The Expats: Tashi Delek

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Strolling leisurely through the quiet hill-towns of eastern Switzerland, petting a few yaks along the way, you might not expect to find that the local blacksmith is a Tibetan monk in blue jeans. Walking on, you cross paths with a gaggle of school kids speaking perfect German Swiss. Surprise strikes later when you pass by a chalet and see the same students, now in traditional Tibetan dress, shooting the breeze with their parents in native Tibetic.

The first group of refugees came via India in the early 1960s, fleeing their country by the thousands after the invasion of the Chinese communist forces. The heat and humidity there were a poor fit for  Tibetans used to mountain climes and many fell ill in exile. The Swiss Red Cross proposed to bring 70 of them to Unterwasser, a mountain town with a cool climate where they’d feel more at home.

This small army of Samaritans secured jobs and converted chalets into community homes for their new charges. Tibetan men, known to be good with their hands, were given work as carpenters, craftsmen, and market gardeners. Quickly respected by the Swiss as competent in their new trades, the Tibetans assimilated fairly easily to their new life.

Even so, evening always found them gathered in the chalets, led in prayer and religious services by the lamas, or spiritual leaders. Back in Tibet, their status meant that they lived in the monasteries and did not work, supported rather by local contributions. Chosen by the Dalai Lama himself to accompany the refugees to their new life, they expected to maintain this lifestyle in Switzerland. In this new place, the rules changed — the other members of the community were no longer willing to pay their way and the lamas had to adapt. While carrying out their monastic duties, they worked as weavers in a nearby mill and a new generation of spiritual humility was born.

Initial attempts to set up a Buddhist monastery met stoic resistance from the local Protestant and Catholic churches, but two generous brothers from a hamlet called Rikon volunteered their resources. Touched by the fortitude and grace of the Tibetans’ way of life, they donated an old metalwork factory and a sizeable endowment, and the first Tibetan monastery in Europe was inaugurated in 1968. A traditional Tibetan proverb holds that “speech is a water bubble; implementation is a drop of gold.” In these terms, the brothers Kuhn are bullion incarnate.

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