February 17th, 2007


Dalai Lama ...

What can I say about this? Over the past 30 years, the biographical outline of the current Dalai Lama has been very familiar to me, so much of this was a "filling in the details". Of course, you (my intrepid readers, such as there are), may not be as conversant with the story, so I guess an over-view would be in order.

Freedom In Exile: the Autobiography of the Dalai Lama is just that, the current (14th) Dalai Lama's telling of his life story, from his birth in 1935 in the north-eastern provinces of Tibet through 1990 (when the first edition of this came out). In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, certain high Lamas (referred to as Tulkus) are able to re-incarnate in identifiable forms to continue their teachings, the Dalai Lamas are one such lineage, of which Tenzin Gyatso is the fourteenth manifestation. Over the past 400 or so years, the Dalai Lamas have been both the leaders of the Tibetan nation as well as the head of the Gelugpa order.

It was said that his predecessor had seen visions of the great trials that the Tibetan people would go through with the rise of Communism in China and had "died early" in order that his reincarnated form would have a chance to be ready for those events. As it was, the current Dalai Lama was only 15 years old (with the government being run via a Regency) when the Chinese invaded in 1950. The next decade was very turbulent, with the Chinese encroaching more and more on the Tibetan way of life. Finally, in 1959, the Dalai Lama had to flee the country, re-settling (eventually with many refugees) in India.

While the Chinese destruction of Tibet's unique culture is a massive tragedy, the Tibetan diaspora has resulted in the wide spread of their particular form of Buddhism, which might not have taken root all over the world the way it has were Tibet to have survived as it had been for the previous thousand years. Needless to say, I would have been very unlikely to have crossed paths with Vajrayana without it, rather than having had the opportunity to have taken five initiations from the Dalai Lama here in the U.S. between 1981 and 1991!

Freedom In Exile goes into the details of how the Dalai Lama dealt with this upheaval, and struggled with political structures that were willing to "throw Tibet under the bus" rather than challenge the Chinese. While, frankly, there was precious little The West could have practically done to keep the Chinese out of Tibet, it would have been nice had there been more willingness to stand up to the forces of evil rather than simply ignoring them (but what can you expect when the American Congress even now is wanting to hide under the covers and pretend that the whole world would be out singing Kumbaya if we quit fighting organized terror!). The Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989 hardly makes right the butchery of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans and the wanton destruction of thousands of irreplaceable monasteries (and the centuries of learning/tradition that had been preserved in them) when the Chinese artillery came into play.

In any event, this is an interesting volume on several levels, there is the whole "Tibetan" historical angle, the coming of age of a young man in a very imposing role, and the global political tale that weaves through the narrative, with some fascinating observations made first-hand of Mao and other Chinese leaders, Nehru and other Indian leaders, etc.. Freedom In Exile is still in print, so should be available at your local bookstore, but Amazon has it for about $11 new, and "like new" copies from the new/used vendors going for about $5.00. If you have an interest in religion, in gripping autobiographies, and of modern socio-political history, this is certainly one to consider picking up!

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More Tibet ...

I've had this book for a very long time. It used to sit out on one of the coffee tables in my old apartment (which I've not lived in for something like 15 years), which is why the dust cover is a bit bleached out. Oddly enough, I never actually bothered to read it all those years, preferring to flip through the fascinating antique photos.

Tibet: The Sacred Realm - Photographs 1880-1950 is an amazing collection of the early Western views of the classic Buddhist kingdom of Tibet. So much of what is pictured in here is gone, swept away by the crushing insanity of the Chinese communists, from the thuggish invasion of 1950 to the attempted total obliteration of Tibetan culture during China's disastrous "Cultural Revolution" in the late '60s and early '70s.

The part of this that I missed (while focusing solely on the pictures) is a very interesting look at the later days of the "old Tibet". Actually, it was probably a good thing that I waited to read this "chronicle" by lama and Tibetan government official Lobsang P. Lhalungpa until after I finished reading the Dalai Lama's Freedom In Exile, as this story fleshes out parts of that autobiography with details that would have been very difficult for the Dalai Lama to know, due to his position. Lobsang P. Lhalungpa discusses the general outline of his own life story, including his education and advancement into the government, but also discusses many social and cultural aspects of Tibetan life that I had not seen explored before. His story ends a bit differently, though, as he was selected to manage a Tibetan school already set up in India, and left for that posting in 1947, although even at that time the fateful events of 1950 were hovering over the horizon. Both his narrative and the time-line of the photographs end in 1950, the year the Communist Chinese army swept in and changed things forever in his homeland.

The book also features a brief Preface by The 14th Dalai Lama His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, which is interesting in that it is in Tibetan script (H.H.'s handwriting?), with English translations line-by-line. While this was written in 1982 when the Dalai Lama had already been to the U.S.A. (and other Western sites), one gets a sense that he had not quite gotten to the "communication comfort" level that he would eventually have in penning his autobiography some eight years later.

Additionally, there is a final section in the book which does a little biographical sketch of all the photographers whose work appears in the book, presenting something of a "who's who" of Oriental adventurers, from Alexandra David-Neel (author of Magic and Mystery in Tibet, among many others) to the well-known Heinrich Harrer (author of Seven Years in Tibet detailing his WW2 escape from a British internment camp in India and ending up as a "Western tutor" to the young Dalai Lama {by the way, this can be had for as little as 2¢ for a "like new" copy right now!}), and many other military and visionary travelers in between.

This original 1983 edition of Tibet: The Sacred Realm is no longer available (well, one of the new/used guys looks like they may have it, but they want over eighty bucks for a "very good" copy!), but can be had via the used market in either the 1990 re-issue of the hardcover ("like new" for $14.00) or the 1997 paperback (a "new" copy for as little as $9.95). This is really a remarkable collection of pictures, and would be well worth picking it up via those options (both well under the original cover price).

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