Thupten Chonyi and the Philadelphia Tibetan Community

This past November, after my family had moved to our new house, I found an old journal of mine that I had since long forgotten. While reading the many diary entries I wrote as a twelve-year-old, I was blown away by the memories I had forgotten or had even misremembered. On one particular page, I was surprised to find that I had written about my summer days in our local Tibetan Sunday school back in 2006. I was even more awestruck to see that my twelve-year-old self was excited to go there, especially since I had told many others and even myself, that going to Sunday school had been tiring and boring. Now, looking back with perhaps clearer eyes, I recall the excitement over meeting my Tibetan friends whom I didn’t get to see regularly and getting to practice the Tibetan language, which I still enjoy studying at my university today. Reminiscing about my days at Sunday school today, as a twenty-year-old, I cannot help but remember and feel grateful towards one particular person—the one person who was the force and energy behind Tibetan Sunday school—Thupten Chonyi.

Having immigrated to the United States from northern India twenty years ago, Thupten Chonyi has experienced life on both sides of the globe in almost equal parts. Today, besides being a father to three children and managing his own gift shop, “Sunrise in Tibet,” in Manayunk, Thupten Chonyi ran the local Tibetan Sunday school until very recently, while also taking on other leadership roles within the small but tight-knit Tibetan community in greater Philadelphia.

This image of Thupten now would probably have struck a much younger Thupten, who first stepped foot in America in April, 1995, as unimaginable. Thupten was then a young monk studying in Gyuto Tantric Monastery in the hilly mountains of Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh, India.1 Known especially for their skills in throat-singing, an aspect of traditional Tibetan chanting, the Gyuto monks have traveled to various parts of the world to perform as a means to spread Buddhist teachings as well as to fundraise for their monastery back in India. All the monks took turns participating in world tours and in 1995, it was Thupten Chonyi’s turn, along with eleven others, to go on a tour of the United States—a tour sponsored by Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.

That particular year, in addition to performing traditional chanting, the Gyuto monks began to share Buddhist teachings about love and compassion to teenagers in Los Angeles jails as part of a program in which the actor Edward James Olmos and other celebrities also participated. Initially, the tour was meant to last only six months, but, due to the popularity and success of the Gyuto monks, the city authorities requested they extend their visas for another six months. Thus, in that one year, the monks worked with thousands of juvenile offenders all throughout Los Angeles, teaching them universal values through the lens of Buddhism. They also demonstrated techniques in making sand mandalas as well as butter lamp sculptures, both traditional Tibetan art forms used in religious ceremonies. For their hard work in performances and in teachings, the city recognized each of the monks with a special certificate of excellency, a poignant souvenir that Thupten has kept since then.

Thupten recalls interacting with many additional A-list celebrities at that time, such as Sharon Stone and Richard Gere.2  When asked if he knew, back then, who they were, Thupten replies that he didn’t, but, because of the amount of security around them, he thought they must have been quite important people! For Thupten, all these varied interactions led to a realization that he could fulfill his duties and responsibilities as a monk and particularly, as a Tibetan monk, beyond the monastery walls as he saw a hunger and need for guidance in mindfulness and the building of compassion. Even more, the many questions that Thupten received from the celebrities and other Westerners, not only about Buddhism but also about the political situation in Tibet, gave him much to think and consider about his own Tibetan identity. He was happily surprised, but also a bit embarrassed that people here in America seemed to know more about the conditions inside Tibet than he did. Perhaps that might have been the first prod that later motivated Thupten to broaden and deepen his involvement with the larger Tibetan community.3

After an exciting year of touring, the city again had requested the Gyuto monks to extend their stay by another six months. However, because their monastery was also expecting a visit from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the monks were called back to India. Thupten returned to his monastery in Bomdila, but with the conviction that he wanted to visit the U.S. again. So, after a couple of months at the monastery, Thupten took leave to see his older brother in New York. At that time, his brother knew of an older senior monk, Geshe Kesang Monlam, in Philadelphia, who was suffering from throat cancer and in need of an attendant. Thupten wanted to help and thus spent four years with Geshe Monlam, from whom he gained much inspiration and encouragement.

When asked what his motivation was behind his founding of and continued participation in Tibetan Sunday school, Thupten immediately cites the tireless work of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibet:

Thupten at Sunday School with the portrait of the Dalai Lama behind him; photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim.

“Even though he is 80 years old, he stills works so hard and goes around the world, you know, working for Tibet. And likewise, [my motivation comes from the] many Tibetans in Tibet: They are suffering; they cannot study their language; they cannot practice their religion; they do not have rights. So, with all that, and me being in America, living a free life, if I were to do nothing, I would accumulate bad karma.”

Locally, Thupten also gained much inspiration from Geshe Monlam and his vigor and enthusiasm for preserving and practicing his own culture and traditions. Even though Geshe Monlam was sick and aging, he did not hesitate to participate in ‘Free Tibet’ demonstrations in New York. He also took part in the organized walk from Canada to New York to raise awareness about the Tibet issue.4 In addition, he used his own money to help support monasteries in India. Remembering the senior lama who has now since passed, Thupten reiterates his feelings then of, “needing to do something greater for the Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet.”

When Thupten first arrived in Philadelphia, in 1995, there were only a handful of Tibetans here. In 2001, the small group had grown to thirty-two. On a particular day that had been deemed auspicious by Thupten’s monastery back in India, local Tibetans held a gathering and decided to start an association together. They wanted Thupten to lead it. While inexperienced and young, Thupten, with the encouragement and support of Geshe Monlam, served as president on the first board of the Tibetan Association of Philadelphia, from 2001-2005.

Thupten leading a chant at a demonstration in Philadelphia marking the anniversary of the March 10, 1959, uprising in Tibet, which sent the Dalai Lama into exile; photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim.

Since then, Thupten has been heavily involved in the local Tibetan community, which now has roughly 150 members. In 2008, as the Summer Olympics were being held in Beijing, Tibetans-in-exile and Tibet supporters led a worldwide effort to use this global spotlight on China to bring forth human rights concerns in Tibet. In fact, for two years, public events drawing attention to injustices in Tibet took place throughout the east coast of North America and beyond. In Philadelphia, Thupten and Karma Gelek, another Tibetan community member, formed a sub-committee that oversaw efforts to raise local awareness about the Chinese oppression of Tibetans. Taking place in front of Independence Hall, these included weekly peaceful mid-day demonstrations and evening candlelight vigils for Tibetans inside Tibet who had committed the extreme act of self-immolation in the name of freedom.5 Thupten and Karma, thus, spearheaded numerous programs that not only gave voice to the Philadelphia Tibetan, but also strengthened our community ties as we all relied on and expected each other to be present and to participate.

Thupten single-handedly took on the responsibilities of running Tibetan Sunday school from 2010 through 2015. The school runs from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, with twenty-four children dividing their time between learning spoken and written Tibetan, traditional songs and dances, Buddhist teachings and art. To exemplify the value Tibetan parents place in making sure their children know the language, one Tibetan community member who wished to remain anonymous6 explains that, “We Tibetans have our own language. It’s a very rich language. This language is a symbol of Tibet as an independent country before being occupied by the Chinese.

Thupten with Tibetan Sunday school students; photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim.
Older Tibetan students with their teacher, Geshe Sonam Yeshi, a Tibetan Buddhist monk; photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim.
A day at Tibetan Sunday School; photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim.

If Tibetan people cannot speak Tibetan and cannot write Tibetan, they cannot say, ‘I’m a Tibetan.’ Whoever is a real Tibetan has to know Tibetan language, culture and history.” Likewise, Thupten prioritized his responsibility for managing Sunday school because he sees a need for the younger generation of Tibetans, most of whom were born and raised in America, to hold onto their Tibetan culture and identity: “For the younger generation of Tibetans, growing up in a new country, there’s a chance of losing their identity. So the main idea is to teach them their language and culture.”

Thupten gives the younger children a Tibetan vocabulary quiz; photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim.

Thankfully, the parents who send their children there are also highly invested in their children’s Tibetan education and would aid Thupten (and the new head of Sunday school) whenever possible. They rotate bringing in snacks and lunch [photo_6: Students eating lunch; photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim], stay for the duration of school, and some even take on the role of teachers. Thus, with the help of the parents, Thupten has increased the fluency of the children in Tibetan while providing an opportunity for them to learn and practice Tibetan Buddhism through prayers and songs. Kalsang Dekyi, mother of two as well as one of the teachers of Sunday school, comments that, “It’s so good to see them studying. This is one ways we can impart Tibetan language and culture to the younger generation.”

In the spring of 2014, the halls of the Sunday school were filled with students and parents alike, buzzing with chatter in the special celebratory air. It was the four-year anniversary of our small Tibetan Sunday school and no one was more proud of the children than Thupten. Since it was time to celebrate the accomplishments of the current students as well as the teachers, I was surprised when Thupten and other community members called my friends and me in front of everyone, congratulating us as well for being the first-generation of students to go through the Sunday school. It was an unexpected yet sweet gesture that brought us back to our roots at Sunday school. As the next generation of Tibetan children stood up and began singing the Tibetan National Anthem, I felt grateful to see Thupten Chonyi standing with them.


Rinzin Lhamo

Rinzin Lhamo, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying the biological basis of behavior and South Asian Studies, has been a work-study student at the Philadelphia Folklore Project during the 2015-2016 school year. For this article, Rinzin accessed interviews in PFP’s archive that had been conducted with Thupten Chonyi and other local Tibetans in preparation for our gallery exhibition, Tibetans in Philadelphia. She also did follow-up interviews with Thupten Chonyi. During the summer of 2015, Rinzin participated in the Tibetan Youth Leadership Program hosted by the International Campaign for Tibet. In the week-long program in Washington D.C., she joined eleven other Tibetan American college students from all across the United States to learn more about this country’s efforts related to the Tibet cause. They met with many important individuals such as Sarah Sewall, the appointed U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues, Chinese human rights activist and lawyer Teng Biao, and a former Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration, Tenzin Tethong. The students also met with their respective representatives on Capitol Hill to lobby for the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which would allow U.S. citizens with approved visas unrestricted access to all areas of China, including Tibet, just as the U.S. government allows Chinese citizens with approved visas unrestricted access here. She was grateful for this opportunity to not only meet with world leaders at the front-line of the Tibet issue, but also for the chance to interact with fellow Tibetan American youths.

  1. Like many second-generation Tibetans in India, Thupten is the child of Tibetans who had fled on foot to escape the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950s.  They eventually joined a larger Tibetan exile community in India, where Thupten was born. []
  2. Film star Richard Gere became a practicing Tibetan Buddhist after meeting the 14th Dalai Lama in India. He has continuously been a firm advocate for human rights in Tibet, co-founding the Tibet House located in Washington D.C. As a result of his strong support of the Tibetan people, the People’s Republic of China has permanently banned the actor from entering the country. []
  3. Due to the lack of international media coverage inside Tibet, access to information about current conditions inside Tibet is still highly restricted. Tibetans living in remote areas in India are particularly hindered from receiving updates from inside Tibet. []
  4. The “Tibet issue” is the continued occupation of Tibet by China, and its repressive nature. []
  5. The International Campaign for Tibet notes that more than 140 Tibetans in China have self-immolated since 2008 in protest of Beijing’s rule. Some Tibetans in exile in India have killed themselves in the same manner, while screaming for Tibet’s freedom. []
  6. Many Tibetans-in-exile who have family in Tibet feel cautious about publicly expressing pro-Tibet sentiments for fear of punishment of Tibetans inside Tibet, by the Chinese government, for the actions of their exiled relatives. []