Tibetan history through thte Dalai Lama

2009-02-18 00:00

Alexander Norman has known the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, for over 20 years, working with him on two books including his autobiography Freedom in Exile. Consequently, Norman would seem the ideal candidate for this collective biography of all 14 Dalai Lamas, believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the successive incarnations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The first official Dalai Lama appeared in the 14th century, although Tibetans hold that he was just the 43rd in a succession of incarnations. Norman sketches in the history and the myth surrounding these earlier candidates which shows how the office — that combines both spiritual and temporal leadership — evolved. What follows is a history as racy and as full of politicking as that of the papacy. At least four Dalai Lamas were murdered, while the sixth was famous for his love life. The murder and intrigue extends into modern times and Norman bookends his story with the murder of senior lama 70-year-old Lobsang Gyatso and two students in 1997, just 100 metres from the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India. The murder is an indication of tensions and rivalries within the Tibetan diaspora.

But Holder of the White Lotus is not all intrigue and scandal. “The Great Fifth” and “The Great Thirteenth” were clearly commanding presences, worthy holders of the office.

Norman’s book does much to dispel the rose-tinted view of Tibet that still prevails in the West and also serves to demonstrate that the relationship between China and Tibet is a long and complex one. But while there is much to inform, Norman’s book is overall a disappointingly patchy effort and a knowing, ironic tone, plus a taste for superfluous footnotes, undercuts much of the material. A missed opportunity.

Stephen Coan

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