By Jane Henderson

A Hundred Thousand White Stones is the memoir of a Tibetan woman, Kunsang Dolma, starting at her birth and leading to her eventual relocation to the United States. Kunsang, born in 1980 in a remote village of Tibet's Amdo Region, was the youngest of eight children. While the family sustained themselves on farming the land and livestock, Kunsang grew-up in impoverished conditions and only received a small amount of education. A chance encounter to see the Panchen Lama when she was eight years old sparked her devotion to Buddhism. As a teenager, a tragic encounter with a young man from her village would lead her towards the monastery in the hopes of becoming a nun. Kunsang's desire to get out of China-occupied Tibet, coupled with her want to see the Dalai Lama speak in person, lead her to take the hazardous journey from Tibet to Nepal, and eventually on to India (a journey that was fatal for many). In India, Kunsang attended the Tibetan Transit School where she began to get a more formal education and started to learn other languages, such as English and Hindu. It was at this school that another unfortunately encounter would lead her to give up her nun's robes and pursue a different life path. After many years away from her family, with no real way to communicate with them, Kunsang would meet her future husband in India - an American volunteer teaching - and she would eventually go with him back to the United States. Kunsang goes into detail on her troubles acclimating to American culture and the hardships of raising their two young daughters without being surrounded by Tibetan culture. The memoir ends with Kunsang getting her citizenship in American and being able to travel back to Tibet to visit and introduce her husband and daughters to her family, at last.

The birth of Kunsang Dolma’s, like many Tibetans, has no specific day or time. It is framed only by the year – 1980 – to a family living in the Amdo region of Tibet. The lack of calendars or clocks in her parents home speaks to the intense poverty in which she was born into, joining her family as the youngest of eight children. Her village had no electricity or plumbing and transportation was limited to foot or horseback when she was born, and the survival of the villagers was heavily reliant on farming the land and keeping livestock. Kunsang’s memoir, A Hundred Thousand White Stones, scales the span of her life lived thus far: from a child growing up in this village, to one eventually leaving it – the memoir ends with her being brought back once more.

At the time of Kunsang Dolma’s birth, Tibet had been occupied by China for just over thirty years. Her memoir paints the picture of what it must have been like to be a Tibetan living during that time. The occupation was devastating for Kunsang’s village, and many others throughout Tibet, as many of the Tibetan people were forced to do labor for the Chinese Army while living in poor conditions with very little to eat. During the early years of the occupation, Kunsang’s mother worked in the kitchen of her village and out in the fields. Her father was from another village and older members of both his and her mother’s families arranged their marriage when they were both fifteen years old. Kunsang speaks to the view that many American’s have on arranged marriages, having now lived within America for many years, and notes that it’s a cultural practice that is mostly misunderstood. Although she later admits that an arranged marriage was not right for her, she appreciates the custom as a part of Tibetan tradition.
Throughout Kunsang’s novel, she speaks to a number of Buddhist elements that have had major effects on her family and on herself. In the beginning, she tells readers that her father was cursed by the wrongdoings of his older brother and that this curse made her mother infertile and caused a number of misfortunes for her father. After thirteen years of marriage, and no children, her father’s sister – who already had two children – gave her third to Kunsang’s parents to adopt as their son. They named the boy Yula and credit him for breaking the curse and turning their luck around; shortly after adopting Yula, Kunsang’s mother would have five more boys, including twins, and two girls of her own. When considering how the family would be raised, and through Kunsang’s own personal anecdote on the elements of Tibet that she misses most, this family was one that was content with what they had, and to have each other.

Kunsang Dolma grew up outdoors, as many Tibetan children do, and began to work at a young age. Education was not something that was continued in a long-term way for her, and she eventually dropped out to continue helping her family on the farm. For Kunsang’s mother, and her other siblings, life consisted of a never-ending struggle to make sure that there was enough food and provisions for their family. Her father, who was an alcoholic by the time that she was born, often made it hard for his family by being abusive. The way in the Dolma family dealt with her father’s drinking was how she herself would deal with many things to come: the Tibetan people take care of each other, especially members of their family.
When Kunsang was fifteen years old, her parents began to consider potential candidates for her arranged marriage. At the same time, a horrific event would occur in her life that would change it irreversibly. One night when coming home from prayer at a local temple, an older boy from Kunsang’s village raped her and this assault would end up in her being pregnant out of wedlock. Ashamed by her attack, and not able to tell her family what had truly happened, they assumed that she was having pre-marital sex. Her mother, after having heard rumors in the village, decided to confront her and take her to get an abortion. During the time it took for them to borrow the money, and for the doctor to be available, Kunsang’s father and brothers found out and beat her viciously for embarrassing the family. Her abortion took place months into her pregnancy, and the entire experience – forced onto a young girl who had no resources or systems for support – made her decide to make the journey to the monastery in order to be come a nun. In her writing you can see that these experiences are still extremely painful for her; the experience remains throughout the book, and readers can’t help feeling as though there is still healing to be done.

Kunsang’s decision to become a Buddhist nun was one that she knew her family would not easily accept. Children in Tibet were needed to care for their parents and to continue to work on the family farm; becoming a nun would mean leaving behind those responsibilities while still having your family be responsible for feeding you and providing other necessary provisions. Even with these obstacles, and the required parental permission to become a nun because of her age, Kunsang knew that she would not be able to stay in the village and take a husband. Even when met with opposition to her becoming a nun by the lama at the monastery, she still persisted and eventually was granted the ability to begin the journey to becoming a nun.

A Hundred Thousand White Stones is not the memoir of a Buddhist nun though. It would take some time before Kunsang Dolma would give up her robes, but her devotion to the Buddhism and the Dalai Lama would be principle reasons for her leaving Tibet. At the time that Kunsang was working on becoming a nun, many Tibetan people were hoping to leave Tibet and live in India in order to escape Chinese rule. Leaving Tibet was also the only way that Tibetans could hear the Dalai Lama speak since he had been exiled from Tibet for decades at that point. To make the journey into India was extremely difficult and as Kunsang recounts the months of travel (all done by foot in freezing temperatures over mountains), it seems that at any moment it could of gone from escape to suicide mission. It’s hard to be satisfied with what Kunsang offers in her retelling of this long trip into India, with only a few chapters of the memoir dedicated to it. Getting passports and visas later on in her memoir take up much more time and pages (and was surely a frustrating and painful experience), it makes the reader want to know more about the very first treacherous journey she made to be free.

The rest of Kunsang Dolma’s memoir speaks harshly to the price of exile. Even when making it onto foreign land, she is constantly threatened by the possibility that she could be sent back into the hands of the Chinese government. When she finally makes it into India, and begins to attend the Tibetan Transit School, it’s as if she is finally given a chance to be someone of her age. She attends school and begins to learn other languages. She continues on in her pursuit to become a Buddhist nun, but she gives that up after one of her classmates makes an inappropriate sexual advance towards her. It is unclear in her writing why this experience didn’t force her further into the Buddhist religion, as it had after she was raped in her village, but it was enough for her to abandon her nun’s robes and begin a new life in India.

Adjusting to her new life, without being able to contact her family, was a chaotic transition into adulthood. Kunsang picked up work as a seamstress and created as much of a Tibetan network of friends as possible consisting of those who were able to escape. Her memoir is the hard actualization for many of those who leave their families in the prospect of creating a life better than the one they had; many of them struggle to make ends meet and feel isolated in the new culture of India. Even during these hardships, the Tibetan community in exile remained supportive and protective of each other. When Kunsang met an American student teaching abroad, many of her friends protested them hanging out. Going against her friend’s wishes, she acted on the feeling that she new this person would be meaningful in her life – and she wasn’t wrong. Evan, a college student studying in Colorado, would eventually become her husband and help in the painfully drawn out process of Kunsang becoming an American citizen.

The trials that Kunsang and Evan faced in order to get a Visa allowing her to leave the country is reminiscent of Milarepa’s labor to build, tear down, and rebuild a tower for his master. The process, ripe with corruption, would take them months and require an enormous sacrifice from the both of them. When Kunsang makes the jump in her writing to Evan coming to India (missing his college semester) in order to help in the process of getting to America, it seems that his actions speak to the magnitude in which their relationship must of grown in the short period of time that they new each other. Being met with constant refusals and obstacles, the tribulations of an individual living in exile become all the more obvious. In order for Kunsang to do many of the things that other’s might take for granted requires much more and with no guarantee of anything coming to fruition. When she is finally granted to the visa to go to America, she is faced with an even more painful realization – being a Tibetan living in a culture even further from home.

The struggles of modern Tibetan people living in America are still as difficult as they were when the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1949. Kunsang struggled to find work, she struggled to find people that she could connect with and she struggled in realizing that she might never get the opportunity to see her family again. Throughout the end of her memoir, these issues never fully dissipate – and the reader is left thinking that for many exiled individuals, they never really do. As Kunsang and Evan begin to build their life together, and have two little girls, Kunsang is constantly reminded of the fact that she is not able to share this with her family. This speaks to her depression of being so far removed and to the conflict of culture that is created between her and everyone around her. When she finally obtains her American citizenship and is granted a visa to return to Tibet and see her family, it is of no surprise that she considers staying in Tibet. She ultimately makes the decision to come back to the United States for her daughters, but it is not a choice made easily. The responsibilities of her culture – such as caring for your parents as they age – are things that she will not be able to fulfill in the way she hopes.

A Hundred Thousand White Stones isn’t a history of the conflict of Tibet or the life of a Buddhist nun by any means – it is the life writing of a Tibetan who has suffered the pains and joys of a life outside of a Chinese occupied Tibet. Through Kunsang Dolma’s memoir, readers are able to see the plight of contemporary Tibetan exiles – your choices are limited to living in a place where your culture is being forcibly removed and changed, or leaving behind your family in the hopes of keeping at least some of your culture alive within the environment of another.