The titles of these two books--"Freedom in Exile," a simple and powerful autobiography by the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, and "My Tibet," a sumptuous and touching glimpse of his country and people--are themselves simple, powerful and quite disarming.
They are also quite paradoxical. Exile, after all, seems a sort of inverted imprisonment in which one is held captive by exclusion. So long as one is exiled, how can one be free? Similarly, since the Dalai Lama has been excluded from his rightful rule by an army of occupation, can he really call the land his own?
His Holiness, however, has chosen these titles very precisely in order to suggest a way in which people can survive even when confronted with problems of the kind that are now plaguing Tibet. "Freedom in Exile" confronts these problems indirectly. Instead of explicit teaching, it offers a simple and heartfelt description of external events. We must look between the lines for spiritual nourishment.
"My Tibet," in turn, offers a hybrid of photography and photojournalism that powerfully captures the Tibet that has inspired the Dalai Lama's spirit: the placid meadow at the top of the world; the image of a nomadic couple whose inner joy is more palpable than words alone can describe; the serene face of a snow leopard; the prayers carved in rock faces.
One of the most remarkable photos is of a panda's face. Bringing us into a curious intimacy with the animal itself--the "sentient being"--it bears absolutely no resemblance to the cute panda drawings that too often festoon billboards.
Accompanying the photographs are essays (or is it the other way around?) by His Holiness on "Compassion, World Peace, and Happiness," "Ecology and the Human Heart," "Universal Responsibility and the Environment" and "The Meaning of Pilgrimage." The essential lesson they bring home is that we always can be free in mind, if not in body. This, of course, is also the lesson of another Nobel laureate in exile--Alexander Solzhenitsyn--but it is a teaching that has come to us in countless forms, religious and secular, over the centuries. Outwardly, we might experience freedom, but inwardly we are exiles, cut off from our source of inner vitality: To this extent, we are exiles in freedom. What His Holiness suggests is another possibility.
The circumstances that led to the Dalai Lama's exile are ignored as often as they are described. In 1950, the People's Republic of China invaded Tibet and annexed it as a province, slaughtering Tibetans by the thousands and enslaving others. The tumultuous process is described here in detail, and though the facts are familiar, they are no less heartbreaking.
Although the young Dalai Lama (15 at the time of the invasion) struggled to cooperate with the Chinese government, his efforts only met with betrayal and violence; Tibetan resistance, in fact, received conspicuously little support from the United States, Britain or other nations of the world. And so, after nearly a decade of peace efforts, His Holiness slipped over the Indian border in 1959, beginning what is by now a 30-year exile from his homeland.
China's massacres of Tibetans the following year were described accurately as genocidal by the International Commission of Jurists in 1960, while in 1972, the Warren Committee reported that an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans had been slaughtered--as much as 20% of the population. To this day, however, the Dalai Lama has not been received by the U.S. State Department, much less acknowledged by any American President.
The world at large, nevertheless, is beginning at last to recognize the Dalai Lama's persistent efforts to bring his country's plight to the attention of world leaders. In 1989, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for offering "peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people. . . . In the opinion of the (Norwegian Nobel) Committee, the Dalai Lama has come forward with constructive and forward-looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts, human-rights issues and global environmental problem."
The committee's statement underscores what is remarkable about the Dalai Lama's efforts: their universality. The Dalai Lama's notion of "the health of the whole" suggests that Tibet is but one limb of the body of the world. If we treat only some organs or limbs of that body, perhaps a kind of health may prevail, but is it comprehensive? And is the health of the individual members sufficient to permit the whole to achieve its full potential?
The Dalai Lama's story of exile must serve, of course, as a vital historical witness, not only to inhumanity but to compassion as well, not only to betrayal and treachery but to generosity and faithfulness. And yet these two books constitute more than a historical document, for they suggest ways of finding freedom even amid subjugation by recognizing, even in moments of violent confrontation, the basic humanity of the oppressors.