A peasant boy becomes a god-king then rediscovers his humanity as he flees his nation, and a people whose identity centers upon the Buddhist ideals of compassion and kindness take up arms against a brutal occupation army. In Escape from the Land of Snows, Stephan Talty bears witness to these remarkable histories, cruel ironies and extreme polarities.
He traces the 14th Dalai Lama's extraordinary life from early childhood to his daring and frightening escape from the Chinese forces into India and along the way deftly establishes the history of Buddhism in Tibet, the background of the Khampa warriors, a brief history of the West's discovery of Tibet, the CIA's support of the Tibetan uprising, and many other pertinent and interesting facts. It is fascinating to learn how monks identified the sociable and precocious little Lhamo Thondup as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, and to follow the young son and brother as he becomes a lonely god-king sequestered in medieval magnificence, stifled by monastic ritual, and untouched (with the exception of a car, some Life magazines and a film projector) by the modern world.
Central to the story is Tibet's religious foundation and the Dalai Lama's unique status and profound connection to his people: "Buddhism was much more than a state religion: it was the sole reason for Tibet's existence." As the "Precious Protector of Tibet," the Dalai Lama's significance transcends the spirit; Tibet is Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama is Tibet. As the 14th incarnation of Bodhisattva Chenrizi, the Dalai Lama is "the final aim of the nation, the end product of its special mission in the world." The Dalai Lama is at once spiritual exemplar and king - embodiment of Tibet's past and its future.
The narrative becomes more detailed, suspenseful and upsetting as Talty describes the days prior to the Dalai Lama's frightening escape during the 1959 uprising against Chinese occupation forces. Talty relates the first-hand experiences of a number of survivors and journalists, including American State Department officials, CIA agents, and their Tibetan operatives, in order to present a rich account of a doomed and heroic rebellion. Notable and touching are the stories of Athar Norbu, a CIA-trained Khampa resistance fighter; Lobsang Yonten, member of a prominent family and protester in the 1959 rebellion; and Tenpa Soepa, a junior official at the Dalai Lama's summer palace. Their extraordinary loyalty, courage, suffering and strength contrast the horrific, violent, and cruel methods of the P.L.A. and Chinese rule.
Talty concludes with his own visit, almost fifty years after the Dalai Lama's escape, to a Tibet that is a police state in which the Dalai Lama is outlawed. While on the Dalai Lama's summer palace grounds, Talty sneaks a brief, illicit conversation with a young Tibetan man:
"...What about the Dalai Lama?" "We want the Dalai Lama to return," the man said, smiling slightly, his voice ragged with emotion. "But sometimes it seems hopeless." Many old farmers and nomads couldn't afford the visas that would let them travel to India, he told me; their last wish was to see the Dalai Lama, but they would die without looking on his face. A Westerner must imagine the spirit of Christ alive somewhere in the world, and a Christian unable to go and see and be touched by him, to really get a sense of what Tibetans feel, the almost physical pain the separation causes them. Not to see the face of their Precious Protector is like passing through life as a restless ghost..."
If this history lacks anything it is photographs, but Escape from the Land of Snows, despite the grim reality of occupied Tibet, is an inspiring and important book and may, by fleshing out this transformative part of the Dalai Lama's biography, move many to act on behalf of the people he was forced to leave behind.
This review is from the February 16, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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