Thursday, December 16, 2010

Robert Thurman's "Why the Dalai Lama Matters": Book Review

"Tired of feeling that Tibet is doomed," friend for 45 years of the Dalai Lama, leading scholar and earnest activist, Thurman explains why China can change, how Tibet can survive, and how they can both be happier. He explores the Dalai Lama's appeal, proposes a plan for compromise, and envisions a "Tibet solved, freed, restored" as an environmental sanctuary, a spiritual center, and an economic entity.

My sympathies are with the message here. But, the tone may fail to rouse skeptics towards this noble cause. Some Tibetan scholars, while admiring Thurman's academic record, shrink back at his emotional embrace of his mentor, and have argued that such naivete and hero-worship may detract from rather than further the Tibetan struggle. I'll mention three other books that those opposing Tibet's predicament may find useful in my review. The first third of this narrative I found the most interesting, but it bogs down when it gets to the details, sort of like after a keynote speaker's introduced, gets through the warm-up, and settles down to business over a long, intricate, and detail-laden scheme. I don't fault the concept here, but the presentation and delivery may, I reckon, make some restless in the audience.

I suspect this book will preach to the converted. Nothing wrong with this, but many more may scoff. The tone of this work will unsettle rationalists. It may put off secular readers accustomed to less fulsome praise of any religious leader today. It will not teach you much about Buddhism, or even Tibet's milieu; I recommend Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet" via conversations with the Dalai Lama, and Pico Iyer's "The Open Road" for context (both reviewed by me). Yet, Thurman does try to account for what many-- not only Laird and Iyer-- attest to in the Dalai Lama's presence: he adapts with inner flexibility to his interlocutor, while radiating a charismatic humility, a balanced power, and an engaging wit that disarms perhaps all but the likes of Chairman Mao or President Hu of the PRC. He's somehow grounded in deep tradition while eager for the latest discoveries in science and technology.

Thurman writes as one who has faith in his subject, literally. He builds upon his immense knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism with his Western sensibility, and his American confidence in righteous transformation for a better world. Tibet becomes a symbol of the "inner revolution" that all can aspire to for transformation, no matter their own beliefs or lack in conventional religion.

Thurman reminds us that the fall of the Soviet empire was predicted by few when it happened. The PRC cannot, he holds, live for long as the jailer next to the prisoner. The six million in Tibet face a genocide; the parallels haunt us with last century's ideological tyranny imposed upon a herded and battered people, their ancient and modern legacy of learning and wisdom, and their rich faith.

He parallels three sections of Buddhism with three roles for Tibet's leader. "If Buddhism is one-third ethics, one-third psychology and religion as therapy, and one-third scientific wisdom," then as a teacher, practitioner, and as a philosopher-scientist, we can work for the recognition of the Dalai Lama as a "Prince of Peace" who in his reincarnations as Avalokiteshvara intervenes for the Tibetans. This may confound outsiders, but he's a sort of renewable messiah. Contrasted with Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, all of whom await a first or second coming of a savior-figure, Tibetans regard the Dalai Lama as their protector who, as the boddhisatva's name can be rendered awkwardly but accurately, "'the looking down compassionately on the suffering' of 'a God.'" That is, he intervenes for his people rather than expecting them to wait for "a God who floats above, aloof in his own freedom and bliss." (128) Heady stuff, as are the claims that Thurman as a believer holds for His Holiness, but he gives an introduction that shifts us from our Western skepticism into Eastern understanding of how Tibetan Buddhism regards its spokesman.

For non-believers, the benefits of the Dalai Lama and an autonomous Tibet would counteract our own economic malaise, moral relativism, and capitalist consumption. The Dalai Lama speaks of shared kindness as our social bond. He knows no religion can be perfect either. He tells Muslims and Christians: "There is no such thing as a religion of hate!" (52); Thurman posits this same claim for a conflicted regime such as Communist China.

The Dalai Lama compares four trends in the 21st century that augur well. War is seen as not the answer to geopolitical conflict; capitalism no less than communism gains trust so much as individual initiative; spirituality offers solace and meaning to those for whom "the dictates of materialistic science" have been found wanting; environmental preservation has gained our awareness as a necessity. (94) Thurman prophesies an Asian Switzerland. The book at this point may bog down with a lot of enthusiastic brainstorming, but the ideals and the possibilities open up what, for fifty years, no other methods have succeeded in doing to advance Tibet's freedom.

He and the Dalai Lama imagine Tibet as a possible land of true freedom. But, governments, consumers, corporations, armies: all would have to change their evil ways. Thurman provides detailed speculation combined with the Dalai Lama's own words on many policies and agendas that could be worked out, if China listened, if the rest of the nations cared, and if we believed enough to act for change. He concludes with no index, but a brief bibliography and websites where you can get involved; the maps and photos dazzle with color and detail; his Ten Points of Hope do rally the committed with an inspiring, eloquent, and idealistic conclusion.

Can the Dalai Lama as a philosopher-king, in his next incarnation, evade the Chinese puppet of a "False Lama" that has interfered in the Panchen Lama's similar case? Thurman urges a federation between Tibet and China as a way to ease tensions. John and Elizabeth Roberts in "Freeing Tibet" (an excellent counterpart reviewed by me, with diplomatic and cultural history combined with boycott strategies, divestment goals, and plans for activists to apply to Tibetan liberation; published later in 2008 than this book, so covering Beijing Olympics protests and reprisals after the Tibetan national uprising) seem less optimistic than Thurman. They cite the Dalai Lama's bold plan to get the world to notice Tibet. He'll come back next life as "a beautiful woman"! (Originally posted except for last paragraph & links to Amazon US 8-14-09) Book's website: ""


tamerlane said...

I'd love to live in a world where Tibet is politically free and independent. Sadly, that's not this particular world.

As tragic as the diaspora from Tibet has been, it may work to the ultimate greater benefit of mankind as a whole. The 14th has enthusiastically engaged the Western world, and if the dharma that was concentrated in Tibet ends up diffused throughout, and positively influencing, the World, that is a good.

Fionnchú said...

TL, as often, agreed. This is an intriguing if uneven fictional take on this issue: My review of "The Godfather of Kathmandu" by John Burdett. Many Tibetans, at least in the diaspora, appear to concur with you, that their nation has been decimated (in the Roman legionary sense) so that the dharma may come to the land of red men where iron carts run on their own, once prophesied.

Guy M Wong said...

I invite you and your readers to read Stuart and Roma Gelder's The Timely Rain: Travels in New Tibet. published in 1964, for a first hand report of the conditions in Tibet under the Dalai Lama.

Fionnchú said...

Warren Smith's recent "China's Tibet" notes about the Gelders: There are also two foreign sources that are valuable for their information about the period immediately after the revolt during which almost no outside observers were allowed into Tibet. Those few who were admitted into Tibet at this time were invariably journalists from other Communist countries or socialist sympathizers from Western countries. They usually had long relationships with the CCP leaders, as did the American communist Anna Louise Strong, or were journalists with known socialist leanings, like the English couple Stuart and Roma Gelder. These particular foreigners were taken on tours of Tibet at a time of intense transformation, late 1959 for Strong and late 1962 for the Gelders, and were given extraordinary access to Chinese and Tibetan officials. Their privileged treatment was based upon the premise that they would promote the Chinese Communists’ cause by writing highly sympathetic books about their Tibet tours, which indeed they did. Strong’s When Serfs Stood Up in Tibet and the Gelders’ The Timely Rain were the only eyewitness accounts in English of Tibet after the revolt and were therefore very influential with Western audiences." (From the introduction excerpted here.)

I don't want to be dragged into a flame war on this, and I acknowledge that serfdom certainly existed and no Shangri-La (as Thurman has rightfully been taken to task for) existed, but the genocide that followed appears by contrast to be, well, less benign.