In Print - The chronicles of Tibet

By Julian Wise - December 20, 2007

"The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama" by Thomas Laird. Grove Press. 2006. 470 pgs. $27.50.

The word conjures a snowy Himalayan land inhabited by saffron-clad monks and humble nomads who have languished under the imperial boot of Communist China since the 1950 invasion. The Dalai Lama has become the figurehead of the nation's government in exile with his tireless advocacy for a peaceful solution to Tibetan independence. Since his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize award, he has become an international figure who has mingled with world leaders and celebrities in his effort to keep the Tibetan cause alive.

Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama" may arguably be the best book written on Tibet's history and current predicament. Mr. Laird has spent several decades in Nepal and has written for Time, Asiaweek, and Newsweek. Where most books on Tibet fall into the extremes of geopolitical wonkery or misty spiritual reverie, Mr. Laird strikes a balance that addresses both the political and spiritual angles in a lucid, concise manner. "The Story of Tibet" provides a sharp summation of the nation's history from past millennia to the present. At the core of the book are his one-on-one conversations with the Dalai Lama, culled from over 60 hours of private talks in the 1990s. When Mr. Laird gave a talk at the Bunch of Grapes this past summer to discuss the book, the overflow crowd made it a standing-room-only event.

The Story of Tibet
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Mr. Laird traces the history of Tibet to early archaeological records dating back thousands of years. In one of their earliest conversations, Mr. Laird and the Dalai Lama compare these scientific findings to the Tibetan origin myths in which a monkey and a demoness gave birth to the first Tibetans. The Dalai Lama displays a modern, non-dogmatic mindset.

"When science clearly contradicts Buddhist beliefs, and it is proven, then we must reject the earlier beliefs," he says in the early pages of the book. "We will accept the evidence of science, not early beliefs. The Buddha himself made it clear that the final decision for every person must come through investigation and experiment, not by relying solely on religious texts. The Buddha gave each of us that freedom. I am following this line."

This pragmatism coexists with the Dalai Lama's belief in reincarnation and a dual level of reality in which the higher spiritual realm exists in tandem with the mundane, causing certain spiritual realities to be invisible to those in a lower state of consciousness. Mr. Laird balances respect and skepticism in equal measures as he probes these realities with the Dalai Lama.

Most people have a vague concept of Tibet before the Chinese invasion as a peaceful Buddhist kingdom. Through Mr. Laird's historical explorations, a more complicated portrait emerges. During the years 600-850 AD, Tibet was a mighty nation on equal footing with its surrounding Mongol and Chinese neighbors. In the year 836 AD, Buddhism was virtually wiped out in Tibet amidst political upheavals. Buddhism would return, only to go through the familiar paroxysms of organized religion, complete with fundamentalism, reform movements, and cult-like splinter factions (some involving sexual yoga, alcohol, and cannibalism). The reader meets historic figures like the hero Songzen Gampo, the villainous Lang Darma, and the teachers Atisha, Padmasambhava, Marpa and Milarepa.

The Dalai Lama is unafraid to criticize the errors of Tibet's religious history with its excesses of ritual and sectarianism.

"The monks considered the Tibetan nation as secondary to their school, and political things were secondary to the Dharma," he says to Mr. Laird when discussing Tibet's antiquity. "Then worst of all, as I said before, it was not true religion they were concerned with. They were concerned to make things big and grand: to make big monasteries and big statues."

As Mr. Laird traces the course of Tibet's development through the centuries, he reveals that Tibet had its share of political backstabbing and horse-trading. There were frequent power struggles between various sects of Tibetan Buddhism, with violent conflict breaking out between various Buddhist lineages. As the institution of the Dalai Lama rises to prominence in Tibet, Mr. Laird demonstrates how not all Dalai Lamas were equal in stature. Several died young and others were fairly nondescript. The sixth Dalai Lama was noteworthy for his libertine ways with women and alcohol, though some Tibetans claim his actions were part of a grander pattern on the higher planes of reality. The fifth, 13th, and current 14th emerge as the most significant.

Tibet, China, and Mongolia are portrayed as equals in the region in the medieval era, with China seen as a relatively minor power compared to the juggernaut it is today. By the beginning of the 20th century, Tibet becomes embroiled in the geopolitical chess game brewing between China, England, and Russia. In the early 1900s, both Britain and China make incursions into Tibet, and the 13th Dalai Lama goes into exile for several years until he returns to evict the Chinese during the confusion created by China's own turmoil with the overthrow of the Manchurians.

Mr. Laird explores the 13th Dalai Lama's efforts to modernize Tibet and develop a powerful military to fortify its borders against the growing Chinese threat. In a prophetic passage, the 13th Dalai Lama writes that the country must prepare itself militarily or, "Our spiritual and cultural traditions will be completely eradicated...the Monasteries will be looted and destroyed, and the monks and nuns killed or chased away... We will become like slaves to our conquerors...and the days and nights will pass slowly and with great suffering and terror."

Unfortunately, his efforts were hobbled by conservative monks who believe that beneficent spirits would protect Tibet. The ruling aristocracy was more interested in jockeying for power among itself than dealing with the threats beyond the nation's border. This arrogance ultimately doomed the country. When word came of the invasion by Chinese PLA troops in 1950, the country's ruling aristocracy was at a picnic and refused to stop their festivities to deal with the threat. By the time the 14th Dalai assumed temporal power, he grappled with the arrival of the Chinese communists while his country had no functional military. He was forced to engage in politics when his entire education up to that point had been in Buddhist history and philosophy. His efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Beijing proved fruitless as China's charade of peaceful liberation gave way to the reality of brutal occupation. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India amidst an uprising and the subsequent clampdown by the Chinese that killed tens of thousands of Tibetans.

Between 1950 and 1980, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans lost their lives and thousands of monasteries were looted and razed. While there have been slight reforms in Tibet, the region still remains under tight Chinese control, with dissidents facing torture and imprisonment for advocating Tibetan independence. The Dalai Lama has dropped his demands for independence and is trying to negotiate genuine autonomy within China, an effort that is dividing the Tibetan exile community. China continues to issue its shrill propaganda about Tibet, and while the global community continues to fall over itself to gain access to its vast consumer market, its treatment of Tibet serves as an ominous warning as China's military might grows in the region.

Mr. Laird's great success with this text is in capturing the complexities and contradictions of Tibet's history in a thorough yet accessible manner. One gets a sense that Tibet was never the pure Shangri-La portrayed by popular culture, yet its treatment under Chinese rule is outrageous and inhumane. The current Tibetan tragedy is a result of both Chinese aggression and Tibet's own fatal hubris in refusing to modernize and prepare itself militarily. The Dalai Lama emerges as a gentle, intellectual figure who is willing to cast a critical eye on Tibet's religious and national flaws, yet abides by an unyielding faith in truth and compassion. His trust in truth, human goodness and non-violence to liberate his country seems at odds with the grim reality of global politics, yet Mr. Laird demonstrates how this approach is the best of few good options for a people caught in the teeth of brutal and intractable political forces.u

Julian Wise is a contributing writer to The Times.