THE DALAI LAMA: An Extraordinary Life
Author: Alexander Norman
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“Dalai Lama” is a foreign title. Tibetans refer to him with names like “Precious Protector,” “Wish-Fulfilling Jewel” and “the Presence.” The divide between the Tibetan Buddhist world — which often has included China and Mongolia — and the world beyond has rarely been of particular consequence to the Dalai Lamas, until this one, the 14th, who is the first to spend most of his life in exile; he fled to India in 1959 and has not returned. His biographer, facing the usual problems of recounting the life of a figure still living (the Dalai Lama will be 85 this year), is also faced with the dilemma of describing his life on the world stage (which has been fairly well documented) and his life inside the world of Tibetan Buddhism (which has not). This is the challenge that Alexander Norman, a long-time associate of the Dalai Lama, takes up in his new biography.
Who is the Dalai Lama? Tibet is unique in the Buddhist world for its system of “incarnate lamas,” the idea being that advanced spiritual masters are able to choose the place for their next rebirth, returning to the world in lifetime after lifetime to teach the dharma. There were many such lineages of lamas in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama was just one of them until 1642. It was then that the fifth Dalai Lama was placed on the throne of Tibet by a Mongol khan, his successors becoming at least the titular head of state. The current incarnation took over the government in 1950 at age 15 when the People’s Liberation Army crossed into eastern Tibet.
Like the authors of other biographies of the current Dalai Lama, Mr Norman does not read or speak Tibetan. However, he has the advantage of being able to use histories published over the past two decades that draw on Tibetan and Chinese sources, none more important than the four volumes by Melvyn C Goldstein, which provide 2,700 pages on the period from 1913 to 1959. Mr Norman puts these to good use, as well as recently published books about the Dalai Lama’s two tutors, making this biography the most detailed and accurate to date.
The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life is strongest on the early period, starting, wisely, not with the 14th Dalai Lama, but the 13th (1876-1933), who faced so many of the challenges that his successor would inherit and who left a chillingly prescient prophecy of what lay ahead for his country. Mr Norman makes clear that “old Tibet” was no Shangri-La, describing the corruption and intrigue of the Tibetan court and the sclerosis that the 13th and the young 14th tried, and failed, to cure.
The book contains a number of errors, most of the minor variety, especially concerning the admittedly arcane world of Tibetan Buddhism; the Dalai Lama did not debate about colours — a topic for novice monks — during his examination for the highest monastic degree. Throughout, however, the biography is judicious on topics that often inspire hyperbole and mystification. For example, the Dalai Lama has navigated the modern world while consulting on all matters of import with oracles possessed by wrathful deities. Mr Norman’s description of a crisis over which deity to propitiate, a crisis that began with the thirteenth and continues to the present day, is impressive in its clarity.
He also reveals the Dalai Lama to be a sophisticated thinker and consummate scholar, one whose feet remain firmly on the ground, a trait often obscured by his broken English. In keeping with a religion so obsessed with prophecy, the book, written in an engaging prose, ends with an insightful prediction of the legacy of the 14th Dalai Lama, and a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges that the 15th will face.