4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A Very Readable and Balanced History of the Institution of the Dalai Lama,
This review is from: The Secret Lives of the Dalai Lama: Holder of the White Lotus: The Lives of the Dalai Lama (Paperback)I received this book as a gift and I put off starting it as I thought it might be quite a dry history, albeit about a very interesting topic. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is in fact very well written and highly readable. Alexander Norman has succeeded in doing something that few manage - he has provided a balanced history of Tibet and the institution of the Dalai Lama that also shows his great respect for and interest in the country.
There are two main (incorrect) views of Tibet that are widely proliferated these days: The first view is that Tibet is a mini kingdom of heaven on earth where nobody does anything wrong or bad, and that Dalai Lama's and Tibetan officials have always been completely perfect. The other view is that Tibet is secretly a really hellish place and that the Dalai Lama himself is a horribly corrupt, manipulative man who will do anything to get his own way. Norman rejects both these views and instead offers a less extreme but nonetheless very interesting portrait, which shows the true complexity of the issue. He also questions China's claim of historically "owning" Tibet, but without denying that the two countries have long had an entangled and complicated history.
As it turns out, there have been a fair amount of power-hungry officials in Tibet, and also instances where the Dalai Lama of the time didn't exactly behave himself. On the other hand, it is clear that a lot of Tibetan history is written from a spiritual perspective, which shows that even though Tibet's various officials haven't always been completely moral, the country as a whole has tended towards a spiritual rather than a material focus. But yes, let's be clear here - Tibet has never been a country completely free of all problems. Whilst it may have an overarchingly spiritual mindset, that does not automatically mean that everyone of its citizens is or was a saint.
Regarding the issue of whether China ever "owned" Tibet, or whether Tibet conquered large chunks of China, both these statements are slightly misleading. Going back in history, borders, empires and kingdoms changed around a lot more than they do now. Various different invaders have had a go at Tibet, including Mongolia, various factions of China, and also Nepal; and Tibet also had a go at expanding it's own territory on occasion. But Tibet's relationship with China mostly took the form of spiritual institution and patron, respectively. In return for spiritual teachings and advice, China, or more specifically the Qing Dynasty, offered protection and lavish gifts. Various warlords in Mongolia also enjoyed such a relationship with Tibet. Whether or not the whole of Tibet was ever historically actually considered part of China (or Mongolia, or any other country for that matter) is a matter that is definitely up for debate - historical records seem to show that it was not listed in records in the same way as other areas that were definitely considered part of China (or Mongolia), possibly indicating that it was considered a separate entity.
As well as clearing up these misconceptions (with much more detail and clarity than I have quickly done here!), Norman also clarifies some of the more vague bits of Tibetan history. Because of Tibet's all-pervasive spirituality, some historical records focus quite heavily on spiritual explanations of what happened, which sometimes don't seem to completely align with the truth. Norman compares these spiritual accounts with other historical accounts of the time, and offers interpretations and explanations for the differences and the truth about what most likely actually happened. He does this with great respect and without mocking the sometimes rather unusual way in which Tibet has chosen to remember events, instead offering reasons for why the more spiritual and even esoteric explanations would have made more sense or been more desirable for Tibetans of the time.
Overall, it is a fascinating, intelligent read. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Tibet, Buddhism or the Dalai Lama.