Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Early Years of the Dalai Lama

Lhamo Thondup was born on July 6, 1935 in the small farming village of Takster in the Qinghai province. At the age of three, the young boy was recognized as the tulku, the reincarnated essence, of the thirteenth Dalai Lama. Upon this recognition, Lhamo Thondup, the fifth eldest of sixteen children born to farmer parents, was renamed Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso. These six names described the qualities that the re-born Dalai Lama was to possess: Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, and Ocean of Wisdom.

The Buddhist tradition of samsara holds that the cyclical passage from life to death and back to life again can only be escaped through Awakening. As such, Tibetans today strongly believe that the current Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of the spirit that has embodied previous Dalai Lamas. This belief was no different in the case of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

After he was identified as the tulku of the Precious Victorious One, Tenzin Gyatso spent his childhood and adolescence under the tutelage of Buddhist monks, living in the Potala Palace and Norbulingka Palace (the summer residence of the Dalai Lama), located in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Despite mounting tensions between Tibet and the Chinese government, Tenzin Gyatso was kept relatively shielded from Tibet’s political affairs, left instead to study the five major disciplines of a Buddhist education: Sanskrit, Tibetan culture and art, medicine, logic, and philosophy. However, no amount of knowledge of ancient languages or philosophical ideals could have prepared the young spiritual leader for the ramifications of the impending end to centuries of Tibetan isolation.

The escalating hostility between China and Tibet culminated in the expulsion of all Chinese citizens from Tibet in July 1949. Due to the impending conflict with the People’s Republic of China, on November 17, 1950, at the age of 15, Tenzin Gyatso was granted full governing powers as Dalai Lama, three years earlier than Tibetan governmental tradition specifies. The newly enthroned Dalai Lama’s subsequent attempts to peacefully resolve the China-Tibet conflict, including the ratification of the China-designed Seventeen Point Agreement for Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, were met with nothing but further aggression. In 1959, following a major uprising among the Tibetan population, suspicions arose that the Chinese government had plans to assassinate Tenzin Gyatso. At the urging of a trusted oracle, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet on March 17, 1959, entering into an on-going exile in India, where he has led the Tibetan government-in-exile and headed a peaceful movement for a free Tibet.

Tenzin Gyatso’s nonviolent perspective is founded on the principles of Buddha and is also greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. After visiting the Rajghat, the site of Gandhi’s cremation, the Dalai Lama said,
I wondered what precious advice I might have received if he were still alive. I felt deeply that he would have devoted his wholehearted energy and personal charisma in a non- violent campaign for the freedom of the Tibetan people. With deepening fervor, I regretted not being able to meet him in this world.[…] I renewed my decision to follow his example, no matter what the obstacles. And more than ever, I resolved to never associate myself with acts of violence. 
This commitment to the principles of nonviolence is briefly examined in Claude B. Levenson’s Tenzin Gyatso: The Early Life of the Dalai Lama.

Levenson’s biography of this Tibetan spiritual and political leader expertly details the events and circumstances surrounding Tenzin Gyatso’s formative years. Chronicling the occurrences from Gyatso’s birth until his exile at age twenty-four, Levenson simultaneously provides a comprehensive memoir of the Precious Victorious One’s life and elucidates the traditions of Buddhism and the lineage of the mystical Dalai Lama. The author’s extensive knowledge of Buddhism and Tibetan history, as evidenced by her numerous other works on the subject, is a major strength of this biography. Additionally, the personal conversations recounted in this biography between Levenson and the Dalai Lama provide insight into and humanize this almost god-like figure.

Although strong in its factual components, Tenzin Gyatso: The Early Life of the Dalai Lama lacks analytical depth. Levenson briefly mentions the influences of Buddhism on the Dalai Lama’s pacifist nature; however, as the biography concludes with Gyatso entering into exile, the reader is not afforded the opportunity to learn about the peaceful progressive movement led by the Dalai Lama, or the nonviolent methods used as part of this movement. Levenson’s biography serves more to illuminate the enigmatic process by which Lhamo Thondup came to be Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso rather than to examine the Dalai Lama’s work as one of the twentieth century’s most renowned nonviolent leaders.

Upon reading Tenzin Gyatso: The Early Life of the Dalai Lama I felt unsatisfied. This, however, is a credit to, not a detriment of, Levenson’s biography of the fourteenth incarnation of the Dalai Lama. I was so captivated by the humility and intelligence of the Dalai Lama, as portrayed in Levenson’s memoir of Tenzin Gyatso, that I was not content to learn simply about the first twenty-four year of his life. I instead felt compelled to further explore the life of Tenzin Gyatso and his efforts in the struggle for a free Tibet. Claude B. Levenson’s Tenzin Gyatso: The Early Life of the Dalai Lama serves as an excellent starting point in a journey to understand the life of this great spiritual and political leader.

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