Book review: Dalai Lama’s autobiography

Book review: Freedom in Exile, The Autobiography of His holiness the Dalai Lama, Hodder and Stoughton, 1998 edition.

The Dalai Lama’s autobiography begins with his discovery by monks searching for the re-incarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama. When the new Dalai Lama was about three years old he is supposed to have recognised various objects belonging to his predecessor. In dealing with the question of whether he “really believes” that he is the reincarnation of various historical figures, he answers that “the answer is not easy to give” but that he has no difficulty believing that he is “spiritually connected” to the 13 previous Dalia Lamas, and the Buddha himself and a “manifestation” of Chenrezig (a Buddhist figure of ancient times, p.12). To me “connected” doesn’t sound the same as “reincarnation of”, and I’m not sure whether he is not 100 per cent certain, or whether he is just being humble.

At around the age of four, he was moved to Lhasa. After describing his childhood, which was full of ritual, Buddhist lessons, and processions whenever he went anywhere, he gets to the invasion of his country by China with 85,000 troops in October 1950. A further 20,000 troops arrived in 1951-52, and began demand foods as of right from the peasants. This lead to shortages and inflation, sometimes of 100 per cent a day. Tibetan people had never experienced this before and did not understand how this was possible (p.80).

Initially, he accepted Chinese assurances that they didn’t want to interfere in the internal affairs of Tibet, and that they wished to help Tibet advance materially.

After the invasion, the Dalai Lama tried to work with the Chinese authorities, but his countrymen are tortured, anti-Chinese demonstrations are put by down by force, and many die. He realised after about ten years that that he was getting nowhere and that the country was having less and less control over its own affairs. New Migrants were being moved in from China. Eventual he made the decision to remove the Tibetan government to Dharamsala in India, The removal was done at night, and the government in exile remains in Dharamsala to this day.

Late in 1959, he visited the Indian Prime Minister, who although he describes as disagreeing with some of what the Dalai Lama says, “Above all, he gave me complete freedom to follow my own conscience. The Chinese, on the other hand, were always full of smiles and deceit. (p.172). As to the present status of the Tibetans, he says that because of the Chinese influx, the Tibetan people risked becoming “tourist attractions in their country” (p.262).

Mistakes were made after the Tibetans settled in India. After selling off some of their national treasures, they made poor investment choices. Some overseas aid agencies provided assistance in setting up piggeries and chicken farms which the Tibetans were unwilling to work in because of their unwillingness to engage in slaughter (p.189-190.)

He also sees “no special significance” in the western interest in Buddhism, and believes that people are better off sticking to the religions of their own culture. (p.306). After describing missionaries in Mongolia who told the locals that the reason for Mongolia’s backwardness was its superstitious adherence to Buddhism. As a result: “I fell reluctant to engage in any activity which will draw people away from their traditional culture and values.” (p.307). In his visit to Melbourne in 2007 he said publically that people who change religions often end up in confusion, and quoted a Tibetan woman in India, who having been helped  by Christian missionaries told him she would convert to Christianity. “But don’t worry,” she added, “in the next life I’ll be a Buddhist again.” So he doesn’t actively encourage westerners to become Buddhists. However he has been encouraged by lectures he has given overseas where the majority of the audience were Chinese and the language of translation was Chinese.

The Dalai Lama comes across in this book, as he does in other books as a gentle, humble and compassionate man. He stresses that the Chinese are people too, just like him and others.

In a Public lecture in Melbourne in 2007, he came across as a humble man. When asked a question to which he did not know the answer he simply replied “I don’t know”. It’s a pity our politicians can’t display the same humility.


Where to find it in the book:

Dalai Lama born 6 July 1935

China invades with 80,000 troops: October 1950 (p.56).

Moves to Domo in SW Tibet, very close to India, to facilitate escape if needed Jan 1951, (p.62-68.)

Returns from Dromo to Lhasa august 1951 (p.76-78).

Further 20,000 Chinese troops arrive in 1951-52, (p.80).

Invited to China, early 1954, meets Mao (p.90ff)

Dalai Lama flees Tibet: 31 March 1959 (p141-157).


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