Chicken soup from the Lama soul

Wis­dom from — and about — His Ho­li­ness.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - book­world@wash­post.com Jef­frey Paine is the author of, among other books, “Re-en­chant­ment: Ti­betan Bud­dhism Comes to the West” and the edi­tor of “Ad­ven­tures With the Bud­dha.”

Was there ever a more un­likely life story? A child is born some­where too re­mote to ap­pear on any known map, and his child­hood, though tak­ing place in the mid-20th cen­tury, is redo­lent of the Mid­dle Ages. Yet that boy grows up to be­come prob­a­bly the most ad­mired cit­i­zen of the world to­day. The strangest fact about the Dalai Lama’s strange life, though, is that it re­mains largely un­told. Most books pro­moted as bi­ogra­phies of him hardly qual­ify as such and are in­deed no more re­veal­ing than Testu Sai­wai’s re­cent manga, or car­toon, bi­og­ra­phy.

Of the re­cent at­tempts to pro­vide in­sight into the Dalai Lama, the most am­bi­tious is pop­u­lar writer Stephan Talty’s “Es­cape from the Land of Snows.” Talty has ac­tu­ally writ­ten three books in one: a bi­og­ra­phy of the young Dalai Lama up to his 24th year (1959), a his­tory of re­cent Ti­bet and a hair-rais­ing tale of dar­ing and es­cape. The last of these makes Talty’s story come alive — and made the Dalai Lama the man he is to­day.

In 1959, a decade af­ter China’s bru­tal con­quest of Ti­bet, a ru­mor leaked out that the Chi­nese com­mu­nists were plan­ning to as­sas­si­nate the Dalai Lama. At a moment’s no­tice, with scarcely any pro­vi­sions, he un­der­took a near sui­ci­dal flight across the track­less Hi­malayas. Dur­ing that jour­ney he be­gan to shed the Ti­betan rit­ual and cer­e­mony that had al­ways co­cooned him. Con­fronting con­stant hard­ship, dan­ger and im­mi­nent death, he trans­formed him­self from an in­sti­tu­tion into an in­di­vid­ual and thus be­gan the process in which he be­came a Dalai Lama not just for Ti­betans but for re­li­gious seekers ev­ery­where.

This ad­ven­ture Talty tells re­mark­ably well. Ear­lier, how­ever, he seems al­most timid with his ma­te­ri­als: cau­tious when de­scrib­ing the Dalai Lama’s un­canny child­hood, lest he ap­pear too gullible; hedg­ing when re­count­ing Chi­nese atroc­i­ties in Ti­bet, lest he ap­pear too par­ti­san. (Here Sai­wai’s manga bi­og­ra­phy is clearer, ex­plor­ing what was ex­tra­or­di­nary and in­dict­ing what was bru­tal. Comic strips can be freer.) Worse, the Dalai Lama is off­stage for nearly half the book while Talty ex­plains Ti­betan pol­i­tics and his­tory, and his in­ner char­ac­ter re­mains as elu­sive as ever.

The Dalai Lama him­self prefers not to dis­cuss his in­ner life but rather so­cial is­sues or Bud­dhist thought. As for the lat­ter, oth­ers— no­tably Anam Thubten, Tra­leg Kyab­gon and Tsoknyi Rin­poche — have writ­ten books that ex­plain Ti­betan Bud­dhism bet­ter to Western­ers. If Ti­betan Bud­dhism is pop­u­lar among non-Ti­betans to­day, it is not for what the Dalai Lama says but for how he has acted and lived out its prin­ci­ples in pub­lic. Two new books with the Dalai Lama him­self named as their author would seem to of­fer us both a look from the in­side and a sense of why he is such an at­trac­tive fig­ure.

Ex­cept that the Dalai Lama did not write, or ap­par­ently read, any of “The Essence of Hap­pi­ness,” nor of the best-sell­ing “ The Art of Hap­pi­ness” from which it is ex­cerpted. Howard Cut­ler has in­ter­viewed the Dalai Lama and from those in­ter­views has as­sem­bled a self-help book, re­duced here to nugget-size bites, that omits what­ever is unique to or dif­fi­cult about Ti­betan Bud­dhism. A whole page, for ex­am­ple, is oc­cu­pied by three words: “Change takes time.” One hardly needs the Dalai Lama to pro­duce that pearl of wis­dom; your ad­dled great-un­cle Clarence will do.

If “ The Essence of Hap­pi­ness” has a mis­lead­ing by­line, “My Spir­i­tual Jour­ney” has a mis­lead­ing ti­tle, for it is no au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. These se­lected talks and teach­ings are as­sem­bled, though, to re­veal “ the tem­po­ral continuity of the Dalai Lama’s think­ing.” And grad­u­ally the book does paint a kind of Por­trait of the Lama as a Young (and Ag­ing) Man, as it traces his largely un­changed con­scious­ness from youth to the present day.

For read­ers in­ter­ested in know­ing what has re­mained con­stant in the Dalai Lama through­out his life, “My Spir­i­tual Jour­ney” iden­ti­fies three char­ac­ter­is­tics. First, look for com­pas­sion­ate mo­ti­va­tion: Far from hat­ing the Chi­nese, for ex­am­ple, he prays for their wel­fare and thinks of them as his broth­ers and sis­ters. Se­condly, look for the lack of self-im­por­tance: He con­sid­ers his ex­cep­tional life as be­ing merely or­di­nary, and he de­scribes him­self in a down-to-Earth, of­ten com­i­cal light. Fi­nally, and per­haps most im­por­tant, is his mental flex­i­bil­ity. The Dalai Lama ap­pears able to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion: He can imag­ine how Ti­betans could be­come an ac­cept­able part of China, for in­stance, and he can ac­cept that there may not be an­other Dalai Lama af­ter him or, if there is, it could be a woman. “If I rein­car­nate as a woman,” he jokes, “nat­u­rally I will be a very beau­ti­ful woman phys­i­cally.”

Among the things the Dalai Lama can ac­cept is that there is no ab­so­lute need for his own re­li­gious call­ing. “As a Bud­dhist, I don’t see any dif­fer­ence be­tween re­li­gious prac­tice and daily life,” he writes. “One can do with­out re­li­gion, but not with­out spir­i­tu­al­ity.” “Spir­i­tu­al­ity” may be the most neb­u­lous word in the English lan­guage, but “My Spir­i­tual Jour­ney” pro­vides a def­i­ni­tion that both devo­tee and athe­ist might ap­prove: “ the full blos­som­ing of hu­man val­ues that is es­sen­tial for the good of all.” And what would a fully blos­somed hu­man be­ing look like? The four books re­viewed here— in comic­book form or by col­lec­tion of say­ings, through ad­ven­ture tale or in­di­rect con­fes­sion — pro­vide one pos­si­ble il­lus­tra­tion, a work­able pro­to­type.

KEVIN FRAYER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Dalai Lama

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