Thursday, July 26, 2012

REVIEW: Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama, by Tenzin Gyatso, Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet. Published 1990 by HarperOne. ISBN 9780060987015

I became interested in learning more about the 14th Dalai Lama after reading a brief manga biography about him late last year; that book gave a kind of pencil sketch of his life, from when he was recognized as the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion at the age of 2 and sent away to be trained to be a political leader and religious icon through his exile in India. This book covers much more ground and in more detail, through almost the present day.

The Dalai Lama tells his story in a pretty matter-of-fact way, laying out facts and chains of events from his childhood through around the time of the book's publication in 1990. He presents a vivid picture of pre-invasion Tibet, recounts with candor his initial interest and respect for Chinese Communism, his growing disillusionment with Mao and his government, and later, his growing and painful knowledge of Chinese atrocities committed against Tibet and Tibetans. I really got the sense of a lost world, or at least a world in some kind of stasis as the diaspora community tries to maintain a sense of its culture and figure out where to go from here, all the while Tibetan culture inside Tibet is being swallowed whole. I also got the sense of a very thoughtful man who was brought up to expect something rather extraordinary out of life, and found that life had something else to offer entirely.

 Every once in a while a little of his cranky, silly personality comes through, but I wish there were more personal touches. His hobbies include gardening and scientific inquiry, and one of my favorite passages recounts what happened when he tried to build a place for birds to perch near his window:
...I constructed a bird table just outside my study window. It is surrounded by wire and netting to keep out the larger birds and birds of prey, which tend to scare off their smaller brethren. This is not always sufficient to keep them away, however. Occasionally, I am compelled to take out one of the air guns that I acquired shortly after arriving in India, in order to discipline these fat, greedy trespassers. Having spent a great deal of time as a child at the Norbulingka [palace] practicing with the Thirteenth's old air rifle, I am quite a good shot. Of course, I never kill them. My intention is only to inflict a measure of pain in order to teach a lesson.
Air rifles? Shooting birds? This is not what I expected, but I was sort of delighted to read about these kinds of shenanigans. This ordinary tone persists throughout the book. Frequently I had to remind myself as I read about this often very ordinary-seeming man that he is not ordinary at all, that he is a holy man to millions, although it's clear at every turn that the life he is leading is anything but the life of an ordinary person. I only wish he had offered us even more in the way of personal thoughts and insights; even anecdotes like the one I quoted above seem made ready for public consumption, and while I don't begrudge him his privacy, I was hoping for more reflective musings.

But you know what? On the whole, Freedom in Exile is a really fascinating book that I can recommend to just about any reader. The Dalai Lama illuminates not just the events of his own life but the ongoing troubles of Tibet and its relationship with China. And I'm still interested to read more about the Dalai Lama, too. I feel like this book is another piece of the puzzle and that there's still a lot more to learn.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.