The Autobiography

Of the Dalai Lama

Bessie/HarperCollins. 288 pp. $22.95


Text by the Dalai Lama

Photographs and Introduction By Galen Rowell

University of California Press. 162 pp. $35

ON March 17, 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, a 23-year-old young man known to history as the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, fled his Chinese-occupied native land and began what has become more than three decades of exile in India. Imagine what it would be like to be this man -- a god-king so trusted by his people that he has been accepted as the Tibetan spiritual leader since he was 4 and their temporal leader since he was 15. Then imagine what it would be like to have to carry out his responsibilities without the political, financial or military means to protect his people.

These two books -- one a detailed story of his life from his childhood in a small village in northeastern Tibet to his present-day status as a figure of international respect and renown, the other a picture book and collaboration with an American wilderness photographer -- turn this extraordinary life into a vivid reality.

In 1935 the Dalai Lama, the eighth child of a poor farming family, was born in Amdo, a remote province of northeast Tibet. (Only seven of his parents' 16 children would survive.) When he was 3 years old, a series of auguries led a search party looking for the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama to a monastery in his province, and then to him. Soon after, he was taken from his parents to begin a lifetime of training and religious study. At 4, he was moved to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where the spiritual and political leadership of his people were conferred on him.

With the invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1949-50 by the Chinese People's Liberation Army, the Dalai Lama's orderly life of prayer and study was permanently altered. His first encounters with Chinese leaders in Tibet and then in Peking were hopeful, and he did what he could to calm the Tibetan people. But as the words of the Chinese leaders proved hollow, and resistance to the invaders grew throughout Tibet, so did Chinese militarism and Tibetan repression.

An initial religious pilgrimage to India in late 1956 gave the Dalai Lama little reason to hope the Indian government would be supportive of the Tibetan cause. But by March 1959, conditions in Lhasa had so worsened that, after consulting the oracle venerated by his predecessors for centuries, the Dalai Lama decided to go into exile. Tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees eventually followed him, escaping the rigors of Chinese oppression only to yield to disease, exhaustion, malnutrition and even death in the harsher Indian climate.

Throughout his years in India, the Dalai Lama, both as the leader of his people and as a Buddhist monk, has continued to press his countrymen's cause in the international arena, seeking a nonviolent political solution to restore Tibet to Tibetans. For his efforts and his example, he received the Nobel Price for Peace in 1989.

All this historical material is meticulously recounted in Freedom in Exile. So too is an amazing amount of personal (and humanizing) detail: small moments such as his frustration at being unable to mend a music box given to his predecessor by a Russian czar, or the pleasures of a noodle soup his mother cooked on a journey to Calcutta in 1957. So too are more traumatic ones -- like the near blindness he experienced when he went without his glasses to escape Tibet unrecognized. ONE OF the most compelling stories is the saga of how he was found by the search party established to look for the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama; the party had headed northeast because the head of the previous Dalai Lama had turned in that direction while the body was lying in state. Additional clues were perceived when the regent of Tibet had a vision of a sacred lake where he saw three Tibetan letters, the image of a three-storeyed monastery with a turquoise and gold roof and a small house with distinctive guttering. Interpretation of the symbols led to search party to Amdo, to the monastery near his parents' house, and finally to the house itself. Not wanting to reveal their mission, the group asked if they could stay the night. That evening, the youngest child of the house recognized the leader of the party (who was pretending to be a servant), and called out the name of the leader's monastery. When the group returned a few days later, they brought with them a number of objects, some that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, and some that had not. In each case, the child correctly recognized the ones that had, identifying them as his own. Some weeks later, the child was recognized as the true incarnation of the Dalai Lama.

Equally fascinating are the Dalai Lama's impression of world leaders involved in the Tibetan question. Mao Zedong, Chou En-lai, Jawaharlal Nehru emerge as particularized human beings seen through the eyes of a leader still imbued with the hopefulness and idealism of his youth. A meeting with Nehru, soon after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, for example, is depicted as a study in contrasts: the 24-year-old Tibetan leader earnestly recounting the plight of his people to the world-weary Indian leader, who was exasperated by the political naivete of the young man. "I began to get the impression," recalls the Dalai Lama, "that Nehru thought of me as a young person who needed to be scolded from time to time."

Some of the most poignant moments recounted by the Dalai Lama are unexpected and intimate ones: the playful times he enjoyed with sweepers at his palace in Lhasa; his decision to become a vegetarian after seeing a chicken slaughtered (and his subsequent return to meat-eating when his system couldn't tolerate the side effects of his unbalanced regime); his enjoyment of the novelty of sharing a household with his mother when she joined him in exile (and his relief in returning to a more monastic existence eight years later when his quarters were reorganized and another house found for her).

The private and public saga of the Dalai Lama's life is made all the more fascinating by the photographs in My Tibet, an inadvertent companion volume. Recollections of a young boy's life in the Potala, the 1,000-room winter palace in Lhasa are given physical context by Galen Rowell's stunning portrait of the palace against snowy mountains and a clear blue sky. So too, the Dalai Lama's writing of his (typical Buddhist) reluctance to kill any living thing -- even insects -- takes on new meaning in Rowell's magnificent photographs of Tibetan wildlife -- from cranes and deer and birds to wolves, snow leopards, gazelles and pandas (Tibetan animals, says the Dalai Lama, not Chinese). And, with the realization that the Dalai Lama can never visit his homeland to view these scenes in person, the photographs take on particular resonance.

These are eye-opening books.

Judith Weinraub is a staff writer in the Style section of The Washington Post.