8 April 2007
A Review of My Land and My People
This paper reviews the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s autobiography My Land and My People: The Original Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This autobiography was published in 1962 and details the Dalai Lama’s life up to that point. In it, he recounts his birth in 1935 in the village of Taktser in Dokham, his recognition as the 14th Dalai Lama at the age of two, his move to Lhasa in Central Tibet, the invasion and occupation of the PRC during the 1950s, and his exile from Tibet into India in 1959. The book’s simple yet insistent diction effectively conveys the drama of this story, and it presents a sympathetic yet complex picture of the Tibetan people and their plight.
In the concluding pages of his autobiography My Land and My People: The Original Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama declares his motive behind telling his life’s story. He writes: “In the face of the destruction of my people and all that they live for, I devote myself in exile to the only course of action left to me…to remind the world, through this book, of what has happened and is happening in Tibet” (187). Indeed, in the pages preceding this statement, the Dalai Lama tells the story of Tibet’s occupation and destruction by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during the 1950s with such urgency and poignancy that the reader cannot help but sympathize with plight of the Tibetan people and their lost land and condemn the actions of the PRC. But in this memoir, first published in 1962 and translated from Tibetan into English, the Dalai Lama puts forth far more than a simple political polemic or a full-out condemnation of the PRC; he provides a surprisingly nuanced and fair-minded view into the inter-workings of the Tibetan religious and political societies and into the decisions made during that extraordinary time. In doing so, the Dalai Lama presents through this autobiography both a plea for his homeland, people, and religion and a dynamic and invaluable picture of Tibetan Buddhism to readers who may not be familiar with it or with the intricacies of its historical and present-day relationship with the PRC and the world in general.
The Dalai Lama begins his narrative by describing his brief time as Lhamo Thondup (Lha-mo Don-‘grub; also spelled “Dhondrub”)—his name before he was recognized as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama at the age of two—his ancestral village, and his family. Though he would go on to rule from Lhasa in central Tibet, the Dalai Lama was born on July 6, 1935 in Taktser, a small farming community in the northeastern Tibetan district of Dokham that was under the secular rule of China but guided by the spiritual and temporal rule of the Dalai Lama (1). He describes his family as “large and poor” but “happy and content” (5-6). He contributes this contentment to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who “clarified and defined the status of Tibet as an independent nation and had achieved a great deal for the betterment of his people” (6). This comment serves as foreshadowing for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s life to come: once full temporal authority was formally given to him in 1949 at the age of sixteen, these two objectives came to define (and endanger) his existence. In 1937, two years after his birth and four years after the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, the young boy was proclaimed the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, and journeyed to Lhasa to begin his spiritual training.
After describing this arduous educational process, his life in Lhasa, and “the life of our people in our happier days”(that is, life before the invasion of the PRC), the rest of the Dalai Lama’s story describes Tibet’s historical relationship with the governments of China and his personal interactions with the government of the PRC. From here, the Dalai Lama’s tale twists and turns dramatically through his crash-course in foreign relations and international diplomacy, describing his visits to India and China and meetings with leaders such as Mao Tse-tung and Jawaharlal Nehru and efforts to secure Tibetan independence and later, after those efforts failed, the protection of the Tibetan Buddhism from ravages of the Chinese Communist state. The memoirs ends with the Dalai Lama in exile in India after fleeing Tibet in harrowing fight against both the Chinese and the conflicting interests of his own people.
In addition to the sheer drama of its narrative, this memoir is historically significant for many different reasons. First, the memoir provides an invaluable glimpse into the complex psyche and nuanced thoughts of one the 20th century’s most respected leaders. In doing so, the Dalai Lama offers some surprising opinions and ruminations given his position as a leading figure of Tibetan autonomy. When describing the unwillingness of the United Nations to consider the question of Tibet’s independence, for example, the Dalai Lama explains this diplomatic failure in an unexpected way. In addition to faulting the British and the international community in general, he writes: “Of course, looking back at our history now, it is easy to see how our own policies had helped to put us in this desperate position” (65). This criticism of the Tibetan government is interesting because it casts the Tibetans not just as victims of international geopolitics but also as active players with agency and partial responsibility for the loss of their nation’s independence. As a result, the Dalai Lama, perhaps the most polemical and widely recognized figure of Tibetan autonomy, provides a more complex and even-handed view of the Tibetan history than “objective” scholars such as Melvyn Goldstein or Tsering Shakya.
The Dalai Lama again exhibits unexpected balance when describing the development of China under Communist rule. He writes: “This was the general impression left upon me by nearly a year in China: efficiency and material progress, and a gray fog of humorless uniformity, through which the traditional charm and courtesy of Old China occasionally shone in surprising and welcome glean” (95). This blatant praise and admiration of the PRC government’s accomplishments in modernizing China is shocking and no doubt troubling and divisive to some faction of the Tibetan exile community. Nevertheless, it further illustrates the Dalai Lama’s refusal to see the situation of his country in terms of ideological binaries or easy categories.
In addition to its insights into the psyche of the Dalai Lama, this memoir is valuable historically given the circumstances under which it was written and the position of the Dalai Lama in the world politics today. When it was first published in 1962, the majority of the world’s people knew little or nothing about the plight of the Tibetan people and Tibetans in exile. This book, through its simple yet insistent diction and universal message of peace, halts the historic ignorance surrounding Tibet and opens up it, finally, to the world at large. Thus, through this autobiography, the Dalai Lama presents a sympathetic yet complex picture of the Tibetan people and nation that is both an essential work of Tibetan historical scholarship and also a catalytic work for the widespread understanding of the Tibetan people, their religion, their plight, and their independence movement in the Western world.
The Dalai Lama: My Land and My People: The Original Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (New York: McGraw-Hill [1962, 1977, 1997])