In my analysis, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was never petrified of upsetting Chairman Mao Zedong. In fact, Nehru made no attempt to avoid upsetting Mao Zedong. China is fully aware of all of Nehru’s initiatives in support of the Tibetan Resistance Movement that began in 1949.
Rudra Narasimham Rebbapragada
Special Frontier Force-Establishment No. 22-Vikas Regiment
‘The Dalai Lama’ Review: Bodhisattva of Compassion
A Westerner with rare access to his subject writes an authorized biography of one of the world’s most feted, and charismatic, ﬁgures.
By Tunku Varadarajan Feb. 26, 2020 7:27 pm ET Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
On July 6, 1935, was born a boy to a family of peasants in the village of Taktser in the far northeast of Tibet. Its inhabitants spoke a coarse dialect that was incomprehensible in Lhasa, Tibet’s storied capital. The boy, Lhamo Thondup, was one of only seven siblings, out of 16, who survived into adulthood.
Although the village was remote, it was not godforsaken. At barely 2 years of age, Lhamo Thondup was identified as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, who had died in 1933. Solemn portents and divinations had led a party of monks to Taktser, where the lively little mite convinced his visitors that he was next in a line of Tibetan Buddhist god-popes stretching back 600 years.
In “The Dalai Lama,” a biography written with generous access to its subject, Alexander Norman describes the scene. With the monks looking on, the boy picked out, unprompted, a series of objects that had belonged to the Great Thirteenth. Locals spoke of a rainbow appearing over the boy’s house at the time of his birth. “This was a theogony,” writes Mr. Norman, “the coming of a god.”
A rival candidate was in contention, a well-born child in Lhasa; but there could be no doubt that the boy from Taktser was the next Dalai Lama, the paramount monk who is Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader. It is an office like no other on earth: “The profundity of the emotional connection Tibetans have with the Dalai Lama,” Mr. Norman writes, “is beyond anything that others can easily imagine.” The one in whom “the bodhi—the awakened mind of the Buddha—resides is not merely a monarch. He is someone who connects, in himself, the seen world with that unseen.”
The subtitle of Mr. Norman’s book, “An Extraordinary Life,” is an understatement. The 14th Dalai Lama, regarded as divine when he could barely speak, was enthroned at the age of 4. After a childhood in which he had no friends and was forbidden to play soccer, he took on full political duties at 15, outgrowing his oppressive regents. At 23, he fled to exile in India, crossing the border, Mr. Norman tells us, on the back of a dzo, a cross between a yak and a cow: “And it was on this humble form of transport that the Precious Protector, the Victor, Lion Among Men, Wish-Fulfilling Jewel, Ocean of Wisdom . . . quit his homeland.”
That journey occurred in 1959, when it became clear that Communist China intended not merely to obliterate Tibet’s culture but to imprison the Dalai Lama himself. Exile from Tibet—which continues to this day—was not just personally devastating to the Dalai Lama; 80,000 Tibetans fled to India in that year alone—to the consternation, Mr. Norman notes, of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s prime minister, who was petrified of upsetting Mao Zedong.
The Tibetan diaspora numbers 150,000, most of them (including the Dalai Lama) residing in India. The population of the Chinese-occupied Tibet Autonomous Region is put at three million, of which 90% is ethnic Tibetan, according to Beijing’s own reckoning, which certainly undercounts the Han Chinese interlopers. Given that China’s “ascent as a world superpower looks set to continue into the foreseeable future,” laments Mr. Norman, fewer countries “will dare risk their trading relations with China for the sake of a few million Tibetans.”
Mr. Norman knows the Dalai Lama better than most, having helped him to write his autobiography. His new book is rich, sometimes heaving, with detail; his supple prose, often beautiful, is as adept at explaining Tibet’s theology as it is at describing its spiritual world. “Every feature of the landscape and every creature dwelling within it,” he writes, “falls under the aegis of some sprite or spirit or deity. Even the bolts of lightning in a storm were said to issue from the mouths of celestial dragons.”
Yet the most potent forces against which the Dalai Lama has grappled have been infernal. His two regents were, Mr. Norman says, martinets who coveted the power they enjoyed when he was a minor. The first was jailed by his successor and, as one account has it, killed by having his testicles crushed. Remarkably, the man who emerged from these dark beginnings has proved to be a serene statesman, known for his beatific smile and ecumenical diplomacy.
The Dalai Lama is among the world’s most feted figures. Mr. Norman explains how he has done more to promote Buddhism in the Western world than any person in history and stresses that it is his charismatic wisdom, even more than his campaign for freedom, that makes him a darling in the West. His appeal transcends ideology, and he has had admirers as diverse as Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, and George W. Bush, along with Hollywood stars galore. Mr. Norman’s book, while respectful, is not adoring: He doesn’t flinch from offering examples of his subject’s behavior that are awkward. These include an instance in Norway when the Dalai Lama giggled and told a teenager she was “too fat.” His views on homosexuality are not in lockstep with those of Western progressives, and no one can deny that his judgment faltered when he granted audiences to the leader of a cult that went on to murder people with sarin gas in Tokyo.
If he has shown himself to be fallible, on occasion, his understanding of China cannot be faulted. The horrors heaped on Tibet during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution abated with Mao’s death, but it is still a land that lives under brutal subjugation. A realist, the Dalai Lama has stated for decades that he would accept China’s sovereignty over Tibet in exchange for autonomy. But China dismisses him as a separatist under the sway of “hostile foreign forces.”
In 2011, the Dalai Lama announced his retirement as leader of Tibet’s government in exile, giving the role to a democratically elected minister. The next Dalai Lama may well choose to undo this political reform, and yet, in thus “handing over political power,” writes Mr. Norman, “the Precious Protector brought to an end . . . centuries of theocratic rule.” It was the act of a thoroughly modern monk—the first democrat to lead Tibet’s people. It breaks the heart that he has, in China, a foe so all-consuming.