Two Journeys Into the World of Tibet

Reviews of In the Shadow of the Buddha by Matteo Pistono and Tragedy in Crimson by Tim Johnson.

In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet Matteo Pistono; foreword by Richard Gere Dutton, 272 pp.

Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China Tim Johnson Nation Books, 352 pp.

Reviewed by Mindy C. Reiser

Few international issues have drawn such widespread and sustained popular concern as the cause of Tibetan religious and cultural rights. The struggle for Tibetan freedom and self determination, waged now in the face of an increasingly assertive China, has attracted the support of such well known figures as South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, Czech dissident and man of letters Vaclav Havel, and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Richard Gere, Hollywood star and activist, a tireless promoter of Tibetan human rights, serves as chair of the International Campaign for Tibet. For many across the world, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader, has taken on the role of an international moral beacon in the company of such figures as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. His guidance on ethical and spiritual concerns is widely sought and his counsel revered.

Two new books shed an illuminating light on current developments in Tibet. Matteo Pistono’s In the Shadow of the Buddha is written from the perspective of a student and seeker of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom who finds himself, perforce, deeply engaged in the struggle for Tibetan human rights. Tim Johnson’s Tragedy in Crimson is a tour d’horizon, a wide-ranging overview of the political, economic and cultural terrain in Tibet and the broader forces that will impact its future.

The books complement one another. In the Shadow of the Buddha speaks from a vantage point within Tibetan tradition. It addresses the many people who are captivated by Tibetan religious teaching and spiritual practices and underscores the power these traditions have and have had on seekers from both West and East. Its author, a former political activist and lobbyist for the Sierra Club, writes as both student and guide to Tibetan Buddhism and as the founder of Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites. Tragedy in Crimson richly describes and analyzes the many cross-currents that swirl around the fate of Tibet. Its author, a longtime foreign correspondent who speaks fluent Mandarin, spent six years as Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.  He writes as an investigative journalist and ever-questioning observer.

Both books have their fair share of nail-biting episodes, whiffs of spy novels brought to life as their authors encounter security and intelligence forces. Pistono, in particular, describes a number of episodes in which sheer chutzpah and huge doses of luck steer him safely through potentially disastrous brushes with Chinese security who – had they known – would have pounced on the documented evidence that he carried, showing abuse of Tibetan prisoners, the needs of jailed monks and nuns for medicine, and the names and locations of prisons and political prisoners.

Pistono invites the reader to share his spiritual and geographic odysseys as a pilgrim, seeking to situate himself within the venerable and esoteric world of Tibetan spiritual practices. Readers join with this Wyoming-born follower of Buddhism as he deepens and solidifies his identification with a venerated turn-of-the-20th-century Tibetan spiritual and political figure named Tertön Sogyal, who bestrides and melds the religious and secular realms with profound spiritual understanding and political sagacity.

Through Pistono’s narrative, readers accompany him as he learns Tibetan religious traditions directly from several of the most highly venerated teachers in Tibet, each with strengths in one particular form of teaching. Along the way, he gains insights from the nuns, monks and pilgrims whose paths intersect with his in Buddhist encampments and holy sites. Readers follow Pistono as he unveils esoteric Tibetan traditions and seeks to master the ritual of the phurba or three-bladed, single-pointed dagger, representing “skillful use of compassion and the destruction of the self-cherishing ego.” We understand the depth of the Tibetan commitment to compassion when Pistono relates the concern of Tibetan nuns and monks, themselves victims of torture by Chinese jailers, over the potential diminution of their ability to feel compassion for their Chinese captors. With selflesssness, these nuns and monks identify their possible waning compassion as “a danger.”

Tim Johnson’s Tragedy in Crimson embarks on a different kind of journey.  Johnson brings his readers to a number of sites critical to an understanding of the on-the-ground reality of Tibetan struggles and aspirations. Johnson further places Chinese policy and actions toward Tibet within the broader frame of Chinese history and deeply-held Chinese fears and vulnerabilities. Johnson’s travels take him to traditional Tibetan herding communities in the Tibetan Plateau; to Lhasa, literally “The Abode of the Gods,” and spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism; and to Dharamsala, seat of Tibet’s government-in-exile and parliament-in-exile. He interviews members of the exile government and activists from the Tibetan diaspora, in addition to the Dalai Lama and Ogyen Trinley Dorje, an important emerging religious leader and potential unifying figure when the Dalai Lama is no longer alive.

With an understanding and appreciation of the world of realpolitik, Johnson voices concern over the impact of growing Chinese economic power on Tibetan religious and cultural freedom. He illustrates the exertion of Chinese “muscle” on all things Tibetan by pointing to the successful Chinese lobbying effort – in the California state legislature – against a resolution in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. Johnson is pessimistic about the ability of governments currently supporting Tibet to withstand threats of economic blackmail. Chinese paranoia about Tibet has even led China to cancel a summit with the European Union simply because French president Nicolas Sarkozy greeted the Dalai Lama in Poland.

To his credit, and thanks to his immersion in and understanding of Chinese history and culture, Johnson provides a framework for understanding some of the reasons behind China’s stance toward Tibet. He reminds readers of the memory deeply engrained in the Chinese psyche of the country’s hundred years of humiliation by foreigners from the period of the Opium Wars until 1949 and the rise of Mao Tse-tong. Johnson underscores the Chinese fear of separatism and observes that about one-sixth of the landmass of China is comprised of the traditional homelands of Tibetans, Mongolians and Uighurs. Chinese attacks alleging that the Dalai Lama is “splittist” reflect fears – however erroneous or misguided – that separatist movements will lead to the breakup of the nation.

Tragedy in Crimson, in its sweep and depth of coverage, can well serve as assigned reading for college courses on contemporary China, contemporary religion, as well as courses focusing specifically on Tibet. It is basic reading for anyone seeking a firm grounding in current developments in Tibet and an appreciation of possibilities and options going forward. In the Shadow of the Buddha, while more limited in focus, is particularly valuable for those in search of insight into the contemporary practice of Buddhism in Tibet and the personal and political obstacles to so doing. Furthermore, In the Shadow of the Buddha contains an extensive bibliography rich in references to writings on Tibetan Buddhism, as well as a glossary and brief biographical descriptions of a number of the figures discussed in the text. Both books would have benefited from photographs.

Tim Johnson’s searching exploration of Tibetan prospects concludes with serious concern over the ability of Tibet’s supporters to withstand the Chinese economic and political juggernaut. Matteo Pistono concludes his Tibetan odyssey more hopefully with an homage to the legacy of Tertön Sogyal, his chosen spiritual master, through the construction of a stupa or reliquary monument at the site of Tertön Sogyal’s last encampment where his house and temple once stood. Fittingly, Pistono closes the account of his sacred journey with a verse he heard recited by the Dalai Lama:

For as long as space exists

And sentient beings endure.

May I too remain,

To dispel the misery of the world.

Mindy C. Reiser, Ph.D. is a sociologist and writer who has traveled in Tibet.


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