Manga’s Dalai Lama

This summer, Manga comics have become my latest guilty pleasure.

There’s so much more to manga than wide-eyed girls in sailor suits and indestructible space monsters.   This vast genre includes autobiographical stories, intriguing yokai (or spirit) tales and gritty, realistic themes – these brief descriptions merely scrape the surface of what’s available.

Tetsu Saiwai’s amazing book, The 14th Dalai Lama (Penguin Books, 2010) is drawn in a semi-realistic, heavy-inked 60’s cartoon-style. The book is a historical portrayal of the Chinese invasion of Tibet as told in the first person voice through the eyes of the mountainous country’s reincarnated spiritual leader.

I’m neither a Buddhist, nor a long time cheerleader for the Dalai Lama, but this educational manga book reduced me to tears. Honestly. My only complaint is Saiwai’s book reads front to back and left to right. Manga geeks like me prefer our comics to read from back to front and right to left – a serious part of the genuine manga experience. Like I said – I’m a reincarnated manga nerd.

In truth, I’ve always been irritated by the Dalai Lama’s western-world hero worshippers. For some, he’s a mass media icon for hippies and Hollywood actors – a larger-than-life Buddhist version of the Pope as an electric rock star.  Speaking of electricity – a friend in Nanaimo once said he’d been ‘electrified’ after hearing this great man delivering a lecture. When the Dalai Lama visited Vancouver in 2006, I did security duty for one of the Dalai Lama’s events in a local stadium and failed to get shocked. During this event, the spiritual leader mentioned something interesting but vague about world peace – this is all I remember.

The Dalai Lama failed to move me at the time, but then I only had a vague understanding of what His Holiness truly signified. He’s a brave leader in-exile, who represents a bullied, oppressed country.

Our western leaders have often been tepid in response to China’s invasion and murderous occupation of Tibet, but the Dalai Lama – who celebrated his 77th birthday this month – continues to be a peaceful thorn in China’s belligerent side. He exists to keep the beautiful historical and spiritual traditions of his peaceful but occupied nation alive.

At two years of age, Llhamo Donrub was chosen to be the Dalai Lama through a highly-spiritualized, visionary process. Like with many things in life, it takes faith to believe. A monk named Kewtsang Rinpoche had been sent on a search party in the north eastern Amdo region of Tibet to locate their 14th reincarnated spiritual leader. One of the tests to determine the Dalai Lama involved a scenario where the potential leader had to choose and segregate a variety of objects set on a table.  Young Llhamo Dondrub selected all the right pieces.

When the Dalai Lama was a mere child, he left home in 1939 to eventually settle in the Potala Palace, where he had a very unusual childhood involving much spiritual study and little play. When the Dalai Lama became a teenager, China “emancipated” Tibet in October 1950. Tibet remained semi-autonomous throughout the 1950s, but China’s authoritative designs for Tibet were clear from the beginning.

In May 1951, China introduced a 17-point agreement to establish Chinese authority over Tibet. Officially, Chine was ‘liberating’ the country from western imperialists. The Dalai Lama attempted diplomacy with China, but in the end this venture failed to work. In 1955, before the Dalai Lama left Beijing for Tibet after attending The National People’s Congress, the Dalai Lama met with Chairman Mao.  Mao told the Dalai Lama “religion is poison,” amongst other things.  By March 1959, the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet for India because of an apparent assassination plot.

Since 1960, the Tibetan government in-exile has existed in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala. Thousands leave Tibet for India each year to Dharamsala, which has gained Little Lhasa as a nickname.

The Chinese occupation of Tibet has been destructive to the country in so many ways. Native wild animals such as drongs and serows are no longer seen in the Tibetan countryside. The Chinese mine uranium in Tibet, nuclear weapons are produced in the country, and Tibet has been used as a nuclear waste dump, which means parts of the country might be ridden with radioactive contamination.

Since the Chinese invasion, Tibet’s cultural traditions have been under attack. In Murder in the High Himalaya, (Perseus Books Group, 2010) journalist Jonathan Green describes the extensive, brutal destruction of Tibet’s religious institutions. During and before the disastrous Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards obliterated 6,000 Buddhist monasteries. The Tibetan construction of traditional stupas and other sacred monuments became illegal. Many Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns were forced into religious re-education programs, or beaten and tortured. In 2008, 62 per cent of Tibet’s 715 political prisoners were either monks or nuns.

Green’s book portrays the tragic murder of a young 17 year old Tibetan nun named Kelsang Namtso, who attempted to flee Tibet to Dharamsala in September 2006. A group of climbers near Cho Oyu – a gateway to Mount Everest – witnessed some Chinese border guards firing on her and other Tibetan refugees, who were caught trying to enter India by trekking through Nepal – a preferred escape route for Tibetans on-the-run.

Most people who have experienced the sort of turmoil the Dalai Lama has gone through might be bitter and depressed. Yet the Dalai Lama’s views on personal happiness seem quite balanced and sanguine. If I can recall anything significant about the Dalia Lama’s lecture in 2006, it would be his easygoing, light-hearted style.

In the Dalai Lama’s words:

“A tamed mind makes you peaceful, relaxed, and happy, whereas if your mind is not peaceful and tamed, no matter how wonderful your external circumstances, you will be beset by frights and worries.” (Advice on Dying and living a better life, page 219, Dalai Lama, translated by Jeffery Hopkins PhD, Atria Books, 2002).

Perhaps these are some of the most profound words I’ve read this year. Regardless of anyone’s chosen faith, most would agree a tamed, peaceful mind helps to create a harmonious surrounding.