The Dalai Lama calls Thupten Donyo (above) of the Gyuto Foundation and Monastery in Richmond “the little monk.”
Richmond is now the hub for Tibetan Americans living in exile in the Bay Area.
Growing up near Mount Everest in Nepal, Thupten Donyo thought he might follow in his family’s footsteps. His parents were Sherpas. But when he was 12 years old, Donyo’s parents asked him if he wanted to become a monk. For a reason that, to this day, he cannot fully explain, he replied, “Yes.”
So he left his home in Nepal and moved to Dharamsala, India, to begin monk-training. Luckily for him, his teacher came directly from the spiritual lineage of the Gyuto Monastery, which dates back to 1475. The monastery was founded in Tibet and is now based in India.
The Gyuto monks are known for their guttural chants, made famous to Westerners when a group of the monks—including Donyo—toured with members of the Grateful Dead in 1988. The monks recorded their chants in George Lucas’ studio in San Rafael. “George Lucas was there and Jerry Garcia was also there,” said Donyo, who was visiting from India at the time. “I didn’t know who [they] were. I didn’t speak English.”
Before relocating to Northern California, he lived in Australia for eight years after being recruited to help with a dharma center there. Many spiritual leaders like Donyo have been recruited by diasporic Tibetan communities around the globe.
In 1997, Donyo founded the Gyuto Foundation in San Jose. At the time, there were only about 400 Tibetans living in the Bay Area. In fact, because the local Tibetan population was so small, many of the temple’s members and visitors were Chinese American or Vietnamese American.
But since the 1990s, the Bay Area Tibetan community has grown to about 3,000 members, and it continues to expand. Last year, the Gyuto Foundation moved to a larger center in the Richmond hills, near Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. With a view of San Francisco and with the temple’s prayer flag blowing in the wind, the Gyuto Foundation looks like a temple in the mountains of Tibet. The grounds of the temple are beautiful, peaceful, and welcoming to everyone. All programs are free, and every two years, new monks come here from India, Tibet, or Nepal.
Considered the spiritual center for Tibetans in the East Bay, the Richmond hills temple is also one of the only Tibetan-run monasteries in California. Along with the temple, the Tibetan Association of Northern California, or TANC, also in Richmond, and the Sunday language and arts school run by TANC at the Berkeley Adult School are the local community’s major cultural and religious centers.
While Donyo is often referred to as the Venerable Thupten Donyo, he prefers to be called “Donyo,” which means “meaningful.” He has personally hosted the Dalai Lama (known as His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibetans) when he has visited and delivered speeches in the Bay Area. The Dalai Lama refers affectionately to Donyo, who is just over 5 feet tall, as “the little monk.” In 2007, Donyo organized a teaching by the Dalai Lama that filled the Bill Graham Auditorium in San Francisco.
Today, the East Bay is home to the fourth-largest Tibetan community in North America, after those in New York, Toronto, and Minneapolis. Most Tibetans have arrived here as refugees or asylum seekers, and they continue to do so, from Nepal, India, and Tibet. For them, living in exile means that they have a chance to meet their spiritual leader in real life, as Tibetans in Tibet are forbidden to even have a photo of the Dalai Lama.
But the majority of those who live in exile in the East Bay and elsewhere also will never be able to return, even for a visit, to their homeland.
If the Gyuto Foundation is the spiritual hub of the community, then TANC is the cultural and political center. “The struggle for every new immigrant community is to fit into the mainstream and also keep their culture,” explained Kelsang Jungney, president of the Tibetan Association of Northern California. “It’s becoming a big challenge for us to transmit that knowledge to our youngsters.”
TANC was founded in 1990 by 12 people, the majority of whom are Tibetan. One of its most popular programs is the Sunday school, which teaches children Tibetan language, music, and culture and is at the Berkeley Adult School. For decades, TANC did not have a physical space to call home, but in 2011, it moved into a large building in Richmond. It is still undergoing renovation, and organizers are seeking funds to complete it.
The East Bay has always been a welcoming place to Tibetans, said Jungney. “I think in the Bay Area, people are more open to other cultures,” he said, noting that TANC’s success, in part, is due to the fact that local, non-Tibetan communities have supported them. Berkeley has several Tibetan shops, the adult school hosts the weekend language school, and Dharma Publishing is based in downtown Berkeley. But in recent years, the cultural hub has planted roots in Richmond.
The first large group of Tibetan refugees arrived in the United States in the early ’90s after passage of the 1990 U.S. Immigration Act, which specified that 1,000 Tibetan refugees from India and Nepal could receive special visas. Prior to 1990, there were only about 20 to 30 known Tibetans in the Bay Area, according to Jungney. The 1,000 refugees were selected out of an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 refugees to represent a cross-section of the Tibetan population, from educators and artists to entrepreneurs and elders.
With the support of the Bay Area Friends of Tibet, which formed in 1989, 50 or so Tibetan refugees came to the Bay Area under the resettlement program, and in following years, they brought over extended family members.
Prior to the 1,000 Tibetans resettlement program, there was concern that bringing more Tibetans to the United States would water down Tibetan identity and culture in India and Nepal, and that Tibetans should remains closer to their homeland where significant refugee populations could maintain the political, cultural, and historical spirit of the exiled peoples. But ultimately, Tibetans agreed that the resettlement program in the United States was a worthy cause.
“Our goal of bringing 1,000 Tibetans to the United States is not only to preserve and promote the Tibetan culture in this country, but to try [to] save Tibet itself from dying,” a 1994 article in the Tibetan Review noted.
From the beginning, the effort to bring Tibetans to the United States was not only a quest to help individual refugees, but to save a culture that was under siege by the Chinese government. The exiled community also serves as an example of newcomers who have held on to their language, culture, and religion despite being displaced several times during the last two generations.