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Book Box: Dear Dalai Lama, what do I read?

Dear Reader,

There was a phone call earlier this week, that got the worlds attention.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Dalai Lama to wish him on his 87th birthday. And like everything about the Dalai Lama, this call too, was much debated. It added spark to the festivities; in Dharamshala where the Dalai Lama lives, here in Manali, and all over the valleys of the Himalayas, where prayers were offered for the long life of the spiritual leader and former head of the state of Tibet.

Traditional Tibetan Prayer Flags strung across a path in Manali. 

What is it about this frail 87-year-old, and Tibet, that has exercised the imagination of the world?

Read these five books to discover why; to get insights into the Buddhist religion, to learn how to be happy and to understand the geopolitics of India, China and Tibet.

Book 1 of 5: Memoir

Freedom In Exile. 
Freedom In Exile. 

If you want to know more about Tibetan Buddhism, the best place to start, is through books written by the Dalai Lama. There are over a hundred! Start with Freedom In Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. What I love about this book is how the Dalai Lama mixes history and philosophy with rich descriptions of his life.

He tells us for instance about the traditional Tibetan tsampa “.. barley which my parents grew is another Tibetan staple. When roasted and ground down into a fine flour, it becomes tsampa. There is rarely a meal served in Tibet which does not include tsampa and, even in exile, I continue to have it every day. It is not eaten as flour, of course. You must first combine it with liquid, usually tea, but milk (which I prefer) or yoghurt or even chang (Tibetan beer) will do.

The Dalai Lama speaks with charming candour about his feelings as well, like this story from when he was a little boy “But remembering my lines was only half the problem. Because the proceedings went on for so long, I had an additional dread: I feared that my bladder might not hold out. In the end, everything went well, even the first time when I was so young. But I remember being apoplectic with fear.

Book 2 of 5: Buddhism and Evolutionary Psychology

Why Buddhism is True. 
Why Buddhism is True. 

Why Buddhism is True uses evolutionary psychology to explain how Buddhist practice is a practical antidote to the stresses of modern life. In other words, Buddhism is not some esoteric philosophy, it really works! I like how Robert Wright makes his case. I also enjoyed his style of writing, conversational, humorous and self-deprecating. It’s a good introductory book, an intersection of psychology and philosophy and is effective at kindling your interest in both.

Book 3 of 5: Reportage from Tibet

Eat The Buddha. 
Eat The Buddha. 

Journalist Barbara Demick is best known for capturing the stories of ordinary people in North Korea in Nothing to Envy. In this book, she follows the same style, for the town of Ngaba in Tibet, profiling people like a young Tibetan monk turned soldier, a poet who risks everything to voice his resistance, and a Tibetan teenager forced to choose between her family and selling out for easy Chinese money. I had mixed feelings about Eat the Buddha, maybe because these stories seemed more removed than her North Korean ones or maybe because the stories themselves are so grim and gritty and offer such a bleak view of reality. Yet this book is important, in that these accounts add a physical lens to the philosophical lens of the Tibetan Buddhism books.

Book 4 of 5: Environmental Thriller

Copper Mountain. 
Copper Mountain. 

Copper Mountain brings many strands of real life together, in the way the best fiction does. The book tells the story of China Copper, a private corporation that discovers a huge copper deposit in Mount Kailash in Tibet and wants to mine the mountain. This leads to a conflict between China the coloniser and Tibet the colonised. Party functionaries, ambitious corporates and all sorts of religious leaders get into this fight, each with their own interests. Samphel constructs these characters cleverly, from Zhou Fatang, head of China Copper to Ren Rin, founder of the NGO Mountain China, to Chiu Rinpoche of the Chiu Monastery and Beijing-based researcher nun Yeshe Tsogyal. The action is brisk and the plot thickens with a fascinating mix of ingredients that include translations of old manuscripts, levitating monks and time travel.

Book 5 of 5: Picture book

Homeland. 
Homeland. 

Being the Dalai Lama and being Tibetan, also means being in perpetual exile. Homeland by Anniya Asrani, explores this part of the Tibetan story through the eyes of a young monk named Lobdorjee, who lives in the Tibetan settlement in Bylakuppe in Karnataka. This picture book is a good way for families to talk about what it means to be an immigrant, what makes it different from a refugee and also food and culture and belonging.

These are just a few of the fabulous books on the Dalai Lama, on Tibet and on Tibetan Buddhism. For more on Buddhist philosophy read Tsongkhapa: A Buddha in the Land of Snows by Thupten Jinpa, Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hahn and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron. For travelogues that give you the land of Tibet, read Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa by Peter Hopkirk, The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet by Graham Earnshaw, The Hotel on the Roof of the World by Alec le Sueur and Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer.

Finally, meet Tansy Troy, Head of the Early Years Program at Kings College, Rohtak, who confesses to being a bad Buddhist, but also feels deeply blessed by the Dalai Lama. Edited excerpts of our conversation.

Meet Tansy Troy. 
Meet Tansy Troy. 

1. When was your first encounter with the Dalai Lama?

I first came to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, aged about 11 years old, on a visit to India with my Mum. I remember arriving in his energy field with utmost clarity. We had been staying in Chamba and Mum had fallen very ill. With 11-year-old intensity, I insisted we travel to Dharamsala where I said with great conviction: ‘there you will get well’. Sure enough, she did.

2. What has it been like to meet the Dalai Lama in person?

Since His Holiness came to London in the early 1990s, I have been lucky enough to attend teachings with him, in the UK, France, Austria and India. Three favourite accidental (or perhaps fated) meetings stand out:

1) His Holiness gave a wonderful public talk at The Royal Albert Hall when I was in my early 20s. I hadn’t properly sat down to meditate by this point and was pretty all over the place, spiritually. Mum said: go and see if there are any tickets on the door, though the event had been sold out for months. When I reached the RAH, a photographer was just coming out of a side door as I was asking an usher where I could find a return ticket. He sold me his for five pounds (he had a press pass) and I sat in the third row. His Holiness said: ‘Those who have come to see a miracle today, please go home. You will not find one here.’ A little later, I watched in absolute wonder as he appeared to dissolve into atoms of light. Tears streamed down my face for many minutes after.

2) After a summer in Ladakh, I went to the check-in counter at Leh Airport. The lady at the check counter said: You are a very lucky girl. Oh, I said, why? Because, she replied, today you will travel with His Holiness to Delhi. Once on board the small plane, it was like a riot as everyone wanted to meet HH. The pilot kept entreating everyone to sit down in order for us to be able to take off, but no one listened! It was the most personal meeting and conversation I ever had with HH, up in the air, over the Himalayas, in a land of sky and cloud.

3) In a remote village of Spiti after a three-day teaching stint, I was hanging out with two Israeli girls of Russian descent and a South Indian Christian called Angel. We were all working out how to get back to Manali and wandering around the wild mountainside figuring out our next move. From out of the blue, a big jet black car came around the corner with His Holiness waving delightedly out of the window at our raggle taggle band. The girls began jumping up and down and declaring ‘We have seen GOD!’

3. What was the first book you read on Buddhism?

I was in Japan, aged 21, taking a year out of my degree at Cambridge, when I read my first book on Tibetan Buddhism. It was the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche and it resonated very deeply. There were black and white portrait photos in the back of the book of Sogyal Rinpoche’s teachers. I dreamed of them and even received very interesting dream teachings on the nature of reality!

4. For someone who would like to read up on this subject, what is a good book to start with?

I would recommend His Holiness’s wonderful autobiography Freedom In Exile. It has the quality of making one feel remarkably close to all the experiences His Holiness has been through and learning the story of last century Tibet as well.

5. You do a lot of spiritual reading – tell us about your 4 favourite books?

Last year, I read and became enamoured by Reflections on the Self by Krishnamurti, which I discovered in Full Circle, in Khan Market in their excellent Spiritual Section. In a cafe-bookshop somewhere in Mussorie, I found Interconnected by Ogyen Trinley Dorje and loved it. And I will always have a very deep place in my heart for the Bible in French, which I first read before going up to Cambridge (it was on our reading list). I loved the Song of Songs best of all, which to this day I find a most extraordinary piece of spiritual and deeply romantic poetry.

Another favourite is A God in Exile with photographs from the lens of Raghu Rai. This work of wonder shows His Holiness in conversation with Imams, and Rabbis, leading intellectual and spiritual leaders and in serene contemplation. A must for the Spiritual Library.

6. Would you describe yourself as a practising Buddhist?

I am a very bad Buddhist as I don’t find time to say the mantras of all the deities for whom I have received initiations, so I guess that means I will have to come back and do it again properly next life, practising a lot more each day. I do try to say the refuge vows, along with the Eight Verses for Changing the Mind, which have now become fundamental to my philosophy of living. I don’t know exactly if these humble offerings mean I am a practising Buddhist or not. I love Green Tara’s active way of practising right action in the world. I feel this is a very practical and dynamic approach which suits my chaotic, creative nature!

7. Finally, what does the Dalai Lama mean to you?

My family and I met His Holiness in Cambridge where I studied English Literature at King’s College. Soon after that meeting, I conceived our daughter, whom HH was kind enough to name. The name HH graced her with is Dasel which means: Wisdom Bright as Moonbeams. For this beauty, I am eternally and constantly grateful. His Holiness is our main Spiritual Master. We try to learn all we can from his amazing energy, constant good humour; and from his very infinite patience, which for someone as impatient as me, often seems impossible to emulate!

On that inspiring note, we wrap up for this week. And in the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favourite go-to spiritual books.

Next week I address a problem that plagues our generation – so many books, so little time. How do we read more?

Until then, Happy Reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at [email protected]

The views expressed are personal

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