Surviving the Dragon: A Recent History of Tibet through the Looking-Glass of a Tibetan Lama
by Arjia Rinpoche
New York, Rodale Books, 2010
288 pp., $24.99 hardcover
By now, many of us have read the moving testimony of Tibetan monks like Palden Gyatso, who have had to endure decades of imprisonment and torture under Chinese rule. And thanks to the voices of writers like Thubten Samphel and Tenzin Tsundue, we are starting to learn about the confusions and sorrows of exiled Tibetans who have spent half a century dreaming of a place that can no longer be the home they imagine. Even the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has twice turned his life into a blend of unabashedly human reminiscence and acute political and historical analysis to create a parable with global implications.
But the unique power of “Surviving the Dragon”—a deeply engaging account of the last sixty years of Tibetan history, written without rancor—is that its author spent most of those decades at the heart (and sometimes near the head) of Communist China, working to protect the dharma from within. Arjia Rinpoche is the rare high lama who can write personal letters to the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin (and get answers back); who witnessed the installation of the Chinese-selected Eleventh Panchen Lama in a secret 3 a.m. ceremony at Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple; and who ultimately fled his privileged position disguised in sunglasses, a hat, and a new mustache. Yet beyond the invaluable historical testimony he offers, he launches a much more universal inquiry into what right action and right view really mean, and how we might begin to work withsamsara [cyclic existence] without becoming its captive.
The outlines of his story play like a Hollywood fairy tale, with thorns. Yong Drung Dorje was found by a monastic search party before he was two years old, and was declared to be the eighth recorded Arjia Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Tsongkhapa’s father and therefore the hereditary abbot of Kumbum Monastery. Shortly thereafter, he left the yurt where his large Mongolian family lived—near the great salt lake of Dolon Nor—and came to the monastery to begin his Buddhist training. But six years later, in 1958, the Great Leap Forward broke in on the little boy’s studies; overnight, it seemed, elderly rinpoches were being beaten by fellow monks sympathetic to Beijing, and one out of every six among Kumbum’s three-thousand monks were being arrested.
Four years of famine followed, and then, when Arjia Rinpoche was a teenager, he saw the Red Guards storm his temple and join sympathetic monks in smashing buddhas and burning texts while other monks wailed. Then, after fifteen years of working in the fields, he heard that Buddhism was notionally restored; the same lamas who had been humiliated for decades by their rulers were told that they had been innocent all along and should start rebuilding their temples.
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