Close Relations

T.H. Barrett

  • The Buddha of Brewer Street by Michael Dobbs
    HarperCollins, 288 pp, £16.99, January 1998, ISBN 0 00 225412 3
  • The Book of Tibetan Elders: Life Stories and Wisdom from the Great Spiritual Masters of Tibet by Sandy Johnson
    Constable, 282 pp, £17.95, February 1997, ISBN 0 09 476950 8
  • The Art of Tibet by Robert Fisher
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £7.95, November 1997, ISBN 0 500 20308 3
  • Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations by Warren Smith Jr.
    Westview, 732 pp, £59.50, December 1996, ISBN 0 8133 3155 2
  • The Way to Freedom by His Holiness The Dalai Lama
    Thorsons, 181 pp, £7.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 00 220043 0
  • Awakening the Mind, Lightening the Heart by His Holiness The Dalai Lama
    Thorsons, 238 pp, £8.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 00 220045 7
  • Kundun: A Biography of the Family of the Dalai Lama by Mary Craig
    HarperCollins, 392 pp, £17.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 00 627838 8

If you can’t keep a good man down, it’s no wonder if that genuine rarity, a very good man, sometimes seems to be incessantly on the up and up. The Dalai Lama has already achieved cinematic immortality in Seven Years in Tibet, even though obliged to survive association with a slightly dodgy Austrian (but so did the UN), and has further film apotheoses in prospect, threatening to turn even Gandhi into an also-ran. Meanwhile, he makes a cameo appearance in Michael Dobbs’s new Good-fellowe thriller, which revolves around the hunt for his next incarnation in London. The Chinese villains are as dastardly as one might wish from HarperCollins, as sinister as the Manchu embassy officials who in 1896 kidnapped the obscure Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen in London and made him world famous, yet ultimately human enough for their allied Anglo-Tibetan opponents to outwit them. Thomas Goodfellowe MP, fictional hero as battered old teddy bear, is due for another outing this autumn, says the blurb. By then, where will our real-life hero, the Dalai Lama, be?

Thomas Carlyle was wrong, on the whole, about heroes as the makers of history, but perhaps he had more of a point than we have been prepared to give him credit for. Our own century has seen its fair share of monsters but it has still managed to produce leaders whom, whatever their flaws, we can only respect. Not a long list, but one to which it would be fair to add the Dalai Lama, although unfortunately he disqualifies himself by revealing that he is not a bona fide 20th-century figure, but the 14th reincarnation of a personage who has been playing his part in history since long before Carlyle was born.

To judge by the constant and often lengthy references to the Chinese Communists in the Dalai Lama’s writings ostensibly devoted to Buddhist doctrine, there still exists, quite undeniably, a Tibetan Question. Foreign correspondents who want to curdle our blood with predictions of an all-out shooting war in East Asia prefer to concentrate on the prospects for China’s claim to the Spratlys and the Paracels, virtually uninhabited rocks in the South China Sea which could indeed become test-sites for the hardware of a number of competing armed forces. Tibet, sustaining as it does some two million inhabitants, gives much more scope for the quieter application of policies of suppression, and a quiet problem is not the same as a solution.

Nor, despite the waxing and waning of interest, is complete silence ever likely to fall on the matter of Tibet, for reasons which become clear from a reading of Sandy Johnson’s work. She presents a remarkable picture of a diaspora driven from its homeland whom one might expect to become the Parsees of the next millennium, using the close-knit ties of religious distinctiveness to concentrate on economic survival. Instead, we find a national élite of conspicuously outward-looking teachers, winning proselytes in different countries who will not only sustain their tradition but spread it across the globe.

She also presents a detailed portrait of Sandy Johnson, a restless, slightly feckless mother whose children threaten to write above her grave: ‘We think she is in here.’ But this account of me-generation spiritual craving offsets Tibetan Buddhism surprisingly well, since there is a strong tradition within Tibetan religion of directing the Buddha’s message to the recipient’s specific problems, and of dealing with fallible human lives as much as abstract issues of time and eternity. Mary Craig’s approach to the Tibetan exile community concentrates much more on the frustrations of émigré politics. Her group portrait of the Dalai Lama’s family does not gloss over nepotism, failure and apostasy. What hope for the future these books suggest can only be appreciated after a glance at the past. And while the Tibetan past is well represented by its art, of which a sufficient quantity has found its way to the West to merit a compact but lavishly illustrated history from Robert Fisher, a grasp of the current situation needs more explicit testimony than even these powerful images provide.

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