My Thoughts: This book is the Dalai Lama’s memoirs, but also a history of Tibet and an overview of Buddhism.
I found this book to be very informative both with regards to the Dalai Lama as a person, his upbringing, education and life in general, the culture of Tibet and of Buddhism. What I loved the most was his view on religion in general. He firmly believes that ALL religion is valid. He is not about to go around converting people to Buddhism, but rather he feels that all religions offer the same basic tenants and that instead of trying to take followers from each other they should work together to make the world a better place. At one point when talking about a meeting with Father Thomas Merton he says:
“Above all, he helped me to realise that every major religion, with its teaching of love and compassion, can produce good human beings” (pg208).
Although I am not a religion person I wish that different religions would spend less time talking about how they are different and more about how they are similar. He goes on to say that he actually believes that because much of religion is grounded in culture it would be better for individuals to stay within the religion of their own culture:
“…I believe that, in general, it is much better for individuals to remain with their own traditions rather than change to one whose culture is basically foreign to them and not part of their daily experience. After all, I have always felt that the aims of all religions are essentially the same: namely to make us better, less selfish and ultimately happier human beings. That is the key, the point to the religious life. It is therefore better, in my opinion, for people to retain their traditional values, including their religion” (pg307)
I found it refreshing to hear a religious leader state the importance of cultural ties to religion and why it might be better to work together towards a goal but within our traditions.
In addition to the religious aspect of the book I found the historical aspects fascinating. History was my favourite subject in high school and we studied a fair bit of modern Chinese history then (post-boxer rebellion) so many of the Chinese that he met and talked to were familiar to me. It was interesting to see a slightly different perspective on Mao and the other leaders of China. I had primarily had a western perspective previously so this was new.
My previous study of this period in history has meant that I am familiar with the basic tenants of Marxism. I do agree with the Dalai Lama in that I can see much good in Marxism but that it has been seriously distorted in the world. I can also see why he feels that Buddhism is compatible with Marxism. I do wish that he had not assumed quite the familiarity with the tenants that he does, it would have been good if he had included an overview for those who are not as familiar.
In addition to this he also touches upon the problem of being a minority in a country. Many Tibetans live in minority communities around the world (although primarily in India) and the importance of keeping their cultural heritage. He is adamant that the education of children is of primary importance in this and therefore he supports every effort to teach children. As a future teacher I can only agree.
The Dalai Lama comes across as a very humble and admirable man. He is quick to acknowledge his own faults and shortcomings, especially when he was a child, but he also presents a man with a great deal of humour and curiosity. I think, apart from his tolerance for other religions, the aspect of him that I admire the most is his genuine wish to talk and understand as many people as possible. He wants to know what others think. He believes that everyone has a valuable opinion on their life and that that opinion is worth considering. I think that is the most important lesson for me from this book.
I felt that these were the strongest points in the book, the historical and religious aspects of his life. I did find it hard at times to follow along with who was who. Many of the names have their honorific titles in them and they are the same. This is of course my own western bias in not recognising them (had it said Mr. X or Reverend Y I am sure I would not have had the same problem) but this meant that it took me longer to read the book than it normally would. I kept having to flip back and forth, really I should have kept a list. :D
I would definitely recommend this book to someone who is interested in religion, history, religious freedom and the life of a man who shaped much of the discourse regarding religious tolerance around the world.