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Books Provide Insight To Dalai Lama

“Kundun: A Biography of the Family of the Dalai Lama” by Mary Craig (Counterpoint, 416 pp. $26)

“The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama” by Melvyn C. Goldstein (University of California Press, 130 pp., $19.95)

Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the start of a sustained period of pro-independence demonstrations in Tibet, and while public demonstrations have become more sporadic in recent years, the cause continues to attract sympathy and support.

In both Chinese and Western eyes, the emotional focus of the Tibetan independence movement remains the Dalai Lama, the 62-year-old god-king. And although his own position on independence is less than absolutist, he is at least the symbol of whatever is meant by “Tibet.” In “Kundun,” British journalist Mary Craig provides a fresh background for understanding the role of the Dalai Lama.

“Kundun,” meaning “presence of the Buddha,” is a reverential title for the Dalai Lama - and the title of a forthcoming Martin Scorsese film. Rather than treat the Dalai Lama as an incarnate deity, however, the book places him in the context of his family, based on extensive interviews with his kin.

While other political-religious symbols (e.g., the pope) have families, rarely do they play so prominent a role as have the Dalai Lama’s mother, his six brothers and sisters, and their spouses and children.

The Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Thondup, is described by Craig as “urbane and articulate” and able “to think globally.” Known as GT, he organized the Committee for Social Welfare, which became the nerve center of the Tibetan resistance movement, and he appears to have been the CIA’s main contact in the movement.

In 1994, then living in Beijing, GT attempted to advise the Chinese government on how to handle the search for the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-ranking Tibetan religious leader who had died in 1989. When the Dalai Lama announced that a new incarnation had been found, Gyalo Thondup told Craig, “I warned the Chinese to be very careful how they handled the situation.” But, he said, “they didn’t take any notice, of course,” and the Chinese named their own choice, exacerbating Chinese-Tibetan relations.

The most appealing of the Dalai Lama’s siblings in Craig’s account is his younger sister, Jetsun Pema. After accompanying the family into exile in Dharamsala, India, Pema was educated at finishing schools in Switzerland and London. On her return to India, she took over the Tibetan Children’s Village, now a network of nine shelters for orphans.

Later named minister of education in the exile government, Pema played a key role in Chinese-Tibetan relations in 1979 when she led a “fact-finding” delegation to Tibet (following one led by Lobsang Samten, the sibling closest in age to the Dalai Lama).

These delegations had been organized by Gyalo Thondup with the encouragement of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who expected they would prove to the Tibetan exiles how beneficial Chinese occupation had been and perhaps pave the way for rapprochement. But their findings confirmed the worst Tibetan suspicions. “It was one horror story after another,” Pema told Craig. Of the villagers she was allowed to meet with during a three-month tour, “they all spoke of terrible suffering, of torture, of death, of starvation.”

Such firsthand experiences by trusted family members provide a context for the Dalai Lama’s firm but flexible position on the future of Tibet, one that is cautious and wary about the Chinese but willing to accept less than full independence in order to preserve Tibetan culture. Craig’s reporting of these experiences is a valuable contribution to an understanding of the Dalai Lama’s political position.

Like most other writers on Tibet, Craig relies greatly on Melyvn C. Goldstein’s authoritative “A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State.” Goldstein now carries his account forward in the forthcoming “The Snow Lion and the Dragon,” in which he outlines the options for China and for the Dalai Lama. “Time,” Goldstein writes, “does not appear to be on the Dalai Lama’s side,” because the longer China is allowed to transform Tibetan society and culture, the more difficult it will be to reverse.