was then free.” Ama Adhe’s twenty-seven years in prison included nine without a bath and tortures such as having bamboo slivers forced under her ﬁngernails in return for ideological transgressions like making a rosary out of knotted rags. Palden Gyatso suﬀered severe beatings, overwork and torture throughout most of his thirty-three years in prison. In each case, sheer stubbornness combines with Buddhist teachings to provide the individual’s core of strength.
Ani Pachen is a willful, spiritual character from the beginning. At great cost to her parents, she refuses to marry. Relatives and friends consider her too self-suﬃcient. She spends as much time as she can meditating and reﬂecting on the nature of life, her own and others’. In prison, she bolsters herself with a variety of formal practices, using visualization techniques to combat the extremities of hunger and praying that her conﬁnement in a tiny, ﬁlthy, pitch-black cell will not end before she ﬁnishes 100,000 prostrations. Mainly, though, she relies on the Nyingmapa teachings about the ineffability of mind. After about ten years of punishment, she says with authority, “Whatever they do to my body, I thought, they cannot touch my essence. It is beyond the realm of physical existence.”
These books share powerful similarities, including being written in the ﬁrst person. But Sorrow Mountain is a more intimate, poetic and personal attempt to depict the author’s internal process than the other two, which opt for a crystalline, witnessing tone: powerful, incontrovertible, somewhat impersonal. Donnelly’s approach is more intimate and daring, closely aligned with ﬁctional narratives. It often includes vivid sensory details, similes, or fragmentary images and memories ﬂashing across Pachen’s mind. Many perceptions are clearly Pachen’s own: worries about unseen beings and forces, a dream of Chairman Mao’s death shortly before it occurs in 1976.
Yet, it is also possible to sense how her experience is altered, ﬁltered through Donnelly’s voice, rhythms, vocabulary, interpretations and elaborations. During a meditation retreat, for example, the narrator says, “Thoughts came and went, at times I felt heavy and stiﬀ. But often they dissolved. At those times I felt myself rippling, like ribbons of light.” This vocabulary of intense, poetic subjectivity seems the product of a cross-cultural collaboration; the coauthor’s hand shows.
It is likely that some creative interpolation was the only solution. Meditation practices also have been simpliﬁed, essentialized, made accessible. We honor the sincerity of Donnelly’s attempt, especially when glimpsing some of the difﬁculties she encountered: shouted interviews through a translator in the midst of a Dharamsala monsoon, and facing what seem to be Pachen’s resistances (and downright evasions). I do wish the editors had caught several silly typographical and spelling errors, mostly in the book’s ﬁrst chapter. Yet the problems are minuscule compared to the achievement. This is a valiant book. Read it and weep. Read it and exult.