Tibet, Tibet: Book Review

At age 16 Mr. French met the Dalai Lama in 1982 when His Holiness visited the Catholic school for boys he attended. He was quite fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s style and exoticism. “Joy poured from him; there was no trace of piety, the great Christian virtue.”[1] Later French’s fascination led to his becoming one of the leaders of the Free Tibet Campaign and editor of the Campaign’s magazine.[2]  “The Tibetan cause became a central part of my life, and many friendships and relationships developed from it.”[3]

And it was, and is, a very worthy cause. In 1950 the Communist Chinese invaded Tibet. They destroyed 6,000 monasteries and killed 1.2 million people, one-fifth the entire population. Only 70 monasteries remained.[4] The Communists looted the monasteries, confiscating their money, gold, carvings and grain reserves.[5] They told the villagers that “religion was poison and monks were parasites.”[6] And the Communists made sure that the monks who remained were of ill repute.[7]

Before finishing the book Mr. French was very empathetic toward, if not fully persuaded about, Buddhism.

For me, Tibetan Buddhism was a workable approach. Leaving the Roman Catholic faith of my childhood was not hard. Buddhism appeared to create contentment among its followers, and reincarnation seemed a fair explanation of what happened to the spirit after death. So my admiration was partially utilitarian: it felt good to be around Tibetans, and if their religion brought good to them, it was worth pursuing….It was the Buddhist explanation of life, the universe and everything that drew me, rather than the ritual or the theology.[8]

In spite of the empathy and admiration of Tibetan Buddhism evident in his book, French had numerous reservations about it. Tibet, Tibet emerged out of “a gradual nervousness that the idea of Tibet, particularly the views of Tibet campaigners, was becoming too detached from the reality of what Tibet was like. So I did a long journey through Tibet in 1999.”[9]

In a book review by Pico Iyer published in The Los Angeles Times, Iyer described French as a “scrupulous and disciplined writer” who “has a decided gift for inspired and heartfelt research and a knack for coming upon overlooked details that are worth several volumes of analysis.”[10] Tibet, Tibet is a treasure trove of historical and sociological observations about Tibet and its communist oppressors.

So, what reservations did French cite about Tibetan Buddhism? Here are the primary ones:

1) “The outward aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and the celibate male hierarchy running the show, were what I found least appealing, although I still respected the Dalai Lama.”[11]

2) “As I studied Buddhism more closely, some of the failings began to show, and I noted the schisms, bigots, frauds, hypocrites and predators that you would find in any ecclesiastical system.”[12]

3) “I was put off too by the tone of many of the foreign converts, who thought they could strip the tradition of its tough ethical underpinnings. They were implausible, with their showy accountrements of conversion, their beads and bracelets, their devotion to instant spiritual empowerment, their reliance on airport-hopping teachers who were not always taken seriously by Tibetans.”[13]

4) “…there were the prominent blunders: the teacher and promoter Sogyal Rinpoche, served with a lawsuit for seducing a student; and the Nyingmapa monk Penor Rinpoche who, in the most dubious circumstances, identified the high-kicking Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal (Marked for Death, Hard to Kill) as a reincarnation of the seventeenth-century master Chungdrag Dorje.”[14]

5) “I was also cautioned by the Dalai Lama’s own refusal to proselytise. After long observation, he had decided that conversion usually led to confusion, and that without the support of the prevailing culture, it was hard to maintain your spiritual practice: ‘In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you? Homeless inside yourself.’”[15]

The book does not provide further elaboration on why the Dalai Lama is so reticent to encourage Westerners to convert to Buddhism. This is a very important question. My own research led to comments from two other sources:

1) The Dalai Lama has said that “westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”[16]

2) What kind of difficulties might the Dalai Lama be referring to? Lorin Roche, Ph.D., a meditation instructor who has counseled thousands of people who have engaged in prolonged, intensive meditation, offered his own list on his website.[17] It includes: 1) depression, 2) a feeling of being lost, 3) trouble adapting to life in the city, 4) weird health problems, 5) bipolar disorders, 6) panic attacks, 7) psychosis, and 8) suicide. His web posting, “The Dangers of Meditation,” is an astonishingly revealing and thorough document.

Obviously, Dr. Roche’s list does not refer to issues involved in practicing short sessions of meditation, since he himself strongly advocates it. The challenge is that anyone hoping to attain liberation and enlightenment must engage in prolonged, intensive meditation. It is an essential part of the route to Nirvana. That is the conundrum that Buddhism presents to Westerners attracted to it. People in the West are so conditioned to indulge in worldly gratifications that highly disciplined self- denial is extremely difficult and debilitating. And the self-imposed isolation that such marathon meditation requires is psychologically perilous, especially for people who already have major issues.

No wonder the Dalai Lama doesn’t push conversion to people in the West. And yet, it is obvious that he wants Westerners to have a very positive view of Tibetan Buddhism. Why? He wants our support of his efforts to free Tibet.

[1] Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 17.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 63.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Ibid., 44.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Interview: “Nandini Lal on Patrick French,” Outlook Magazine. www.outlookindia.com/fullprint.asp?choice=1&fodname=20030310&fname=french&sid=1, dated March 10, 2003. Retrieved November 1, 2012.

[10] “Himalayan Descent,” The Los Angeles Times. articles.latimes.com/2003/oct/19/books/bk-iyer19, dated October 19, 2003. Retrieved November 1, 2012.

[11] Op. cit., French, 24.

[12] Ibid., 26.

[13] Ibid., 26.

[14] Ibid, 26-27.

[15] Ibid., 27.

[16] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September/October 2007, thehumanist.com/magazine/september-october-2007/features/can-meditation-be-bad-for-you. Retrieved November 22, 2010.

[17] Lorin Roche, “The Dangers of Meditation,” www.lorinroche.com/dangers/homeless.html. Retrieved September 18, 2010.