Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Dalai Lama met with President Obama in the White House on the last day of his recent trip to the United States.  As in past visits to the White House, the Dalai Lama wasn't photographed in the Oval Office, which might suggest he was being treated as a head of state.  But the Chinese government protested vociferously anyway.

So it is in the current phase of Tibet's troubled history with China.  Tibet: A History by Sam Van Schaik (Yale University Press) uses a narrative approach to that varied history, from the seventh century until now.  It is an absorbing if complex set of stories, of emperors, warriors, monks and tribal leaders in this vast land, which nevertheless had many significant encounters with neighboring countries and empires.  In considering the contemporary conquest by China, Van Shaik is more measured and perhaps hopeful about Tibet retaining its cultural identity than, for example, Tim Johnson in Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China (Nation Books.)  Against other recent portraits of Tibet--the cruel oppression of Buddhist monks and nuns, the destruction of shrines and temples while others are Disneyfied for tourists and run by Chinese immigrants--Van Schaik tells stories of cultural resilience.

Another recent book from Yale, The Taming of Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism by Jacob P. Dalton is a narrower history and analysis of the creativity as well as destructiveness of ritual violence in Tibetan Buddhism, mostly in the distant past.  This attempt to provide "a history of violence in Tibetan Buddhism in Tibetans' own terms" probably will interest to scholars and others deeply interested in the subject.    Van Shaik's book however has wider appeal, with its larger than life narratives about a region still shrouded in mystery. 

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