The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 432 pp., $30
The Dalai Lama is known around the world as a moral figure, for advocating compassion, and for leading the Tibetan people from exile. Less appreciated, at least among non-Buddhists, is the depth and complexity of his spiritual role. In his biography, The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life, Alexander Norman recounts a life unfolding on both spiritual and earthly planes, describing how the Dalai Lama “interprets and shapes the Tibetan tradition, and especially where he departs from it” in a manner that can justifiably be called revolutionary.
Born Lhamo Thondup in 1935, to a farming family in the eastern part of Tibet, he was identified at age two as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lamas are revered by Tibetans as the manifestations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in Tibetan, Chenresig. A bodhisattva is one who has reached the threshold of nirvana but chooses instead to forgo it, devoting himself or herself to alleviating the suffering of those on earth. Chenresig is a line of incarnations dating back to the time of the Buddha, but the title Dalai Lama is much newer, arising from a 16th-century encounter between Sonam Gyatso, a prominent monk of the Gelug sect and the Mongol leader Altan Khan. Dalai, is the Mongolian word for Gyatso, which means ocean. Later, Mongol backing enabled the Fifth Dalai Lama to wield combined political and spiritual power.
Transported to the Potala Palace, the sprawling seat of Tibet’s theocratic government in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama’s lonely childhood was alleviated by the company of palace staff, “monk sweepers,” who played soldiers and entertained him with folk tales. These relationships, and eavesdropping on the regent’s high-handed dealings with petitioning peasants, honed the down-to-earth, egalitarian qualities for which he is known. (The scholar of Buddhism, Robert Thurman, tells of observing the usually genial Dalai Lama respond, eyebrow arched, to a questioner asking whom he considers his spiritual equal. “Everyone is my spiritual equal.”)
As for his education, “though Chenresig himself is all-knowing, it does not follow that his earthly manifestations are not subject to the usual constraints of embodied existence.” And so, the Dalai Lama pursued the usual studies of a novice monk.
While he had to step into the political role prematurely, at 15, when the People’s Liberation Army invaded in October 1950, his religious training continued through his ordination and eventually his final degree, equivalent to a Ph.D., in which he defended his knowledge of classic Tibetan texts. “No mere formality,” his performance “established . . . him as one of the finest debaters of his generation, a reputation that underpins his authority in monastic circles until this day.” It was also during this time, while still in Tibet and contending with the Chinese, that the Dalai Lama sought initiation into the Kalachakra, a powerful tantra involving a geometric representation of the world rendered in colored sands, meditation, and visualization of armed victory over implacable foes. Although the Dalai Lama
is at pains to stress . . . the real enemy is not the barbarian horde but the ignorance that gives rise to the afflictive emotions of anger, greed, strife, and so forth. It is nevertheless clearly more than a coincidence that the Dalai Lama’s focus at this time was on a set of practices the character of which is both apocalyptic and concerned with deliverance from evil.
Thus, the Kalachakra, previously given rarely, has become a “central feature of his public mission.” These and other passages explaining meditation, debate, and monastic life in the Tibetan tradition are exquisite.
The Dalai Lama had attempted to find a modus vivendi with Mao Zedong, but the two men were destined to be disillusioned with each other. At a banquet to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year, Mao mocked the Tibetan custom of tossing a pinch of tsampa, roasted barley flour, in the air, whispering that “religion is poison.”
It was at this moment when the young leader realized that Mao had completely misjudged him. He had mistaken the Dalai Lama’s scientific turn of mind for skepticism about spiritual matters. For his part, the Dalai Lama had wanted to believe Mao when he said that religion had nothing to fear from communism. Now he saw that the Chinese leader was ‘the destroyer of the Dharma after all.
Inevitably, the Dalai Lama’s position inside Tibet became untenable. In 1959, as rumors swept Lhasa that he would be kidnapped by Chinese forces, he departed secretly for exile in India.
Rejecting communism and its false promise of liberation did not mean the Dalai Lama overlooked the flaws in Tibetan society. He worked to diminish longstanding sectarian and regional divisions that had weakened Tibet in the past, including seeking initiation into practices beyond his own Gelug tradition. That was far from uncontroversial, and Norman explains the Dalai Lama’s ban on worship of Shugden, a Gelug protector deity, within the context of this ecumenical approach. Rather than an “an eccentric throwback to an arcane and irrelevant aspect of Tibetan culture . . . it was a bold move to break with a narrow, inward-looking metaphysics of government and repurpose it to serve all Tibetans, irrespective of region or religious affiliation.” It is not surprising that the Chinese communist leadership has tried to exploit the controversy that ensued, even funding pro-Shugden groups, as part of its ambitious, global agenda to undermine the Dalai Lama.
Arguably, the Dalai Lama took an even more revolutionary step by ending Tibet’s theocracy. In 2011, he transferred his political authority to the government elected from among Tibet’s diaspora. This is not so much the retirement that has been reported but a transformation that has underappreciated implications for responding to the the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) assertion of anti-democratic norms in its quest for global influence. As for the future of his religious office, he rejects any Chinese role in determining his successor as a contradiction of communist ideology and contrary to the requirements of reincarnation.
Norman has known the Dalai Lama since 1988, having worked with him on his autobiography and published a book on his predecessors. He draws deftly on valuable contributions of others to explain Buddhism, Tibetan history, and the American role in Tibet. His writing is understated, occasionally wry, and respectful, but not so much so as to skip over some of the Dalai Lama’s gaffes and bad judgment in meeting some disreputable characters, e.g.—the head of the Japanese cult which later carried out the deadly sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway.
Norman expressed concern that a traditional biography runs the risk of emphasizing public deeds at the expense of the internal life of the subject. He need not have worried.
The book provides a view of the depth and complexity of the Dalai Lama’s spiritual responsibilities, their impact on his temporal leadership, and above all his fidelity to his bodhisattva vow “to serve others with every fiber of his being unceasingly until such time as they should all become enlightened.”