15 March 2007
A Review of Born in Tibet
Born in Tibet recounts the early life of the 11th Trungpa Tulku Chogyam Trunpa (Tibetan spelling: Chos kyi Rgya mtsho Drung pa) as well as the political situation in Tibet from 1939 to 1960. Directed toward a Western audience, Born in Tibet describes the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. Chogyam Trungpa was born in Eastern Tibet (Kham) and, as an incarnate lama, was raised and educated in various monasteries within the Kagyu Sect. However, this education was interrupted by the threat of Communist occupation and the narrator was forced to escape into India. Although the narrator’s distaste for the Chinese Communists decreases the objectivity of the narrative, the work is valuable in that it conveys the perspective of an Eastern Tibetan; it also provides Westerners with a concrete understanding of Tibetan culture and life.
Born in Tibet, which recounts the early life of the 11th Trungpa Tulku Chogyam Trungpa (alternate spelling: Chos-kyi Rgya-mtsho Drungpa), functions as a personal narrative as well as a description of eastern Tibetan social and political realities from 1939 to 1960. This interval is marked by Chogyam Trungpa’s birth, recognition as an incarnate lama, education, and escape to India as a means of evading the Chinese Communist Party. The work represents a deliberate attempt to describe Tibet to a Western audience unfamiliar with monasticism and Tibetan society; it claims that Chinese involvement during this time was particularly violent and destructive.
Chogyam Trungpa’s personal story is directed toward a western audience that is unfamiliar with the Buddhist religion and Tibetan society; it is dominated by basic description of familial relations and the conditions of daily life. This narrative begins before Chogyam Trungpa’s actual birth in Kham, because signs of his incarnate status were observed from the moment of his conception, in which his mother had a “very significant dream” (25). He then describes the monks’ official procedure for discovering incarnations, which consisted of divination rituals and trials administered to several infant candidates. The tradition to which Chogyam Trungpa belonged, the Kagyu sect, is also described in basic terms for a western audience; he even gives suggestions of good works (in English translation) for further information.
The narrative regarding the young lama’s education is both poignant and picturesque. Chogyam Trungpa describes the frustration of a young lama; he misses his mother and is “never allowed to play with the children” (42). On the other hand, he receives rigorous tutoring and has much leisure time to “make pictures” (43) and “read the life of Milarepa (the 11th century teacher of the founder of the Cagy sect) many times” (49). His living conditions seem spartan, but adequate; the typical Tibetan diet of tsampa, yak butter and meat is recounted in detail, as well as the Tibetan reliance on horses. The wisdom of Chogyam Trungpa’s teachers is re-created, allowing the reader easy access to Buddhist rhetoric and ideology. Despite Pallas’ description of sectarian and regional rivalries in the foreword and Chogyam Trungpa’s own mention of “inter-monastic rivalries” (53), Chogyam Trungpa describes how he is taught about the various sects of Buddhism and encouraged to “examine it” critically for himself (98); it seems like such anecdotes serve to justify Chogyam Trungpa’s eventual decision to adopt unorthodox practices in his later life. In any case, his education is directed toward preparing the lama to “rely on his own judgment” when he assumes his influential position (94); such an education requires Chogyam Trungpa to travel and meet with various tutors. He enjoys trekking around Tibet, preferring to bring only modest loads with him. These travels reveal much to the lama- and to the reader- about the diversity contained within the area that is called Tibet; he proudly recalls how “the scenery was superb and each village seemed different, and the local inhabitants wore the distinctive clothing and followed the customs of their particular locality” (72). The cultural variety described by the narrator accounts for the large differences in awareness and opinion among the people Chogyam Trungpa meets later in his journey to India, but it also undermines his assertion that Tibet as a whole disapproved of heightened Chinese involvement in Tibet. The Chinese “threat” is constantly foreshadowed even in the early narrative of the lama’s education. Chogyam recalls his teacher warning “the world is in darkness…my generation has been fortunate in living in a country which has been so happy” (51). Later, his meditation is interrupted by “a thunderstorm…transition from peace to conflict symbolized what lay ahead of me” (76). From this point forward, Chogyam Trungpa’s guardians are consumed by fear of the Communist party’s entrance into Tibet; they choose not to leave even after the crushed Khampas revolt in 1956. Rather, Chogyam Trungpa continues studying at Chamdo, another monastery in Eastern Kham. When a revolt in Lhasa prompts a large-scale Chinese invasion and Chogyam Trungpa observes its destructive effects, he realizes that he must leave Tibet.
The remainder of the personal narrative is consumed by Chogyam Trungpa’s arduous journey to India, which he describes as a necessary decision to preserve his own safety as well as the legacy of the Kagyu sect. He describes this journey in detailed terms; his camp makes many stops on its rigorous westward journey, and continuously grows in size as other desperate Tibetans latch on. Although Chogyam’s main worry seems to be the the task of sustaining a large group (without detection by the Chinese, which is a constant threat), he is almost blase about the difficulty of his mission. The appreciation for simplicity Chogyam Trungpa describes during his previous treks persists. He describes, almost without any emotion, the deaths of devout nuns on the journey and the near-starvation of the group. He stoically describes boiling yak hide (leather) for any bits of sustenance and the task of leaving his home; Chogyam Trungpa finds that even this reinforces the Buddhist teaching, saying “we thought about the teaching of impermanence; this was a complete severance of all that had been Tibet…the view changed” (248). The personal narrative concludes with a description of the lama’s first moments in India and a sample of poetry ostensibly composed on his journey.
Although Chogyam Trungpa’s personal narrative contains surprisingly little emotion, he expresses great outrage regarding the political situation in Tibet; he depicts the Communist party as one-dimensional destroyers of the Tibetan culture and people. The Acknowledgments section reflects this agenda immediately; the work “was begun spontaneously as an authentic record of the wisdom and culture which existed in Tibet for so many centuries, and the events of the last decade during which the Communists have destroyed everything its peace loving people held dear” (15). Tibet’s rich history is indeed well documented by Chogyam Trungpa; he describes the Bon religion which predates Buddhism in Tibet, the Tibetan empire of the Songsten Gampo (around 1300 years past), and the concrete aspects of Tibetan life more than adequately. This source is also valuable because it contains the response of an educated eastern Tibetan to the Chinese invasion; the account was described to Esme Cramer Roberts less than ten years after Chogyam Trungpa’s journey. However, Chogyam is so intent on portraying Tibetans as victims to the Chinese that he almost detracts from his own people, characterizing them mostly as simple-minded, “peace-loving”, and powerless. He seems to imply that the Chinese easily tricked many Tibetans with their “sophisticated” propaganda. In regards to his treatment of the Chinese, Chogyam Trungpa shapes his narrative at the outset so as to immediately create differences between himself and the Chinese. He even claims that they smile differently; this statement is made in response to his earliest exposure to Chinese, who were far less threatening. Later, he asserts, “The Communists now in command were completely ruthless” (155); the Communists engage in religious persecution too, “treasures of the shrines…were broken up and the metal was sent to China” (156). It is as if the Communists only commit culturally insensitive atrocities during this period; there is no consideration of the Chinese justification for involvement. When the Dali Lama’s representative discusses the “material advances” brought by the Chinese, Chogyam Trungpa suspects that the “programme…was obviously being controlled by the Communists” (101). Perhaps these assertions are closer to the truth than we think ; however, the justification for these allegations is usually tenuous (news from others, which he sometimes describes as false) or non-existent. It would have been helpful if Chogyam Trungpa had included some historical texts or justification for his claims; although the work is part personal narrative and the author wanted “for the sake of logical coherence, not to introduce information gathered after the fact”, it should back up its political (and potentially controversial) claims with solid evidence.
In conclusion, Born in Tibet functions on a personal, narrative level as well as a political, historical level. It is framed as the former, with its beginning and ending dictated by events in the lama’s life; this necessarily detracts from its objectivity and ability to support its historical claims. However, this work is still extremely valuable; it provides an account of the Chinese invasion by an Eastern Tibetan shortly after it occurred (rather than a Central Tibetan, who seem to have produced more of these accounts). Furthermore, as a work directed toward a Western audience, it does an excellent job of describing Tibet’s history, geography, and culture; it assumes little knowledge on the part of the reader,giving a simplified explanation of religious protocol. This work can also be read as a means of studying the 11th Trungpa Tulku himself. He would later gain fame (and notoriety) for his adoption of unorthodox practices in the United States, occupying the role of teacher to such “beat” personalities as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In short, Born in Tibet is best read as a primer to Tibetan society as well as personal narrative; its claims regarding Communist China are important as personal reactions from direct observers, but should not be considered objective truth.
Trungpa. Born in Tibet. New York: George Allen and Unwin Lt., 1966.