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<-Back to WTN Archives The End of Shangri-La
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World Tibet Network News

Saturday, January 24, 1998

1. The End of Shangri-La

By Jeffrey Paine
The Washington Post, Sunday, January 25, 1998

A Biography of the Family of the Dalai Lama
By Mary Craig
Counterpoint. 392 pp. $26

THE STORY begins trailing clouds of mystery and wonder. In 1933, the 13th
Dalai Lama prophesied that, though his reign had known only peace, Tibet
must prepare itself for devastations unimaginable. Then, though in perfect
health, he promptly died. (Many Tibetans would later believe he had willed
himself to die so that his reincarnation would be old enough, when China
invaded, to lead Tibet in its time of troubles.)

The old Dalai Lama expressed a final wish before he died: Lonely all his
life, he would like to be reborn into a large family full of sisters and
brothers. When his reincarnation was discovered a few years later as a
toddler in a remote village, it turned out he was one of 16 children.
Mary Craig, an English journalist and author of a biography of John Paul
II, has had the inspiration to retell the history of contemporary Tibet
using the vantage point of the present Dalai Lama and those six of his
siblings who survived to maturity.

She scarcely could have chosen a more dramatic subject. When the boy
Tenzin Gyatso became the Dalai Lama, his family of simple farm people was
cast up into the most powerful nobility in Tibet and then, after China
invaded Tibet in the 1950s, cast down to the status of refugees homeless
in the world. The middle brother, Lobsang Samten, for example, was one
moment Lord Chamberlain of all Tibet and, practically the next, a high
school janitor in Scotch Plains, N.J.

It was this brother who provoked the Dalai Lama to a rare instance of
fury. When Lobsang wished to discard his monk's robes and marry, the
Dalai Lama raged, "Even a dog doesn't copulate while it's actually being
beaten." In that metaphor the dog is Tibet, China is the beater; Kundun is
the story of seven siblings who forewent personal pleasures and private
lives in order to mitigate the worst blows falling on their country.

NARRATING THE EPIC of a family's and a whole country's journey from idyll
to holocaust -- as Tibet, the last great medieval civilization,
encountered in the same instant the modern world and the threat of
extinction -- might have exercised the talents of Faulkner or Isaac
Bashevis Singer or even Tolstoy. No literary artist, Mary Craig does not
flesh out into three dimensions the Dalai Lama's family, who remain here
little more than names -- names doing, however, quite interesting deeds.
With her broad research Craig is less a biographer than an anthropologist
who records, in Kundun, a whole way of life before it perishes. (The word
Kundun, which means "the Presence" or "presence of the Buddha," is one
name Tibetans call the Dalai Lama.)

Craig's narrative, encumbered with only minimal exegesis, benefits from
the changed understanding of Tibetan culture that has occurred only
recently. Even 40 years ago Tibetan Buddhism was dismissed (or prized)
as an affair of magic, wizardry and superstition; the scholarly
correctives to that misunderstanding, especially those by W.Y. Evans-Wenz
and the German Lama Govinda, were so esoteric that a "No Entry" sign might
have graced their book jackets. Today a generation of Tibetan scholars and
teachers living in exile -- Sorgyal Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe, Tulku Thondup
and Namkhai Norbu, among many others -- have mastered Western languages
and Western psychology and given Buddhism a clarity and attraction
previously unknown in the West. Because of its religious appeal, Craig
suggests, the Tibetan struggle has gained a purchase on the world's
attention that other dire causes -- say, East Timor's -- cannot muster.

The idyll with which Kundun opens metamorphoses, by the middle of the
book, into darkest, bleakest reality. In the Year of the Iron Tiger --
that is, in late 1950 -- 30,000 Chinese troops invaded Tibet from six
different directions. Kundun at this point becomes a catalogue documenting
tortures, dismemberments, beheadings, monks and nuns buried alive,
children forced to shoot their parents -- one-sixth of the Tibetan
population eventually killed, 6,000 monasteries destroyed and a culture
razed. In 1960 the International Commission of Jurists declared the
invaders' reign of terror to be the attempted genocide of the Tibetan
nation and people.

But 1959 is the key year in Kundun, when word leaked out that the Chinese
authorities planned to either kidnap or kill the Dalai Lama. The entire
capital of Llasa, it seemed, rose up to shield their beloved leader while
he and his family attempted a suicidal escape over the wintry Himalayas,
an escape that, miraculously, landed them safely in India. Back in Llasa,
the reprisals against the native population were merciless; in Beijing,
Mao listened to a report of them with evident satisfaction, only to
interrupt, "And what of the Dalai Lama?" When told that he had escaped,
Mao sighed, "In that case we have lost the battle." As Craig narrates how
China, for all its military prowess, dissipated the admiration its culture
had been held in for centuries and how simultaneously the Dalai Lama
became the world's most respected religious leader, she retells, oddly
enough, in modern political idiom, the David and Goliath fable.

Jeffrey Paine is a writer living in Washington. His "Father India: A
Western Adventure" will be published next fall.

Articles in this Issue:
  1. The End of Shangri-La

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