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Remembering Adam Yauch

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I met Adam Yauch only once. It was during a bathroom break, which came at the end of a heated session in a Tibet-China conference at Harvard in 2002. I rushed to the bathroom and found myself standing next to Adam Yauch, who was using the urinal to my right.

We greeted each other in Tibetan. I was an international relations student at Brown University at the time.

"Isn't it appalling, what they were saying?" I said, referring to a couple of Chinese academics who had been arguing that the Chinese Communists truly wanted to liberate the Tibetans, almost "out of kindness."

They were describing Tibet in a language that betrayed their Han chauvinism, and every Tibetan in the room was visibly distraught. But most of us were tongue-tied, understandably intimidated by the heavy use of political terminology by professors and researchers who hid the ultimate weakness of their arguments behind the cloak of academic jargon.

One of the Chinese academics had a deep, commanding voice that made up for his thick accent. He seemed to be aware of the impact his voice was having on his audience, as he continued to lecture the Tibetans about how much Chinese leaders truly respected the wishes of the Tibetan people.

At that point, Adam stood up and said, in a soft but firm voice, "If the Chinese authorities respected the Tibetan people's wishes so much, then why wouldn't they just pack up and leave Tibet? Because that's clearly what the Tibetans want."

Silence fell upon all. The academic had no answer, because the question was direct, simple and honest. It pierced right through all the pretension, and illuminated everything in an instant.

This, in essence, represents the monumental impact Adam had on the Tibetan freedom struggle. His compassion, action and creativity illuminated to the whole world the truth of China's oppression of Tibetans.

After backpacking in Nepal, where he met Tibetan refugees for the first time, Adam came home and founded the Milarepa Fund, a nonprofit advocacy organization named after Tibet's most famous and beloved saint. Milarepa was an eleventh century Tibetan saint whose life and words have provided inspiration to countless Tibetans searching for spiritual liberation, and his story of tragedy and triumphs have served as milestones and benchmarks in seekers' journey toward enlightenment. His verses, simple and melodious, are sung to this day in the form of songs and opera.

It is not hard to understand why Adam found inspiration in Milarepa. Himself a spiritual seeker, Adam turned his musical genius into a force for social and political justice. Taking on the biggest colonial empire on the planet, he became a fierce advocate of Tibetan freedom.

Acting upon his belief that change in Tibet can only come through public awareness and grassroots pressure, he reached out to the greatest musicians of the era. He then set about organizing a series of mega concerts in North America, Europe and Asia that came to be known as the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. It was these concerts from 1996 to 2001, attended by hundreds of thousands, and the grassroots awareness they created, that eventually transformed the Tibetan cause from an obscure, fringe issue into a defining political movement of our time.

Adam supported numerous Tibetan projects, most visibly Students for a Free Tibet (SFT). The Milarepa Fund, founded by Adam, was one of the three organizations that helped birth SFT in 1994, as an answer to the rapidly growing youth interest in Tibet. Today SFT is one of the leading organizations in the movement.

To the end of his tragically short life, he remained a fierce warrior and humble supporter of the Tibetan freedom movement.

Ever since we shared that short conversation at the urinals at Harvard, I have always pictured him as a simple, unassuming human being with a heart the size of a universe. Adam was a true American saint.