Lorraine's Reviews > Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family's Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom

Across Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen
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Jan 26, 12

really liked it
Read in January, 2012

“Across Many Mountains” is a memoir that covers three generations of women over a period of 80 years. Yangzom Brauen, a Los Angeles actress, model, writer and activist, tells the story of her grandmother, a Buddhist nun who leaves her rural village in the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet in 1959, with her husband and two children and crosses into India and becomes a refugee. As she describes in the book, the Chinese claimed to have liberated the Tibetans from a caste system under clerics and aristocrats; however, the people did not feel subjugated or backward. They accepted their fate.

“People accepted their fate as karma, the result of their actions in past lives. The poor hoped to change their karma in the next life through virtuous deeds, contact with the gods and spirits, and having the right rituals performed at their death. The great ideological structure that shaped the lives of the common population of Tibet was less the scholarly Buddhism of the monks, nuns, and rinpoches than a form of folk religion, a mixture of Buddhism and animistic and shamanistic practices. Just as the Tibetans revered their rinpoches, gurus, buddhas, and bodhisattvas, so they also paid homage to thousands of ever-present local deities and spirits that lived in every rock, every mountain, and in every river or woodland. Anyone who crossed a pass piled a few stones at the higher point in homage to the local mountain god. The Tibetans feared the wandering souls of the dead, worried that their “shadow soul” might be stolen by a dongdre, the lost soul of a dead person. Their world was inhabited by countless beings that were to be avoided or revered, appeased or warded off. This densely populated spirit world explained everything that happened around them (pp. 89-90).

When her grandmother, Kunsang, lived in Tibet, it was like living in medieval times. No planes, no roads, no communication with the outside world—a society completely cut off from the world. It wasn’t a paradise, but it was a life of rituals including chants and prayers, a oneness with nature and a deep spirituality; she was living in peace and prayer in a monastic lifestyle. After living at the hermitage for 13 years, she unexpectedly fell in love with her husband, a Buddhist monk, and they were married and had two daughters. In their sect of Buddhism they were allowed to marry, although they had to have the Lama’s permission and to ask for prayers to overcome bad karma.

Because the Chinese were destroying monasteries and outlawed religion, the family’s life was in danger, and her grandparents felt they had no other option than to exile to India. They knew no one there, but they felt if the Dalai Lama found refuge there, they could also. The perilous journey took about a month and once the author’s mother almost died when she fell into a crevasse and the rest of the group did not notice she was gone. She couldn’t call for help because of the danger, and she miraculously climbed out and caught up with the travelers.


Kunsang loses her husband and one child on the journey, and lives in exile in India under horrible conditions for 12 years with her daughter Sonam, who eventually marries a Swiss academic and their lives change dramatically. In her later life Sonam (the author’s mother) becomes an artist. She has had exhibits in various galleries in New York. And Yangzom is a thoroughly modern Western woman with a grandmother who at 90 years old, lives in Switzerland, and prays and follows Tibetan and Buddhist folk customs and rituals. The story of this family begins in Tibet, and then takes us to India, Switzerland, Berlin, Los Angeles and New York.

Though not a literary masterpiece, a good story is a good story and the author is a natural storyteller. Once I started reading, the story unraveled clearly and simply and it was difficult to pull away from it.

Its appeal to me was the huge chasm between the life her grandmother is living today and the one in which she grew up. From 1920 to 2011, so much of Tibetan culture has disappeared. I became much more aware of the struggle of the Tibetans for independence, the complexities of the Tibet-China relationship and the ideology of Tibetan Buddhism. I had this new awakening of what Tibetan life is really like. Too often we as Westerners only see it through the perspective of the Dalai Lama and the clerical perspective. In fact, there is another culture that includes the very ordinary and simple people who practice folk Buddhism. In an interview the author gave in October 20011, she said “… technology and development doesn’t necessarily have to kill the culture. The two can be reconciled. What is destroying the culture is the Chinese saying we’re not allowed to practice our religion and our spirituality.”

In speaking about the uprising of the monks near Lhasa in 2008, Yangzom said: “I had to acknowledge that the Tibetan freedom fighters were heroes, perfectly aware of the consequences of their actions. Were they acting out of total desperation because they could see no other future? It was the first time since the Tibetan uprising in the late 1980s that the world had seen pictures of the Chinese occupiers’ oppression. …My country has been occupied for more than sixty years, but the world’s politicians have taken no action. They know about the arrests for no reason, the reeducation camps, the violence and the torture, but they close their eyes to it” (p. 275).

Obviously because of our strong economic ties with China, the U.S. will probably remain as silent as ever about Tibet and its people.
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Cynthia Lovely book, isn't it?


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