Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pico Iyer's Tibet Reading List.

Iyer disses Tintin in Tibet but it's the one of the first books I bought to read aloud together when my sons were young. Who can resist a vast, treeless plateau five times the size of Britain, ringed by caves full of lamas, slopes hiding yeti, three miles above the ocean? While writers must distinguish romance from reason, Orientalism from post-colonial rigor, the spell cast upon our young moments lingers long and makes even us professorial types linger within our imagination when we pursue interests today with bibliographies and footnotes. When I was young, I scoured the first two books I saved up for with my allowance. One, a red 1967 two-volume Scott's Stamp Catalogue, from the Pomona philatelist who had it lying around for $7.50 in 1969. The other, a $2.85 boxed set of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in that Gormenhghastly gothic Ballantine edition with the Goreyesque cover art-- the dear pipe-puffing don's earnest warning on the back to accept no unauthorized versions.

Tolkien made me a medievalist, and the stamps I studied-- even if I purchased few-- deepened my quest into the realms of the mind, beyond my dusty house at the edge of a lemon grove, the chaparral beyond. I also loved exotic engravings, meticulously grooved into hundreds of places marked by stamps from one of the paired volumes, mostly the old British empire and the new Commonwealth. You could trace the collapse of the territorial gains, through the independence issues of the late 50s and 60s onward, foreign phrases and freshly minted denominations with jets and factories, farmers and hospitals, tanks and parades under beaming dusky rulers replacing the franked face of young Elizabeth or solemn Georges. The fact that they were all tiny rectangles and squares (or, if Tuva, a diamond!) monochromed and regimented only added to the mystery of what "carnelian" or "fuchsia" might have represented beyond the binding, in their perforated realia.

My imagination kindled from such stamps, but one land I never saw in miniature there was Tibet. Finishing Iyer's The Open Road (which I reviewed promptly on the blog and on Amazon US yesterday), I approved of his reading list as one way for us to encounter what lies atop the Himalayas, as accumulated learning and tested wisdom. Now, it's all becoming a police state-- six million natives already overwhelmed by one of those trains a stamp might celebrate, and eight million Chinese settlers. The flag is outlawed, the language is not taught, and the Dalai Lama's image is prohibited.

There's so much that needs doing for Tibet's cause and heritage. Last night, in my review I lamented the lack of specific direction in Iyer's study for ways we could help with compassion and wisdom. So, today, I figured to assist myself and others that I'd list-- my copy being a library checkout-- for all of you Iyer's recommendations on Tibet.

To start with: Freedom in Exile, the second autobiography by Iyer's subject, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. In Exile from the Land of Snows, John Avedon. I have Exile stored away still unread; I still remember Avedon (not stored away-- water damage led to its impermanence) in his careful descriptions of shamanism, medicine, rigors-- and Chinese torture in Amdo's labor camps. I wonder if they're worse now than in the 80s.

On the Dalai Lama:
Martin Scorsese's film Kundun, Diki Tsering's Dalai Lama, My Son; Thubten Jigme Norbu, his eldest brother, with Heinrich Harrer, Tibet Is My Country; his younger sister Jetsun Puma's Tibet: My Story. The first autobiography in 1962, My Land and My People. Michael Goodman's The Last Dalai Lama. Family debates and dynamics: Mary Craig's book Kundun.

Dalai Lama's Teachings: Ethics for the New Millennium for morality; The Universe in a Single Atom for science. Kindness, Clarity, and Insight as an early collection of essays. Particular instructions: The Four Noble Truths as a general introduction to Buddhism; The Good Heart as addressing Christians on the Gospels; Destructive Emotions as a recording of a Mind & Life Institute meeting of scientists and philosophers discussing "which impulses and reflexes tear us apart."

Tibetan Buddhism & transformation:
Robert Thurman's Inner Revolution; Mathieu Ricard's Happiness; Howard C. Cutler's The Art of Happiness-- specific case studies brought to the Dalai Lama by a Western psychiatrist; Victor Chan's The Wisdom of Forgiveness. Also, Manuel Bauer's photographs, A Journey for Peace.

Tibet's History:
Tsering Shakya's The Dragon in the Land of Snows on post-1947 events; Melvyn C. Goldstein's The Snow Lion and the Dragon; Donald S. López Jr.'s Prisoners of Shangri-La on its mythification.

Classic Tibetan Accounts:
Sir Charles Bell on the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and his nation; Peter Hopkirk's history of early exploration, Trespassers on the Roof of the World; Alexandra David-Neel's "richly colored accounts of her trips"; Heinrich Harrar's Seven Years in Tibet which I cherished in my vivid red. fragile, gently used English paperback from the 50s; Scott Berry's A Stranger in Tibet which also languishes unopened somewhere in my vicinity, all about "the eccentric Zen monk Ekai Kawaguchi" and his rambles.

Contemporary Encounters:
Patrick French's Tibet, Tibet (reviewed by me a few years ago on Amazon US: a wrenching narrative by a former leader of the Free Tibet Campaign's London organization after his disillusionment with the idealization of the Dalai Lama and the status quo stalemate); Robert Barnett's Lhasa: Streets with Memories. Two reactions from Chinese visitors: Ma Jian's Red Dust & Xinran Xue's Sky Burial. In passing: earlier scholarship from Giuseppe Tucci, Hugh Richardson, David Snellgrove and past travellers F. Spencer Chapman, Peter Fleming, Lowell Thomas, Jr.

Newer Accounts:
Isabel Hilton's The Search for the Panchen Lama; Mick Brown's Dance of 17 Lives on the Karmapa legacy; Thomas Laird's interviews with the Dalai Lama about Tibet's formation and evolution (reviewed by me last month here and on Amazon US) published in 2006 as A Story of Tibet.

Buddhism: Thupten Jinpa Langri's Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy; Karen Armstrong's brief entry in the Penguin Lives series (reviewed by me here and on Amazon US last spring) Buddha; Pankraj Mishra's An End to Suffering examines the Buddha's life and influence; Huston Smith's work among his wider contributions to comparative religion for many decades now.

Buddhism in the West: Martha Sherill's The Buddha from Brooklyn about a search for a reincarnated lama; Diana J. Mukpo (the widow of controversial "crazy wisdom" guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche) with Carolyn Rose Gimian in Dragon Thunder; Michael Downing's Shoes Outside the Door about I believe related issues of tension among Asian teachers of Buddhism in countercultural America; David Chadwick's Crooked Cucumber. Rick Fields' How the Swans Came to the Lake pioneered the narrative history of how Buddhism spread westward; Jeffrey Paine's Reenchantment covers similar terrain. Also listed as authors: Stephen Batchelor, Steve Hagan, Mark Epstein.

The Buddhist Path:
I agree with Iyer wholeheartedly. Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and Andrew Harvey's A Journey in Ladakh captivated me when I found them both about fifteen years ago. Both writers somehow on the page managed to articulate what Brian Eno in music has called the "drop," when the bottom falls away from what you've been listening to and all of infinity looms for an ecstatic instant.

Illustration from the Wikipedia entry: Hergé's 1960 Tintin in Tibet. Wiki Excerpts:
Hergé had been recently plagued by nightmares in the period before writing Tintin in Tibet, in which he found himself in a white, featureless world. These dreams are echoed in the white landscape of the Himalayas in the book. This may also be why Hergé's original cover for the book was completely white.

On June 1, 2006, Tintin became the first fictional character to be awarded the Dalai Lama's Truth of Light award. “For many people around the world Tintin in Tibet was their first introduction to Tibet, the beauty of its landscape and its culture. And that is something that has passed down the generations,” said the International Campaign for Tibet's Simon van Melick. [1] During the awarding ceremony copies of Tintin in Tibet in Esperanto (Tinĉjo en Tibeto) were distributed among the attendees and journalists.

In 2001 the Hergé Foundation demanded the recall of the Chinese translation of the work, which had been previously released with the title "Tintin in China's Tibet". The work was subsequently published with the correct translation of the title.

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