Tibet, Tibet: A review

Meanwhile, at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los

Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French

Angeles, the Dalai Lama blessed a new Shi-Tro mandala (a three-dimensional religious sculpture) in front of a large, paying audience. The mandala had been created by a Tibetan monk who ran a local Buddhist centre, assisted by his American wife, who worked in creative marketing for Warner Brothers Records Inc. She had generated volumes of publicity, using the slogan “Shi-Tro Happens.” The Los Angeles Times described this as “marketing the mandala in a hip and humorous way.” So, there was the Dalai Lama, up on stage, Shi-Tro happening, the ceremony compered by the requisite Hollywood star, in this case the actress Sharon Stone, famous for lacking underwear in the movie Basic Instinct, but this time wearing a feather boa and bare feet. After musing aloud for a while about how she might introduce the Dalai Lama, she finally settled for, “The hardest-working man in spirituality … Mr. Please, Please, Please let me back into China!” The fact that the Dalai Lama came from Tibet was momentarily lost….

– p.122,  Tibet Tibet by Patrick  French

Patrick French’s 2003 book on Tibet was my first book on this fascinating region. Having just returned after 6 weeks behind the great firewall, my eagerness to read more about Tibet had only increased. For, in a premier University campus, no less, was I prevented from reading the Wikipedia article on Tibet, leave alone any Dalai rant that sought to destabilise the “national unity of the motherland”. Apart from several experiments with proxy servers and overconfidently trying to set up Tor, I finally came to terms with the stupendity of the Great Firewall of China, despite Winter & Lindskog’s spirited efforts (PDF from arxiv) at “understanding of China’s censorship capabilities and … more effective evasion techniques”.

So, what I wanted was not some Hollywood Tibetophile version of great oriental discovery of eastern stoicism and spirituality. I was already quite familiar with the “other side”, having read and heard Hitchens on numerous occasions launch scathing attacks on the Dalai Lama for his “holier-than-all image”, seeking donations from apparently dubious entities  and other things summarised in “His  Material Highness“, an article Hitchens wrote in 1998. I sought more information than opinions and discourses. And I was quite pleased with Patrick French’s Tibet, Tibet. 

The book starts and ends at McLeod Gunj, that place in Himachal where all Tibetan roads lead to. In a 1987 visit that he recalls, back in the days when pro-Tibet demonstrations were at their peak, Patrick recalls Ngodup, who cooked for guests at the monastery guest rooms. He later describes how, several years later, he watched with horror on TV, this introvert Tibetan set himself ablaze in protests in Delhi. So begins his journey of wanting to go back into Tibet.

With time, the initial magic and awe of all things Tibetan, also had understandably wore away for the author and he too sought to see the “real Tibet”, the one offered to him beyond the popular books of the Dalai Lama and the speeches of Gere and Segal. So, he undertakes a journey backpacking through Tibet and the provinces around the present-day Tibet, that at least at some point in history were united under Tibetan kings.

The Potala palace in Lhasa. Major Francis Younghusband marched the British troops after the 1804 invasion of Tibet.

In all the places he visits, he brings in a bit of travel writing, narratives of people who went through Mao’s purges and revolutions, and those that lived to swallow their tales….all interspersed with humorous titbits of daily life. Some of the accounts are chilling (such as how many Tibetans suffered during several phases of Mao’s rule) and others informative (Francis Younghusband’s campaign to Tibet from India, Tibet’s former military might, the corruption and decadence in Tibetan royalty and the extreme poverty of a large portion of its people). Of course, while doing a remarkable job keeping his own (previous?) biases of Tibet (what he calls the mind’s Tibet – he was after all once the head of UK’s Free Tibet movement), his disdain (nay indifference?) for the Han people does come through. While getting a rich picture of the oppressed Tibetans from very different regions first-hand, the one-kind stereotype of the Han is quite evident and one wishes there could have been a richer detail of them too. Yet, a self-critical account of the Free-tibet movement and its Dalai-centredness is also given. Indeed, at various points he revisits his own ideal notion of “mind’s Tibet” versus the real one, grey and lifeless towns in reality recollected quite differently in narratives. Going further, he analyses historical misjudgments of the Dalai Lama in resolving the issue and even brings it up in a final meeting with the Dalai Lama in the last pages.

Isabel Hilton’s review sums it up rather well in a review in The Guardian:

French’s reporting is excellent and this is an enjoyable and informative tour of Tibet. His conclusions, though, invite some questions. The Dalai Lama himself regards it as self-evident that his decades of efforts to come to an agreement with China have borne no fruit. But it seems a little harsh to assume that this is solely through his own naiveté or mismanagement. China in the decades since 1949 has hardly been a stable or rational interlocutor for anyone attempting to negotiate – especially from a position of weakness. A more generous observer might congratulate the Dalai Lama that Tibet still exists at all, rather than rebuke him for failing to tame the dragon.

The Dalai Lama does not claim infallibility, whatever his followers or his western supporters might claim for him, nor have the majority of Tibetans ever auditioned to be characters in a western fantasy. That does not diminish the injustice they have suffered or render them any less deserving of support.

Endnotes

  • Patrick French was chosen by VS Naipaul to write his authorised biography, The World is what it is.
  • Patrick French refused the OBE to “guard his independence as a writer”. 
  • A funny interview by Larry King (CNN) with the Dalai Lama that belies the depth of understanding of the Dalai, in contrast to the noise made in the US about him. In the interview, Larry asks him what he thinks on the new year of 2000 “as a leading Muslim”. A later interview where Larry seems to know of the Dalai’s Buddhist faith is as funny with strange questions on DNA and such. As Patrick French notes: “This time, the host knew that his guest was a Buddhist, but it was a sorry spectacle, the Dalai Lama, the bodhisattva of compassion, being forced by the exigencies of global politics and celebrity culture to compete for airtime with the passing flotsam of high-speed television …”
  •  Madhuri Dixit’s posters were apparently the most popular draw among the several foreign celebrity posters adorning sections of Lingkhor (the outer pilgrim road at Lhasa) especially in the red-light district, where Chinese gangs run flesh trade with girls from Sichuan and Qinghai (p. 224).
  • French describes a meeting and interview with Ugeyen (p. 183), one of the Tibetan Ragyabas who in Tibet were outcastes who have faced historical injustice and discrimination (much akin to Dalits in India). I immediately wondered if “we” exported more than Buddhism.
  • Indian teachers Santarakshita and Padmasambhava went to Tibet on invitation somewhere in 8th century CE. Wonder which route they took. [Edited: Padmasambhava is quite an 8th century Tibetan celebrity, it turns out! See his article by the good guys at Wikipedia]

One response to “Tibet, Tibet: A review

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