A Review of Alexander Norman, The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2020. 410pp.
In the not-too-distant future, the current Dalai Lama will pass away and a new one will be selected. Beijing has already warned Tibet that China must approve of the choice and might possibly announce its own candidate. No doubt, this will be a sensational geopolitical and religious event full of palace intrigue, the resurfacing of ancient rites and customs, and the rueful remembrance of Chinese-Tibetan Cold War struggles that have led to the current unhappy situation: the Dalai Lama living in exile, in Dharamasala, India, hoping for the day when he or his successor might return to Tibet, rightfully assuming his place on Lhasa’s Lion Throne.
Alexander Norman’s book is a must-read to prepare for the event and understand current realities. A long-time student of Tibetan Buddhism and history, the author of a previous book on past Precious Protectors (one of many titles for the Dalai Lama, which literally means “Ocean of Wisdom”), and someone who has enjoyed extraordinary access to the current Dalai Lama, Norman recounts the remarkable odyssey of a boy (born Lahmo Dhonup) growing up in an isolated Tibetan village–identified in the late 1930s as the fourteenth reincarnation of Chenrisig, Bodhisattva of Compassion–and now arguably the most recognized religious leader on the planet besides the pope–although the Dalai Lama boasts more followers on Twitter.
Norman adeptly places the Dalai Lama’s life in the context of twentieth-century political developments and events while not losing sight of the fact that his office is fundamentally religious and cannot be understood apart from deep dives into Tibetan-Buddhist theology and practice.
Concerning politics, the Precious Protector’s fraught relations with Mao Zedong are well-narrated, including the Dalai Lama’s dramatic escape into India in 1959—with the support of CIA agents—as China’s People Liberation’s Army “pacified” of Tibet and despoiled its religious heritage—which only worsened during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s as Mao’s Red Guards indulged an orgy of violence and destruction. “Religion is poison,” Mao told the young Dalai Lama to his face in the 1950s.
Since 1959, “Two Tibets” have existed—the original and that of a large diasporic community in India with pockets throughout the world. Coming to terms with this new situation, the Dalai Lama has adroitly reconceived of his vocation, argues Norman, becoming in the process a mouth-piece for global Buddhism, a champion of compassion and “mindfulness,” a key player in interfaith dialogue, an advocate for the environment, a desired companion of leaders and dignitaries in many countries, and even the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Despite all this, Norman indicates that the “Free Tibet” movement has largely fizzled, confronted by the fact that most countries today, while paying lip service to the Tibetan issue as a cause célèbre, would rather maintain access to China’s vast markets than risk alienation. In China, it remains illegal even to display pictures of the Dalai Lama.
Norman’s Dalai Lama especially succeeds in narrating the spiritual dimensions of the Dalai Lama’s life and office. Insights into the Precious Protector’s contemplative activity, his appetite for learning, his desire to maintain tradition while letting dispensing with some rigidities, and his desire to serve as an “ecumenical” voice for various sub-traditions within Tibetan Buddhism—and within Buddhism at large—are provided in candid and illuminating detail. Every day, one learns, he spends an extraordinary amount of time in meditation.
The casual onlooker, moreover, might not know for instance, how central the Kalachakra or “Wheel of Time” tantra has been for the Dalai Lama’s public ministry. Performed thirty-four times now, this tantra (or elaborate ritual) involves the creation of an astonishingly intricate mandala, meditation on samsara (the doleful, endless birth and rebirth of all beings), and imagining oneself born as a child and entering the body of Kalachakra (who is also conceived as deity). Once inside, the practitioner imagines themselves as a single drop of bodchichitta (the aspiration to seek liberation into nirvana for all sentient beings) and descends through the deity’s body before exiting through his erect penis into the “lotus” or vagina of Kalachakra’s sexual consort, Vishvamata. Is it any wonder that Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation were drawn to Tibetan Buddhism in 1960s?
Additionally, one learns about the elaborate process for choosing a Dalai Lama, about the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, about the role of monasteries, about the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhist cosmology (with layers of hell that would make Dante envious), about “precious pills” (pills made from the excrement of lamas that are believed to hasten enlightenment), about “demon traps” and how to make them, about trance states and the role of mediums, about the significance attached to dreams, and much else. The picture that emerges makes clear that the Precious Protector, while certainly an actor in the here-and-now, is above all else a central circuit in an intricate grid of supernatural realities and traditions–lost on many Western observers who only know the Dalai Lama’s through his avuncular, globe-trotting public persona.
To help the reader with the complexity of it all, Norman provides a glossary of terms, a map of Tibet, and a list of previous Dalai Lamas. While extensive, I might still quibble that the glossary could include still more detail. A timeline of the Dalai Lama’s life and corresponding historical events would also have been a helpful.
In April of 2011 the Dalai Lama announced his full retirement from office as leader of the Tibetan government in exile. By this act, ending centuries of theocratic rule, the office would henceforth be headed by a democratically elected first minister. Thus, not unlike the pope after the collapse of the Papal States in the nineteenth century, the Dalai Lama now occupies a largely spiritual role, even if he still functions as a symbolic figurehead for his people.
And what of the future? Norman is too prudent a scholar to speculate promiscuously. But the image that emerges at the end of the book is one of pathos. Now in his eighties with little hope of returning to Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetans appear to stand in the twilight of previous momentous events. Still largely cut off from the world until the mid-twentieth century, both homegrown and diasporic Tibetans today, Norman notes, appear to “concern themselves more with this life than the next” as the forces of modernity and global capitalism do their predictable work. The past desecration of religious life, the relocation of numerous Han Chinese into Tibet (facilitated by new high-speed trains), and Beijing’s constant surveillance threatens to end the region’s special status and singularly numinous reputation in the world’s imagination. Higher education, furthermore, is not obtainable in the Tibetan language, so aspiring parents want their children to learn fluent Chinese—furthering diluting cultural distinctiveness.
Nonetheless, protests against the seemingly inexorable manifest themselves from time to time, not least in acts of self-immolation by Tibetans monks and nuns, who want to remind the world of a situation they find intolerable. 150 of these have taken place in recent decades, each recorded on martyr’s memorial in Dharmasala. To the consternation of China, the Dalai Lama, although advising against doing this, does not condemn past acts.
The 2008 Olympics brought a flare-up of the Tibetan issue, and in recent years, both inside and outside Tibet, considerably scholarly attention has been devoted to understanding and preserving Tibet’s past. The Internet, moreover, is a place where the “Two Tibets” gather, ruing the current situation and hoping for better days. Films, essays, and poems circulate widely there, including these lines from an anonymous on-line poet:
Tibetan: a name which is matched by a reality
Tibetan: standing on the earth, touching the heavens
Don’t ask me my surname
My surname is not Li, my surname is not Wong
If you insist on asking for my surname
I’ll tell you I am a follower of the Buddha
I am a strong nation blessed by the Tibetan gods
My left shoulder is a hawk
My right shoulder a yak
My body is a lamp under the statue of the Buddha, never extinguished.
Yes, the current Dalai Lama will eventually go the way of all flesh. But the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Chenrisig, has seen many lives now. One suspects that we haven’t seen the last of him and that Tibet’s story has more in store.