Book Review

By Jean B. Crabbendam

The Search for the Panchen Lama by Isabel Hilton, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2001; 352 pages, ISBN 0393321673, paperback, $14.95.

This real-life adventure of a renowned English journalist is also a well-researched history of Tibet, the Panchen and Dalai Lamas, and Chinese treatment of the Tibetan people. The Wall Street Journal has called it "An excellent primer on Tibetan history and . . . a chilling picture of the brutality of Chinese repression in Tibet."

The author's assignment was to discover which of two Tibetan candidates would be named eleventh Panchen Lama: the boy chosen by the Dalai Lama or the one selected by the Chinese government. The reader feels as though he has accompanied her on her travels and discoveries. Going first to India, she met with the Dalai Lama in his home at Dharamsala. Armed with his letter of introduction to the abbot of the new Indian branch of the main Tashilhunpo monastery, she visited Shigatse, Tibet, and listened to the abbot and his monks, learning a good deal about the intricacies of the Tibetan hierarchy. She next flew to the ancient city of Xining in northwest China, near the birthplace of the tenth Panchen Lama. The book sketches his tragic life, before and after his imprisonment by the Chinese government, and his death in January 1989 under suspicious circumstances. Finally she examines the current situation in Lhasa.

When matters regarding the two young Panchen Lamas seemed to reach a standstill, the author returned to England. One morning at two o'clock, however, a secretary of the Dalai Lama telephoned, urging her immediate return. When she met him a few days later, he said he was worried about his chosen boy because his whereabouts, and that of his parents, was unknown. He explained his sadness further by saying he felt any dire events in the future would be his responsibility.

The author's interviews with monks and other Tibetan Buddhists, and her adventurous experiences, are fascinating and, surprisingly, often humorous reading. This book skillfully reveals a rarely understood but vital aspect of Tibetan history, while highlighting the current conditions of the Tibetan people and raising questions about their future.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)

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