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Happy 86th Birthday, Dalai Lama

In honor of HH The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s 86th birthday on July 6th, I published a photo diary on the website Daily Kos about my visits to Tibet and to Dharamshala, India, seat of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, in 1998 and 2000. Go read it if travel is your thing (it's certainly one of mine!). But here on The Literate Lizard, I’m taking a quick overview of a number of books on Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

The recent The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life, published in 2020 and out in paperback earlier this year, is a very good overview of his life and his place in Tibetan religion, history and politics. Author Alexander Norman has a long relationship with the Dalai Lama, having been a co-author of several of his books, including his autobiography Freedom in Exile. He also is a scholar of Tibetan history, having written Secret Lives of the Dalai Lama: The Untold Story of the Holy Men Who Shaped Tibet, from Pre-history to the Present Day (out of print in paper, but available as an eBook.)

Puzzled by the reference to pre-history in the subtitle of that Secret Lives book? Well, that’s part of the fun of Norman’s writing. While he hews mostly to facts and history, he’s not afraid to mix in a bit of Tibetan mysticism as well. He pulls the same trick in his new bio of the Dalai Lama (bear with me here):

“It is tempting to begin our story with the first Saturday in July, 1935, when, by the Gregorian calendar, the present Dalai Lama was born….In a way, it would be more accurate to begin with the evening of the seventeenth of December 1933 [as] the death of the previous Dalai Lama is what precipitates the birth of the next….Yet there is also a case for beginning with the birth of the First Dalai Lama, since, after all, each incarnation is considered to share the same mental continuum. turns out the First Dalai Lama was in fact the Third...because Sonam Gyatso was in fact the third incarnation of a lineage connected with Drepung, Tibet’s largest monastery….There is an added complication, however….Sonam Gyatso is also considered to have been the 42nd in an unbroken lineage going back to the time of the historical Buddha, who lived during the fifth century BCE. It is this lineage that associates the Dalai Lamas with Chenresig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, whom they are understood to manifest on earth. And yet this lineage itself is antedated by yet another that connects with a young prince who lived 990 eons ago.”

And how long is an eon, you ask? The Buddha is said to have defined it thus: Suppose there were a great mountain of rock, seven miles across and seven miles high, a solid mass without any cracks. At the end of every hundred years, a man might brush it with a fine Benares cloth. That great mountain would be worn away and come to an end sooner than an eon.

In other words, a bloody long time.

But mostly the book is an excellent recounting of the Dalai Lama’s life: The portents that identified him as the reincarnation of his lineage; his boyhood and training in the Potala Palace; the Chinese invasion, and his journey at age 18 to Beijing for a meeting with Mao Zedong; his escape from Lhasa and journey to exile in India; his awareness of the CIA-assisted Tibetan resistance movement; his growth over the ensuing decades into the figure of global stature he is today; and his views on Tibet, politics, and what happens after he dies. On that last subject, the Dalai Lama has said that it may be he is the last reincarnation, or if the lineage continues that he will give clear direction as to where his reincarnation will be found, that it could be a woman, that it will not be in China, and that the Tibetan people will never accept a Dalai Lama named by the Chinese government. 

There are plenty of books if you want to dig deeper into the Dalai Lama’s life and history. Mary Craig’s Kundun: A Biography of the Family of the Dalai Lama expands the story to the Dalai Lama’s parents, four brothers and two sisters, who have played their own roles in Tibet’s struggle. Some of them have written books of their own: the Dalai Lama’s mother, Diki Tsering, wrote Dalai Lama, My Son: A Mother's Story in 2000, his sister Jetsun Pema, one of his sisters, wrote Tibet: My Story in 1996, and earlier, his elder brother Thubten Jigme Norbu, himself a reincarnated lama, wrote Tibet Is My Country: Autobiography of Thubten Jigme Norbu, Brother of the Dalai Lama, in collaboration with Heinrich Harrer. All three are out of print, but Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet is still available, detailing his improbable friendship with the young Dalai Lama just before his escape from Lhasa. (You can always go for the movie versions, both of which are entertaining: Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, and Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt.)

Thomas Laird’s The Story of Tibet: Conversations With the Dalai Lama, is an interesting take on all of Tibetan history, as it was created through 60 hours of conversation with the Dalai Lama. Given that the Dalai Lama devotes his life to understanding his religion and its history, this book offers some exceptional insights.

Regarding the CIA’s murky involvement in assisting the Tibetan rebellion, there is still much to learn, but one of the best books is Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle, by John Kenneth Knaus, published in 1999, one of the CIA’s operatives.

Regarding the geopolitical struggle between the Dalai Lama and China, there are some good books that are unfortunately becoming hard to get. Pico Iyer’s The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and Tim Johnson’s Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China, though both over ten years old and not reflective of the Dalai Lama’s latest strategic thinking, provide good analysis of the clash between a repressive superpower and ‘a simple monk.’ Matteo Pistono’s In the Shadow of the Buddha: One Man's Journey of Discovery in Tibet is an exciting memoir of his smuggling documentation of China’s repression out of Tibet. Isabel Hilton’s The Search for the Panchen Lama is a good history of China’s abduction of the Dalai Lama’s designated reincarnation of the 2nd most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. China spirited him away at age six, and he has not been seen in public in the ensuing 26 years. Meanwhile, China put forth their own choice, who has been utterly ineffectual and totally rejected by Tibetans. This story provides a good preview of what will unfold when the current Dalai Lama dies.

It’s been over twenty years since my two trips to Lhasa. I know that so much of the traditional Tibetan architecture we saw is now gone. The Tibetan quarter was much reduced already 21 years ago, and China has been on a binge of destruction ever since. Abraham Lustgarten’s 2008 China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet is a great look at the engineering marvel of the train China constructed 710 miles over the permafrost from Golmud to Lhasa, opened in 2006, but for me, the book was also heartbreaking in its description of the economic, architectural and cultural transformation of Lhasa. I treasure my copy of the $75.00 Lhasa Atlas from 2001, now out of print. It’s filled with detailed street maps and building schematics of a world now largely destroyed. Another nice atlas still available, and covering monasteries and shrines from the entire country, is A Historical Atlas of Tibet. Another lovely read is Robert Barnett’s 2006 Lhasa: Streets With Memories.

Another book becoming hard to get is George Schaller’s Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys on the Roof of the World, a good overview of the Chinese development’s impact on Tibet’s natural world.

Let me end with the trips not taken. Our week-long land rover trip from Lhasa back to Kathmandu, Nepal in 2000 took us to the tiny town of Tingri, near the border. It is the jumping-off point for the Tibetan Everest Base Camp, but we didn’t take the two day side trip to visit. But we could see Mount Everest among the line of Himalayan peaks on the horizon. Finally, there is the sacred Mount Kailash circumambulation in remote western Tibet. Tibetans say a single circuit will wash away a lifetime of sins, while 108 circuits offers instant nirvana. I dream of it, and read Colin Thubron’s To a Mountain in Tibet, or the out of print Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure Through the Himalayas, by Robert Thurman, but doubt it will ever happen. I’ll just have to keep lugging these sins around with me.