Man of Peace: The Illustrated Life Story of the Dalai Lama of Tibet
Tibet House US, 2016
By William Meyers, Robert Thurman, and Michael G. Burbank
The 14th Dalai Lama is special. There is little evidence that previous holders of this title were particularly influential—or even known—much beyond the Tibetan plateau. The earliest incarnations were not especially powerful even within Tibet, and none ventured further than Mongolia to the north or China to the east. None had likely met a Westerner until the 13th Dalai Lama did so in the early 20th century. Physically isolated by the imposing peaks of the great Himalayan mountains and culturally confined by a long-standing suspicion of foreign influence, Tibet and its leaders were content to remain aloof from the wider world.
All that changed with China’s annexation of Tibet in the 1950s, when the current Dalai Lama was just a 15-year- old novice monk. Eventually fleeing to India, he emerged from these centuries of relative obscurity to become the leader of Tibet’s government-in-exile, gradually transforming himself into a modern political figure. His fame increased substantially with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his work in “the struggle of the liberation of Tibet and the efforts for a peaceful resolution.” After 50 years of exposure to this wider world, he has become a bona fide international celebrity who counts prominent politicians, serious scholars, and famous actors among his closest friends.
Now a new book, Man of Peace: The Illustrated Life Story of the Dalai Lama of Tibet, recounts this incredible evolution in comic book form. The result is a labor of love at least two decades in the making. Begun by writer and editor William Meyers to fulfill a promise he made to his late wife, the final edition credits three authors and five principal artists, as well as other contributors from New York’s Tibet House and beyond. The most famous of those involved is certainly Robert Thurman, the renowned scholar and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, but the other authors also seem to have a long personal relationship with the Dalai Lama. (Robert Thurman even appears as a character himself in the book several times, initially as a monk wanting to learn and then later as a householder offering to help with translations.)
The artistic style is highly realistic, almost photographic in places. This can be extremely powerful, particularly in the depictions of violence and destruction that are sadly frequent. Still, some may prefer an earlier graphic biography in the more traditional Japanese manga style, The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography. That effort, penned by Tetsu Saiwai nearly ten years ago, covers similar ground but in far less detail and with the somewhat more abstract renderings common to comics.
Beneath its colorful exterior, Man of Peace is a serious work of biography, an extremely detailed and thorough account of over 100 years of Tibetan history. We begin with the British incursion into Tibet in 1904, in the final years of the 13th Dalai Lama’s reign. The authors seem to suggest that this short-lived foreign intervention planted the seeds of eventual Chinese annexation. A general sense of foreign betrayal is a recurring theme throughout the book. Starting with the British, but including the United States, China, and at times India, the major world powers seem always disloyal and disingenuous in their dealings with Tibet.
It is impossible to tell the Dalai Lama’s story without venturing into the political realm. The Dalai Lama’s life has been inextricably bound with the modern history of Tibet, and so the book certainly does not shrink from politics—or controversy. The authors’ perspective is unapologetically partisan. If there is any reasonable argument in favor of China’s claims over Tibet, you will not read it here.
Unfortunately, the billion citizens of China are painted with a very broad brush. Atrocities are invariably committed by “the Chinese,” rather than specific actors, suggesting an enmity between the two peoples that His Holiness takes pains to avoid elsewhere. This begins right away in the book’s foreword, where we are told that the Chinese “are merely driven by confusion and insatiable greed inherent in modern life,” as if all of them were acting in unison and were not themselves under the rule of an authoritarian regime. This is an odd misstep for a book whose primary purpose, we’re told, is to show His Holiness as a true “man of peace” committed to mutual understanding.
Man of Peace tracks the twists and turns in the Dalai Lama’s own policies toward China. He initially accepted a 17-point agreement negotiated with China in his absence in 1956, then repudiated it when he felt the Chinese government had so violently disrespected its obligations. Over time he has come to accept Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, but only if the Tibetan people can be free and their homeland preserved. “He carries in his heart a vision of a culturally free Tibet,” the book explains, “which he sincerely believes will be most possible and successful only if it is uplifted by China as its crown jewel.”
Despite detailed chronicles of Tibet’s many recent hardships, the final pages of the book find a more positive tone, explaining the Dalai Lama’s ever- optimistic vision for a better world for all of us both in and out of Tibet. If there is one common thread throughout the almost 300 pages of richly illustrated narrative, it is this perseverance of both His Holiness and the Tibetan people, and the steadfast belief that human progress is possible—despite nearly overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Of course, there is real danger in a whole nation being identified so closely with a single man, no matter how extraordinary he is. Man of Peace ends around the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday celebrations in 2015, 111 years after that British invasion we saw in the opening pages. Buddhists believe in the cycle of life and death, and no one can remain on this earth forever. His Holiness has suggested that he may be the last of his line—the last Dalai Lama. The intricate drawings and meticulous narrative on these pages vividly illustrate what a great loss that would be. Whatever the future holds, Man of Peace is a loving, thorough, and powerful chronicle of this remarkable incarnation.
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