Against the Grain of History: Mutiny at the Ockenden School

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa


Abstract: The question of whether Tibet was independent of China has shaped the construction of the national subject for both China and Tibet. This essay turns to newspaper reports, letters, and pamphlets produced by Tibetan refugees and Tibet supporters in the mid-1960s to tell the story of a revolt by thirty Tibetan students at Ockenden School in Dharwar, India––among the first schools established in exile–– for being taught the wrong kind of national history. The story enters the inner space of Tibetan exile life and demonstrates how the formation of the exile government produced its own center/margin political space.

Keywords: Bon, Ockenden School, alternate histories, national narrative, unity


Malcolm Dexter and Sangye Tenzin, teachers at Ockenden School in Dharwar, Karnataka (India), did not realize when they set off on an excursion to the bazaar on 29 April 1966 that their students were planning a surprise for them. Two days after the incident, Dexter, who was the headmaster, wrote a letter to the school’s founder Joyce Pearce in Surrey, England, describing it as the most difficult and important letter he had ever written. Twenty-five students had abruptly left the school with their bedding, uniforms, and even textbooks! “Sangye and I were absolutely heart-broken,” Dexter writes (May 1). Recalling the incident after their return from the bazaar, he mentions that several students had refused to do their afternoon garden duties and held a meeting in the evening to discuss their complaints against the school. Dexter had decided to expel the ringleaders—six students in all—and suspected that they were abetted and led to this revolt by one of the two Tibetan teachers, Gyaltsen Choden and Kelsang Liushar, at the school.[1] Hinting at the play of complex religious and political machinations, Dexter explains to Pearce in the same letter on May 1 that what it boiled down to was Sangye Tenzin’s Bonpo identity (from the Bon religious practice that pre-dated Buddhism in Tibet and had been long relegated to the margins in Tibetan society).

The Ockenden School was set up in 1965 by the Ockenden Venture, a charity organization founded by three schoolteachers from Surrey. Established under the 1940 War Charities Act, the organization’s first humanitarian aid was focused on young East European refugees following World War II. The charity’s scope was amended in 1962 to support displaced children beyond Europe after one of its founders, Joyce Pearce, advocated to assist Tibetan refugees in India. Ockenden’s goal was to provide young Tibetan refugees a sound Western education while still grounding them in Tibetan cultural traditions. Ockenden students were to be among the first generation of Tibetan refugees receiving education in India. The organization hoped that the students, upon graduation, would be of value to the Tibetan community as translators and liaison officers.

Ockenden Venture hired two instructors—Malcolm Dexter and Sangye Tenzin, both scholars of Bon—to educate the thirty boys in the school.[2] Sangye Tenzin­, who was awarded a Geshe degree in Tibet, had returned to India after teaching and studying at the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London.[3] Two additional teachers, Gyaltsen Choden, a Tibetan instructor, and Kelsang Liushar, a steward, had been appointed by the Council for Tibetan Education, a new wing under the Department of Education of the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala, India.

The Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet had led to cataclysmic changes in the lives of Tibetans whether they remained inside Tibet or fled in 1959 to the neighboring countries of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. For those abruptly rendered refugees, the past became the means not only to make sense of the present but more importantly, to prepare the groundwork for a return to an independent Tibet.

The recently established Tibetan Government-in-Exile had insisted on creating separate Tibetan schools, instead of sending Tibetan children to existing Indian schools, even though Tibetans had little managerial experience and lacked material resources to run institutions (Rigzin 367). The dual objective–preservation of the Tibetan language and culture as well as preparation for a modern future–was at the heart of the Tibetan education policy. A customized Tibetan education would help answer questions such as “Who am I? Where have I come from and from where did my parents come from?” (Shiromany 317).[4] Education was central to promoting the development of ideal Tibetans in exile.

The Council for Tibetan Education’s task was to prepare the curricula in Tibetan schools according to the guidelines of the exile government. The Council had formed a publication section consisting of a team of renowned religious teachers—Dudjom Rinpoche, Zemey Rinpoche, and Ngor Thartse Rinpoche—to help write textbooks for the schools (Tibet Documentation 87). The first Tibetan school, called the Tibetan Refugee Educational Institute, in Mussoorie, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, had fifty students ranging in age from thirteen to thirty-five (Rigzin 267). By 1962, there were two more residential schools, one in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, and the other in Darjeeling, West Bengal.

The events of the boys’ revolt came to light for exile Tibetans on 2 June 1966 when the newspaper Tibetan Freedom (Bhod-mi Rangwang) published the first of several testimonials by the two Tibetan teachers and the students, alleging Dexter and Sangye Tenzin armed the young students with knowledge that had the potential to create strife among Tibetans and hurt national sentiments. The publication of the testimonials in Tibetan Freedom, the only Tibetan newspaper in exile in 1966, was significant. Run by Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s older brother, the paper’s goal was primarily to inform Tibetans of national and international events related to the Tibetan struggle. It was taken under the fold of the exile establishment after a few years, becoming the first newspaper to be published and managed by the Tibetan exile government. The content published in Tibetan Freedom merits a close study because it had traction in times when media sources were exiguous in the Tibetan community.

The revolt at Ockenden School was brought to my attention by a Bonpo Khenpo in 2013. In the Khenpo’s version of the story, the focus was not so much on the revolt itself but on what the students protected as Tibetan history, how the story was represented in Tibetan Freedom, and the emphasis on national unity in the Tibetan exile community.

I was intrigued that young boys with no memory of Tibet were wounded after learning some facts or historical details that went against the dominant discourse or narratives about the Tibetan nation. That young students were stirred to revolt against their teachers and even left the school is an uncommon occurence in Tibetan society given the importance of the teacher in student-teacher relationships in Tibetan Buddhist traditions. That this was in the early days of Tibetan exilic life, when dissent against authority was scarce or unprecedented, was even more surprising.[5]

I was raised in Tibetan refugee communities where the majority identified themselves as followers of the Gelug, Kagyu, Sakya, or Nyingma traditions. Bon was often described as an aberration from Buddhism: bonpos walked around the stupa anticlockwise; bonpos believed in magic; bonpos were responsible for the demise of Buddhism in Tibet in the ninth century. I did not hear Tibetan Buddhists talk about Bon as an organized monastic system with similarities to other Buddhist schools, or that Bon was integral to Tibetan identity and history. It never occurred to me that Bon was the indigenous religion of Tibet before the official entry of Buddhism in the seventh and eighth centuries.

The Ockenden School revolt took place at a crucial moment when Tibetan exile officials, cultural institutions of society, and community members were beginning the work of creating, preserving, and promoting a stable narrative about Tibetan history. The construction of an official historical narrative, as it has been elsewhere, is a process that is social, cultural, as well as political (McGranahan, Arrested 3). It is a process that legitimizes selective events or versions of events over others as being acceptable or true (3)[6], which can further shift perspectives on the past and alter the meaning of concepts such as nation and identity. As a result, certain people, events, and cultures belong to the official history of the place while certain people, events, and cultures are elided.[7]

The questions raised by the students allow insights into what constituted history, what shaped collective identity, what worldview shaped this narrative, and how history fits into Tibetan education, storytelling, and nationalism. The students’ response is also illustrative of the dominant opinion and attitude towards Bon history and figures. Likewise, the exile government’s decision to act on behalf of the aggrieved students indicates what those in power regarded as the historical tradition and how they would deal with alternate traditions or narratives. The Ockenden School was after all meant to produce future bureaucrats for the exile government.

In the following sections of this article, I refer to the revolt as represented in four sources: 1) the Tibetan newspaper Bhod-mi Rangwang or Tibetan Freedom; 2) letters and testimonials in the archives of the Surrey History Center (UK), exchanged between Joyce Pearce in Surrey and Malcom Dexter, the headmaster of the school 3) letters sent by the Bureau of the Dalai Lama to Joyce Pearce, also in the Surrey archives; and 4) additional letters written by third party observers (friends of Dexter) and volunteer teachers who attempted to make sense of the incident.[8]

Not many Tibetans I spoke to outside of the Bonpo community remembered the Ockenden student revolt of 1966, and the handful of individuals who did, turned the story into a lesson about the dark time in Tibetan exile history when some Tibetans were against Tibetan unity.


Letters from the Field

In a collective letter to Pearce, twenty-five students explain that they left Ockenden because of their uncongenial relationship with Malcolm Dexter and Sangye Tenzin. They list twelve reasons—religion being the first reason behind the discord. The students were all followers of Buddha, but the teachers spoke about a religion that came to Tibet before Buddhism. They write that the two teachers neglected the “holy doctrine” of Buddha, which the students cherished. The teachers were also accused of holding negative views against the Dalai Lama-led Tibetan government. Furthermore, they complain that Dexter was trying to divide Tibetans by speaking about Amdo as being separate from Tibet. The students suspected that the two teachers had a hidden motive of turning Ockenden into a Bonpo center. They end the letter with a plea to Pearce to replace the two teachers (Woodard 1).

The follow-up letter is signed by thirty boys.[9] The students inform Pearce that they were heading to Dharamsala to report the events to the Dalai Lama (Woodall 4).[10] Pearce was also sent a letter from the Bureau of the Dalai Lama, dated May 5, informing her about the thirty boys who had been “expelled” from Ockenden School. The Bureau asks for her clarification on the event (Tara May 4).

In her response to Dexter on 4 May 1966, Pearce advises him not to punish the boys for writing to her. She suggests that Dexter pursue the first complaint in the students’ letter: religion. “Is it not likely that, as you have explained to me, the Bompos [sic] are of a different sect from the Dalai Lama that they may feel Sangye has a different approach in the matter of religious instruction?” she asks Dexter. She wonders if hiring Mr. Phalla (who had been the Head of the Dalai Lama’s Secretariat in the Tibetan Government in Lhasa), who was of a “different sect,” would be the answer to keeping the “balance” in the school.

Dexter’s letter to Pearce on May 10 intimates he had read the students’ letter (perhaps shared by Pearce). He states that the complaints were not worthy to be refuted. Sangye Tenzin neither taught the Bonpo doctrine nor made an issue of religion. The reverse was true: the students began their day with thirty minutes of prayers to the Dalai Lama and Buddha. Dexter clarifies that both he and Sangye Tenzin preached tolerance in the school and treated students from all religious sects and provinces with respect.

Dexter also addresses Pearce’s point regarding the balance between religious leanings in the school by drawing her attention to the appointment of Kelsang Liushar and the “Dharamsala teacher” (referring to Gyaltsen Choden), which had proven to be the cause of the problem.[11]  He indicates he would ask Dr. David. L. Snellgrove, a professor of the Tibetan language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, to provide Pearce with essential details regarding the “religious strife” that complicated political and social life in Tibet for centuries. He hints that such tensions persisted within the exile community in India. Snellgrove was among the first Western scholars to study Bon and work with Tibetan Bonpo scholars, such as Sangye Tenzin, in the 1960s. This new scholarship on Bon was not easily accessible to Tibetan refugees in India. Even Western scholars up until the 1960s viewed Bon the way Tibetans did, either as a form of folk religion preceding Buddhism in Tibet, as a religion that developed alongside Buddhism in Tibet, or as a shamanistic practice full of superstitions and divination. These representations were challenged by Bon scholars and scholars such as Snellgrove who, unlike Tibetan Buddhists, saw Bon as a form of Buddhism and not the opposite of Buddhism. “Do we go on? Or do we, abandon the project and cut our losses?” Dexter asks Pearce (May 10).


Right and Wrong History

Tibetan Freedom’s first report on the boys’ revolt, titled “A Report by Gyaltsen Choden, a Tibetan language teacher at Ockenden School” was published on 2 June 1966.[12] Written in the first person, and in the Tibetan language, Gyaltsen Choden describes Dexter and Sangye Tenzin’s teaching pedagogy as inconsistent and their relationship with the students as disrespectful (varying between playfulness and harshness to the extent of beating students and calling them names such as “wild Tibetans” and “pigs”). Gyaltsen Choden accuses the two teachers of advising him to follow their strict disciplinary method with the pupils and portrays himself as someone who preferred maintaining discipline through guidance and advice. He further writes:

I knew the reasons for these beatings, i.e. because the students did not agree to engage in studying Bon religion. Buddhism, monks and lamas were disparaged and they [the teachers] stated that the Tibetan government did not exist. The students did not follow their erroneous paths to break the bond between His Holiness and the Tibetan people by criticizing Tibetan government officers and stating that eastern Tibet was not a part of Tibet.[13]

As per Gyaltsen Choden’s version, Dexter and Sangye Tenzin were engaged in activities that undermined the achievements of the Tibetan exile community in religion and politics. He also took offense to these two teachers’ use of Chinese terms, such as chopsticks, to describe food and utensils in front of foreign and Indian dignitaries, for doing so gave the impression that Chinese and Tibetan traditions were similar. He felt that the two teachers were manipulating the Dalai Lama’s name and the goodwill that donors and sponsors held towards Tibet.

Gyaltsen Choden interprets Dexter and Sangye Tenzin’s ordinary and individual actions in relation to their service or disservice to the nation. He was so troubled that he had written to the Department of Education about the two teachers and threatened to leave the school if the two were not dismissed. He also admits to having sent a letter to the founders of the school, but it is not clear when he wrote this letter.

Kelsang Liushar’s testimony, published on 6 June 1966, under the title “The Reason Why Kelsang Left Ockenden,” speculates that moving the school from its former site in Mussoorie to the more remote location of Dharwar in South India made it possible for Dexter and Sangye Tenzin to turn the students away from Buddhism and create dissension among them. The testimony also accuses the two teachers of favoring Bonpo students.

On 7 June 1966, Tibetan Freedom published testimonies by five students on their reasons for leaving the school, and on June 8, it published three additional student testimonies. A fourteen-year-old student states that he was compelled to revolt because he felt the teachers intended to do away with Buddhism and wanted to convert the students to Bon. He testified that Sangye Tenzin cast King Lang Darma, the forty-first King of Tibet who is commonly held responsible for the persecution of Buddhism in Tibet during his reign, in a positive light. Another student testified that although he had been at Ockenden for only two weeks, he had witnessed the two teachers make disparaging remarks against Buddhism and the exile government. He wrote that Sangye Tenzin referred to there being two distinct dialects in Tibet. Additional testimonies from six students were printed on 7 and 8 June.[14] Read together, the complaints in the testimonies fall under three main categories:

  1. Amdo and Kham as separate political entities independent from the Tibetan government in Lhasa

The students express in different ways that Dexter and Sangye Tenzin emphasized Amdo and Kham’s political autonomy from Central Tibet. One student singles out Sangye Tenzin for saying his birthplace and the Gyalrong area were fully independent and did not pay any tax to the Gaden Phodrang Government under the Dalai Lama. Another student testimony emphasizes that Amdo was one of the three provinces of Tibet, and he was shocked at being taught otherwise.

  1. Representing Lang Darma as a decent person

The students complain that the teachers idealized Lang Darma, Tibet’s most vilified king. This was one of the reasons why they suspected that the teachers wanted to promote Bon in the school and convert the younger boys to Bon.

  1. Suggesting Thonmi Sambhota was not the inventor of the Tibetan script

The students allege that Dexter and Tenzin emphasized in class that Thonmi Sambhota was not the inventor of the Tibetan script and that an earlier script had existed. Such information contradicted what the students accepted as an established fact about the invention of the first Tibetan script.

The student testimonies, published in Tibetan Freedom (these complaints are also expressed in their letter to Joyce Pearce), indicate that they were hurt that the narratives they held as truth were challenged by the two teachers. The students were responding to the contradictions between what they were purportedly learning or unlearning in the classroom and the hegemonic narratives they understood to be true. After all, Tibetan songs, opera, and stories determined that Lang Darma was a villain, that Thonmi Sambhota transformed Tibetans from barbarians into modern people (even though literacy was mostly concentrated in the monasteries and among the elite), and that Tibet comprised the regions of U-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo. Their confusion, even anger, is understandable. However, the power these students gave to alternative historical narratives, such as those related to Bon in the case here or their (mis)interpretation of these narratives challenging the Tibetan government and creating disharmony among Tibetans, seems remarkable.

 The testimonies allow the revolt to be read as an interesting case of what Prasenjit Duara describes as the “repressive connection” (Rescuing 4) between the nation and the subject of history,­ which is religion in the context here.[15] In reading and retelling this event as a story within a story about national history and cultural memory, I am illustrating a way to think about the borders between national histories and the heterogeneous nature of communities and clans. The Ockenden School revolt illustrates how the hegemonic narratives of history and culture were already sedimented into the social and cultural life of Tibetans.


Disrupting Unity

In her letter to Tenzin N. Takla, the Assistant Director of the Council for Tibetan Education, dated 13 May 1966, Joyce Pearce writes that there are always two sides to a question. She suggests that moving from the comfortable mountain climate in Mussoorie to the scorching heat of South India had made the boys unhappy. She wonders why they waited so long to ask questions on religious pedagogy when they had ample and easier opportunities to do so in Mussoorie. 

Tenzin Takla agrees that there are two sides, but he explains that Dexter’s accusations against Kelsang Liushar and Gyaltsen Choden were refuted by the students’ admissions that they had left the school of their own volition (Takla, May 25). The Council had closely examined the reports made by the students and concluded that Dexter and Sangye Tenzin carried at heart the intention to “strike discord among Tibetans” and “disrupt the national pride and cultural values” cherished by the students (3). The students had responded defiantly because of their loyalty to the Tibetan culture and nation. Tenzin Takla expresses his disappointment, explaining that he had regarded the students as potential leaders for the community and nation. He offers two suggestions for the way forward: to dismiss Dexter and Sangye Tenzin, and to run the school under the Dalai Lama’s direction or jointly with the Tibetan Schools Society.

The event, he repeats, had endangered the community’s peace.  It is unclear, from both the articles in Tibetan Freedomand the letters, how the community would have been endangered. One of the most unsettling facts is that the Tibetan committee members arrived at their decision without speaking with the accused teachers. They relied on the letters from the students and the testimonies from Gyaltsen Choden and Kelsang Liushar.

The Ockenden Venture sent Peter Woodard to investigate the incident.[16] Woodard’s exhaustive eighty-nine-page report, “A Report on the Mutiny at the Ockenden School Dharwar Mysore,” contains copies of letters exchanged between different parties involved in the Ockenden School revolt, transcripts of Woodard’s interviews with thirty students and teachers, and minutes of his meetings with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government officials. The contents of the interviews echo the sentiments expressed in the testimonies that were already made public to Tibetan refugees in Tibetan Freedom.

Woodard’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, Tenzin N. Takla, and T.C. Tara on 1 June 1966 at Swarg Ashram in Dharamsala did not go well judging by the meeting’s minutes. This was largely due to Woodard’s refusal to accept the Council’s decision that Dexter and Sangye Tenzin had deliberately sowed dissension. Instead, he insinuated the revolt was a plot hatched by the Tibetan teachers under instructions from Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s brother. The two parties—representative of the Ockenden Venture and the Tibetan exile establishment—stood behind the respective teachers each had hired for the school. Woodard suggested the school retain Dexter and Sangye Tenzin with closer input from the Council, while the Council suggested the school continue its work without the two accused teachers. Woodard implied that it was important to make the right decision because European donors were watching this incident unfold: a big appeal for Tibetans had been planned in Europe. Tenzin Takla retorted that it was equally important to Tibetans as a “matter of principle.” He reiterated how Sangye Tenzin and Dexter had deliberately undermined Tibetan authorities and religion.

In a follow-up letter to Pearce on June 5, the private secretary to the Dalai Lama, T.C. Tara, expressed his disappointment with the “unhappy incident,” as well as with Woodard’s allegation that Gyalo Thondup was behind the whole incident. Tibetans felt that Woodard’s unwillingness to fire Dexter and Sangye Tenzin left them with no other option than to shut down the school.

Pearce suggests to Dexter that he had been unwise in handling the situation. Discipline, she explains in a letter on June 16, is maintained on two grounds. One, the personal “relationship between individuals and his staff and the boys and secondly the external pressure of the society in which the school exists.” Dexter’s relationship with the students had broken down (he was accused of beating the students), and the boys had felt the “external society” would support them (June 16). She writes that Ockenden was not prepared to be involved in Tibetan politics and intrigues. She thought that the exile government was justified in looking into Ockenden’s intentions if they felt the school was not supporting the policies of the Dalai Lama.

In a letter dated 17 June 1966, Pearce is equally direct with Woodard in expressing her concern that he was accusing Gyalo Thondup without any proof. She expresses the same concern in a letter to a colleague in the Tibetan Refugee Aid Society in Canada. She shares that the Ockenden School could only stay open if it was to be run by the exile government. She wonders if the conflict was the outcome of trying to bring a Western education system in line with Tibetan culture. She explains the situation might be analogous to the experience that progressive thinkers of the Middle Ages faced when they offended the Church. A school seeking to align Tibetan education with Western requirements while preserving fundamental elements of Tibetan faith would have to move forward carefully if it aimed to succeed in both goals, she concludes. Pearce’s assessment recognizes that teaching a revised history came into conflict with traditional authority.

Snellgrove’s response to Pearce dated 26 May 1966 provides a context to the study of history. Snellgrove explains that the Western interpretation of Tibetan history was based on critical evaluation and differed in some respects from the history that Tibetans were accustomed to. While new scholarship did not undermine Tibetan belief in Buddhism, Tibetans were understandably reacting against the new ideas, such as studies on the military success of pre-Buddhist Tibet, as anti-traditional. Snellgrove felt that talking about religion with Tibetans from different religious orders was a delicate problem (Woodard 41). He pointed out that it was hard to avoid conflicts with traditional attitudes; he did not think this was unique to Tibetans. He pointed to the disputes in India in choosing between Indian traditional history and history as understood by the West.

What Snellgrove seems to be suggesting is that alternate histories challenge traditionally held realities. Take, for example, the figure of Lang Darma. Of all the Tibetan historical figures, no one is more maligned in Tibetan history than the ninth-century monarch Lang Darma, be it in popular culture or canonical texts. Tsepon Shakabpa’s Tibet: A Political History (1984) was among the first available published political accounts of Tibet written in a somewhat modern-styled format of history and translated into English. His was also among the only available history books written in English covering the events of the Chinese invasion in 1950 till Tsering Shakya’s important account of modern Tibet. Shakabpa writes that Lang Darma was put on the throne by ministers who leaned towards Bon and that they designed laws to destroy Buddhism in Tibet (51). He also writes that Darma’s ministers sealed up Buddhist temples, ordered Buddhist monks to either marry, take up arms, become huntsmen, or convert to Bon. Individuals who refused were killed (52). Similarly, the Dalai Lama writes in his memoir that Lang Darma’s reign was marked by undoing everything that had come before him (My Land 71). The same view is held in Geshe Lhundup Sopa’s Tibetan language text, Lectures on Tibetan Religious Culture, a popular book used to teach the Tibetan language to new learners. Chapter Six of Sopa’s text points out that Lang Darma managed to destroy the teaching of the Vinaya in Central Tibet in his brief reign (129). Lang Darma’s association with Bon meant that Bon became synonymous with the decline of the Tibetan empire and Buddhism.[17]

Tibetan attitudes towards Bon had not yet shifted in the 1960s and 70s to relieve Lang Darma of bearing the burden of responsibility for the demise of the Tibetan empire. Nor was there acceptance of a Tibetan script prior to Thonmi Sambhota’s script. In most Tibetan texts, including the Dalai Lama’s memoir My Land and My People, the decision of the thirty-third king, Songtsen Gampo, to send his minister Thonmi Sambhota to study Buddhism in India, which also resulted in the import of the Gupta script that was used to draft the Tibetan alphabet, is identified as among the most significant events in Tibet (70).

This historiographical portrait of Lang Darma has rarely been questioned by ordinary Buddhist Tibetans (Karmay, “King” 15). More recent scholarship argues that pre-eleventh century sources might offer a different and closer view of the rule of Lang Darma than sources written after or during the eleventh century (29). Samten Karmay challenges sources that give the impression that the king was a follower of the Bon religion and proposes that the conflict that led to the persecution of Buddhism during the reign of Lang Darma could have been related to political struggles between the ecclesiastical leaders and the secular authority, and not necessarily to a “struggle between the two religious establishments” (28). Later Buddhist sources also neglect the Tibetan military administration of the territories under Lang Darma’s reign and focus instead on depicting the King in a “degrading manner” (24).

Similarly, Tibetan historical accounts narrate the invention of the Tibetan script by Thonmi Sambhota as having brought “light” to the benighted land of Tibet, and accordingly, nothing is known about the period before the establishment of the Tibetan empire, for example, the Zhang-Zhung supremacy in the first century mentioned in Bon narratives (Norbu, N “Tibetan” 39). Bon scholars argue that the existence of a Tibetan script before the third century is proven by Bonpo historical documents of the second century (39). Ongoing study of Bonpo manuscripts might reveal more about the first and second centuries of indigenous Tibetan history (39). But doing so would entail shifting hegemonic views and narratives of Tibet and Tibetan identity.

The Tibetan exile administration’s attitudes towards Amdo and Kham’s relation with the Ganden Phodrang government in Lhasa is also a response to the political standoff between the Chinese Government and the Tibetan administration. The political and social autonomy of the Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo prior to 1950 did not indicate the absence of a larger Tibetan ethos, for there existed across the Tibetan plateau strong forms that could be defined as “supra-local” and some political “proto-national” bonds of collective belonging firmly held together by a religious legacy.[18] A shared religion, historical memory including origin myths, a single writing system, and shared imagination of a geographical territory kept alive a common social system and feeling consistent with a nation or a nationality. The new vocabulary of the nation-state, however, did not accommodate the various political formations of pre-1950 Tibet. To admit that Kham and Amdo had not been under the Gaden Phodrang Government at the time of the Chinese invasion ran the risk of undermining the sovereignty of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile in addition to endangering the national goal of Tibetan independence from Chinese rule. Likewise, suggesting that Thonmi Sambhota was not the first Tibetan to invent the Tibetan script challenged the unity of the Tibetan culture and identity based on shared language and traditions. Finally, recasting Lang Darma as an important historical person undercuts a fundamental plot and periodization of Tibetan history that was formulated on the rise and fall of Buddhism.

Snellgrove believed that the Dalai Lama was keen that Tibetans have the education that would prepare them for the modern world. In a separate letter dated 29 May 1966, Snellgrove speaks to the rivalries and jealousies within the Tibetan community, especially with regard to religious and political beliefs. He reminds Pearce that in 1961, a total of twenty-one guest scholars had been invited to the West as part of a larger program sponsored by the universities from Seattle, London, Paris, Rome, Munich, Copenhagen, Leiden, and Tokyo. There had been seventeen Gelugs, three Sakyas, one Nyingma, and three Bonpos, one of whom had been Sangye Tenzin. Among all those scholars, only Sangye Tenzin had offered to teach young Tibetans on his return to India (Woodard, 43-4).

The student revolt caught the attention of readers of Tibetan Freedom from 1 June 1966 through 8 June 1966. The timing of the articles coincides with Woodard’s private meeting with the Dalai Lama. Tibetan Freedom did not present Dexter or Sangye Tenzin’s side of the story, nor did it analyze the contents of the “untruths” that Sangye Tenzin was alleged to have taught. Instead, the articles emphasized the point that the two men had concocted historical lies, undermined the Dalai Lama’s position, impaired unity among Tibetans, and hurt national sentiments.

The event was followed closely by aid organizations and volunteers helping Tibetans, as indicated by Woodard. Pat Brewster, who worked on several rehabilitation projects in India in his capacity as the director of the Tibetan Refugee Programme of the National Christian Council of India, wrote in his letter to his colleague in Geneva on 2 June 1966 that he had spoken with Malcolm Dexter and with the students, as well as with administrators in Dharamsala. He got the idea that Tibetans suspected that Dexter and Sangye Tenzin were teaching ideas that were contrary to their religious and national feeling. He feared that the matter could not be “patched up” (Brewster, Wiederkehr 1).

Brewster was convinced it was “religion and politics” that had come into the matter, and he thought it had been a silly idea to get a Bonpo lama to be the chief teacher at the school in the first place (3). Brewster’s analysis that “religion and politics” were at the heart of the problem indicates that Sangye Tenzin’s Bon background was viewed as a problem by exile bureaucrats. Bon practitioners, who were a minority in exile, did not fit into any existing Buddhist group, nor did they fall into collectives that were built around geographical regions. They were at the margins of the community.[19]

The letters exchanged between the International Aid Agencies and between the Tibetan government officials offer a glimpse into the delicate balance of authority that the Tibetan officials were attempting to maintain over the external struggle for international recognition of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile­­–– “a territory-less entity that behaves like a state”[20]––and the internal struggle to command loyalty within the Tibetan refugee community. While the exile government did not want to alienate its Western aid partners on whom it relied so heavily, it also did not want to upset its efforts to consolidate a culturally, linguistically, and socially united Tibetan political order in exile.[21]

The Tibetan exilic consciousness was, on the one hand, defined by terms compounded largely from the deep and long history of Buddhism, and on the other hand, by the feeling of being “permanently at risk” because the majority of Tibetans were under the Chinese colonial rule (Boyarins 4).[22] In other words, the Tibetan exile effort was directed to bringing diverse groups of Tibetan people together to create a homogeneous people whose identity was “simultaneously cultural and political” in a unique stateless nation-state polity (4). The exile government’s claims for legitimation and identity demanded the rhetoric of unity. However, this rhetoric framed culture and identity as immanent and not the product of political struggle and power. So too was the case with history.

The fact is that the exile government shut down a much-needed school and dismissed two accomplished and trained scholars at a time when there were only a handful of teachers who had been trained to teach. Nobody in power in the community questioned why Dexter and Sangye Tenzin were not given the chance to present their side of the story. Nor did they consider the possibility that the “untruths” they were critiqued for teaching were, in fact, historically relevant and necessary to an education in Tibetan history and identity. Instead, the two teachers were seen as harmful to Tibetan unity. 


After Ockenden

Almost a decade after the Ockenden incident, Sangye Tenzin was nominated to represent the Amdo constituents in the Tibetan Parliament, then known as the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies (ATPD). The Standing Committee of the ATPD held an extra session at the request of the Election Commission to discuss his nomination along with that of Gonpo Tseten, who was an Amdowa from Clementown. The committee discussed Sangye Tenzin’s role in Ockenden School and stated that the incident had been well documented in Tibetan Freedom.

The majority of the members agreed that the propagation of the Bon religion and the fight for religious rights and equal representation of Bonpos was a duty of a person of the Bon faith, so there was no basis for disqualifying Sangye Tenzin for his personal beliefs. Such a response indicates a shift from earlier perspectives and attitudes towards Bon in the community. The shift in Tibetan attitudes towards Sangye Tenzin and Bon was not, however, reflected in the vote conducted on 21 October 1975 to decide if there should be Bon representation, alongside four religious schools of Tibet, in the Parliament. There was only one vote from a total of fifteen representatives in support of Bon representation in the Parliament; that vote came from a single mother who was representing Kham.

The Bon religion was finally acknowledged, and a religious representative was elected to the sixth Assembly of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile in 1977 alongside representatives from the Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya schools.[23] This move came more than a decade after the establishment of the Tibetan constitution promising equality to all Tibetans. The textbooks on Tibetan history and Buddhism in existing Tibetan schools have undergone some changes, but these changes are not yet sufficient to give Bon its rightful place as integral to understanding “the depth” of “Tibetan mind and civilization” (Gyalpo 68).[24]

In 1968, Sangye Tenzin was appointed as the thirty-third abbot of Menri and received his new name, Lungtok Tenpai Nyima Palzang po. He was recognized as the head of Yungdrung Bon tradition by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in 1978. Sangye Tenzin served as the leader of exiled Bonpos as well as the spiritual head of Bonpo monasteries in Tibet and Nepal for over twenty years. No apology is known to have been offered to him for the events at Ockenden. Today, his photo hangs in the shrines of the halls of the Tibetan exile government.



[1] In his letter to the Bureau of the Dalai Lama on 6 May 1966, Dexter explains that Kelsang Liushar and Choden had strangely gone off to see a movie at the height of events. This letter is also documented in Woodard’s Report (8-10).

[2] According to Dexter’s and Dr. Snellgrove’s respective letters on 29 May 1966, Tenzin and Dexter had met with the Dalai Lama before taking the responsibility to run the school.

[3] I refer to Geshe Sangye Tenzin Jongdong as Sangye Tenzin in this article since all documents related to Ockenden refer to him as such. He was already an acclaimed scholar, teacher, and practitioner at the time of this incident. In 1968, as the thirty-third Abbot of Menri, he was named Lungtok Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche.

[4] In his address at an education conference in Dharmsala on 5 May 1994, the Dalai Lama pointed out the importance of the Tibetan language in the education of Tibetan children. See Shiromany, 317.

[5] The education set-up in exile has been successful in creating grateful new refugee-citizens with allegiance to the government.

[6] See Carole McGranahan’s Arrested Histories: Tibet, The CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War.

[7] See Prasenjit Duara’s Rescuing History. In his analysis of the relationship between the nation-state and nationalism, on one hand, and the linear “evolutionary history,” on the other, in early twentieth-century China, Prasenjit Duara suggests that national history secures “the nation as a subject of History” (5). This means that national histories transform views of the past as well as the meaning of the nation and the world, particularly by establishing “which peoples and cultures belonged to the time of History and who and what had to be eliminated” (5).

[8] A more detailed article on this event in my forthcoming book includes interviews with a few of the students who were present at Ockdenden at the time of the revolt. In the scope of this article, I have chosen to focus on the documents.

[9] Perhaps those who wrote the first letter to Pearce were reunited with five of the younger students from the school who had been escorted by Gyaltsen Choden.

[10] Thirty boys signed the letter. It is not dated.

[11] Dexter also expresses this suspicion in his letters to Gyalo Thondup on May 5, and to Mrs. Taring, who was running the Tibetan Homes Foundation in Mussoorie, on May 7. Letters to Pearce written by Diana Maclehose and Per Kvaerne, both working as teachers in Ockenden, also express their suspicion of the role the two Tibetan teachers played in organizing the revolt. They also mention that the students threatened to physically harm Dexter and Tenzin.

[12] In his memoir, Tibet: A History of Tibet and a Stainless Truthful Biography, Gyaltsen Choden writes that he worked briefly for the newspaper Tibetan Freedom around 1960 at the invitation of Gyalo Thondup. He writes briefly on Ockenden School and suggests the students and school’s head did not get along (368). He recalls that he had refused to sign a letter with the decision to expel ten students and that he suggested instead the students be sent to a training course. His suggestion was dismissed, the students were beaten, and all but five students rebelled against Dexter, according to Gyaltsen Choden (368).

[13] Translated from the Tibetan by Bhuchung D. Sonam.

[14] These six students were Ugyen, Tsering Dorjee, Penpa, Jamdak, Wangdu, and Tsering.

[15] See Rescuing History, Prasenjit Duara’s study of history’s role in securing the “mystique of the nation” and its claim to what Duara calls an “evolving, monistic subjecthood” (5).

[16] A source remembered he was Pearce’s boyfriend.

[17] The term nangpa, translated as the insider, but used synonymously to mean a Buddhist, could have travelled from India to Tibet. It is possible that its use as a reference to Tibetan to create a Tibetan identity with predominantly homogenous Buddhist features came much later. The term nangpa also implies its counterpart, silwa or chipa, and suggests outsider, minoritized visions, experiences, and struggles in its differentiation of the outsider’s stance toward the insider.

By the fourteenth century, the identification of nangpa or insider, cemented by religious institutions, ideology, and practices, provided a sense of integration to Tibetans scattered across the Tibetan plateau and a sense of loyalty to shared origin stories and heritage. Buddhism was a status that provided values, aspirations, and codes of behavior to Tibetans, and it was exercised and enacted through religious practices and vows made to religious institutions and figures, both in the human and non-human realms. Those who did not adhere to the centrality of the Buddhist canon or who produced their own work, such as Tibetans of the Bon religion, were considered silwa or chipa, “outsiders” of the Buddhist framework, and as a result, were excluded or marginalized from the majority national Buddhist sentiment and community.

[18] Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalisms since 1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Second Edition 1990s): 46-7.

[19] Brewster himself was already struggling to keep out of trouble with the exile government. He was heading Tibetan Industrial Rehabilitation (TIRS), a relief agency with the purpose of advancing industrial programs for Tibetans. TIRS hoped to help Tibetans become self-sufficient. He had helped several of the Tsho Khag bcu Gsum (Organization of the Thirteen)­ to build their settlements. Another volunteer working with Tsultrim to build the settlement in Clementown expresses his suspicion about an “underground turbulence” spreading across the Tibetan political body in a letter to Pearce dated 23 July 1966. He refers to similar crises in places such as Mainpat, Rajpur, Dalhousie, the locations where members of the Thirteen were living, who were being named as running dogs of the Chinese.

[20] See Fiona McConnell, Rehearsing the State.

[21] See Dawa Norbu, China’s Tibet. The shared systems of religion, writing system, and historical memory that existed on the Tibetan plateau made it “coterminous with a nation or at least a nationality” (342).

[22] See Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin, Powers of Diaspora. The Boyarins use the term “permanently at risk” to explain the diasporic consciousness as one composed of “contingency and genealogy” (4). They propose that the diaspora’s egocentrism offers an “alternate ‘ground’ to that of the territorial state for the intricate and always contentious linkage between cultural identity and political organization” (10). They explain that this alternate ground might help states avoid insistence on purity or permanence (10).

[23] Yungdrung Namgyal served as the first Bon representative.

[24] Gyalpo writes that Bon and Buddhism are two “inalienable paths analogous to method and wisdom aspects of Vajrayana teaching to understand the depth and essence of Tibetan mind and civilization” (68). He suggests Bon is the foundation of Tibetan socio-cultural identity and that Tibetans should learn to appreciate this heritage.


Works Cited

Files on the Ockenden International, Formerly the Ockenden Venture, Refugee Charity of Woking: Records, including papers of Joyce Pearce OBE (1915-1985), Founder, SHC      Reference 7155/8/1/11-4, Surrey History Centre, Woking, Surrey.

Letter to Joyce Pearce. (Personal and confidential). 11 July 1966, pp.1-3, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13.

Dalai Lama. Letter to Joyce Pearce. nd, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/12.

—. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 1 May 1996, pp.1-4, Files on the Ockenden International, Reference 7155/8/1/11, MRWD/DM.

Dexter, Malcolm. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 13 May 1965, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/12.

—. Letter to Joyce Pearce. 10 May 1966, pp.1-2, Files on the Ockenden International, Reference 7155/8/1/13, Ref. no. MRWD/DM.

—. Letter to the Dalai Lama. 1 May 1966, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference 7155/8/1/13, Ref. no. MRWD/DM.

Hardy, W. John. “Confidential Letter to Joyce Pearce.” 20 August 1966, pp.1-4, Files on the Ockenden International, SHC Reference, 7155/8/1/13.

Pearce, Joyce. Letter to G. Woodcock. 21 June 1966. Files on the Ockenden International, SHC   Reference 7155/8/1/13.

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Dr. Tsering Wangmo Dhompa is the author of the poetry books Revolute (Albion Books), My Rice Tastes Like the LakeIn the Absent Everyday, and Rules of the House (from Apogee Press, Berkeley). Dhompa’s first non-fiction book, Coming Home to Tibet, was published in the US by Shambhala Publications in 2016 and by Penguin, India in 2014. She teaches in the English Department at Villanova University.