Comics / Spotlight / Religion and Comics

BioGraphic Novel: The 14th Dalai Lama


By Beth Davies-Stofka
July 29, 2009 - 16:31

DalaiLamaCover.jpg
BioGraphic Novel: The 14th Dalai Lama is a biographical manga about the spiritual leader of Tibet.  It is available in both English and Japanese editions, created by Japanese manga artist Tetsu Saiwai.  Saiwai wrote this book with the cooperation and assistance of the Liaison Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for Japan and East Asia.  

The story begins with the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933, and describes the means by which the 14th Dalai Lama was discovered in the form of a cheerful little boy living in the far northeast of Tibet.  It is believed that the 14th Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, and that all fourteen Dalai Lamas (literally "spiritual leader of Tibet") are reincarnations of the Buddha.  The search for the Dalai Lama's new incarnation begins with visions, and includes placing some of the deceased Dalai Lama's possessions, mixed in with others, in front of the child believed to be the new Dalai Lama.  If the child picks the deceased Dalai Lama's possessions, this is one important indication that he is the next incarnation of the Buddha.  

Saiwai, however, shows you these events, rather than simply didactically describing them, as I just did.  This is one of the secrets of this book's success: Saiwai never tells.  He always shows.  Words on the pages of ancient scriptures come alive and become contemporary in Saiwai's hands.  Tibetan Buddhist beliefs don't seem exotic or strange in this book.  They seem perfectly ordinary.  

Saiwai also chronicles the Dalai Lama's maturation into a young man, and the process by which he earned his place among the most learned monks of Tibet.  Yet the vast bulk of the novel recounts the tale of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and accounts for the decisions that the very young Dalai Lama took to address the Chinese occupation, up to and including his dangerous flight into exile in 1959.

The propaganda, injustice, and cruelty of the Chinese senior leaders receive sharp and painful clarity through Saiwai's homespun style.  His lines are simple and the emotions are profuse and unambiguous.  The dialogue is kept to a minimum, as actions speak louder than words in this book.  They also spoke louder than words in Tibet in the 1950s, as the young Dalai Lama learned to his dismay, and we along with him.  

Written guarantees of justice, fairness, and autonomy were contradicted by the behavior of the Chinese troops and their Communist Party commanders.  It is mind-bending to confront such an upside-down world in which leaders will literally say anything, and then go ahead and do whatever they want.  When one's word is literally worthless, what is the fate of diplomacy, or negotiation?  How does one get one's bearings in a world like that?  How does anyone avoid striking out in anger?  These are the challenges that faced the young Dalai Lama.

We are deeply moved to watch the emotional and moral development of a young man who repeatedly places the value of human life above every other consideration.  Saiwai shows us a holy man who truly lives his faith.  Everything he does is guided by the infinite compassion he has for all living beings.  He frequently sacrifices his own comfort in order to save the lives of others, and he steadfastly refuses to endorse the cause of violent resistance, seeing in it only more violence, bloodshed, and death.  There has to be another way, a nonviolent one, he thinks.  When things are decided by violence, the hatred simply can't fade away.

In the final image of the story, as the Dalai Lama greets pilgrims and refugees, he says, "For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I, too, abide to dispel the misery of the world."  This is the classic vow of the Bodhisattva, the classic expression of the Buddha's infinite compassion for all creatures.  But here, it becomes intelligible in a way I've never seen before.

In Saiwai's hands, suffering is not an abstract condition, but an urgent problem of life, one that requires our response.  And also due to Saiwai's skills, coupled with the remarkable character of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we are inspired to emulate the nonviolence and compassion of the Dalai Lama.  It becomes so simple.  It is an orientation and act of the heart.  Nothing else is required.

While you might get just as much information about the young Dalai Lama from Martin Scorcese's 1998 film Kundun, which Saiwai acknowledges as one of his sources, this little book creates an intimacy with its subject that surpasses Scorcese's powerful opus.  His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama may be the reincarnation of the Buddha, but you still identify with him, and having identified with him, you are moved to emulate him.

This is a remarkable accomplishment, and I am just a little bit awed by Saiwai's talent.  It clearly comes from his humility, and I think it would be impossible to feel anything but humility after having told the story of such a humble man.

BioGraphic Novel: The 14th Dalai Lama is highly recommended.  Its main flaw is its failure to help the reader understand just why control of Tibet is so important to China (although one gets a hint when Saiwai mentions Tibet's rich deposits of uranium).  Bearing this flaw in mind, it's an excellent teaching tool for parents and teachers who wish to expose their students or children to Tibetan history and Buddhist moral principles.

And beyond its educational potential, the book is an excellent resource for the casual reader who just wants to know more about Tibet and the Dalai Lama.  It's one of the first books you should read if you're sure that there has just got to be more to life than mindless consumption, or the daily grind of working for the man.  Get a preview here.

Rating: 9.5 /10


Last Updated: June 23, 2021 - 00:45

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