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THE LAST DALAI LAMA by Michael Harris Goodman



Pub Date: May 16th, 1986
Publisher: Shambhala--dist. by Random House

A competent biography of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of Tibet, from his discovery in a remote Tibetan village in 1937 to his self-imposed exile in 1959. While Americans choose their leaders by popular ballot, Tibetans employ a rather more arcane method: after the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, his followers propped up his embalmed corpse and watched which way the head tilted. This and other signs led a search committee of high lamas to proclaim a precocious three-year-old boy from eastern Tibet as the new Dalai Lama, reincarnation of the Buddhist deity, Chenresi. Tanzin Gyatso spent the next decade sequestered in Lhasa's Potala Palace, poring over ancient Buddhist texts and playing with its few mechanical devices--a movie projector, a broken generator--in a country with no roads, no telephones, no wheeled vehicles. As he grew older, he also developed his diplomatic skills in a failed attempt to ward off Chinese expansionism. The crunch came in 1959, when the Communists, now occupying Tibet, attempted to kidnap the Dalai Lama; the god-king's only choice was exile. Harris obviously idolizes his subject, whom he adorns with marvelous attributes: ""a brilliant theologian,"" ""gentle and resolute,"" and so on. Although by all testimony the Dalai Lama deserves such praise--he is beloved by his people and highly respected by other world leaders--this does lend the book a slightly embarrassing sheen of hero-worship. It's also worth noting that much of the text is not really biography, but rather a series of introductory essays on the geography, culture, and history of Tibet, followed by a detailed summary of this battered nation's subjugation (up to 1959) under Chinese rule. Nonetheless, as an evocation of a mystical land, and as a profile of a statesman who puts compassion before power (Reagan, Gorbachev, take note), this deserves bouquets.