Drew said, “This is one of the best books I have read in my entire life.”
A Review of Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama
In Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama, we follow Lobsang Gyatso and his translator, Gareth Sparham, as they lead us through a life that will both fascinate and inform those unfamiliar with pre-1959 Tibetan monastic life and culture. Readers are also treated to an interesting description of the Lamaist state’s economic workings, and a history of Tibet delivered from a deeply spiritual and authentically Tibetan point of view. In the process, readers will find themselves becoming enamored with Gyatso, laughing out loud as they come to know this hilariously flawed yet genuinely selfless human being, dedicated and studious monk, and unswerving Tibetan patriot. On the other hand, they will find themselves on the verge of tears as his memoirs abruptly end in a detailed account of his gruesome and tragic murder. The work is roughly divided into three sections: the first third describes monastic life in pre-1959 Tibet, the second abruptly shifts into Gyatso’s account of 20th century Tibetan history, and the third talks about his journey to India and his work within the exile community. The work concludes with a concise but intimate account of Gyatso’s life from the perspective of Sparham and Gyatso’s other close students and friends.
“My name is Lobsang Gyatso and there is nothing particularly spectacular in my life…”
So begins Lobsang Gyatso’s Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama. For the next three hundred and twenty-two pages, we follow Gyatso and his translator, Gareth Sparham, as they lead us through a life that will both fascinate and inform those unfamiliar with pre-1959 Tibetan monastic life. Readers are also treated to an interesting description of the Lamaist state’s economic workings, and a history of Tibet delivered from a deeply spiritual and authentically Tibetan point of view. In the process, readers will find themselves becoming enamored with Gyatso, laughing out loud as they come to know this hilariously flawed yet genuinely selfless human being, this dedicated and studious monk, and this unswerving Tibetan patriot. On the other hand, they will also find themselves on the verge of tears as his memoirs abruptly end in a detailed account of his gruesome and tragic murder.
Lobsang Gyatso lived from 1928 to 1997, and he began his autobiography with a description of his childhood as a member of a typical, semi-nomadic herding family. After deciding to become a monk, Gyatso journeyed to his local monastery and lived under the care of his “red uncle,” a successful monk who would financially sponsor Gyatso until he was forced into exile. At the age of 17, the young, feisty, troublemaking Gyatso made his pilgrimage to Lhasa expecting to spend the traditional three year term of study before returning home to his local monastery. Little did he know that he was destined never to return. After joining Drepung Monastery, Gyatso developed into a promising scholar of the dharma. He also became highly regarded for his administrative abilities and served as both a successful house guru and grainkeeper. Fleeing Tibet after the 1959 Chinese invasion, Gyatso became a member of the Tibetan exile community and served the Dalai Lama: first as a monk in the south of India, then as an elementary school teacher, and finally as the principle of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India. He was murdered at his residence there in February 1997. Although he had not finished his autobiographical work at the time of his death, a concise yet intimate account of the final 25 years of Gyatso’s life was compiled by Mr. Sparham.
Perhaps the most enlightening element of Lobsang Gyatso’s work is his explanation of monastic life at Drepung. A veritable city, the monastery held nearly 10,000 monks, and Gyatso described the wide variety of men living there. He explained how a monk was placed in these institutions, how long they would stay, and what they would do there depending on their personal goals and their progression through the rigid and rigorous Buddhist curriculum. He also described the best and worst parts of monastic life: the poverty, bullying, and politics vs. the fantastic education, the comforting certainty of the monastic calendar, and the camaraderie he shared with his fellow monks. In telling his story, Gyatso was extremely successful in relaying to the reader the monastery’s predominant cultural values: the importance of study, value of poverty, and fierce loyalty one had to his house and place of origin. Given his experiences as both a house guru and a grainkeeper, Gyatso also gave a detailed account of the monastic organization, administration, and economic role of the monasteries – both internally and within the larger community.
The reader has the pleasure of watching Gyatso as he succeeded in his studies and advanced along the monastic curriculum. Dedicated scholars will begin to feel a kinship with him as he began to form a love for the rigors and joy of philosophy and will delight in Gyatso’s occasional digressions about certain texts and the insights he gleaned from them. At times readers are brought so close to Gyatso that they also begin to feel the relevance of these works in their own lives. One of the most fascinating elements of Gyatso’s story is his description of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of debating and its elaborate choreography of movement. In his eyes, study and memorization were useful only in learning the essential ideas, yet debate was the vehicle through which one gained true mastery and ownership of Buddhist concepts.
Gyatso’s work also presents the reader with a fascinating history of 20th century Tibet through the eyes of a Tibetan monk. Given that so many of our histories of modern Tibet come from a political or anthropologic approach, Gyatso’s interpretation of the events from a spiritual point of view – filled with references to divination, oracles, and karma – is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of how many Tibetans view their own past. While some might claim that Gyatso’s historical account is of little value given its obvious bias against the “Communists,” vast misunderstandings of international affairs, and heavy emphasis on individual actors (specifically the 13th and 14th Dalai Lama), these critics do not understand that modern Tibetan history – if not all history – has no, one essential, objective truth, but rather must be a composite of many different accounts.
Particularly important is Gyatso’s account of his journey to India. As the walls of Lhasa came crumbling down, Gyatso helped several of his students and two young incarnates across the Indian border. Along the way he dealt with broken legs, dead bodies strewn along the road, streams of people running in every direction, and the threat of starvation. Yet even more poignant than the literal journey is the psychological journey to India; these refugees didn’t just leave their homes, but also left a community that shared their cultural values and way of understanding the world. Lobsang Gyatso explained all of this in one beautifully honest and succinct statement: “Tibet seemed to have disappeared.”(295)
While reading Gyatso’s history of modern Tibet, one cannot help but notice the extent to which his account of events is in many respects so similar to, and yet radically different from, Melvyn Goldstein’s. On the one hand, Gyatso mirrored Goldstein’s view that the demise of the Lamaist state had everything to do with the failure of Tibet’s conservative, religious government to “modernize” its military, governmental, economic, and educational institutions. In his mind, the Communist invasion happened because Tibet failed to heed the warnings of the 13th Dalai Lama and join the modern world (Yet one wonders if Gyatso would have been pleased with a “modern” Tibet, or if knew what this would actually entail?) He also shared Tsering Shakya’s contention that the outside world “happened” to Tibet, and the country was just not ready to respond.
On the other hand, Gyatso spent much of his autobiography describing the economic nature of pre-Communist Tibet, hoping to dispel the idea that it was a feudal and oppressive state. According to Gyatso, the monasteries functioned much like banks, and outside of this context, the lay people of Tibet had very little business interaction with the monks besides small transactions and donations that came willingly. While Gyatso recognized that violence was occasionally used to collect loans from the people, he claimed that it was rarely used because the farming communities preferred to solve these matters internally. This positive description of the Lamaist economy is an extreme contrast to the picture that Goldstein provided his readers.
Beneath it all, however, Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama is the story of one man; an imperfect but genuine and selfless character. The reader gets to know “gen-la” – as he was called in his later years – as a young and mischievous ruffian who lied to his mother about eating pork and drinking beer; as a self-effacing and quiet young student; as a reluctant but successful administrator who was as quick-tempered as he was dignified; and finally, as a kind, gentle, self-sacrificing teacher of school children and young monks. Though Gyatso openly admitted his inflated sense of nationalism and unquestioning loyalty to the Dalai Lama, one can attribute this to the fact that he was truly “of Tibet” and deeply motivated by his Buddhist beliefs. By the end of the autobiography, it is hard not to share the feelings of love and admiration expressed by Sparham and the other students and friends of Gyatso who helped to write the closing chapter of the book.
There is something about Lobsang Gyatso’s struggle that speaks to every human being. As a student of philosophy in a troubled time, he felt himself constantly being pulled away from his life’s devotion by things beyond his control. At first it was his feelings of homesickness and longing for his family that almost dragged him away from Drepung. Then it was his responsibilities as house guru and grainkeeper that took him away from his studies. Finally, Lobsang Gyatso faced the crises of his life as he crossed the border into India and became an exile: his world gone, haunted by the fear that the Communists were still after him, forced to take off his monk’s robes for cotton underwear instead, he fell deep into depression. Where was he to go, what was he to do? Yet through the Buddhist scriptures and in following the vision of the Dalai Lama, Gyatso found new meaning, and a new home, in caring for and teaching children in an elementary school. Though he could not pursue the life of monastic study that he had long-dedicated himself to, he found new meaning in preserving his culture in exile: “a new light had been lit, a light that was to guide us to a new future by looking more realistically at the faults of the past.”(298)
It is this deep affection the reader has for Gyatso that makes the detailed description of his gruesome murder so horrifying. Not only was he brutally stabbed to death, but the killers then mutilated his body and performed something akin to a spiritual exorcism. It is difficult to describe the pain one feels when Sparham, seemingly having lost control over the narrative itself, interjected: “great sadness, those unfortunate and misguided young men who did those things. Great sadness, those who motivated them to do it. May all the good we do be theirs wherever they may be.” (321) As it began a truly Tibetan tale, Memoirs ends with these truly Tibetan lines.
If the work had any flaws, it was in Gyatso’s strange thematic organization. The first third of the book describes monastic life in pre-1959 Tibet, the second abruptly breaks into Gyatso’s version of 20th century Tibetan history, and the third talks about his journey to India. Perhaps Gyatso rarely mentioned the political world in the first half of his book because he wanted the reader to experience the shock and confusion he and his fellow Tibetans felt when the Chinese invasion arrived.
Nevertheless, the presentation is a bit disjointed. Also, I think it would have been interesting to hear Lobsang Gyatso’s impression of the former Panchen Lama and his activities in China; unfortunately, the author barely mentions him in his history of Sino-Tibetan relations. Finally, while I found Gyatso’s presentation of Tibetan Buddhism and the monastic curriculum fascinating, I was struck by the fact that Gyatso only mentioned chthonic spirits/local deities in relation to his childhood in Kham. It was almost as if he was ignoring or hiding the role this aspect of Tibetan Buddhism played in his monastic education.
Goldstein, Melvyn. “A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951.” University of California Press, Berkeley: 1989.
Shakya, Tsering. “The Dragon in the Land of Snows.” Penguin Compass, New York: 1999.