Pattie, a wealthy widow from California, can easily afford the best hotels. But she prefers to slum it in a small cottage in Dharamsala because it overlooks the monastery of the Dalai Lama, the exiled political and religious leader of Tibet. "I can just stand there with my arms stretched out," she says, "and feel the aura wafting up." A bright-eyed, diminutive 60-year-old, Pattie is planning to visit Tibet soon. She wants to get there "before all the good energy disappears because of those Chinese people."
There are many would-be pilgrims like Pattie, and their well-meaning but inaccurate vision of China's most troubled province is the target of Patrick French's new book, Tibet, Tibet: a Personal History of a Lost Land (HarperCollins; 333 pages). Every year, hundreds of spirituality hunters "flakes and fantasists," he writes, "running alongside dedicated altruists" visit Dharamsala, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based, and try earnestly to help the cause. Some of the more famous acolytes, such as actor Richard Gere, successfully raise the issue in any public forum they can. Others go local, offering free labor at the health or public-affairs offices and chanting at temples. A few go way too far: action hero Steven Seagal has claimed to be the incarnation of an important Tibetan monk.
French, who has long been associated with the Free Tibet movement, admits that from a distance even he imagined a "promised, damaged land." So he went to Tibet in 1999 "to see it unmediated by the versions or hopes of others." The result is an honest, informed and extremely well written account. French traveled into the countryside, visiting forgotten monasteries, squalid towns and simple, nomad villages. He met people still bravely resisting China's 1950 invasion, risking dreaded prisons famed for torture. He encountered many Tibetans often angry and defensive who had chosen to join the system to survive.
But most of those who French describes are resigned to life under Chinese occupation, although their eager questions about the Dalai Lama prove that nationalism isn't totally dead. In Chengdu, watching elaborate rallies celebrating 50 years of communist rule in China, French asks a Tibetan how he felt. "I suppose I was expecting ... a neat speech about the theft of his birthright and the pain of being a Tibetan caught in a false, imposed culture," French admits. But he got a simple, tragic response: "I feel nothing."
As French takes us through Tibet, he details the troubled history of the nation, the dignity of its religion, the squabbles among sects and the horrors of China's invasion and the Cultural Revolution. One woman recalls being beguiled, as a child, into participating in the assault on Lhasa's Jokhang Temple by a group of Red Guards. She weeps as she describes smashing idols and destroying scriptures. An old man recounts his band of warriors' futile attempt at defending their homeland in 1955. He was jailed; his family, because of its prominence in the old feudal system, was reclassified as lowly shanakpo, or bad class, by the communists and publicly beaten in the mid-1960s. The independence campaign by Tibetans-in-exile is useless, the man says. "It may make them feel good, but for us it makes life worse."
While many Tibetans in Tibet gradually stop dreaming of freedom, the exile community is drifting toward irrelevance. The world would have forgotten Tibet if it weren't for the Dalai Lama. Despite several political misjudgments when he rejected Beijing's overtures, says French, the Dalai Lama has come to represent peaceful resistance and nonviolence in a world at war with terrorism, which is political dissidence in its worst form. But his popularity has only led to furious commercial exploitation his images sell computers, movies and books turning the Dalai Lama, at best, into the world's spiritual teddy bear. French writes a hilarious account of the Dalai Lama on the Larry King Live TV show in 2000. After describing him as a leading Muslim in an earlier program, the host Larry King asks the monk for his thoughts on DNA and the human-genome project. Bewildered, the Dalai Lama demurs on those topics and is cut off by a commercial break as soon as he begins talking about Tibet.
French is despondent in his conclusion. Beijing, he says, will never allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, an event that would galvanize the world media and "would be profoundly destabilizing to communist rule." A regime change in Beijing will be required before the province is given true autonomy and an opportunity to pursue its unique ways. Even if that were to happen, French states, it's probably too late. "Caught by circumstances and history," he writes, "the old Tibet was undone, and would never be recovered."