photo & text by nacrowe
as the de facto face of BUDDHISM in the west's modern imagination, it is quite remarkable how little is known about TENZIN GYATSO himself (i.e. HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA) as well as the religious institution he represents, not to mention the history of his home country of TIBET, from which he has been in exiled from in INDIA since 1959. BRITISH author and former newspaper journalist ALEXANDER NORMAN makes a significant contribution with his recent biography THE DALAI LAMA: AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE (HMH BOOKS, 2020) to address these three gaps in the current popular understanding of this seemingly ubiquitous yet mercurial global public figure.
i just want to say first off that the breadth and depth of this book was really compelling. it is quite the accomplishment to relay the complex and oftentimes esoteric of TIBETAN BUDDHISM in a manner that makes sense to a layperson, never-mind connecting such religious understandings in framework that gives context and clarity to the spiritual underpinnings that affected his political decisions in the temporal realm.
given that TIBET was relatively isolated given its geography, yet ironically ideally located along the SILK ROAD trading routes that connected EURASIA, there developed an evolution of MAHAYANA BUDDHISM that was relatively cloistered from outside influence. for centuries this was of little concern, but TENZIN GYATSO's previous incarnation in THUBEN GYATSO, the THIRTEEN DALAI LAMA, who correctly surmised that modern industrialization of surrounding nations posed an existential threat to the continuation of their government for which he led. in may ways this was the circumstance that marked the era of HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA with the rise of COMMUNIST CHINA. NORMAN eloquently explains that:
"here was a man who, faced with almost unbearable responsibility from a young age and forced to confront a world for which he had been completely unprepared, nevertheless remained faithful to the spiritual tradition in which he had been raised."
dealing with the CHINESE invasion and subsequent eradication of all signs of TIBETAN culture within its borders was his greatest political challenge, from which he largely failed. it also transformed the TIBETAN identity in the process. previous divisions regarding differing schools and sects within TIBETAN BUDDHISM where largely consolidated under his leadership in exile in INDIA, where he is still currently living. the transmission and scholarly analysis of TIBETAN culture and the attendant BUDDHIST DOCTRINES of TIBETAN BUDDHISM is a priority now for further generations. as is the promotion of democracy, for which he stepped down and relinquished all claims to political leadership in 2011.
HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA is one of those few religious leaders that seems fully engaged with the outside world, fully willing to integrated a complex ethics system within a modern framework centered around modern scientific principles. As NORMAN explains, "the Dalai Lama is fully committed to introducing the natural sciences not only into the ordinary school curriculum but into the monastic curriculum as well." this is a revolution in their way of life, but in his estimation, as well as that of his predecessor, it is long overdue.
the value of this book is that it really gives a full scope to his achievements and follies, in other words for s man that is routined praised and even deified in the press (of which he actually is given that he is a manifestation of the BODHISATTVA of compassion, AVALOKITESVARA), NORMAN presents him as a humble servant, living a mendicant existence promoting compassion and empathy to a global audience.
NORMAN writes with clarity and eloquence and this book was thoroughly enjoyable to read, even when it dealt with the complex minutiae of TIBETAN BUDDHIST doctrine. i recommend it to anyone interested in modern ASIAN history or the evolution of MAHAYANA BUDDHISM. there is so much to talk about with this book that I could press on and attempt to address, but bottom line: this is a must-read.
photo by nacrowe
the summer before i moved to JAPAN i was intensely researching MAHAYANA BUDDHISM, which brought me to different stuff by ALAN WATTS, SHUNRYU SUZUKI, HIS HOLINESS THE 14th DALAI LAMA, NAGARJUNA and eventually 8th century indian monk SANTIDEVA and his text BODHICARYĀVATĀRA or translated in english "A GUIDE TO THE BODDHISATTVA'S WAY OF LIFE."
now if you are unfamiliar with buddhism, the fundamental idea is that life is suffering and suffering is rooted in desire. all texts and concepts thereafter are basically defining and extrapolating on those two ideas and how to go about limiting desire to avoid suffering both for you and those around you. escaping desire entirely is a state of grace called NIRVANA that only an enlightened being, or a BUDDHA can accomplish.
in the MAHAYANA vehicle of BUDDHISM practiced in NEPAL, TIBET, CHINA, KOREA and JAPAN the there is a belief that a person can obtain this state of grace in a single lifetime, as there is another core belief in SAMSARA, or a beginning-less cycle of rebirth. having no desire or ego allows one no need to return for another go around as life is kind of a drag with suffering and death guaranteed.
what made this 1200+ year-old text compelling to me was the idea of the BODDHISATTVA, or a being that has reached nirvana but has opted not to recede from the cycle of SOMSARA in order to assist others.
i was raised roman catholic, a religion and moral philosophy i rejected soundly in my teens, and the idea of heaven and retribution always seemed odd to me. why do good if you are only motivated by rewarding yourself by being in the grace of god. or something like that.
always seemed shallow to me to do something for a reward. the idea of someone helping another for no reward because it is the right thing to me seemed much more compelling. especially combined with the buddhist concept of SUNYATA, or emptiness. essentially in this tradition there is no sense of self, ego, personal identity or as we like to say in the west, a soul. if you believe in causality than you can deduce that we are not the end point of all the atoms in our body, but rather part of a fluid continuation of the re-appropriation and reassignment of what CARL SAGAN deemed "star stuff." we are just a part of a larger narrative as told through our physical being and all the building blocks of matter than produce it.
so to do good for others with no reward and no sense of ego (literally) makes the whole idea of charity in the buddhist sense more immediate and tangible and ultimately more compelling in my estimation. thus why i have reread parts of this text several times.