By Robyn Brentano
Many students of elder Tibetan Buddhist geshes may be familiar with the name Buxa Duar, the area in West Bengal, India, where 1,500 monks and nuns lived and studied after escaping Tibet in 1959. The actual camp was informally called Buxa Chogar, which roughly translates as “the Dharma camp at Buxa.” Robyn Brentano, an American long-time student of Tibetan Buddhism, has spent the last three years doing research and oral history interviews about Buxa Chogar and shares the story of this critical chapter of Tibetan history.
When His Holiness the Dalai Lama and 80,000 Tibetans fled the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, they sought refuge in India, Bhutan, and Nepal, thinking it would be only a matter of months before they could return home. Among the refugees were thousands of Tibet’s greatest scholars, spiritual masters, reincarnate lamas, and aspiring students from the four lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and from the Bon tradition.
Some Tibetan monks and nuns found refuge in sister monasteries in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal, but thousands of others had to work on road-building projects in India in order to survive. This labor proved deadly for many who were already suffering from trauma, inadequate food and shelter, and exposure to disease and the heat of subtropical India. Recognizing that Tibet’s unique scholarly traditions would perish in a generation if there were no place for the monks to continue their studies and for the monasteries to regroup, the Dalai Lama negotiated with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to establish a nonsectarian educational institution for 1,500 monks and nuns in a former British prison camp in Buxa Duar in a remote area of West Bengal.
For the next ten years, as the systematic destruction of 6,000 monasteries and temples and the genocide of the Tibetan people continued in Tibet, the Buxa abbots, teachers, monks, and nuns endured the harsh conditions of refugee life to sustain their monastic education and way of life. Their story of personal sacrifice and perseverance in the face of inconceivable loss is an important chapter in the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism and its eventual transmission around the world. For the first time in Tibetan history, monks and nuns from the four monastic lineages lived together under a single institutional roof. Due to the Dalai Lama’s tireless efforts to revitalize the Tibetan monasteries, the rigors and high standards of monastic education have survived the terrible rupture in Tibetan Buddhism’s long history. Tibet had safeguarded and refined the wisdom culture that it inherited from India’s great Nalanda University. Through the rebuilding of Tibet’s monasteries in exile, including the great three Gelug monasteries of Drepung, Ganden, and Sera, the Nalanda tradition has been restored to its birthplace in India.