He’s just this guy, you know?
My Spiritual Journey is a collection of the Dalai Lama’s writings, speeches, and thoughts as they pertain to his life as a human being, as a Buddhist monk, and as the Dalai Lama. This is not a traditional autobiography or memoir. Instead, some of the chapters (passages? sections?) are quite short—even less than a page—but no less meaningful or inspiring. Rather than looking for some kind of chronological theme, it helps to view this book in those three stages outlined above (and emphasized in this book by the Dalai Lama himself). I read each passage in quick succession over the course of about three days, but this could easily work as the sort of book that you read over the course of weeks or even a month or two. Many reviewers have mentioned that this book is repetitive in sections—and I agree. But it’s repetitive for a reason: as the Dalai Lama mentions, everything is interdependent and connected; the passages in this book are no exception. Each one alone is a small snippet of wisdom, but together they form a more cohesive window into the philosophy that drives one of the most illustrious and interesting people alive today.
When I was born in 1989, the Dalai Lama was already thirty years into his exile. The Berlin Wall came down two months afterward. The Rwandan genocide happened when I was too young to follow what was going on, if the media had bothered to give it the coverage it truly deserved. I think the first big military action of which I was really aware, in a political sense, was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I remember listening to the radio at night as I was trying to fall asleep and hearing the hourly CBC news report discussing the bombing of Baghdad. As someone who has been lucky enough to grow up in a country and a socioecomic situation where I don’t have to worry about war, poverty, or oppression, it’s difficult for me to put myself in the place of the people of Iraq, of Rwanda, of Tibet. I’m aware, intellectually, that genocides and invasions and games of the worst sort of politics are happening … but that is a far cry from understanding the plight of these people who are, after all, human beings just like me.
My Spiritual Journey is valuable because of its juxtaposition of the atrocities in Tibet with the Dalai Lama’s own pacifist beliefs. It is amazing listening to him speak with such empathy and compassion toward everyone—not just his own people, but toward his Chinese brothers and sisters. He is very careful not to generalize, to distinguish between the Chinese people and their government. Even with the government of the so-called “People’s Republic” of China, the Dalai Lama stresses that he is always open to communication, to discussion, to reconciliation. From all of his writings, whether he’s talking about his childhood in Tibet or his attempts to bring the Tibetan plight front-and-centre on the world stage, one gets this incredible sense of resoluteness from the Dalai Lama. He exudes a steadfast confidence in this idea that we, humans, can have a positive influence on the universe and that, through compassion, we can help prevent suffering. Having just finished Robopocalypse, in which an AI decides to destroy humanity in order to preserve life on Earth, this optimism is incredibly reassuring and comforting.
What’s not comforting, of course, is his story of the struggle of Tibet. I must confess I find it difficult to keep track of all those oppressive regimes around the world. It seems like no matter where one turns, bam, there’s a government oppressing its people. (And I know that we could have a nice little debate about what the American, Canadian, British governments are trying to pull these days—even if we are generous and give them a free pass, democracy is a fragile creature in this world.) Hence, while apathy is a real and present danger in today’s society, it is also important to acknowledge that we cannot all be aware of everything that’s happening. So I welcomed this chance to become more familiar with the history of Tibet; with its history with China, India, and Britain; with its struggle for independence or autonomy. This book is informative and eye-opening, making me wonder if we are so used to the situation in Tibet that, as a global society, we have largely become apathetic—because if not, then why aren’t we doing anything about this?
The Dalai Lama may have a penchant for peace and compassion, but he is no pushover: that resoluteness is like a core of steel. In his calls for negotiation, for independence, and for autonomy, he displays the mind of a statesman and a philosopher. Politicians would learn a lot from observing how the Dalai Lama comports himself and operates—it’s a little something called dignity. He has it. Most politicians, sadly, seem to have sacrificed this attribute in favour of a more flashy style of showmanship. The Dalai Lama is candid about how, in the past, he was innocent or somewhat naïve in his expectations. Even as his age has brought more experience and more wisdom, however, he does not allow hope and optimism to atrophy.
My Spiritual Journey is inspiring and insightful. It informed about all these subjects with which I have only a cursory familiarity: Tibet, Buddhism, the office of the Dalai Lama. Better yet, I got to learn about these through the eyes of the Dalai Lama himself, glimpse the processes that give rise to his thoughts and his feelings. The staccato rhythm created from this collection of his writings and speeches necessarily makes this book different from your typical memoir or autobiography. I’m honestly not sure if that makes it better or worse (you decide!). I’ve decided to give My Spiritual Journey five stars because, to put it simply, I do not think there is anything I would change about it to make it “better”. It is an open, honest, and intensely personal look at a man whose life has been political from the moment he was identified as the fourteenth Dalai Lama. What more could you desire?
Finally, this seems like a good starting place if one wants to read something by the Dalai Lama but isn’t sure where to start. I’m making note of some of his other books I’d like to read now—he has some fascinating thoughts on the convergence of science and spirituality and has written at them at length elsewhere.