In India, an Encounter with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Opera

New York, N.Y. In the summer of 1972, I flew to Delhi where I was told representatives of His Holness the Dalai Lama would meet me and escort me to Dharamshala. I arrived in India, but no one was waiting for me. I did not know what to do, so I asked a policeman, “I need to go to Dharamsala. Could you kindly tell me how?”

Suddenly, a Japanese-looking man came running towards me and said, “I’m waiting for an American and her daughter, but I can take you too after they arrives!” After waiting for about an hour, I asked the name of the person he was waiting for to see if I possibly knew her. Much to my surprise, he was waiting for a ‘Mrs. Hillyer.’ That person he was actually waiting for was ME! He never thought a visitor from America could be an Asian women.

00/00/1971. Calcutta. Bengali refugees camped alongside Howrah's train station. During the independence movement of Eastern Pakistan, which became Bangladesh, Bengalis who were the initiators of this revolt which gave way to independence became refugees and were resettled in Bihar, in Northeast India. A group of these refugees came to Calcutta to explain to the Indian government their refusal to live in Bihar. En 1971, à Calcutta, des réfugiés Bengalis campent le long de la gare de Howrah. A l'époque de l'indépendance du Pakistan oriental qui devient le Bangladesh, les réfugiés Bengalis de ce pays, qui ont d'ailleurs été les initiateurs de la révolte qui a aboutit à l'indépendance, ont été réinstallés dans le Bihar, au Nord-Est de l'Inde et une partie d'entre eux sont venus à Calcutta pour convaincre le gouvernement indien, de leur refus de vivre dans le Bihar.
Calcutta, now Kolkata, India, 1971.

The next day, we arrived at Kolkata station. So many beggars and homeless! After that, I went to the town called Patanco.

Next, we took a bus to the village called Dharamsala. Back then, it took six hours to get from Lower Dharamsala to Upper Dharamsala – on foot. Because of the monsoon rains, there were no road and the only way was by walking. I was helped by Indian soldiers and finally we arrived at the old summer house of an old British aristocrat. It was more than eighty hours since I had departed my home in New York.

“Ethnic Opera” Really Long – How to Import to the West?

For the first time, I enjoyed a Tibetan meal and drank Tibetan yak butter tea made with yak milk. The yak is like a buffalo with even more hair. Yaks can only live in altitudes above 9,000 feet. That night, I slept directly on the floor on which only the wheat straw was layered without beds. The next morning I finally met the people of the “Tibetan opera.” They were practicing hard.


I actually was watching their performance which I had seen before only from a single picture, I was convinced this would not work in the West. So, I carefully chose a play, thinking how to create a show acceptable to the foreigners. One opera could last for eleven hours! We had to make this opera show more fun for foreigners – a very difficult task.

Direct Negotiations with the Dalai Lama 14th

Two to three days after I arrived, the first secretary came and brought me to the Dalai Lama 14th. I said to His Holiness, “I would like to introduce Tibetan opera to New York and to the world for the first time.”

5a40168021000015005f5befHis Holiness the Dalai Lama with friend Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura, in 1972.

Then, the Dalai Lama explained, “I’m sorry, but your boss will say NO if you return to New York with this idea.” I replied, “Although I am Japanese and a woman, I AM the boss.” He started to laugh so loud, “Wahahae!” At this moment, I felt a deep bond was born between us was that has lasted our lifetimes.

The Tibetan “Spirit”

We often met while I visited,  talking about various matters. His Holiness said, “Tibetans have had no contact from the outside. We Tibetans have known nothing of the West until now and this has been my mistake.” In the future, he told me earnestly, each Tibetan will learn to speak three languages, Tibetan, English, and Hindi (or the language of the immigrant country).


He explained, ‘We are focused on education in which Tibetans can become international people. In addition, the land of Tibet is abundant in mining resources, gold stones are rustling even in the river, and from now, China will take over all the resources of Tibet, so they will not easily release Tibet.’ We talked about religion, politics, the traditions of Tibet., etc. I was fascinated.

In our meetings, the most impressive thing to me was, ”Every human being is born with Compassion. All children have Compassion as long as they are human beings.” It is said that children of other countries will lose this important trait from about three years old.

Although the heart of consideration for living and other living things are very strong in Tibetan people, he confided to me that he was concerned the compassionate spirit of the Tibetan people might be lost in the future. “How to keep it in us?,” he pondered. He said that he was curious about how and what we could keep doing to remain Tibetan and Compassionate.

Take a Western Tour

After I returned to New York, I had a challenging time booking and promoting Tibetan cultural performances across Europe as people were not yet familiar with Tibet. I covered the costs of production, costume, and sets out of my own pocket, and after three years, in 1975, we prepared a highly successful three-week tour in Europe and another three-week tour of North America.

Originally published as Vol. 4 in Weekly Biz, October 7, 2017; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

View all posts by Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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