May 01, 2007
A Review of Dalai Lama, My Son
Dalai Lama, My Son is an autobiographical book compiled and written by the children and grandchildren of Diki Tsering (The mother of the Dalai Lama). It covers the time period from her birth in the Iron Ox year (1901) to her death in 1980 following their flight to India. However, its primary focus is between 1901 and 1959. Diki Tsering was born in the village of Churkha, which is in the district of Tsongkha (a part of Amdo). This book is straightforward in its structure narrating her life chronologically from her birth in Churkha to her death in Dharamsela. I found Dalai Lama, My Son to be interesting because of its insight into the everyday life of Diki Tsering during the early 20th century. Many of the customs and rituals seen here are very different from what we are used to. I believe this book may prove useful for scholars seeking to attain an improved understanding of the background of the Dalai Lama and his family.
Diki Tsering comes from a lay-woman’s background, and grew up in a large peasant family. Her first years were very influenced by her grandparents. This relationship between grandchild and grandparent was very important in this society, “Grandparents were regarded by all members of the family with awe and respect. Yet the relationship between grandparent and grandchild was marked with casual intimacy. Parent-child relationships were restrained, distant, and very formal.” (22) However, her parents moved away when she was around 4 years old. They moved to farm a plot of land that her grandparents purchased in Guyahu approximately 75 kilometers from Tsongkha.
Throughout her childhood Diki Tsering was surrounded by her brothers because regional customs dictated they stay at home even after marriage, “This custom was peculiar to our area in Amdo. Sons brought their wives to their families of birth, but daughters left their homes upon marriage and joined their husbands’ families.” (19) I also found it interesting that housing construction varied in Amdo and was different from Central Tibet. In Amdo, “The houses were made of thala, which is two wooden walls filled with pounded sand.”(20) When speaking of her childhood, Diki Tsering mentioned the inequalities between boys and girls, which were very strong during her childhood. These differences affected every aspect of their lives, “Since we were girls, we were rarely let out of the house except to the terrace.”(27) She also says, “At the time it was unheard of for girls to go to school, to learn to read and write.”(29) This blatant inequality is something which bothered the Dalai Lama’s mother a great deal. She said, “Even when I was still quite little, the fact that I was a girl weighed heavily on my heart.” (23) I believe her thoughts on gender relations are important to understand because she may have played an important role in shaping the Dalai Lama’s views on this subject.
Dalai Lama, My Son speaks at length about numerous elements that make up the culture of a region (Language, Food, Dress, Ceremonies, etc). Class distinctions in the early 20th century were very strong and had a powerful influence on people within society. The lowest rung of the social ladder were robbers and thieves. Next on the social ladder came the butchers who came into contact with leather and furs. There is an interesting anecdote about how the butchers were treated. She said, “When we had to employ butchers, hospitality dictated that we should give them a cup of tea. But after they left, we washed their cups in ash, a ritual that was supposed to sterilize the cups.” (34) This shows us how strongly influenced by class divisions this culture was. Food was another very important aspect of their culture, and something which housewives took a great deal of pride in. Dishes were often unique to a particular region. This is one of the interesting aspects of this book. When you read her story it becomes readily apparent that no two regions or even two villages are the same. Even in terms of language tremendous differences exist. She says, “Because we came from Tsongkha, we spoke the Tsongkha dialect, but my parents were also acquainted with the Amdo dialect.”(40) This is hard to imagine considering the relative uniformity of language in the world today. However, given the lack of communication between regions this is very understandable.
An important shift in the life of Diki Tsering occurs when she was married. The structure of every household was very hierarchical just like the social structures of the time. Being the newest addition to the family she started at the bottom of the social ladder. Her mother-in-law made her life especially difficult, “She was hot-tempered and was sometimes physically violent. I, being the daughter-in-law, had to take it all. Her sharp tongue made me the brunt of my miseries.”(73) The relationship between husband and wife was also not one of equals. Compounding her difficulties as a new wife were the daily rigors of maintaining a household. She spoke at length about the sleep depravation and difficult work that she did as a young wife. Her first child was born when she was just nineteen years old. The Dalai Lama was the 4th of seven children who survived. She gave birth a remarkable total of sixteen times.
This text provides some interesting glimpses into the choosing of Diki Tsering’s son as the Dalai Lama. His given name was Lhamo Dhondup. Diki Tsering speaks of her son always sitting eye to eye with everyone, and choosing only one piece of candy when offered by the visiting Dalai Lama search party. These actions led them to choose Lhamo Dhondup as the next Dalai Lama. This event forced significant change on Diki Tsering. As the mother of the Dalai Lama she was forced to travel to Central Tibet against her wishes. She departed with her son and family for Lhasa in 1939. Following her arrival in Lhasa she commented how, “Though great honor had now become my fate, I wept inside for my home. There I had to work hard to support my family, but I had been at peace and extremely happy. I had had freedom and privacy. Now I was treated like a queen, but I was not as happy.”(109) Clearly, the material gains achieved from the families’ improved status did not affect Diki Tsering’s life views.
While Diki Tsering and her family were treated with respect there was also some animosity towards them because of their background as “tillers of the soil.”(116) When her husband died in 1947 she says, “Many in power tried to take advantage of my naivete and lack of education.”(129) His death occurred at approximately the same time as that of the Reting, who was considered to be a family friend. Diki Tsering suggested that both the Reting and her husband were likely assassinated by political rivals. Diki Tsering described this period of time prior to the Dalai Lama’s assumption of power as incredibly challenging. The Chinese took advantage of this disarray and attempt political and military incursions.
This book also deals briefly with the flight of the Dalai Lama and parts of his family. Following the communist invasion of Tibet the Dalai Lama took the reins of power at the young age of fifteen. In 1954 he visited China in the hopes that they would act in accordance with the terms laid out in the 17 point agreement. However, the situation soon deteriorated and the decision to leave Tibet was made late in 1958.
I found this to be a very enlightening read which provided insight into the culture of rural Amdo and the Dalai Lama’s background. However, as a reader I think its also important to be aware that the writing of this book was funded by the Tibet Fund and has a distinct bias in favor of the Tibetans. This may manifest itself in the more favorable portrayal of Tibetan society and increased focus on unique aspects of Tibetan culture. Despite the bias of Dalai Lama, My Son I feel it is a useful read for anybody interested in learning more about the Dalai Lama and perhaps garnering some insight into where some of his fundamental views on life originated.