Monday, March 21, 2011

Guttersnipe Reviews: The Story of Tibet

Thomas Laird

The Story of Tibet

Atlantic Books, 2006

Anyone with an interest in Tibet should read this book -- even if they typically find history books dull or daunting. Not only does it offer a clear overview of Tibetan history – a subject notoriously difficult to untangle – it does two other things that are entirely fascinating.

First, of all the books I’ve read by and about the Dalai Lama, this one gives the clearest view of what he’s actually like as a person. Despite his elevated status, the Dalai Lama is stunningly matter-of-fact. His stories about crashing cars in the Norbulingka or going to meet Mao are unforgettable, as is his willingness to tell the truth about the times in his life he has felt fear or anger or even hopelessness.

When Thomas Laird asks, on page 322, if the Dalai’s Lama’s dettachment means he does not suffer as much, the Dalai Lama gets irritated and snaps, “Dettachment does not mean that I am like a rock.” Indeed, the man found in this book is nothing like a rock and nothing like a god, but he remains extraordinary. Over and over as I read this book, I thought, “My mind is like a matchbox; the Dalai Lama’s mind is like a ballpark.”

The other reason to buy and read this book – in my opinion the number one reason – is the unparalled view it gives of how the sacred may intervene and interact with human history. The Dalai Lama believes “the Tibetan case is unique because there is a connection to a mysterious level of sorts”. That belief is central to his discussions with Thomas Laird, who loves to challenge him, to ask, basically, “How could you possibly believe that?!” Mr. Laird pushes the Dalai Lama; he’s even willing to be a little rude – and the answers he receives may blow your mind!

On page 191, Laird writes, “As he had said to me earlier about conventional and unconventional perceptions of reality, ‘Both are true.’ Or at the very least, both are possible, and it is impossible to pin reality down any further than that..” Conventional historians may scoff at such a statement – or else despair – but Laird beautifully accomodates both views, the Dalai Lama’s sacred vision and his own disbelief, producing in the process a history book like no other.

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