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I picked up this book at the Lifeline second hand book fair. I remember becoming aware of Tibet in the 1980s as a child in eastern Australia. I have always felt sorrow for the Tibetan people and anger about their oppression. I enjoyed reading Red Poppies by Alai and The Open Road by Pico Iyer. I took a course in Tibetan Buddhist meditation from a Rinpoche in Canberra. When I saw an opportunity to read a substantial account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet, I dived into Avedon’s book.
Avedon starts by giving an interesting description of life in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. Some of this was familiar from my past reading. The next section is about the escape into India and the experience of living in exile, not only of the Dalai Lama but some ordinary Tibetans too. This section is fascinating and something I had wanted to know.
The Dalai Lama said
In Buddhism, for any who practise, it is not enough just to have faith. You must examine with reason. The Buddha said, ‘Monks and scholars should accept my word, not out of respect, but upon analysing it as a goldsmith analyses gold, by cutting, melting, scraping and rubbing it.’ Only that which cannot be damaged by reasoning should be considered definitive. After ascertaining the truth, one should then have faith, but it isn’t a blind faith leading you into a chasm.
I’ve never had faith. I’ve read a lot about the monotheistic religions and I cannot see that they share the Buddha’s opinion. I admire the Buddha for being so brave.
The third part of the book celebrates Tibetan medicine and follows the Dalai Lama on a pilgrimage to the sites of the Buddha’s birth, epiphany and death. The section on medicine is fascinating and I would like to learn more. It sounds like a holistic approach to treating the entire body that is vastly different from our approach of focusing on symptoms in isolation and prescribing pharmaceuticals to alleviate those symptoms.
The fourth section is on the disgusting treatment of Tibetans in Tibet. The Chinese treated them as slave labour. They oppressed, imprisoned, starved and controlled the Tibetans. This section of the book is difficult to read but important to know about. It reads like the Chinese have attempted to destroy the Tibetan people, identity, religion and culture. The accounts of the forced labour (gulag) camps, prisons and thanzing (struggle) sessions made me sick.
The final section involves three inspection tours of Tibet by representatives of the government-in-exile. It’s astonishing that the Chinese government allowed these delegates to visit Tibet and witness in person the systematic destruction of Tibet and the impoverishment of the people.
I’m glad that Avedon wrote this book and I hope that someone will read my review and choose to read the book too. It seems important from an ethnographic perspective because it contains accounts of rituals that will probably never be performed again because the Chinese have destroyed the palaces, temples, monasteries, artefacts and culture.
It has become popular for tourists to visit Tibet on entirely controlled tours. I can’t imagine wanting to do that as it would signal legitimacy of the occupation of Tibet. I’m angry, sad and sickened.
I will close with a reflection. I went to Nepal some years ago with the literary charity Room to Read. At the time I stayed in a Tibetan guesthouse in Kathmandu next to a Tibetan stupa. I bought Tibetan carpets from a refugee workshop and a singing bowl, prayer drum and thanka. It was interesting to read about the relative prosperity of Tibetans in Nepal from Avedon’s perspective.
Their wealth is well known throughout the diaspora – particularly that of the merchant chieftains of Kathmandu, who deal, rather profanely, not just in jewellery and carpets but also in thankas and sacred images.