Friday, November 10, 2006
BOOK REVIEW - MY LAND & MY PEOPLE
When the mind is at complete peace, certain thoughts and certain cravings crop up.
While on the wonderful trip of Sikkim, I visited a handful of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries as well as met so many Tibetans. I found them to simple and extremely religious people. And when you think of Tibetan Buddhism, the first name to come to mind is that of The Dalai Lama. Books can be found everywhere, but I thought this would probably be a better place to pick one about The Dalai Lama. Faulty logic? Could be, but it's definitely easier to find such books here.
The book in question is : "My Land and My People" authored by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.
My purpose of purchase was a hope for a glimpse of his teachings, and his religion. All over the world, we know him as a compassionate, peaceful and gentle soul. And what could be better to complete the pilgrimage-like trip with a reading of his book? Surprisingly, I found this book to have negligible mention of his sermons and teachings. This autobiography deals mainly with his story from childhood to the unfortunate time when he had to take asylum in India. The Dalai Lama speaks of the tradition of finding the next incarnate of a Dalai Lama when the preceding one passes away or is about to depart from wordly constraints. It gives serene glimpses of daily life in erstwhile Tibet, the religion & culture (some of which I had the privilege to witness in person).
More than 70 years ago, 10 % of the population of Tibet were monks, and their life revolved around their religion and the Dalai Lama was akin to God for the masses. He was to be both the religious as well as political leader, a King of sorts. Buddhism speaks of re-incarnation, and with this theory the Tibetans believe in the reincarnations of the religious leaders too. Thus, the person directly chosen by the departing Dalai Lama, or the person singled out by many events and heavenly signs is to be the next Dalai Lama, the reincarnation of the previous one.
As I said, 10% of the population were monks, and they led simple, austere lives, studying extensively in arts, crafts, dialectics, astronomy, metaphysics, philosophy of religion, Sanskrit and Buddhism. Prayers and meditation formed the essence of their daily lives. There was no ill-will against any one, not even the prospective foe. Reading all this, I was transported to another realm where I felt a lot at peace, and for a brief moment, wished to be a monk. The Dalai Lama agrees that their system of governance was flawed and that their deliberate isolation from the outside world left them very vulnerable to perversion. Their contentment with what little they had, and no ambition to gain more left them ignorant - of the laws of the land, of politics, and left them wide open for invasion. The invasion came in pretty much a similar fashion as it had in India.The Chinese, like the British, feigned to be traders and slowly infiltrated the country and soon took over it. They proposed development projects, and argued that they would remain only as long as the Tibetans wanted, and would hand the wheels of the country back to the Tibetans when they were capable of it. Of course, that never happened. Like the British in India, the Chinese corrupted every aspect of Tibetan life and took over it, bit by bit. The Dalai Lama agrees that under the Chinese regime, a lot of development & prosperity did occur, but at what cost? The Chinese forced their rules & beliefs on the timid Tibetans, they enforced heavy taxes and worst of all, they hit the Tibetans where it hurts them the most. Tibetans are extremely religious people, and as I mentioned before, The Dalai Lama is of paramount significance to them. By undermining his authority, and imposing sanctions on religious meetings and the like, they really incensed the Tibetans. They became just like slaves, having to give up their way of dressing and food, losing their natural sense of mirth and their independance. Truly, as the Tata safari ad suggests, slavery was not dead here. They had just stopped recognising it. But when realisation dawned, the dam of patience gave way, and the Tibetans revolted. The Dalai Lama was a keen student of Buddhism, and also an avid follower of Mahatma Gandhi, both of which preach non-violence. He was pained by this turn of events, and always maintained that there has to be a peaceful method of solving things. Sadly, he had to give in, and flee to India, not so much as for his own safety but for that of his people in Tibet - who would have been massacred trying to protect him. Once in India, he met the President, ice president and the then Prime Minister, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru,. Unfortunately, his fond wish of meeting Mahatma Gandhi was shattered since Gandhiji had been assassinated. It was Pandit Nehru who advised The Dalai Lama about arousing international sympathy. And that's how The Dalai Lama was enlightened to the tactics and importance of politics. His repeated pleas to the International community and the United Nations focussed the world's attention on China and slowly, through an Enquiry Committee, the horrors of Chinese rule came forward. Lets just say that those horrors were pretty much similar to what had happened in the German refugee camps during Hitler's rule.
Years have passed since then. Tibet is still not a free country. The atrocities might have stopped, but freedom is a reality still millions of fathoms away for the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama was granted asylum and residence in Dharmashala, Himachal Pradesh, India, and since then he has done all he can to pressurize China to accord an autonomous status to Tibet. But I guess over the years, other events have taken precedence and the attention of the world has shifted elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Tibetans toil on, under The Dalai Lama's spiritual guidance, still looking for that elusive freedom.
The book, for the most part of it, tells us of this sad story, and of the hope for a better tomorrow.
The last handful of pages focus more on Buddhism. This is what the Dalai Lama has to say about religions :
"Just as a particular disease is treated by various medical methods, so there are many religions to bring happiness to human beings & others. Different doctrines have been introduced by different exponents at different periods & in different ways. But I believe that they all fundamentally aim at the same noble goal, in teaching moral precepts to mould the functions of mind, body & speech. They all tell us not to tell lies, or bear false witness, or steal, or take others' lives, and so on. Therefore, it would be better if disunity among the followers of different religions could come to an end. Unity among religions is not an impossible idea, and in the present state of the world, it is especially important. The perfect practice of any religion is not achieved merely through superficial changes, for example through leading a monastic life or reciting from holy books. It is even open to question whether these activities in themselves should be called religious or not; for religion should be practiced in the mind. If one has the right mental attitude, all actions of body & speech can become religious. But if one lacks the right attitude, if one does not know how to think properly, one will achieve nothing even by spending the whole of one's life in monasteries and in reading from the scriptures"
Isn't that very true and so beautifully stated? I have always believed in this wisdom, and needless to say, I have become a fan of Dalai Lama.
The remainder of the book talks about the teachings of Lord Buddha and a bit more detail of the principles of Buddhism, including the theories of what causes suffering in our lives and how we can overcome them. For the first time in my life, I came to know a little more about my own religion. But the details of that would be out of the scope of this weblog. However, the book is brilliant, depressing at times, but refreshing on the whole. I truly recommend it.