The Dalai Lama has come to town. I will be covering his speech at Maples Pavilion tomorrow morning, and later in the day, “Harry’s Last Lecture” at Memorial Church. I have already written about why he is returning to Stanford here. (Clue: It’s not the palm trees or the ipods.)
Tonight, I returned briefly to his 1990 autobiography, Freedom in Exile, in which the spiritual, the superstitious, the mythical, and the matter-of-fact are tossed in a uniquely Tibetan salad.
He recalled the summer 1950 earthquake that, to him, was an “omen from the gods, a portent of terrible things to come.” He remembered crashing “like an artillery barrage” a few days before news of the Chinese invasion. He was 15 years old:
“Some people even reported seeing a strange red glow in the skies in the direction from which the noise came. It gradually emerged that people had experienced it not only in the vicinity of Llasa but throughout the length and breadth of Tibet …
Now from very early on, I have always had a great interest in science. So naturally, I wanted to find a scientific basis for this extraordinary event. When I saw Heinrich Harrer a few days later, I asked him what he thought was the explanation, not only for the earth tremors, but more importantly for the strange celestial phenomena. He told me he was certain that the two were related. It must be a cracking of the earth’s crust caused by the upward movement of whole mountains.
To me, this sounded plausible, but unlikely. Why would a cracking of the earth’s crust manifest itself as a glow in the night sky accompanied by thunderclaps and, furthermore, how could it be that it was witnessed over such immense distances? I did not think that Harrer’s theories told the whole story. Even to this day I do not. Perhaps there is a scientific explanation, but my own feeling is that what happened is presently beyond science, something truly mysterious. In this case, I find it much easier to accept that what I witnessed was metaphysical. At any rate, warning from on high or mere rumblings from below, the situation in Tibet deteriorated rapidly thereafter.”
Browsing through the book, what’s remarkable is the equanimity of tone, which blunts the edge of drama at Chinese lies and betrayal, even though he admits to being at times “scared” and “furious.” He had to slip away to escape, in disguise, to slip the tens of thousands who had gathered to protect him from the Chinese:
“We left Lhasa at dead of night. It was cold but very light, I remember. The stars in Tibet shine with a brightness I have not seen anywhere else in the world. It was also very still and my heart missed a beat every time one of the ponies stumbled as we made our way stealthily from the courtyard at the foot of the Potala, past the Norbulingka and Drepung monastery. Yet I was not really afraid.”
In Nepal, in the 1970s, I remember interviewing a monk who had been one of about 2500 in one of Tibet’s monasteries. When the Chinese attacked, they had four antiquated rifles to defend themselves. Sipping Tibetan tea as we spoke (and sipping is all you can do unless you’ve acquired the taste for it; it has butter and salt in it), I remember his patient voice and calm smile as he told of the onslaught of the modern Chinese forces. I also remember sophisticated Tibetan hoteliers who had been shepherds in the Tibetan mountains, alone for days with their yaks. Tibetan practicality again.
For all of them, the story of their own exile began with the Dalai Lama’s end flight into India, never to return:
“After bidding these people a tearful farewell, I was helped on to the broad back of a dzumo [a cross between a yak and a cow — and no, I couldn’t find a photo on google], for I was still too ill to ride a horse. And it was on this humble form of transport that I left my native land.”
If you have a romantic image of the Dalai Lama chewing on his pen, scribbling his autobiography, you should know I have it on very sound authority that the Dalai Lama does not actually write his own books. Who is the culprit? I suspect Jinpa Thupten, the Cambridge-educated sidekick and translator, now a member of the faculty of McGill University of Montreal.