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Book review – part one
Many Arran folk will have come across the charismatic Lama Yeshe, the managing director of Holy Isle. He is perhaps best known for his good humour and positivity, and for his conviction that happiness only comes through serving others.
As he approached his 78th year, Lama Yeshe was persuaded to write his life story which is aptly described on the Amazon website: ‘Written with erudition and humour, From a Mountain in Tibet shines a light on how the most desperate of situations can help us to uncover vital life lessons and attain lasting peace and contentment.’
The book can be enjoyed from many viewpoints. It is a historical narrative, covering Lama Yeshe’s life before, during and after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 and describing the plight of Tibetan refugees.
It is a story of family disconnection and ultimate reconciliation. Lama Yeshe spent the first half of his life rebelling against his austere older brother, Akong Rinpoche. (Akong visited Holy Isle many times and his life was featured in the film A Remarkable Life, shown in Lamlash school a few years ago.) Akong showed remarkable patience and kindness towards his arrogant, wayward brother which at first Lama Yeshe completely took for granted. However, after many years Lama vowed to give up his selfish ways and make his brother proud.
Lama Yeshe’s eventual personal transformation is dramatic and inspires readers to know that we all have the power to change our minds for the better should we wish to. Up to the age of 39 he was a wild and crazy character which makes amusing reading – he frequented gambling dens, sped about in fast cars (and crashed a good many of them), drank copious quantities of whisky (though he never touched drugs) and was known by his fellow countrymen as the worst type of Tibetan. Gradually, through the example and blessing of his ever-patient brother Akong, he came to see that selfishness does not engender happiness, and he finally ordained as a monk and vowed to devote the rest of his life to the service of others.
Interspersed with his extraordinary story are wonderful snippets of Buddhist teaching. These are certainly not designed to convert the reader to Buddhism, but are gems of wisdom offered to help the reader to cope with the fragility of our fast-changing world. They inspire us to engage wholeheartedly with the fundamental goodness that lies within us.
The book begins: ‘My earliest memory is of playing with my friends. Our game was killing birds.’ This is a shocking start to an autobiography of a Tibetan Buddhist, since a fundamental Buddhist precept is not to kill.
Yet boys will be boys, and their excitement was heightened by the thrill of disobeying their parents and transgressing the rules of their religion. This rebellious nature was certainly a hallmark of much of Lama Yeshe’s younger life.
Lama Yeshe’s childhood is a fascinating glimpse into a medieval world – cars and trains were unheard of, their only clock was the sun, nature sustained them, and they respected nature in return.
It was a subsistence economy where they ate what they grew, used firewood as fuel and made their own clothes and blankets out of animal hairs and skins. Families were mutually dependent on each other and Buddhism was at the heart of their existence. Everyone had a role to play in society, which was built on simplicity and love.
The Buddha encouraged his disciples to contemplate impermanence – although the circumstances of our lives may appear stable and unchanging, they are not. If we do not mentally prepare ourselves for inevitable change we will suffer immensely as a result. Unfortunately the young Lama Yeshe’s rebellious mind prevented him from absorbing the Buddhist teachings, so he was ill-equipped to deal with the traumatic changes that were about to befall him and his people.
Lama Yeshe’s blissful childhood came to an abrupt end when he was ordered to join Akong’s monastery where he had no choice but to undergo gruelling study. He resented his loss of freedom, he resented Akong, and he revelled in self-pity. But this was nothing compared to what was to come.
The description of the nine- month escape from the Chinese communist invaders is both nail biting and heart breaking – from the warmth of our well-fed existences it is impossible to imagine a journey of such terrifying magnitude.
Tibetan refugees were flooding into India at the time, so Lama Yeshe’s experience was shared with thousands of others. They feared being shot dead by Chinese soldiers or being captured and tortured.
Traumatised survivors watched helplessly as thousands died from starvation, cold and exhaustion. Lama Yeshe left Kham in Eastern Tibet with a group of 300 people. Only 13 made it to the safety of India. His idyllic life had literally been smashed to pieces …
Part two will be published next week.
Published by Penguin, From a Mountain in Tibet is available in The Book and Card Centre, Brodick.