When I was growing up, I thought there was no place more distant and forbidding than Tibet. Why would anyone want to live in such a fierce, frozen place? It seemed so strange to a child in an urban apartment with central heating. And the Tibetans didn’t want visitors! Then, in the early 1990s I read Henrich Harrer’s memoir Seven Years in Tibet and I was hooked on finding more about the history and culture. The more I read, the more Tibet began to feel like a special corner of the world to me, a place of ancient, mystical traditions that had survived because the Tibetans held fast to those traditions. In San Francisco I saw Tibetan monks patiently dripping colored sand to create an exquisite mandala. That patience that was a world away from the daily life I saw around me. The enormous Potala Palace, hovering over Lhasa, fascinated me as much as the Parthenon. (More about that another time.) The Chinese takeover of the country with the subsequent trashing of Tibetan culture felt like a terrible affront and it was made all the more disturbing by the exile of the Dalai Lama, whose compassion, resilience and moral strength have been so exemplary. Eat the Buddha satisfied my curiosity about what’s been happening to the Tibetans who remained.
I had read Demick’s previous book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a wonderful eye-opener that is exactly as described by the subtitle. She’s a terrific journalist who knows how to balance the general and the personal. I also felt that I needed to catch up on what was happening in Tibet. I was too focused on the Dalai Lama’s attempts to keep the flame of Tibetan life and Buddhism alive. It was time to read about what was happening to the Tibetans left behind.
Demick follows the lives of several Tibetans from the district of Ngaba, site of the former Mei kingdom, from the last Mei princess, to monks, nuns, teachers, and ordinary people trying to live their lives in a bewildering maze of Chinese hostility and ineptitude. She fills in the history we’ve missed, from the impact of Mao’s Long March to the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959, to the way Tibetans live now, under the long arm of Chinese surveillance and centralized control. After so many years of Chinese indoctrination, many Tibetans have given up their own culture and acquiesced to the Communist worldview. It makes their lives easier but it also makes them exiles in their own land. Some continue to resist in any way they can. Others have managed to escape to India to join the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. It’s a harsh story but Demick tells it well. I highly recommend it.