Rinchen Khando was just 13 years old when China invaded Tibet. She and her family were forced to start a new life in India, with only a few possessions. Rinchen Khando’s mother, uneducated herself, but a strong believer in the power of education for women, sold her jewelry so that her daughter might go to school.
Rinchen Khando was to become the Minister of Education for the Tibetan Government in Exile, and a voice for Tibetan rights and women’s empowerment around the world.
A founding member of the Tibetan Women’s Association, and Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, Rinchen Khando is the sister-in-law of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Rinchen Khando, do you mind sharing what happened to you when you lost your home in Tibet?
Actually we lost our country in 1959 as you know, but my family had come to India in 1958, because there was a tradition that Tibetans came for pilgrimage: India being the place of Buddha. I was 13, and my sister, who was younger than me, was just a baby.
The family had brought nothing much except some precious things, and some money I suppose.
Before we could go back, in March 1959, everything changed. The whole country was occupied. The Chinese took everything.
Before we lost our country, before the whole thing changed, the change in the family was that I was going to go to school in India. I’d be put in the boarding school, and my parents were going to go back to Tibet. But one day, I came back and saw everybody so solemn in the house. We had a cook, and I went to the kitchen and said, “Why is everyone so solemn? They are not even talking to each other,” and he said, “Keep quiet. Of course they’re solemn, because we lost our country.” I had no idea what he meant. So I said, “Excuse me, what do you mean by ‘lost our country?’ ” He said, “That means: now we can’t go back.”
I wasn’t worried about our country. I said, “Does that mean that my parents can’t go back?” He said, “Nobody can go back.” I was so happy that they didn’t have to go!
So the losing of my country – the pain of it only came later.
Is it true that your mother then sold her jewelry, in order to be able to send you to school?
We didn’t have anything much but Mother’s jewelry. My mother said, “I will not stop my daughter. I will not stop her schooling because of not having money.”
To my father, she said, “Look what happened to us! We had generations worth of wealth, and we lost everything overnight. I don’t want that to happen to her. Whatever we have, we will give it to her in the form of education, so that she can take it wherever she goes.”
That’s when she started selling her jewelry and paying my school fees. Although she was not educated, my mother really valued education for women.
What language was spoken at your school in India?
But you didn’t speak English! You started from zero?
I started with a, b c, d. I was already thirteen, and I had to go to Kindergarten. The children were so small, but the teachers were understanding; they gave me extra coaching. Then they put me into Class 1, where the children were a little bit bigger. I think I tried very hard, because I was in Class 1 for only three months, then they put me in Class 2…. By the time I was in Class 6, I was with my own age group.
“Although she was not educated, my mother really valued education for women.”
Was that a lonely time?
No, it wasn’t. It was a very interesting time, because everything was so different. And I was really geared towards learning how to speak English properly. I never felt lost or inferior. I think this all comes from my mother’s gift: being self-confident and being willing to explore new situations.
You were to become Minister for Education for the Central Tibetan Administration, and you’ve traveled around the world, raising awareness about Tibet. Was it a challenge to become such a prominent spokeswoman?
Honestly speaking, it came very naturally. I really cared for Tibet, for Tibetan culture and identity, because of what we were going through. So whenever I talked to people, I always talked from my heart. If I made notes, I made mistakes; so I never made any notes and I felt very comfortable with what I said.
I think in life in general, if you really believe in what you’re doing, it comes naturally, and it has no fear then. You’re not going to make any mistakes, because you believe in that; you live that.
And yet in the world of politics, I expect you came across arrogance, power play, manipulation… Did you ever feel your integrity was challenged?
I felt sad that sometimes people really didn’t care for the truth. I didn’t feel defeated or threatened, but I felt sad, because I thought ‘Oh gosh, if the world is going to go on like this, today it’s Tibet, but tomorrow it could be any other nation. What’s going to happen…?’
That was so many years ago, and if I may dare say, it’s become something like that, isn’t it.
Where truth and leadership aren’t necessarily wed together…?
“Whenever I talked to people, I always talked from my heart.”
What do you think about the potential in women’s leadership? Do women have something significant to contribute, to build a better world?
I think so. I really think so, if we focus on what we are, what women are. I believe that deep inside we have a quality which is very caring, and very holistic.
We don’t compartmentalize things; we try to take everything together. For example take the example of a home. In the home the mother looks on the shelves, under the beds, in the kitchen, everywhere, because she wants to have the whole house clean. Whereas there might be some men who are really good, I know, and this is a very simple example… but this is how we think, this is how women are. We think holistically and I think this is what is needed today.
Because of not being holistic, because of ‘thinking about myself only’, all the problems come. But if you think that the whole of human society is the same – we all feel happy, we all feel sad, we all bleed if we get cut – the world can be much better. Therefore I think to have women’s leadership is very important.
But when they say, “Let’s have a woman in a particular position,” it should not be just to make people happy: look, we have a woman here. I want people to really pick women, and say, “I want her, because she’s got this quality.”
And that woman should try to work as her. She need not copy anybody. But sometimes, if I may say this, we tend to copy being harsh.
It seems that now is the time when women can take the opportunity operate as women in public life, rather than falling into a patriarchal model of how things are done.
Yes. We have a beautiful, feminine touch, and that should remain there. Be in our own skin. Walk the way we walk.
What do you mean by a feminine touch, exactly?
Feminine touch means being gentle, kind, soft.
Gentle and soft doesn’t mean that you give up on important issues. No. You have to have your inner strength to pursue, but that doesn’t come with sticks and stones.
How do you derive your inner strength?
Of course from His Holiness; no need to really say how much he guides us in everything. I draw a lot of energy from there.
Other than that, I always try to put the other person in my own shoes. If there’s no selfishness, then I think eventually you get more support. When you have a pure motivation, I think you get somewhere, somehow.
Rinchen Khando and BRAVA’s Catriona Mitchell, in Dharamsala, India.
Photos by Rio Helmi
Rinchen Khando is Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, which provides education and humanitarian aid to refugee nuns from Tibet. You can learn more, and / or make a donation here.