Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet": Book Review.

Subtitled if boldly "Conversations with the Dalai Lama," this combines interviews and commentary about Tenzin Gyatso's homeland with Laird, who offers a popular history of the embattled nation. I stress "nation": this collaborative work stresses the claims that Tibet's entitled to its own independence, as it was taken over somewhat as a client state by the Mongols and then the Manchu rulers in tandem with China, not as a vassal of China itself, but around the same time, if in different contexts, from the larger subservient entity around present-day (if greater) Mongolia. This may smack of nitpicking, but in fact it distinguishes Tibetan rights to be recognized as its own sovereign state, rather than the dubious PRC (following the Kuomintang Nationalist government) argument that China should incorporate Tibet "back" into its empire.

If you have little interest in such a treatment, you'd best go elsewhere for more romantic or more propagandistic fare. This book, written for a wide audience, nonetheless devotes considerable space to debunking not only the illusion (held by some New Age admirers today) that a strife-free, non-martial Shambhala materialized in medieval times, but the common leftist riposte that it was a corrupt realm of cruel monks, feudal savagery, or serf-perpetuated ignorance. It's not always a grippingly narrated tale, especially in long stretches of tedious medieval and early modern sections, but the novelty of hearing Tibetan history echoed and elaborated by the Dalai Lama via Laird's own knowledge, interpretations, and comparisons to Western models makes this an inherently valuable document.

Laird's careful to assert his own Western understanding of how politics can infiltrate into the purportedly religious condition into which the Dalai Lamas have been born. He serves often as a skeptical foil for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama's hesitant disclaimers and introverted aversions to his leadership role when-- as a youth of sixteen-- he found himself set up by Mao to be manipulated, perhaps, into the Communist's potential dupe as their prize convert to collectivist purity and Marxist fervor. This poignant story of the current Dalai Lama's predicament's terribly deepened. You learn what's far too little taught: about 20-40 million whom Mao and his regime killed of their own people, and the 500,000-1.2 million Tibetans murdered since the triumph of Marxism. We in the West prefer often to ignore these facts, but such data have been compiled.

From Tibet, as Laird notes, we can predict how China may treat other minorities and neighbors, and how determinedly the PRC manipulates spokespeople from East and West whom it favors or monitors to tell its sanitized story in our media. This spin-doctoring proves relevant. It tells us if we care to hear beyond the commercials and the glitz many serious lessons amidst our global post-Olympic awe at China's supposed human rights "progress." The Dalai Lama's eloquent at times and then bitter when he summarizes the idealism of the early cadres, his own admiration for what he was promised would accompany Marxist reforms, and his own disillusionment at the spiritual and physical distortions that befall those Chinese who warped after young optimism for a cause curdled into deceit, invasion, and thuggery.

The brief accounts of torture, slaughter, and destruction inflicted on Tibet by China here humble you, and one must ask if China's advances economically and socially rest indeed on a legacy of rapine and plunder no less savage than that done by imperialists elsewhere. The Tibetans-- facing capitulation or extermination-- have been left with little choice. Despite the claims that many modern nations admire non-violent resistance more than revolution against tyranny, which countries stand by Tibet today? Out of all the United Nations in 1950, only El Salvador sponsored, as Laird shows years ago, a resolution in the UN condemning China's invasion, and such protests mattered in the long run about as much as may a few banner-waving activists in the Olympic Stadium a few days ago, I suppose, vs. the clout that 1.3 billion people hold over the silence of 6 million natives of Tibet. I hope I am disproved in the future.

One intriguing aspect of this story of overwhelming force vs. principled resistance emerges in how the Dalai Lama had to survive with next to nothing of worldliness or a knowledge of realpolitik let alone the outside world when he had to deal with being a prize captive-- or hostage so to speak-- of Mao and his minions in the early 1950s. Laird prods the Dalai Lama to reveal more of his own reactions to this dangerous diplomatic situation in which he suddenly found himself. Eager manipulations and nimble retellings of history by the PRC belie their frequent mendacity regarding the status of Tibet today and historically. What the Dalai Lama articulates historically-- in talks with Laird-- as a patron-priest relationship of Tibetan rulers with their Chinese contacts and Mongol emissaries, akin to popes and emperors in medieval Europe, becomes more the predecessor for the Mongol-Tibetan and then Chinese-Tibetan power-sharing rather than the hegemony willed by China, past and present.

Regarding critiques by other (Amazon US, where this was posted today) reviewers, I found that Laird never strikes a worshipful tone or a credulous stance towards what the Dalai Lama explains or what Tibet's defenders counter. Laird gives as good as he gets, and he holds his own ground against what he regards now and then as the naivete or intransigence of his formidable interlocutor, one of the very few people alive who, as Laird comments, has dealt with every president from FDR on. The Dalai Lama and Laird talked at length over a period of years, but they never become over-familiar. It's a meeting of two smart people, rather than inspirational claptrap, conversational blather, or pat platitudes. It's a study in how the world works, vs. how some of us less wordly would like it to work.

The appeal of Buddhism also permeates parts of the Dalai Lama's exchanges with Laird, a skeptic at best. Even he is moved by the compassion the Dalai Lama embodies. He sees what we cannot: a double vision of the common and the uncommon. This fits not only with Buddhism acceptance of transience and impermanence, but with, as Laird cleverly shows, many Westerners in their acceptance of the Resurrection despite its clashing with "facts." If billions can believe in the rising of one from the dead despite our everyday knowledge that what's dead stays dead, then, looking at Tibet through the Dalai Lama's eyes, we can better perceive the multiple perspective appreciated by him and other Buddhist adepts.

Such similarities and contrasts with our own culture and mindsets make this one of the book's strongest appeals for readers curious, unfamiliar, or mystified by the continuing appeal of Tibet in the judgment and dreams of so much of the world today. Tibet's not a mystical playground, but it has amassed a cultural patrimony and spiritual legacy worth preserving, and its defense should -- in an idealistic world again-- remain our priority even in our debased condition! You don't have to be Buddhist to learn many lessons here.

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