Book Review: Tibet: An Enduring Civilization

Tibet:  An Enduring Civilization, by Francoise Pommaret

Although I have no particular plans to travel to Tibet anytime soon, I do enjoy reading about cultures from time to time that have a history that is interesting and a present status that is beleaguered [1].  There is little question that Tibet is a beleaguered civilization, being under repressive Chinese rule and having a history of political divisions between its two branches of native lamas, one of which was always far closer to China and to its rulers and subsequently to its influence.  In reading this book, as is likely to be the case with most books about Tibet, I feel somewhat torn between my compassion for the longsuffering Tibetan people, who face terrible misrule and the denial of their own rights, and between my general disdain for religious hierarchies like those of the Dali and Panchen lamas and for Buddhist apologetics like this book is.  Is it possible for someone to be interested enough in Tibet to write about it with sympathy that has little or no sympathy for the heathen religious culture of Tibet?  That may be a difficult thing to ask for, given the motivations that lead people to write, but I think I would enjoy such a book far more, since the culture the book celebrates is not one I highly regard in particular.

This short volume of about 150 pages is divided into several chapters and has generous portions of excellent photos of the land and architecture and people of Tibet.  The author opens with a discussion of the land and identity of Tibet, which the author describes more expansively than would be the case if one follows the definition of the Chinese.  The author notes that Buddhism is not an essential aspect of the identity of the Tibetans but spends a great deal of time talking about Buddhism and does not really explain much about the 10-15% of Tibetans who are not Buddhist.  After this the author discusses Tibet’s religions and beliefs, which involves mostly a discussion of various schools of Buddhism as well as the Tantric approach that was borrowed from India into Tibet’s characteristic from of lamaism.  The next chapter looks at the history of Tibet from its short-lived days as a massive empire to its longer period as a theocracy divided between smaller states subject to powerful outside influences as diverse as the Chinese, Mongols, and Nepalese Ghurkas.  A chapter follows about the longstanding interest of the West in Tibet and various efforts at trade, diplomacy, and missionary work, before the last chapter covers the invasion and colonization of Tibet by Chinese for the last seventy years or so.  The book closes with some interesting documents as well as some suggestions for further reading, illustrations, and an index.

There is much to admire and appreciate about this book.  The author spends a great deal of time detailing the history and culture of Tibet, which is likely to be unknown to a wide variety of people.  Of course, this book is most of interest to those who have a great deal of interest in the Tibetan form of Buddhism with its borrowings from obscure pre-Buddhist religious beliefs from the Bo (which is the Tibetan name for themselves) religion as well as from Hinduism, and who have an interest in the history of various feuds between different schools of Buddhism that exist in the country.  The author also quite interestingly comments on the widespread belief in the importance of demons to Tibet as being part of their heritage–for Tibet’s people are not well understood genetically and so a wide variety of ridiculous legends have been able to spread–as well as about the role of monasteries in pinning a particularly large demon to the land of Tibet.  The author also maintains a great deal of sympathy for the Tibetan people and for their leaders, with the hope that Tibetans will be able to improve their lot and find freedom despite decades of oppression.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: Tibet: An Enduring Civilization

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Buddhism: Part 2 | Edge Induced Cohesion

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