When advising friends who are making their first trips to Asia, I often recommend two books: The Teaching of Buddha, published by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (the Theravada world’s answer to the Gideons Bible); and R. K. Narayan’s wonderful, bite-sized translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana.
A third volume is now on the list: Don Farber’s beautifully designed, highly informative Tibetan Buddhist Life. While the first two books help provide a basis for understanding the mythos behind Asia’s Buddhist and Hindu sites, Farber’s book is an essential introduction to a unique and complex belief system that has spread throughout South Asia, and far beyond.
Drawing from four decades of immersion in the Tibetan cause, Farber—who is married to a Tibetan and has served as the Dalai Lama’s photographer—provides a sweeping overview that seems to embrace nearly every aspect of the Tibetan Buddhist experience. Browsing the concise, colorful chapters, one finds descriptions of the four great lineages; an overview of Tibetan history; an essay on Mt. Kailash and other important pilgrimage sites; biographies of the fourteen Dalai Lamas; and essential primers on familiar (but eternally mysterious) practices such as Tibetan astrology, sand mandalas and sacred dance.
Farber’s keenest interest (as evidenced by his previous book, Visions of Buddhist Life) seems to be in contemporary masters, and this new book is salted with profiles of Tibetan Buddhism’s brightest lights. While these include the likes of Kalu Rinpoche and Jetsun Pema (the Dalai Lama’s sister), we’re also introduced to equally heroic, lesser-known figures like Rinchen Dolma Taring, who opened a boarding school for Tibetan refugees in Rajpur, India.
For many years the Chinese invasion and Tibetan diaspora have been viewed as withering forces, certain to cripple Tibetan Buddhism. While there’s no denying the tragedy of the Chinese occupation, this book casts the ultimate result in a hopeful light. Blasted from their ancient abode, like redwood cones the seeds of Tibetan belief have found rebirth through fire. Reading Tibetan Buddhist Life, one realizes that this tenacious culture has found roots everyplace it has touched—and that Farber’s primer will prove as useful in Albuquerque as for travelers to Zanskar.