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The Dalai Lama: a Tibetan David who stood up to the Chinese Goliath

Author Alexander Norman gives an illuminating account of the Dalai Lama, from his selection as an infant through to his exile and his 21st century persona as a benign all-smiling Buddhist version of the Pope


The Dalai Lama

Alexander Norman

Rider, hardback, 464 pages, €33.59


Dalai Lama (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

Dalai Lama (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

Change of role: in 2011, the Dalai Lama renounced his claim to lead his people as head of state in favour of a democratically elected layman

Change of role: in 2011, the Dalai Lama renounced his claim to lead his people as head of state in favour of a democratically elected layman

Getty Images

The Dalai Lama by Alexander Norman

The Dalai Lama by Alexander Norman

Avid admirer: author Alexander Norman

Avid admirer: author Alexander Norman


Dalai Lama (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

For most of his adult life, the Dalai Lama has been the leader in exile of a vast mountainous territory under the yoke of communist China. Almost as soon as he took power in Tibet as a spiritual and political leader, his authority was being stripped away from him - and within a decade he had fled to India.

Over the decades, the Dalai Lama, now 84, could only read with horror about what happened in his homeland under Communist rule. Monasteries were destroyed, monks were killed and religious freedom obliterated by the occupying power.

There was a ban on displaying or possessing pictures of his image. Tibetan students were even banned from visiting monasteries or taking part in religious ceremonies, and the Chinese stranglehold has hardly loosened.

And yet, after 61 years of exile, the Rolex-wearing holy man - known by his acolytes as "the Precious Protector" and by Rupert Murdoch as a "canny old monk in Gucci loafers" - remains a potent moral and spiritual force around the world.

In his illuminating biography, Alexander Norman describes the Dalai Lama as the "Tibetan David standing up to the Chinese Goliath, armed only with the rhetoric of compassion".

He roams the globe as a kind of benign all-smiling Buddhist version of the Pope, welcomed by world leaders and cheered at the Glastonbury rock festival, where he was kissed by the singer Patti Smith.

Bizarrely, he once appeared as a guest judge on the Australian version of Masterchef, and relaxes watching the 1970s BBC comedy, Dad's Army. He is fascinated by the art of clock and watchmaking, hence his interest in Rolex watches.

His form of spirituality - with its emphasis on extended periods of meditation - is arguably now more appealing in secularised Western societies than traditional Catholicism.

Alexander Norman is clearly an avid admirer of the Tibetan leader, and interviewed him for this biography, but does not gloss over controversies, or romanticise life in the old Tibet.

In the feudal society of Tibet before the communists arrived, there could be bitter infighting between those with an eye on power, and it was far from being a peace-loving Shangri-la.

One senior official from the last century had his eyes gouged out and was consigned to a dungeon. And Reting Rinpoché, who served as regent when the present Dalai Lama was a boy, also met a sorry end.

Depending on which account you believe, he died by having his testicles crushed, he was poisoned or he was strangled.

The appointment of the present Dalai Lama as a young child is one of the more fascinating episodes in this biography.

He is supposedly the reincarnation of the last one. So how is the infant Dalai Lama found?

The lengthy selection process involves senior officials having dreams and visions, sending out search parties, and worthy toddlers undergoing a series of tests.

The two-year-old boy who became the present Dalai Lama had to choose between two drums, one of which belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, and he picked the right one. He also picked out other objects belonging to his predecessor.

Other auspicious signs that he was the rightful heir were that visitors to his home heard the first cuckoo of spring, and on the day he was born, a rainbow appeared above his house.

Once he had been found, the young child was separated from his parents and taken to a monastery, where he lived until his confirmation by the authorities.


The Dalai Lama by Alexander Norman

The Dalai Lama by Alexander Norman

The Dalai Lama by Alexander Norman

When he eventually came of age, the communist pressure on Tibet was already being felt and under duress, his officials signed an agreement with Chairman Mao for the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet.

Of course, by liberation, the communists meant suppression.

Still remarkably young, the Tibetan leader tried to appease Mao in the hope that the territory could maintain some of its independence, or at least its religious freedom.

At a banquet in Beijing, Mao impressed the Dalai Lama with his charm, and at one stage even applied to join the Communist Party. Any hopes that there could be peaceful co-existence were dashed, however, with many monks in open rebellion and a growing Chinese military presence.

Trouble flared in the capital Lhasa in March 1959, and amid fears that he might be captured by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama fled his palace. He crossed the border into India after an epic 15-day journey on foot over the Himalayan mountains.

Once the religious leader had gone into exile, the communist invaders seemed to lose all restraint and their opponents were often subjected to beatings and ritualised humiliation.

The death of Chairman Mao seemed to signal a softening of the treatment of Tibet. The new leader Deng Xiaoping fostered these hopes and even wanted the exiled Dalai Lama to return.

But exiled Tibetans who were invited to return on fact-finding missions encountered extreme poverty and intolerance of their religion. Monasteries had been destroyed, temples were used as slaughterhouses, and schoolchildren were not allowed to learn their own language.

In 2011, the Dalai Lama renounced his claim to lead his people as head of state in favour of a democratically elected layman. He now sees his role as that a teacher.

According to Alexander Norman, this makes perfect sense. The word lama is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word guru - a spiritual guide. Communist tyrants may still hold a grip on China, but across the world, the teachings of the Tibetan holy man have echoed more loudly than the thoughts of Chairman Mao.

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