Insert Comma logo
Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Disorganized ‘Wisdom’ tries to enlighten

Latest book by His Holiness erratic, flighty

By Leigh E. Rich

The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations and Journeys
By His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan
Riverhead Books
August 2004
256 pages
$24.95 ($36 CAN)

It might seem odd to have a Chinese writer interview the Dalai Lama. After all, the great Buddhist monk would have every reason to resent anyone Chinese, considering the Chinese government invaded Tibet and forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India in the 1950s.

But it’s just this seemingly irreconcilable relationship between the Tibetan leader and author Victor Chan that makes The Wisdom of Forgiveness a worthy read—even though it is often a disorganized, mostly anecdotal piece of writing. Much of the premise that hovers about the book like a new-age aura focuses on Chan’s struggle to understand the Dalai Lama’s ability to forgive the Chinese people.

The Wisdom of Forgiveness is not a textbook on Buddhism or Tibet. While there is a cursory introduction to Buddhist concepts, the book is rather a close-up of Tibet’s spiritual leader as sketched through the eyes of Chan, a writer who grew up in Hong Kong.

When Chan was introduced to the Tibetan leader in 1972, he was 27 and the Dalai Lama was 37. It was the first time a Chinese person had been granted an audience with the Dalai Lama since his exile in 1959.

In the book, Chan remembers being “worried he might be hostile” during this first encounter, though he asked the Dalai Lama point blank “if he hated the Chinese.”

With amazement, Chan recalls: “But His Holiness said his quarrel is with the Chinese Communist Party. Not with ordinary Chinese.”

More than 30 years later, the two perhaps still make an unlikely pair, especially when Chan compares his own emotional life with the Dalai Lama’s. Raised in a traditional Chinese household, Chan explains that “overt displays of emotions were discouraged.” It was an environment, he admits, that has impaired his ability to fully experience his inner life.

“The Dalai Lama,” on the other hand, “wears his soul on his face.”

Though the Dalai Lama is often thought of as king or god, the strength of Wisdom is the way it humanizes the spiritual leader. Even filtered through Chan’s admiring eyes, his four years of interviews for the book reveal the Dalai Lama as but a man—albeit likely the most enlightened one in existence.

And while there are many lessons to be learned from the awe-inspiring monk, Chan avoids waxing star-struck.

Many, for example, would be surprised to find that the Dalai Lama has a playful streak and a propensity for laughter, from a high-pitched giggle to a reverberating guffaw. Few know of his angry side, as when he told Chan he felt like shooting a Chinese soldier who had beaten a Tibetan teenager. He’s also been known to bolt to the bathroom at the end of a luncheon so he can brush his teeth.

But there is nothing profound that weaves together these various stories; the book jumps from anecdote to spiritual musing to worldly rumination with the flightiness of a college co-ed trying on new identities.

Once readers adjust their ears to the Dalai Lama’s broken English, however, the various snippets should intrigue and entertain:

On forgiveness: “Forgiveness does not mean you just forget about the past. No, you remember the past. Should be aware that these past sufferings happened because of narrow-mindedness on both sides.”

On technology: As his private secretary, Tenzin Geyche, explains, “As far as the computer is concerned, His Holiness finds it difficult even knowing where to press the button.”

On emptiness: “Emptiness does not mean nothing exists. Things exist, but the way they exist, we cannot find. Therefore empty.”

On happiness: The Dalai Lama’s formula for happiness, Chan explains, is emptiness plus compassion. “He is convinced that if he can be of help to others, he himself will be the first to benefit—he’ll be a happier man as a result. He has no higher calling than this.”

On Saddam Hussein: “I get the feeling in the eyes of President Bush, Saddam is 100 percent negative, solidly negative. Only way is elimination. But reality not like that. . . . In conventional level, Saddam Hussein not 100 percent wicked from birth—not something unchangingly bad. . . . That wickedness comes from many other factors, not only from him. Therefore not independent. It is dependent on many other factors, including Americans themselves.”

Even after three decades of one-on-one sessions with the Dalai Lama, Chan finds him to be “frustratingly cryptic at times.” So despite anecdotes and insights, the book is less revealing than readers might hope.

Throughout the 256-page book, the Dalai Lama remains ever elusive—an imaginary ideal that is, for most of us, still out of reach and incomprehensible.

Rich, L. E. (2004, September 3). Disorganized ‘Wisdom’ tries to enlighten. [Review of the book The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations and Journeys by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan.] Rocky Mountain News.

Comments are closed.