5 Books on Tibet

Riya Pant,   Blog   12 May 2022
5 Books on Tibet

Tibet is an autonomous region in China that is often called “the roof of the world”. It occupies a vast area of plateaus and mountains, including touching some parts of Mount Everest. Lhasa is the capital city. It constitutes a unique culture and religious community, marked by the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism. The view of Tibetan Buddhists is peaceful, harmonious and spiritually elevated. Another view suggests Tibet is an eternally happy society; a kind of haven.

Before the 1950s, Tibet was largely isolated from the rest of the world. When Tibet was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China starting in 1950, it remained a heavily discussed and controversial discussion around the world. Public opinion outside China, especially in the West, tends to take the side of Tibet as an independent or highly autonomous entity. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual and temporal leader, has become one of the world’s most recognizable and highly regarded individuals. Whatever the stereotypes or assumptions remain of and around Tibet, it houses some of the richest culture, artworks and customs in the world.

In this blog, we will look at 5 books that explore the beautiful Tibet inside and out.

  1. Lhasa – Robert Barnett

Robert Barnett is a keen observer of current Tibetan affairs. In “Lhasa: Streets with Memories” he attempts "to scrape a little of the topsoil off the affective history of a city". This study is a valuable contribution toward understanding recent developments in Tibet. The urban life and modernity of Tibet remain a vastly rare discussion, as the culture is normally associated with monasteries and mountains.

The book constitutes a chronological first-person account of Barnett beginning with his presence during the Lhasa protests of 1987 and ending with his most recent visits as the director of a summer language study program. Although Barnett apologies for his personal interaction (or lack thereof) with the locals, the book does not shy away from using people’s stories to provide an archaeology of the city. Barnett justifies the lack of the Tibetan voice by saying it is impossible or dangerous (theoretically and politically) for a foreigner to understand the locals. Still, this book offers an alluring travelogue of an exotic and politicized city.

  • The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – Sogyal Rinpoche

"I have written The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying as the quintessence of the heart-advice of all my masters, to be a new Tibetan Book of the Dead and a Tibetan Book of Life."

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying offers a presentation of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The book explores the message of impermanence, evolution, karma, rebirth, the nature of the mind and how to train the mind through meditation, how to follow a spiritual path in this day and age, the practice of compassion, how to care for and show love to the dying, and spiritual practices for the moment of death.

Sogyal Rinpoche was born and brought up in the Tibetan tradition; so he has received instructions from some of the greatest Lamas. He also had a modern education and lived and worked in the West; so he has become well-equipped with Western ways of thought. By taking a good look at death and dying from a Tibetan Buddhist’s perspective the topic of life gets illuminated. The book is likely to change your attitude toward living and dying for the better.

  • Memories of life in Lhasa under Chinese rule by Ttubten Khetsun

“No single person could thoroughly or comprehensively describe the inexpressible destruction of the country and way of life of the Tibetan people by the Chinese invaders.”

Born in 1941 to an upper-class family, Khetsum took part in the 1959 rebellion against Chinese rule. Khetsun was in prison for 20 years. Much of the book describes in heartrending detail gruelling day and night shifts, injuries and accidents caused by reckless guards, inadequate food, rest, shelter and medical care. He writes about the story of forced labour, agony and death, and human and environmental degradation at China’s hands that befell Tibet.

This book is translated from the author’s text by a gifted Tibetologist, Matthew Akester. We receive the direct voice of Khetsun in unusual precision and great detail. The conviction of the Chinese that they were helping Tibetan by imposing modernisation on them caused an authoritarian system. However, it also helps us understand that the Chinese did bring some benefits to Tibet along with the damaging effects. As outsiders, we must let go of judgements and prejudice to truly resonate with the book.

  • A Tibetan Revolutionary – Melvyn C Goldstein

This book is an as-told-to political autobiography of Phuntso Wangye (Phunwang for short), one of the most important Tibetan revolutionary figures of the twentieth century. The book is written in first-person narrative with the information acquired through an extensive series of interviews over several years.

Born in 1922 in Batang, eastern Kham, Phunwand began his activism in school and founded a secret Tibetan Communist Party. He was expelled in 1940, and for the next nine years, worked to organize an uprising against the Chinese who controlled his homeland. In 1949, Phünwang merged his Tibetan Communist Party with Mao's Chinese Communist Party. He played an important role in the party's administrative organization in Lhasa and was the translator for the young Dalai Lama during his famous 1954–55 meetings with Mao Zedong.

 In the 1950s, Phünwang was the highest-ranking Tibetan official within the Communist Party in Tibet. Though he was fluent in Chinese, comfortable with Chinese culture, and devoted to socialism and the Communist Party, his deep commitment to the welfare of Tibetans made him suspect to powerful Han colleagues. In 1958 Phünwang was secretly detained; three years later, he was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Beijing's equivalent of the Bastille for the next eighteen years. Informed by vivid firsthand accounts of the relations between the Dalai Lama, the Nationalist Chinese government, and the People's Republic of China, this chronicle illuminates one of the world's most tragic and dangerous ethnic conflicts at the same time as it relates the details of a life spent in the quest for a new Tibet.

  • The Dance of 17 Lives – Mick Brown

The Dance of 17 Lives is a biography/travelogue that explores the life of the 17th Karmapa, who has been hailed as one of the greatest spiritual leaders of modern times. The teenage Lama fled the Chinese-occupied Tibet in 2000 for India. The book not only traces the Karmapa’s daring escape but also gives a quick sketch of the nature, history and conflicts of Tibetan Buddhism. Brown portrays Buddhism as a religion that is as rife with political considerations as it is with miraculous incarnations.

The book mainly accounts for the 11 years that elapsed between the 16th Karmapa’s death in 1981 and the recognition of his seven-year-old successor in 1992. These years were characterized by feuds and accusations among the 16th’s closest disciples. In the later chapters, he also chronicles China’s mid-1990s crackdown on Buddhists who stayed loyal to the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government labelled a dangerous villain. This book is an excellent history of modern Tibet.


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