THE LEADING character of this dramatic story of the 1956 uprising and open rebellion of the people of East Tibet against the Chinese conquerors is told through a man of many lives; currently a revered Buddhist abbot (a lama), but also a one-time noted bandit, and now a secret underground worker against the Chinese. He has been picked for a very dangerous mission, not only because of his eminent position, but also because of his knowledge of English and his general worldliness. He is to be entrusted with a highly secret and dangerous assignment: Getting out of Tibet a paper petitioning help from the United Nations for his besieged country. The United Nations is the organization which many knowledgeable Tibetans consider their only hope for any possible return to their pre-Chinese traditions and ways of life in their beloved ancient country.
Tibet, "the very roof of the world," is a magnificent country, as the author is at pains to indicate to his readers. In spite of its long history, strictly guarded isolation and carefully maintained "mystery," Tibet is no mere upstart among the world's nations. In fact, more than 1,300 years ago, before the unification and Christianizing of England, and before Mohammed had dictated the Koran, Tibet was a mighty empire with far-journeying merchants who brought back to Tibet not only merchandise, but philosophies and other ancient teachings already well known in Egypt, Greece, Rome and China. Tibet's travelers also brought back the earliest teachings of the Buddha. So successfully did his great teaching transplant itself that it has been said, "Tibet sheathed it's sword and picked up the prayer wheel." Now, in the 20th century and for some time previously, no longer a military state but a religious one, ruled by learned holy men like the Dalai Lama, Tibet found itself an easy target for Chinese military aggression and eventual takeover. Yet, underneath the outward submission, there has continued to burn a fervent allegiance to the old ways, especially to Buddhist beliefs and customs, along with an uncoordinated resistance movement, particularly in East Tibet.
The story of how this underground operates is in part the story of Lama. The hero is Tsun Rinposhay, the 38-year-old abbot of the Dorje Ri-gon Monastery who has been entrusted with the mission to carry out the secret petition for help to the United Nations. We first come on him in his monastery quarters preparing for his arduous and dangerous journey. As a shocking but fitting preparation for the perils ahead of him and utterly without warning, six Russian-built Il-28 twin jet bombers appear from nowhere, as he stands in his private quarters, and proceed before his appalled eyes to drop their bombs on Litang Monastery, reducing at once to debris its famed library of irreplaceable books, its noted works of art, as well as any people or animals caught in the cataclysmic attack. Tsun takes this as a clear personal warning that his departure is known about, but he noner the last sermon to his Buddhist congregation; reminding them that all life involves change and suffering. His parishioners are now being taught this truth in unmistakable terms. They must strive to hold in their hearts and minds the basic truths they have been taught, even as everything around them is being destroyed. Yet Tsun also coolly counsels them all to escape when and if they can. Later, with a small party which will hopefully accompany him out of Tibet, he even goes so far as to distribute from a hidden cache some rifles and daggers. They may well have the occasion to fight for their lives, in spite of the strong Buddhist principle against killing.
TSUN IS above all a cold realist. When, as they finally leave, a young Chinese girl sent to spy on them is discovered in their midst, he orders that she shall not be shot (a spy's immediate fate) but instead shall accompany them on their journey. He hopes this young Chinese informer, named Ling, may be helpful to them. She is not the only woman to accompany them. Shortly after they start, they find themselves joined by a group of eight armed horsemen, who have as their leader a strikingly handsome woman with long black hair. She is already known to the abbot from his pre-religious past. In fact, they were once lovers. During the first part of their travels, Tsun goes out of his way to talk with the young Chinese spy, the only one he has ever met who can speak fluent Tibetan. She tells him that Chinese headquarters had always hoped and expected that he, Tsun, would head the reform of his valley and thus the acceptance of the Chinese way. She also tells him her life story and how she became a communist. Such conversations are significant in the book and present a certain necessary balance in the midst of page after page of violence.
There are innumerable skirmishes with enemies, seen and unseen, and always there are the terrors of the very landscape itself. There are a few pleasant interludes when they are offered the ancient Tibetan hospitality with plenty of barley beer, but, on the whole, the book is so crammed with heady adventures that one cannot hope, in a brief review, to do justice to the riveting complications of its plot and the shifting relationsips among its many characters. It is also quite skillfully threaded through with Buddhist thought and well selected stories, which give the book an extra dimension and certify to its author's deep immersion in and knowledge of not only the unfortunate circumstances of today's Tibetan people, but also to its great socal and religious history.
Somehow one tends to lose track of the precious paper Tsun is carrying. In fact, in the end I wasn't sure it had even survived to be passed on in its soiled and mutilated state to the United Nations for consideration.
One of the things in this book that struck me forcibly was the very strong presence and role of Tibetan women; as warriors and strategists, they play a singularly significant role in everything that goes on. The picture of their carrying live bombs in their household aprons is an unforgettable one among many, and I began to get the feeling that this might indicate some new role among Tibetan women. They have always been personally very brave and there have been a number of redoubtable woman warriors, among the aggressive Kambias, for instance. But, as I read, I got an ever stronger feeling of some new connection between their traditional role and the almost rebellious role that many Tibetan religious women are now beginning to play. They wish to assume a significant role in the life of the religion of their people. Somehow this book suggested to me that there was no equivocation about what the Tibetan woman stands for today. If she can do all this fighting, all this planning and all this enduring, she can do anything, including teaching her people their ancient truths.
This is very far from the book's major theme, but it seems to me to be inherent in the very powerful descriptive passages in which women play such a crucial part.