Review by Misha Kaufman
November 2, 2009
Review of Tibet is My Country
Tibet is My Country is a beautiful account of the life of Jigme Norbu, the eldest brother of the 14th Dalai Lama. His story begins with his birth at Tengtser in 1922 and ends with the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959. Norbu’s story is an important one for the overall history of Tibet. He was born as the reincarnation of a Tagster Monk, and therefore enters into the monastery at a very early age. The majority of the book focuses on Norbu’s time in the Kumbum, Dreprung and Shartsong Ritro monasteries before he is forced to flee. Norbu makes touching accounts of the separation from his family and friends in order to enter the monastery, and we see the importance that childhood and family has throughout his life. Later as Norbu grows he is able to accomplish a considerable amount, including becoming the Abbot of Kumbum. In this position Norbu has direct interactions with prominent world officials such as Chiang Kai-Shek and Nehru. Norbu plays a crucial role in warning Lhasa and his brother of the expanding power of the Communist party. The party is clearly the enemy in Norbu’s account and the reason for his exile as well as the home he loves so much. His journey includes the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, prominent characters such as Reting and Taktra, and a firsthand account of the rise of his own brother to the head of the Tibetan faith.
Thubten Jigme Norbu was born in Tengster Tibet in 1922. Tengster was a small town, in Amdo close on the border between China and Tibet during a time of serious internal strife within China. The quaintness and low means of Norbu’s upbringing is something that he emphasizes throughout his book. His house had no windows, and had only four rooms including a kitchen, guest room, master bedroom and larger bedroom. Norbu’s living situation was not a bad one; according to the livelihood of the people living around him, his family were middle to upper class. However, it is interesting to see the transition that takes place later in the story where the family moves into their own palace due to their new status as the Dalai Lama’s family. The major aspect emphasized throughout the book is Norbu’s love for his family as well as his childhood. As a child Norbu would play games with his friends and help his mother and father with various chores and religious ceremonies. Norbu had an especially close relationship with his mother whom he felt to be extremely loving and accommodating. Throughout his life in the monastery (which he enters at the age of nine) and as an adult he laments his childhood and the home cooked pastries made by his mother. This provides for one of the more interesting and important elements of the book, the role of family. In Tibetan history, the role of the family is diminished in favor of a religious and or global approach. Norbu makes it clear however that family was the most important aspect of his life, greater than any type of religious or national ties.
The central characters in Norbu’s story revolve around his family and close monk officials who act as the extension of his ‘monastic’ family. These characters include Norbu’s father and mother, as well as his older sister of whom he was very fond. Of course the Dalai Lama plays a very important role in Norbu’s life as well but that will be discussed at a later moment. Norbu’s father (Chokyong Tsering) is depicted as a hard but loving man, who loves his family and Norbu deeply. It is Chokyong that takes the time to travel and visit Norbu at the Shartsong Ritro [Sha rdzong] and Kumbum [Sku ‘bum] monasteries and finally agrees to let him come to Lhasa. Chokyong is depicted as a man of great stature and importance within the family’s life. As much as Norbu evolves and grows throughout the book, so too does Chokyong Tsering. When Norbu finishes his great journey from Kumbum to Lhasa, he notes the change that occurs in his father who appears so dignified and noble, no longer a simple villager in Tengster. Chokyong even receives a new name Gyayap Chenmo, that accompanies his new status as the father of the Dalai Lama. The account of Norbu’s father is also important from a historical perspective where many historians such as Melyvn Goldstein depict a strong-willed forceful character that doesn’t exist as much within Norbu’s history. After Chokyong’s death in 1947 there is a beginning of the disintegration of Norbu’s own family unit, and he begins a long expedition that takes him to India, China and back to Kumbum where he becomes the abbot. As much as Norbu’s father represents the evolution of the Dalai Lama’s father, Norbu’s mother (Dekyi Tsering) is depicted as the embodiment of consistency. She rarely shows animosity towards her children and she always shows love towards Norbu, constantly sharing treats with him as well as pastries. It is his mother that Norbu constantly misses and reminisces about as he is in the monastery. She is clearly depicted as providing the “love” for the family.
The monastic life plays a crucial role within Norbu’s life as well, but it is a transition that occurs slowly due to the sheer love and reverence he holds for his family. Norbu enters the monastery in 1931, at the age of nine, at a place called Shartsong Ritro not far from his hometown of Tengster. After Shartsong Ritro, Norbu enters the Kumbum Monastery where he stays as a monk until 1941 when he enters the Drepung Monastery (outside of Lhasa) in order to be closer to his family. Throughout his time in the monasteries Norbu laments his family’s departure and wishes that that they would take him home. But over time he gets deeply involved in his studies and he is able to learn a considerable amount. Norbu is blessed with a tremendous amount of intellectual ability that allows him to memorize and learn very quickly. This monastic lifestyle is something that is focused on heavily throughout the book, and it involved extremely rigorous training. Norbu was expected to memorize thousands of Buddhist texts, and prostrate in front of the Buddha’s constantly. Within this very academic structure it was essential for Norbu to pass a variety of tests and debates in order to gain higher prestige within his monastery. Each successful test was greeted with a great deal of pride and respect from the community as well as his family. In the book the importance of the Tibetan festivals is stressed. In these festivals everyone has an amazing time and huge beautiful butter sculptures are made. At Kumbum in 1939 (age seventeen), Norbu hires an artist to create a gigantic butter sculpture of Lhasa as well as the people in it. These festivals are emphasized by Norbu as creating a semi-nationalist identity where monks and laymen can admire its significance and come together to have a great time. Norbu’s studies are a important part of his life, as a monk he was expected to perform high quality work and to achieve a great deal of knowledge of his Buddhist texts. One tradition that is emphasized in his book is that of the debates between the monks on philosophical and theological matters. Norbu is extremely good at this, but, as external pressures begin to expand, his work begins to suffer. Norbu makes a point to minimize the religious parts of his background in the book, but there is an undercurrent throughout that illustrates his highly religious side. In no place is this clearer than through Norbu’s willingness to visit all of the ancient Buddhist shrines and his dedication to Kumbum at a time when it was not necessarily beneficial to do so. We also see the combination of Norbu’s religious and familial associations through his relationship with the 14th Dalai Lama.
Although the Dalai Lama is not the essential character in Norbu’s story, he is obviously a very important component of it. In fact the book is dedicated to “his holiness the Dalai Lama in respect and fraternal love.” From a very early age the Dalai Lama and Norbu begin to establish a very important and close relationship/bond. In 1939 when Norbu was twenty and the Dalai Lama was only four, the Dalai Lama comes to Kumbum and lives with Norbu for a short period of time. This interaction is so beautiful and crucial because it mirrors Norbu’s own initiation into the monastery. Norbu tries to console the Dalai Lama and give him toys to appease his fears and anxiety, but eventually he begins to cry himself, and the two embrace each other with tears throughout the night. This interaction is good to see from those wishing to understand the early life of the Dalai Lama. Even though there is a fifteen year age gap, Norbu views the Dali Lama as the spiritual head of the community much more so than he does as a brother. There are times that Norbu mentions feelings of gratitude and love for his brother for allowing time to talk to him. This illustrates the role that the Dalai Lama played within Tibetan culture or at the very least for Norbu, where the Dalai Lama is revered as a god-like figure with the upmost respect imaginable. Their relationship exists on this level for a long time until in 1959 the Dalai Lama and the rest of the family are forced to flee to India in order to save their lives. In India the Dalai Lama makes a series of claims that fundamentally change the nature of their relationship: for one, he refuses to be addressed as a god, but rather as a simple refugee, and secondly he asks Norbu’s help in looking for and caring for other refugees in the region. This transition not only ends the book but it turns Norbu into the brother figure that he never was in Tibet.
The reasons that Norbu wrote this book are centered on doing two primary things: 1) to demonstrate the importance of Tibetan and monastic culture and 2) to depict the life or biography of the Dalai Lama’s brother. In the book there are two clear distinctions between Norbu’s nostalgic life before the rise of the Communists, and the drastic fearful life Norbu lives after the rise of Communism in Amdo. We get to meet important figures such as Taktra, Reting, and read about the response to the 13th Dalai Lama’s death as well as that of the Panchen Lama. But the attention shifts when the Communists come. They mark the beginning of the disintegration of Tibetan culture as well as the great festivals and lama traditions. Many of the monks are forced to leave the monasteries, and the Communists play extreme mental mind games and bring in a plethora of propaganda that erode the home that Norbu so desperately cherishes and loves. This is the essential element of the story that is Norbu’s primarily reasons for writing it: to demonstrate that Tibet was loved and that it did have a essence that was culturally as well as nostalgically significant. Norbu notes that he was well traveled, seeing the United States, Europe, India, China, airplanes and televisions but his favorite place was the quaintness and natural beauty of his country Tibet, a country that was beginning to be destroyed as a result of Communist expansion.
Review of: Norbu, Jigme Thubten and Harrer, Heinrich. Tibet Is My Country. Copyright 1960 by Verlag Ullstein GmbH