Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: "The Dalai Lama and the King Demon" by Raimondo Bultrini

An awkward video of HH Dalai Lama being heckled by an idiotic westerner who worships an ancient Tibetan spirit. The Dalai Lama tries to engage her in a conversation while she replies with the same words repeated over and over again, sounding like a broken cassette player.

(I began my review with an overview of this controversy, followed by my opinion of this book. If you want to skip straight to my review of this book, scroll down to the "***" sign.)

This volume covers a fascinating history of a religious/political conflict within Tibetan Buddhism. This spiritual conflict continues today and involves the Chinese government, Tibetans and westerners alike, but it features most prominently His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a ferocious spirit believed by its opponents (myself included) to be a sinister force and its supporters as an enlightened guardian of the path to bliss.

In the past few decades fanatical American and British devotees of the "kind demon" (though they would describe him differently) could be seen in well-organized groups loudly protesting H.H. Dalai Lama outside the venues which host his talks during his visits to the west. They accuse him of being a "liar" and of suppressing the human rights of the devotees of this spirit because he actively discouraged this fanatical spirit worship among practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism believing that spirit-worship is detrimental to Tibetan unity and compromises the purity of Buddhist teaching which are concerned with finding lasting happiness through mind training, contemplation and compassion.

These spirit-lovers filed lawsuits against HH Dalai Lama in Indian courts and submitted petitions to western human rights organizations to condemn HHDL for his alleged "suppression of religious freedom." The Indian courts dismissed the lawsuits and human rights organizations issued statements clearly stating that no "suppression of human rights" has occurred.

Yet none of this deters members of this peculiar cult from heckling HH Dalai Lama during his talks and even putting up a propaganda website that accuses this Nobel Prize winner (among other idiotic charges) of harboring sympathies for the Nazis when he was a teenager in Tibet. It is important to note that while these pro-spirit forces wrap themselves in a mantle of religious freedom there is no recorded instance of practitioners of this cult ever demonstrating against the Chinese government's policies in Tibet which have caused over a hundred Tibetans to literally set themselves on fire and perish in the flames in recent years to demonstrate the level of repression they are experiences in their own homeland. For those protesters the Dalai Lama is their number one enemy, for millions of Tibetans he is their best hope for freedom, and hundreds if not thousands of them faced and continue to face the risk of prison and torture just for calling for his return to Tibet.

This conflict therefore is extremely interesting and relevant because it exists at the intersection of modern spirituality and politics and traces its origins back hundreds of years to the great Fifth Dalai Lama who unified Tibet under his leadership in the 1600s.

I myself started my Buddhist path in one of the centers devoted to this spirit. Although in the short time I spent there, I didn't hear any criticism of the current (14th) Dalai Lama, I do remember staring at a huge golden statue of the "king demon" that stood to the right of the Buddhist shrine.

After about 2 or 3 months, I finally did some research on this issue, found myself in total agreement with HH Dalai Lama and left to go to a mainstream Tibetan Buddhist center- never once regretting my decision to leave.

The conflict stems from the sectarian divisions between the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Although to an outsider, all Tibetan monks, nuns and lamas look the same- in reality they represent distinct traditions.

In effect all those traditions are similar but each has its unique methods and teachings- passed down from master to student for hundreds of years. No school is better or worse, but Buddhists believe that the Buddha taught different paths to enlightenment because people seeking it have different disposition and one approach or method would not be suitable for all. These schools could be viewed as different paths to the center of a map, everyone is going to the same place, but because people start at different points on the map they will set out in different directions and follow different routs to reach the same goal.

For the most part, these schools of Buddhist coexist peacefully. But since all societies are imperfect, conflicts did and do flare up occasionally. Over time, one of the schools became ascendant and started to dominate political power in the land of snows.

H.H. Dalai Lama belongs to this school and the fact that he is an almost universally revered figure among Tibetans -in a way- demonstrates the influence of this school. Over time, a fundamentalist streak developed within this school of Buddhism creating a conflict between the Dalai Lama and the fundamentalists. The latter believed their teachings to be superior to those of other sects. They started worshiping this spirit with some believing that this spirit would actually harm or kill adherents who took teachings from other Buddhist schools.

By receiving those "alien" teachings the students would contaminate their pure lineage of teachings and cause them to eventually degenerate - losing their unique power to enlighten. Some fundamentalists even physically destroyed statues and monasteries of other schools. As a spiritual leader of all Tibetans, different Dalai Lamas -past and present- discouraged this practice throughout their different reincarnations.

Finally, the current Dalai Lama who respects and received teachings from all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, stated that if anyone wants to receive teachings from him they should stop this spirit worship that runs counter to Buddhist teachings. This is an extremely simple and brief introduction to this controversy- but then again, you can read this book (and other sources) to get a deeper perspective.

***

With my background and interest in Tibetan history (stemming from my devotion to Tibet's religion) I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of this book in the mail.

Alas, reading this book was somewhat of a disappointment. The narrative begins with the brutal murder of Geshe Lobsang Gyatso that happened in the vicinity of the Dalai Lama's residence in India. Geshe Lobsang Gyatso and two of his students were killed mercilessly by the devotees of this spirit for his vocal criticism of the cult and his total devotion to HH Dalai Lama. The killing was meant as a kind of message to the Tibetan government in exile to warn them not to mess with the cult. The killers then fled to Chinese occupied Tibet, and the government there refused to extradite the killers- happy with the discord in the Tibetan exile community.

The problem with Bultrini's writing is that he presents this story in a form of a novel. And -frankly- not even a very good novel. The first chapter begins with the scene before the murder. Here we are treated to the thoughts of Geshe Lobsang Gyatso as well as his conversation with his monk students the night they were killed. Since all three were murdered, how can the author possible know their last words to each other, let alone their actions or thoughts?

I have to conclude that this first scene in a non-fiction book is -in fact- a work of fiction. Then the story progresses and the main character becomes the Indian policeman, Rajeev Kuman Singh, the chief investigator of this religious act of terrorism on Indian soil.

Mr. Singh is presented as a Sherlock Holmes type character- philosophical, brilliant, and well-disciplined. In Bultrini's narrative, he is matched with a womanizing and party-loving police sidekick.

In one of the opening scenes, Mr. Singh's wife complains to him about his schedule and criticizes his goofy sidekick whom he defends loyally.

One has to wonder, would an Indian police inspector give such intimate details of his family life to an Italian journalist- especially when it involves his wife criticizing one of his subordinates? I highly doubt it. But there is even more, the whole description of the investigation is extremely detailed.

At one point, Mr. Singh's thoughts are described to us as he contrasts Hinduism with Tibetan Buddhism while he is searching for Geshe Lobsang Gyatso's killers. All his conversations with Tibetans or his superstitious Indian subordinates (afraid of the foreign spirit's wrath) are presented in a form of dialogue as if all of the people are characters in a mystical detective story.

Since the western writer wasn't present in the room when those conversations took place or when Mr. Singh formulated his private thoughts, how could he possible have access to this treasure trove of material?

Did inspector Singh keep a detailed personal diary where he recorded his thoughts and feelings? Did he then present this diary to Mr. Bultrini- a stranger from Italy? Did the Indian policeman have a photographic memory worthy of a autistic wunderkind?

This rich novel treatment of the investigation goes on for a hundred pages. I'm sorry but I can't rationally classify this first part of the book as anything else than a work of fiction based on a true story. Also from the very first moments of reading it is clear that the spirit cult is responsible for the murder and the killers flee to China so really there is no great mystery to unravel- the investigation could have been summed up in twenty pages or less.

The other part of the book are much better and give a decent religious and historical perspective on the conflict. Yet -here and there- the Italian writer's fancy seems to overpower him and he again slips into sharing with us things like the personal thoughts of the young Dalai Lama or ruminations of a medieval Tibetan lama, Drakpa Gyaltsen, who is believed to be at the origin of the "king demon."

I think that the only first-person narrative in a non-fiction book should be that of the writer. It is hard enough to imagine the intimate thoughts of those closest to us, let alone Tibetan lamas and Indian officers of the law.

Creative license belongs in Hollywood movies and novels, not in historical accounts. This book contains a lot of great information but unfortunately this information was tainted for me by style with which it was often presented. Since I found the writer's presentation not credible, it was harder to accept other parts of the book as solid reality. If I wanted to read a great novel I would pick up Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, not a book titled "The Dalai Lama and the King Demon."

Since this is only book-length treatment of this fascinating and important controversy, I still recommend it. In spite of my personal reservations, I readily admit that it deepened my understanding of the topic.

However, I would enjoy this book so much more if it was written in a more realistic way.          

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