Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Boulder (Colorado) Niece of HHDL Feels "Lucky"

By Jean Torkelson, Rocky Mountain News; August 2, 2006

Tenzing Gyatso is pursuing a life of happy normalcy in Boulder: She's a bank manager, the wife of an artist and the busy mom of a 7-year-old.

But if the unpretentious 39-year- old ever entered a name-dropping contest, she would likely win. She's the niece of the Dalai Lama.

"I feel very lucky I am, but in a sense it blocks people from seeing me for who I am and with my faults," she said.

"People look at me in awe. So it's something I try to stay away from, more for selfish reasons. It's easier leading a normal life as yourself than as the niece of the Dalai Lama."

When the Dalai Lama arrives in Denver in September, he will be revered as a Nobel laureate, an icon of peace, and the exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet.

Gyatso knows him as her mother's big brother, the uncle who loves to garden and nicknames wild animals around his cottage. He's the compassionate relative who helped her family through the death of her father, and the mischievous voice on the phone who's been known to call up her mother before a visit and say, "Bring the hot sauce!"

Besides the pull of family, the Dalai Lama's kin share a somber link: In 1959 Tibet was overtaken by the Chinese communists, and the Dalai Lama was forced into exile in India.

The family made its way to Dharamsala - it's a town, Gyatso said, "with one main store like Nederland," where she was born - and it's where the 71-year-old Dalai Lama maintains his residence to this day.

Gyatso's uncle grew up in a Tibetan palace, though the family, including her mother, one of seven siblings, could visit him.

"Any other uncle you could call him up and joke around, but with the Dalai Lama there's always a (reserve)," she said. "Which I think, in a way, is sad for him." While he's playful and open to the children of his family, "it's you who holds back," she said.

Gyatso's destiny took her to New York more than 20 years ago, where she ran a Tibetan restaurant, which was her father's profession. There she met her husband, Losang, who specializes in contemporary Tibetan art.

They moved with their son, Tashi, to Boulder in 2002. "It seemed like a nice place," she said. "So we just packed our bags and drove here."

Today, Gyatso is president of the Boulder-based Tibetan Association of Colorado, part of a network that works for Tibet's independence.

She estimates there are 10 to 15 Tibetan families in the Denver-Boulder area.

Gyatso cannot help but be concerned for her uncle's well-being. Despite a veneer of relaxed freedoms to encourage tourism, China maintains a harsh control over her country, Gyatso said. And though he's been gone for decades, the Dalai Lama still has such strong underground support that after a rumor swept Tibet that he was returning for a visit, "people by the thousands flocked to his hometown," she said.

His powerful draw as a hero to his people makes him subject of frequent death threats and he now travels with security guards, Gyatso said.

A sense of urgency is growing to win a free Tibet.

"If something doesn't happen soon it may be very difficult," she said. "The Dalai Lama is getting up there in age, and I think the Chinese are hoping that the issue of Tibet will die with the Dalai Lama."

Like others, Gyatso often calls her uncle by the formal title, "His Holiness," though she often sees the other side of her gentle relative.

"When my father passed away our family was having a very difficult time and he really took us in," she recalled. "We spent one whole week together, and in that time of need he was there for us, as a family."

The 14th Dalai Lama

Birth name: Lhamo Dhondrub, born July 6, 1935, Takster, Tibet. He is also known as Tenzing Gyatso, a common Tibetan name shared by his niece.

Family: Farmers

Discovered: As a child, he was identified by holy men as the reincarnation of the bodhisattva, a spiritual being who remains on earth to teach compassion.

Favorite foods: Tibetan-style noodles and traditional hot sauce.

Pastimes: Gardening, riding his exercise bike, listening to BBC radio.

Denver-area Events with Dalai Lama Sept. 15-17:
Friday, Sept. 15, 9 a.m.: 10th anniversary International Peace Jam Youth Conference begins at the University of Denver, Magness Arena. For information call Peace Jam at 303-455-2099.
Saturday, 10 a.m.: Keynote address to Peace Jam International Youth Conference, Magness Arena.

Sunday, 10 a.m.- noon: He receives first "Living Peace" award from the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center at Red Feather Lakes, in northern Colorado.

2 p.m.: Address at the Pepsi Center, sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, tickets $18 to $100, see for purchasing details.