Blog Post · Book Review

Escape From the Land of Snows & In the Shadow of the Buddha

Here is a double review that I wrote a while ago and just realized had not yet been published. I thought it was going to be but it was not, so here it is. Enjoy.

Escape From the Land of Snows

The Young Dalai Lama’s Harrowing Flight to Freedom and the Making of a Spiritual Hero

by Stephan Talty

Crown, 320 pp., $26.00


In the Shadow of the Buddha

Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet

by Matteo Pistono

Dutton, 272 pp., $25.95


“The Tibetans do not even have a word for ‘religion,” Stephan Talty writes in Escape From the Land of Snows, “It isn’t something apart. It abides in life always.”

In this Tibet resembles Russia, or at least Dostoyevsky’s view of its messianic claim, passionately expressed in his famous speech on Pushkin, to bear Christ into the world. That is, it is a nation that can be identified with its religion, Buddhism. Its mission, though, was not to bear Buddhism into the world but to be “keeper of the Dharma” (an English equivalent would, perhaps, be the word “gospel”) of the Buddha. For many years foreigners were not allowed to enter Tibet. “Westerners were seen as Tendra, enemies of the faith . . . . It was even permitted to kill intruders rather than let them contaminate Tibet.”

But the Dharma did go out in a way nobody planned, in the Dalai Lama’s exile. He began as an exile, really, chosen, or recognized, as the fourteenth reincarnation of Chenrizi, the bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, at age two, exiled from his home, the village of Takster in northeastern Tibet, and moved to the capital Lhasa at age four. He lived an isolated life of study and meditation, allowed only “periodic visits” with his parents. The Dalai Lama has confessed to having had a “legendary temper,” and surrounded by tutors, he made friends with mice and the temple sweepers. “The Dalai Lama,” Talty writes, “had the curious fate of being neglected and spoiled at the same time.”

In a worldly view, this was not adequate preparation for what was to come, but when the Chinese invaded in 1950 and the state oracles made the Dalai Lama take the crown earlier than usual, “Faith transformed the Dalai Lama’s life just as Tibet entered a fatal crisis. And one can surmise that anxiety over what lay before him, and the fact that he was essentially alone in facing it, sent the Dalai Lama searching for a true compass. What is beyond question is that he found that direction, at long last, in the Dharma.”

But the Dalai Lama was given a tour of China by Mao and at first reassured that all would be well, though he was nonplussed by Mao’s leaning toward him during a dinner and saying that religion was poison, and a sense of foreboding overcame him as he returned home to Tibet. In 1954 the imprisonments and killings began. The CIA, tracking the native rebellion, began to sneak Khampa warriors—notorious bandits from eastern Tibet when they weren’t fighting the Chinese and who were loved by their CIA handlers–out of the country, train them in the U.S. then return them to Tibet with radios and codebooks.

In 1959, open rebellion broke out in Lhasa when a rumor spread that the Chinese were coming to take the Dalai Lama away. Using common sense and the state oracles (who seem curiously malleable throughout the book), the Dalai Lama and his prime minister decided he better get out of Lhasa or Mao would have him killed or forced into use as a puppet of the state. The party left in the night and slipped past both the Chinese and the protesters.

What follows would make a great movie. The Dalai Lama and his entourage, escorted by fierce Khampas over Himalayan passes, suffer through extreme hunger, malevolent snowstorms and their own fears and weaknesses. They meet up with two CIA-trained Tibetans who radio their CIA contact, John Greaney, about the escape. “The goal of the Tibetan Task Force’s mission at that point was simple and Greaney knew it: ‘to protect the Dalai Lama and get him out.’”

The Dalai Lama had planned on setting up a new government in far southern Tibet but the CIA wired back he had to get out. When the Dalai Lama learned of the atrocities the Chinese were committing and that they were hot on his trail, he reluctantly agreed.

Nobody knew, though, how the Indian prime minister, Nehru, would react. It was known that he did not want to antagonize the Chinese, so it was not a sure thing he would let the Dalai Lama enter his country. But because the message that the Dalai Lama was on his way to India came on a weekend, Greaney decided to wire Nehru directly. If the message had come on a weekday he would have had to go through the State Department. Somewhat surprisingly, Nehru allowed the Dalai Lama, by now sick with dysentery but who had proved his mettle during the trek by calming everyone when a Chinese plane spotted them, to go into exile in India. The Dharma, as the Tibetans see it, had gone out into the world.

Talty writes:


In leaving Tibet, the Dalai Lama gained an unprecedented personal liberty. From that moment on, freedom—not a traditional Buddhist subject of contemplation—became a subject he returned to again and again. And his words were given weight by the people he’d left behind. “Brute force . . . can never subdue the basic human desire for freedom,” he would write years later. “It is not enough, as communist systems assumed, to provide people with food, shelter and clothing. If we have these things but lack the precious air of liberty to sustain our deeper nature, we remain only half human.”


Talty’s book is both fast-paced and exciting, and informative about Tibet’s history. His portrayal of Mao and the Dalai Lama’s conversations with him are particularly chilling. The Dalai Lama’s early life and his personality are colorfully shown in details that would, I think, make a Tibetan Buddhist wonder at the truth of reincarnation. It’s harder to imagine a person more different from the “bisexual hedonist” Sixth Dalai Lama or the tough-as-nails Thirteenth who had the perpetrator of a failed assassination attempt “drowned in an enormous copper vat.”

Several stories of other Tibetans are told in the book, along with Greaney’s story. All are well-told but at times I was confused as to who was who.

The same kind of problem hinders Matteo Pistono’s book, In the Shadow of the Buddha, but this has to do not with people but with chronology. (A timetable would have helped tremendously.) Pistono tells three stories in this book, the first being a retelling of the autobiography of his spiritual master’s master, Tertön Sogyal, who lived from the mid nineteenth century until the 1930s. Visions and miraculous events spangle this story, such as when Sogyal, to prove his spiritual credentials, reaches into solid rock to pull out exquisite statues of the Buddha. Fascinating but hard to believe. And Pistono doesn’t say whether he believes them or not, though you get the idea he might. I was relieved when he finally did express doubts he’d had about Buddhism a couple of times in the book.

This was the story that most interested me, the story of Pistono’s spiritual pilgrimage from a socially active Catholic childhood in Wyoming to Nepal and Tibetan Buddhism. It is also a story of how he tries to manage his anger at the Chinese treatment of Tibet and Tibetans, the human rights abuses, the tales of torture. As Pistono deepens his meditation practice, which whets his appetite for more, he also finds anger and frustration filling him, clouding the internal harmony and clarity a devout Buddhist strives for. He finally does reach an inward oasis when he helps build a monument to Tertön Sogyal on a remote mountaintop in Tibet, bringing together the stories of his book into one moment of spiritual awakening.

But before he reaches this point, Pistono, without really wanting or meaning to at first, becomes involved in smuggling out of Tibet, photographs, videos, documents and stories of Tibetans persecuted by Chinese authorities. He scrambles up a hillside at one point and takes photos of a secret Chinese prison in Tibet, which has no ceiling, thereby exposing the prisoners to the elements but also allowing Pistono to take photos of the living conditions of the prisoners. He walks a fine line in trying to not get any Tibetans caught and prosecuted, but also to help as many get their stories to the West as possible.


I had read detailed testimony of the treatment prisoners receive in China and Tibet from Amnesty International Human Rights Watch, and the International Campaign for Tibet. Photographs of China’s prisons were notoriously difficult for human rights organizations to obtain, as the Chinese government guards them as state secrets. China executes more of its own citizens annually than the rest of the countries in the world combined. And for all the buzz of China’s global rise, torture and abuse are tools used regularly in their judicial system.


Both Pistono’s In the Shadow of the Buddha and Talty’s Escape From the Land of Snows have their faults. But for those interested in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama and/or the political reality that China continues to practice in its repressive and brutal policies in Tibet, both books are well worth reading. Pistono’s book focuses more on religion and Talty’s on politics, but in Tibet, for centuries, perhaps until the Dalai Lama’s recent resignation from political power, they have been inseparable.


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