The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape
“The day I saluted the Grand Lama! Beautiful youth. Face poetically affecting; could have wept. Very happy to have seen him and his blessed smile. Hope often to see him again.”
This could have been said of the present Dalai Lama by his visitors, who usually are similarly affected. In September, press photographers in London, who normally trample anything in their path to get a picture, called out to the Dalai Lama to shake their hands and thanked him humbly when he did.
In this case, however, the speaker is Thomas Manning, who met the Dalai Lama in 1811, the first British traveler to do so during a period of more than one hundred years; he was an example of the overwhelmed traveler in Tibet described in Peter Bishop’s The Myth of Shangri-La, an unusual study of the interplay of exploration and the imagination.
Except for the Chinese Communists, who call him names like “the wolf in monk’s robes,” or “the criminal Dalai,” virtually everyone speaks well of the Dalai Lama. The latest incarnation is the Fourteenth in a line that began in 1351 and exists simultaneously with the seventy-fourth “manifestation” (the Dalai Lama’s term) of Chenrezig the Compassionate Bodhisattva, a contemporary of the Buddha in the fifth century BC. It is impossible not to like him. “I am not the best Dalai Lama ever,” he said when he was in London in September. “Or the worst. Maybe I’m just the most popular. Perhaps it’s time to stop having Dalai Lamas.”
Years ago, when the Dalai Lama was visiting London for the first time, my then foreign editor asked me after the interview, “What is this fellow, a god or what?” I relayed this question—more respectfully—to the Dalai Lama, who replied that while many of his followers regarded him as divine, “to me it is unimportant,” and indeed the Fourteenth usually describes himself as “a simple monk” who wouldn’t mind being reborn as an insect if he could be of service in that incarnation. He also insisted in September that even if someday he goes back to an independent Tibet, “I will take no part in government there. People take me too seriously. If I’m not in the government there will be more room for individual initiative.” But the Fourteenth also writes in his autobiography, “I have no difficulty accepting that I am spiritually connected both to the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas, to Chenrezig and to the Buddha himself.”
Such statements pose two large questions: Is Tibet just a kind of exotic, medieval China or, despite Chinese claims, is it sui generis? And the Dalai Lama—what is he?
The Dalai Lama makes it clear throughout his autobiography that Tibet is not a part of China. The Chinese insist that the opposite has been true for at least seven hundred years. Most recently, on Tibetan television, China was referred to by…
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