"Virtual Tibet" and "The Search for the Panchen Lama"

Even the experts fail to grasp the banality of Tibet.

By Gavin McNett

Published June 21, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Somebody here in the Occident will eventually have to take a stiff belt of something, splash some cold water on his face, and get down to writing a book that will disclose the banality of Tibet and everything Tibetan. Not "banality" in the pejorative sense, meaning depthless and trite -- for Tibet and its situation are neither of those things -- but in the sense of the everyday, the unsentimental, the familiar. Clearly, we're wacky about Tibet as about no other country in the world.

Sinologist Orville Schell's "Virtual Tibet" looks at the changing ways in which the West has understood that country over the past few centuries. Despite the cyber-title (which seems to carry the scent of a book editor, subspecies: praecox), the "virtual" part simply refers to the practice, borrowed from the last few decades of lit crit, of examining the way we look at things, rather than looking at the things themselves. The book traces our shifting, always partially imaginary relationship with the mystic Land of the Snows through some fascinating early travelers' accounts and popular books, to its adoption as the cause cilhbre of soul-hungry Hollywood. Our virtual Tibet has been a mysterious half-realm of demons and sorcery, the earthly paradise of Shangri-La, and a spiritual beacon to the world -- but it's always a territory in which the usual rules that govern the world somehow don't apply. We've never quite been able to accept Tibet as just an ordinary place in the world where actual, real people live: a place like, say, Belgium or Missouri -- only with high mountains and yaks, instead of waffles and whatever's in Missouri.

Schell reports, for instance, that it was generally believed well into the 20th century that sorcerers lived in Tibet who could call up storms and fly through the air -- a notion that still commands popular respect today in a who-knows kind of way. Many people, including Everest climber Reinhold Messner and nature writer Peter Matthiessen, still credit the notion that there are Abominable Snowmen lurking around its mountainous areas (as Messner testifies in his recent book, "My Quest for the Yeti"). Schell himself phrases things very carefully on several occasions when the notion comes into play that certain lamas (including the Dalai and Panchen lamas) reincarnate, and are thus always the same lama, over and over again. And maybe so, but the fact that the Tibetan mystique is so persistent speaks not to the realities of the country, but to a need on the part of the West, as Schell says, to spin "a fabulous skein of fantasy around this distant, unknown land."

Long precedent accounts for much of it. Before the Chinese invasion in 1951, and for most purposes until the 1980s, Tibet was effectively sealed off from the West. The old city of Lhasa, the site of the towering, gilt-roofed Potala wherein the Dalai Lama resided, was protected from the world by geography, and its fabulous remoteness alone might've been enough to make it into a place of legend and the Holy Grail of the serious traveler even if the Tibetans didn't chase every Westerner out of the country who tried to get anywhere near the place.

When the gates were pried open by slow increments in the 20th century, through politics, military force and, occasionally, happenstance (as was the case with displaced Nazi mountaineer Heinrich Herrer, who wandered in during the war and left the country a close friend of the current Dalai Lama), Tibet itself was broken, but its glamour only increased. Schell quotes newspaperman Edmund Candler, present on the 1904 British military expedition to Lhasa: "Why could we not have been content that there was ... one country ... where men are still guided by sorcery and incantations, and direct their mundane affairs with one eye on a grotesque spirit world?" He needn't have worried about it -- by the time Candler wrote those words, that country was America, where the table-tapping set (and figures such as Russian occultist Madame Helena Blavatsky) had adopted a fantasy Tibet as a spiritualist fetish.

Today, one can travel to the new Lhasa by jetliner and see, rather than sorcerers taxiing the runways, the sad effects of Chinese progress -- a term historically less akin to "German efficiency" than to "Dutch treat" or "Swiss Navy." Beijing has remade the Lhasa area along the lines of its typical provincial city: a thoughtless sprawl of low to medium-rise Sino-kitsch, equipped as though by design with all the problems of the modern urban world, and without thought to its compensations. Its Tibetan citizenry is poor, beaten-down and miserable; immigrant Han Chinese essentially run everything. The rest is mostly sightseeing hippies and karaoke bars. And our current popular idea of Tibet, formed out of its forced annexation and exploitation by China and refined by the protests of the Hollywood set and by the recent Tibetan Freedom Concerts, is that of a bottomless tragedy worked upon a simple and innocent people -- an enlightened people -- as though for evil's sake alone.

In his hugely influential 1978 book, "Orientalism," Edward Said showed the West that the fabled Orient of Ali Baba and the Seven Chinese Brothers (and flying Buddhist monks) is only strange and exotic if you're not from one of those regions yourself -- which a lot of people, of course, are. In that regard, our current storybook idea of Tibet has little room for motive or nuance, and assumes, once again, that the normal rules don't apply somehow. Everything's still all yin-yang over there as usual, just like it used to be in China until -- well, again, until the Chinese took over. Generally we understand that when people (and countries) collide and ruin one another, it's for messy, all-too-human reasons such as conflicting interests, and faulty judgment, and mediocrity of spirit; here (as we see it) it's just inscrutable.

Schell's book, too, leaps over the reality of the real-life Land of the Snows by setting us on a plane not to Lhasa, but to Argentina, where we pursue the exotic up a mountain to the film set of the Brad Pitt vehicle "Seven Years in Tibet" -- on which the old Lhasa has been reconstructed in plaster and chicken wire, with phony yak turds littering the streets. Even as "Virtual Tibet" unravels the thread of the "fabulous skein," Schell searches for the old, mist-shrouded Shangri-La wherever he can find it. It's an interesting book, but one that suffers, in the end, from its commitment to show only the unreal and the legendary: It lacks a referent in the real Tibet, and some banal reality by point of comparison would have strengthened Schell's case.

Isabel Hilton's "The Search For the Panchen Lama" might not be the book that'll clear the mystical vapors from the Tibetan question once and for all, leaving a difficult, but recognizably human, situation in its place, but it's a pretty hard-eyed treatise nonetheless. Hilton is a British journalist who specializes in China and is familiar from the ground-level with Chinese realpolitik and court intrigue, and with the ever-unpredictable waves of political favor and disfavor that radiate from Beijing.

Her book brings the same knowledge to bear on the history of Tibetan politics from the 1200s through the Chinese invasion and into the present, and gives careful attention to the fact that the old Tibet was in essence a feudal theocracy, ruled by a rigid hierarchy of monks. The old Tibetan system, Hilton demonstrates, wasn't particularly enlightened in regard to internecine power struggles and political assassinations, nor were its rulers immune to such hazards of power as greed, debauch and arbitrariness.

The Panchen Lama is the second most important figure of Tibetan Buddhism, and historically he and the Dalai Lama have gotten along rather badly, with the one periodically attempting to marginalize or dethrone the other, and vice versa. But while there have been 10 Panchens over the years, and 14 Dalais, there's really only been one of each, since they're supposed to reincarnate. The traditional arrangement dictates that upon either lama's death, the other is responsible for finding his reincarnation, generally a 3-year-old boy who passes certain tests.

That system sets up certain checks and balances on an ever-tense Dalai/Panchen situation, but it has also been subject to tampering for hundreds of years, with chosen reincarnations turning up dead under suspicious circumstances (sometimes in series), several unacceptable or dissolute candidates passing unhindered through the process (the prior Dalai was a notorious sex hound), and even one dead Dalai (the fifth) having been hidden away for 13 years to prevent a search from being mounted for a replacement.

When the Chinese swept in a half-century ago, things were further complicated by the fact that the Dalai was forced to flee Tibet, while the Tenth Panchen, a devoted Communist and a quisling, remained in the country. The Panchen eventually redeemed himself by becoming such a fierce critic of China's Tibet policy that he was stripped of his office and imprisoned for 12 years. Upon his release he came back an even fiercer critic, and finally ended up facing reincarnation, in 1989, due to a sudden, suspicious heart failure. China then claimed a bogus historical prerogative to appoint the next Panchen, and underwent a search according to the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, which led to such unprecedented events as the reporting of religious miracles in the official press.

The Chinese eventually selected a boy named Gyaltsen Norbu, the child of two Communist Party members, whereas the current Dalai, understandably less than pleased about that due to matters both of Tibetan self-governance and of his own succession, had selected his own candidate through the work of agents in occupied Tibet. His choice, the 6-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, subsequently disappeared along with his family, in May 1995 -- and has never been seen again.

Hilton's book starts out rather heavy on the names and dates, and since the narrative skips around a lot (and since a good portion of the major players in Tibetan politics throughout history are supposed to be several other people reincarnated), it can make you a bit dizzy in places.

But once the book moves into contemporary time, Hilton switches permanently into nonfiction mode, and her prose becomes poised and lucid, attentive to the telling detail. She writes of a visit to the vanished young Panchen's palace-in-exile, in India: "I passed through the lush elegance of Bangalore, with its flower stalls and its tropical scents, and down that long road through the gentle green landscape of Karnataka. As I arrived, the whitewashed walls and incense burners of Tashilhunpo [monastery] were washed in the faint apricot tint of the warm morning light." A monk in robes and shades roars up on a motorcycle; a Chinese travel agent sits at a desk "bare except for a very large Nescafe jar, now half full of tea leaves, which he topped up from time to time with water from a battered Thermos flask." The Dalai Lama wears Doc Martens.

Hilton's book is a good read by any measure, but doubly so because of the hard realism at its core: no airborne monks, no narcissistic spiritualizing, no fooling. Great evil, Hilton seems to say, doesn't just spring fully formed into the world; it accretes out of innumerable small human failings and mistakes, moving downhill all the way. And while that's an idea that a Buddhist would easily understand, it's also one that the West seems loath to apply to the case of Tibet.

Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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