Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Book Reviews: The Lives of the Dalai Lamas

June 9, 2008

Mick Brown
The Telegraph (UK)
June 7, 2008

Mick Brown reviews Holder of the White Lotus by Alexander Norman and
The Open Road: the Global Journey of the 14th Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer

This review has been somewhat delayed, but with good reason. I have
been travelling, and intended to read these books while away, then
thought better of it. My destination was China, and there was a very
good chance that had I arrived in Beijing carrying them in my bag
they would have been confiscated.

How a man who describes himself as "just a simple Buddhist monk"
should have become the object of such loathing, and fear, on the part
of the government of the world's most populous nation - "a wolf in
monk's clothing, a devil with a human face", as he was described by
Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party secretary of Tibet, after the
popular uprising in that country in March - is just one of the
absorbing questions that both of these books help to answer.

As Alexander Norman makes clear in his meticulously researched and
vividly detailed account, the history of the Dalai Lamas, and of
Tibet, has been inextricably linked to the waxing and waning empires
of China and the Mongols.

The Dalai Lama is held to be the living embodiment of Chenrezig, the
Buddha of compassion, with a lineage supposedly stretching back into
the mists of history. Chenrezig's first Tibetan incarnation was in
the 7th century as King Songsten Gampo, whose marriage to a daughter
of the Tang emperor of China was instrumental in introducing Buddhism
into Tibet.

But it was not until the 16th century that the Mongolian warlord
Altan Khan bestowed the title Dalai Lama (from the Mongolian taleh,
meaning ocean) on his teacher, a monk named Sonam Gyatso. (Happily,
it seems the Khan was able to reconcile Buddhist teachings on the
sanctity of all life with his preferred treatment for gout - each day
having the belly of a mare sliced open and plunging his foot into its

For centuries, the central place that Buddhist teachings occupied in
Tibetan life was preserved in the carefully negotiated choyon, or
"priest and patron" relationship between Tibetan lamas and the
successive Mongol Khans and Chinese emperors who exerted de facto
authority over the country. In this, the patron would yield
precedence to the priest during religious ceremonies and teachings,
while the priest yielded authority in public gatherings - a division
of responsibility, as it were, over the spiritual and material worlds.

Put simply, while the emperors had the temporal power, the monks had
the magic. The Dalai Lamas themselves seem to have been a decidedly
mixed bunch, their theocratic position as "spiritual kings" often
compromised by sectarian disputes and the vagaries of a system that
effectively meant that for long periods Tibet was in the hands of
scheming and squabbling regents.

The "Great Fifth" unified Tibet in the 17th century under the
patronage of the Mongol Gushri Khan, and was received in Beijing by
the Chinese Emperor, lauded as "the legal king, of whom there is no
like". The sixth showed little interest in either spirituality or
statecraft, preferring to carouse in the taverns of Lhasa with his
friends and write scandalously erotic poetry. The seventh effectively
acted as a guarantor of Chinese dominion, but was an enthusiastic
promoter of the faith, personally ordaining no fewer than 16,993
monks. The 10th, 11th and 12th all died before the age of 21 under
suspicious circumstances.

The 13th was an inspirational figure who in 1913, taking advantage of
the collapse of the Manchu empire, declared independence from China,
instituted a standing army and effected wholesale political reforms,
including limiting the traditional punishment of amputating limbs
only to "exceptional circumstances". He also enjoyed driving his
three cars - an American Dodge and two Baby Austins - around the
palace grounds.

All of this was swept aside when the Chinese launched their "peaceful
liberation" of Tibet in 1950. The "mystical bombs" that monks tossed
at the advancing People's Liberation Army troops in the form of dough
pellets, charged with spells and incantations, proved no match for
guns and tanks.

As Pico Iyer demonstrates in his thoughtful and beautifully written
portrait, this chequered history has endowed the present Dalai Lama
with an impossibly complicated legacy: to Westerners enamoured of the
romance of Tibet, he appears as an almost magical figure; to the
Chinese, he is a perpetual thorn in their side, a man whose
glad-handing of Western politicians they construe as a calculated
attempt to stoke up anti-Chinese feeling.

As Iyer makes clear, the Dalai Lama has little truck with romance or
idealised thinking in either his religious or political role; he is a
realist, who has repeatedly renounced the claim for independence from
China and emphasised that he wishes only for a state of autonomy in
which Tibet's unique religious and cultural history might be preserved.

To Iyer himself, the Dalai Lama is "a doctor of the soul": man who
spends four hours of the day meditating before turning to affairs of
state; who trusts to the advice of oracles, divinations and dreams,
but who assiduously avoids discussion of the more esoteric aspects of
his Buddhist training - "the way one might keep a loaded gun in a
locked cabinet, so the kids don't start to play with it", as Iyer puts it.

He stresses instead the universally digestible remedy of what he
calls "global ethics" - compassion, kindness and personal
responsibility - that anyone can practise, regardless of their
religious beliefs.

In a fascinating aside on his language, Iyer notes that the words
that recur most often in the Dalai Lama's vocabulary are "calm",
"healthy", "heartfelt" and "unbiased". And what emerges most vividly
from this portrait is his undaunted cheerfulness, openness and
humility - "the freshness of immense personal purity", as Iyer puts it.

Both of these books were written before the events of March, which
have served to dramatise not only the parlous situation in Tibet but
also the difficulties the Dalai Lama faces in continuing to argue for
a peaceful accommodation with what he calls "my Chinese brothers and
sisters" in the face of growing impatience from young Tibetans, both
at home and abroad.

Between them, they do an exemplary job of explaining the complex
spiritual and political history that underpins the extraordinary
institution that is the Dalai Lama, and illuminating the
extraordinary man who presently occupies it. The pity is that his
Chinese brothers and sisters will be denied the chance to read either.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank