The politics are interesting and important, but Norman’s book is especially successful at narrating the spiritual dimensions of the Dalai Lama’s life and office. Insights into the Precious Protector’s contemplative activity, his appetite for learning, his desire to maintain tradition while dispensing with some rigidities, and his aim to serve as an “ecumenical” voice for various sub-traditions within Tibetan Buddhism are provided in illuminating detail. We learn that he spends an extraordinary amount of time in meditation every day. The casual onlooker might not know how central the Kalachakra or “Wheel of Time” tantra has been for the Dalai Lama’s public ministry. Performed thirty-four times now, this tantra involves the creation of an astonishingly intricate mandala, meditation on samsara (the endless birth and rebirth of all beings), and imagining oneself entering the body of Kalachakra, conceived as deity. Once inside Kalachakra, the practitioner regards himself as a single drop of bodhicitta (the aspiration to seek liberation into nirvana for all sentient beings) and descends through the deity’s body before exiting through his erect penis into the “lotus,” or vagina, of Kalachakra’s sexual consort, Vishvamata. Is it any wonder that Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation were drawn to Tibetan Buddhism in the 1960s?
Norman also tells us about the elaborate process for choosing a Dalai Lama, the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the role of monasteries, the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhist cosmology (with layers of hell that would make Dante envious), “precious pills” (made from the excrement of lamas and believed to hasten enlightenment), “demon traps” and how to make them, trance states and the role of mediums, the significance attached to dreams, and much else. The picture that emerges makes clear that the Precious Protector, while certainly an actor in the here-and-now, is above all a central circuit in a complex grid of supernatural realities and traditions, which are lost on many Western observers who know the Dalai Lama only through his avuncular, globe-trotting public persona.
To help the reader with the complexity of it all, Norman provides a glossary of terms, a map of Tibet, and a list of previous Dalai Lamas. While the glossary is extensive, I might quibble that it could include still more detail. A timeline of the Dalai Lama’s life and corresponding historical events would also have been helpful.
In April 2011, the Dalai Lama announced his full retirement from office as leader of the Tibetan government in exile. By this act, ending centuries of theocratic rule, the office would henceforth be headed by a democratically elected first minister. Thus, not unlike the pope after the collapse of the Papal States in the nineteenth century, the Dalai Lama now occupies a largely spiritual role, even if he still functions as a symbolic figurehead for his people.
And what of the future? Norman is too prudent a scholar to speculate promiscuously. But the image that emerges at the end of the book is one of pathos. Now in his eighties with little hope of returning to Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetans appear to stand in the twilight of previous momentous events. Still largely cut off from the world until the mid-twentieth century, today both homegrown and diasporic Tibetans appear to “concern themselves more with this life than the next,” as the forces of modernity and global capitalism do their predictable work. The past desecration of religious life, the relocation of numerous Han Chinese into Tibet (facilitated by new high-speed trains), and Beijing’s Orwellian surveillance threaten to end the region’s special status and singularly numinous reputation in the world’s imagination. Higher education is not obtainable in the Tibetan language, so parents want their children to learn fluent Chinese—thus further diluting their cultural distinctiveness.
Nonetheless, protests against this seemingly inexorable decline appear from time to time, not least in acts of self-immolation by Tibetan monks and nuns, who want to remind the world of a situation they find intolerable. One hundred and fifty of these have taken place in recent decades, each recorded on a martyr’s memorial in Dharamsala. To China’s consternation, the Dalai Lama, although advising against self-immolation, does not condemn past instances of it.
The 2008 Olympics brought a flare-up of the Tibetan issue, and in recent years considerable scholarly attention has been devoted to understanding and preserving Tibet’s past. The internet is a place where the “two Tibets” can still gather, rueing the current situation and hoping for better days to come. Films, essays, and poems circulate widely online, including these lines about Tibetan identity from an anonymous poet:
Tibetan: a name which is matched by a reality
Tibetan: standing on the earth, touching the heavens
Don’t ask me my surname
My surname is not Li, my surname is not Wong
If you insist on asking for my surname
I’ll tell you I am a follower of the Buddha
I am a strong nation blessed by the Tibetan gods
My left shoulder is a hawk
My right shoulder a yak
My body is a lamp under the statue of the Buddha, never extinguished.
Yes, the current Dalai Lama will eventually go the way of all flesh. But the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Chenrezig, has seen many lives now. One suspects that we haven’t seen the last of him, and that Tibet’s story remains unfinished.
The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$30 | 432 pp.