The Dalai Lama: A Biography by Claude B Levenson (Hyman, £10.95) Katie Hickman
THE Dalai Lama himselt tells a story of when he first came to Lhasa as a young child, when a wise scholar, a very great lama, confided to his disciples after seeing him that "the Fourteenth would be a good Dalai Lama, but perhaps the last." With the many troubles at present facing Tibet, the most unstable of all China's so-called "Autonomous Regions", troubles which some believe could threaten the very existence of Tibetan Buddhism, the time has never been riper for a biography of the remarkable man sho is its figurehead.
Tenzin Gyatso, God King of Tibet, is the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in a succession of reincarnations which dates back to the mid-seventeenth century. Ordained into the reformed Gelukpa school of Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is believed by the Tibetans to be a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Chenrezig, the patron deity of Tibet, and is revered by them as both the spiritual and temporal leader of their nation.
Traditionally the Dalai Lama rules from the famous Potala Palace in Lhasa, but in 1951 the Chinese invaded Tibet, and in 1959 put down an anti-Chinese uprising with such brutality that it forced the Dalai Lama and many hundreds of thousan-lof his people into exile. Tods., nearly thirty years later, th^ Dalai Lama heads a Government-in-exile in Dharamsala in northern India, and is still struggling to find a peaceful solution to his country's predicament.
It cannot be easy to choose a man who is both a king and a god as a research subject and I had the feeling throughout reading this book that Mrs Levenson was, perhaps understandably, overwhelmed by her task. The result all too often deteriorates into a naive Panegyric which obscures rather than illuminates,
The same goes for the unique historical and political context in which he has lived. While there can be few people in the west who do not question the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Mrs Levenson tackles this central issue from such a blatantly partisan viewpoint that it begins to read like the worst kind of political propaganda.
At no point does she make any attempt to give the Chinese, or anyone else's, point of view (however misguided), or to assess the facts in an objective way.
The one strength of the book is the Dalai Lama himself, especially when he is allowed to speak for himself, unhampered by Mrs Levenson, which fortunately she quite often allows him to do. Does the Dalai Lama believe in God? What is the logic behind the Buddhist theory of reincarnation? The theological discussions which form the latter half of the book make fascinating reading; what is even the most complex metaphysical teachings of this great mystic seen crystal clear after the ramblings of his biographer.
With this important exception, this book is a strange, anfused mixture of incomplete facts and subjective panegyric, padded out with what I can only describe as a kind of quidimystical waffle on the author's behalf, all of which leave the reader permanently hungry for something more substantial.