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Tibetans Helping Themselves
Heather Harrick. Ithaca, New York
Migyul Magazine, Issue 3, Fall 2004

Educating the community on prevention of HIV/AIDS — Free information and condom distribution is done. Source: Kunphen.
The Kunphen Center treats substance abuse in Tibetan exiles.

When I interviewed Lobsang Tsering, his eyes were heavy and face strained after a day of collecting money from friends, family members and local business proprietors of McLeod Ganj. “I am the so-called Executive Director of Kunphen Center, but I call myself a Professional Beggar”. Lobsang had just raised eight thousand rupees to pay a last minute fee for a soccer tournament organized by the Kunphen Center for the Tibetan youth of Dharamsala. Rather than canceling the event, Lobsang solicited the funds from community members, “just imagine, ” he said, “in just two hours, a man with a past like myself, was able to raise this money.”

A man with a past he is. When I met Lobsang, ten years ago, he was at the height of his love affair with heroin. A self-proclaimed “hardcore“ addict, Lobsang referred to brown sugar as the “queen of my life.” Although a very charismatic and intelligent young man from a respected family, Lobsang’s derelict ways and serious drug problem was well-known in the refugee settlements of Dharamsala and Delhi.

It was a surprise to find him, in 2002: not only had Lobsang recovered from his past of substance abuse, but he has established the Kunphen Center in Mcleod Ganj to help other Tibetans who suffer from similar problems.

Lobsang’s personal history of substance abuse began as a young boy stealing alcohol from his father. As a teenager during the 60’s and 70’s, Lobsang attended flea markets and bon-fire parties organized by the international travelers who had made Dharamsala their temporary home. There was always music and always grass. “Since marijuana came into my life, things started changing. I start disliking the school system, which I found was not much practical and not much use in my practical world. So, I tried to leave school but I couldn’t because my parents were working there. Even today there is a report, I have only 25% attendance, I think nobody can break that record!!!”

In 1984, after dropping out of high school, Lobsang worked as a waiter for a very low wage. At the same time, he built up a profitable business of procuring drugs for Westerners. Not only would he make money, but clients shared the drugs with him. For years, Lobsang lived the transient life of a drug-dealer: buying, selling and using with almost no contact with his family.

"Certainly, the stress of refugee life and the prominence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst Tibetans who survived the Communist occupation of Tibet accounts for some of the substance abuse found in the exile Tibetan population. Moreover, Lobsang explains, the 'degeneration of values in the Tibetan community is due to a lot of factors: frustration, insecurity, and lack of alternatives.'"

A turning point came when his mother fell ill, “somehow I could never help her when she was in the hospital at the terminal stage and I even could not attend the funeral, because I was feeling so insecure that, if I go I will suffer withdrawals and if I don’t find the proper place to use I’ll be in big shit. Again, I thought, spending days and time and energy at the funeral I won’t have any money for drugs. When my sister, who lives in Italy, told me that in 1997, ‘it is not that we don’t love you but you are making us hate you;’ that is when I started to think. I thought, now I better should do something. So it was like a blessing, an Indian friend gave me the message that this is a treatable problem. You can treat it, why don’t you try. At the same time, my family gave me all the moral and financial support I needed. If you are going to take up such things, they said, all you need to do is come up to Dharamsala.” The prevalence of substance abuse in Tibetan community is something that needs urgent attention.

When we talk about substance abuse one should know the history of it as well. Pre-1959, in Tibet, substance abuse did exist like in any community, but in selected pockets; only with rich merchants or aristocrats, and only cannabis and opium. But historically, yes, in Amdo province there was a trade of heroin. Marijuana and opium was there. My dad used to tell me, being from a peasant family, in those days people smoked cannabis and opium used cooking oil for a light, instead of kerosene so it was less harmful — very scientific. Certainly, the stress of refugee life and the prominence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst Tibetans who survived the Communist occupation of Tibet accounts for some of the substance abuse found in the exile Tibetan population. Moreover, Lobsang explains, the “degeneration of values in the Tibetan community is due to a lot of factors: frustration, insecurity, and lack of alternatives.” Counseling and other facilities are not provided in the school. Today, the school authorities at the boarding schools and the parents had no one to guide them [when they were growing up]. And parents, due to economic constraints, focus on the day to day. Give the child some money and leave him to himself. Then, left alone with money the child can do anything to seek attention, to find belonging.

"...in exile, there is a lack of innovativeness, a narrow-mindedness that comes from the self not being there. With Tibet, we lost our history. When the history is not there, the self is not there."

Having completed eight months of treatment at a reputable center in India, Lobsang returned, drug-free, to Dharamsala. He worked at a few different jobs: as a translator and an employee of the government in exile, neither of them giving him satisfaction. He wanted to do something meaningful for the community, something different. After arranging a series of workshops on substance abuse in Tibetan communities around Dharamsala, Lobsang’s experience and skills caught the eye of the Secretary of the Private Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. During discussions with the heads of various divisions of the exile government, Lobsang realized that the responsibility to move forward with a program of substance abuse and HIV awareness was not being shouldered by one department. Rather, everyone seemed to be passing the buck. Lobsang was working closely with the Private Office Secretary and he told him “now that they decided this, one department will think that another will do and it will never get done. Now we have to have a setup. So, thus we decided and I began work in a very low profile way.” Shortly thereafter, Lobsang felt a need for professional training. He enrolled a twoyear degree program equivalent to post-graduate degree in counseling specializing in addiction & HIV/AIDS. The program was in Bombay and was co-sponsored by the Christian Medical Association and the Kripa Institute. The Private Office arranged a scholarship for Lobsang through the Departments of Health and Education.

When he returned to Dharamsala, Lobsang was ready to move forward with a more formal enterprise. If the Kunphen Center were a branch of the exile government, he reasoned, then people will not feel comfortable coming in. In Tibetan, kun-phen means that which benefits everyone. To maximize the number of clients the facility is able to reach, Lobsang found office space directly adjacent to the Delek Medical Clinic, so clients can come in to the center through a back door of the hospital thus maintaining their anonymity.

"Today, the setup, so-called “Kunphen Center” is where people can come in for counseling, intervention, awareness program. “We train community health workers. We are coming out with publications so that there will be more resources for future Tibetans. When I went for my training, I found there were no resources in Tibetan for the community to refer to. So, I found that was very important. "

Today, the setup, so-called “Kunphen Center” is where people can come in for counseling, intervention, awareness program. “We train community health workers. We are coming out with publications so that there will be more resources for future Tibetans. When I went for my training, I found there were no resources in Tibetan for the community to refer to. So, I found that was very important. Not only for Tibetans, but for International Social Science students it will be of great help. Now, that global illusion of Tibetans being peace-loving Shangri-la people will go away.”

When asked about the demographics of his clients, Lobsang explained that when he was young, available drugs were mainly LSD and heroin, but today, in the younger generation pharmaceutical drug abuse is a serious growing problem. “It is happening so badly, that it has reached the monastic institutions. We have many known death cases of cocktailing and overdose of administer-able drugs. “Furthermore, there are cases of Tibetans coming in for issues of substance abuse, and then finding out that they are HIV positive as well.”

“I have people coming from Nepal, Madhya Pradesh, Ladakh and Kanartaka. With the 250,000.00 Rupees donated by His Holiness we are planning to have a 24-hour inpatient care center in Dharamsala. Only today, I have received a phone call because one of my clients has run away from a 24-hour care center. If we have that set-up here, that problem may go away. Secondly, Kunphen’s major focus needs to be South India. There are many Tibetans there who do not have the advantage of being in Dharamsala where they can be aware of all the services available to them. Kunphen provides everything free of cost. Also, people do not know how to go around. They come here and we take care of everything, right from the beginning. To avoid all this trouble for our clients and their families (who already have the trouble of having something like me in the family) we are planning a similar set-up in South India. That is our long-term goal.

“In exile,” he explains, “there is a lack of innovativeness, a narrowmindedness that comes from the self not being there. With Tibet, we lost our history. When the history is not there, the self is not there.“ “The indirect effect of my own story is the message that people can change and can contribute to this community,“ Lobsang says. Many Tibetans are unaware of the issues around substance abuse. Being new to the community, counseling and clinical intervention are even harder for people to understand. But in the last few years, we have seen a change inattitude.“ Another result of this work, Lobsang describes, is the confidence a displaced community gains by helping itself.

Finally, I wondered if the Tibetans’ Buddhist background has influenced their ability in counseling and recovery. The place Lobsang has seen this most prominently is in the client’s ability to accept his or her situation and suffering as a result of personal karma. He has seen clients take responsibility for their own lives and to stop placing blame on everyone else.



The Center welcomes volunteers for a minimum of one month in the following areas: Social Worker, Research and Publications.

Donations can be made in any amount for Health Education and Awareness Programs and Office Maintenance. A donation of $35.00 covers the cost of office assistants. $600.00 covers the expense of a six-month rehabilitation program for one client. The Kunphen Center and Lobsang Tsering can be reached at kunphen@rediffmail.com. Web address: www.kunphen.org.