Ashby Hardesty
5 May 2007

A Review of Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama


This paper reviews the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s autobiography Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. This autobiography was published in 1991 and details the Dalai Lama’s life up to that point. In it, he recounts his birth in 1935 in the village of Taktser in Dokham, his recognition as the 14th Dalai Lama at the age of two, his move to Lhasa in Central Tibet, the invasion and occupation of the PRC during the 1950s, his exile from Tibet into India in 1959, and his life in exile. Freedom in Exile provides a fascinating, sometimes surprisingly personal, glimpse into the life and philosophies of a self-described “simple monk” whose life has been anything but simple or ordinary.

In the forward to his autobiography Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama makes his motivations behind offering his life’s story to public consumption clear. He writes: “It is as a simple monk that I offer this story of my life, though it by no means a book about Buddhism. I have two main reasons for doing so. Firstly, an increasing number of people have shown an interest in learning something about the Dalai Lama. Secondly, there are a number of historical events about which I wish to set the record straight” (xiii). These two reasons make sense given the historical circumstances under which the Dalai Lama wrote and published Freedom in Exile in 1991. At that time, the Dalai Lama had been in exile from Chinese-controlled Tibet for almost thirty years. In those years, his crusade for the welfare of his people had garnered him international respect, the condemnation of the Chinese government, tremendous interest in his life, Tibetan Buddhism, and his people’s plight, and, in late 1989, the Nobel Peace Prize. Thus, according to the Dalai Lama himself, this book attempts to satisfy the curiosity of committed followers and casual readers and to address the claims of the Chinese government. However, this autobiography is much more than a tabloid-style, tell-all memoir or a preachy, political tirade against the Chinese. Instead, Freedom in Exile provides a fascinating, sometimes surprisingly personal, glimpse into the life and philosophies of a self-described “simple monk” whose life has been anything but simple or ordinary.

The Dalai Lama (b. 1935) recounts his life story chronologically, and thus his memoir divides neatly into two parts: his life before his exile in 1959 and after it. The Dalai Lama devotes the first of half of his memoir to describing his brief time living in his ancestral village of Takster in Dokham as Lhamo Thondup (Lha-mo Don-'grub; also spelled "Dhondrub") before he was recognized as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama at the age of two, his recognition in 1937, his subsequent spiritual and educational training in Lhasa, the invasion of the Chinese in 1950, his failed appeals for international intervention and assistance, and his flight into exile in 1959. In the second half, the Dalai Lama describes his and his people’s lives as refugees in India, his visits with political figures, religious leaders, and Tibetans in Diaspora around the world, and his philosophies on a variety of topics. In the final chapter of the book, the Dalai Lama outlines his plan for Tibet’s future and his hope for Tibet to someday become a zone of peace and the world’s largest nature reserve.

This memoir is historically significant for many reasons. First and perhaps most remarkable of these is that this narrative is the Dalai Lama’s second autobiography; his first, My Land and My People, was first published in 1962. The Dalai Lama wrote My Land and My People in Dharamsala a couple of years after fleeing Tibet and described his life up until that point. Thus, the entirety of that autobiography covers only the first half of Freedom in Exile and, as a result, Freedom in Exile serves as an important volume to both committed followers of the Dalai Lama and to readers with casual interest in him because it encompasses both his life before and in exile. This is not to say, however, that Freedom in Exile is just an addendum to My Land and My People or that it summarizes My Land and My People in its first half. Instead, this second autobiography, while indeed skipping over some of the nitty-gritty details of international diplomacy that fill the first, presents the Dalai Lama’s life from an entirely new, more personal, albeit oxymoronic, perspective: he is a simple Buddhist monk. This assertion is, of course, an understatement given the Dalai Lama’s action-packed, globe-trotting life that served as the basis for the feature film Kundun. Nevertheless, Freedom in Exile’s focus provides the reader with unexpected revelations and personal asides that elucidate and underscore the Dalai Lama’s humanity. When contemplating leaving Tibet for safety in India, for example, the Dalai Lama notes that he briefly contemplating resigning his post in order to avoid confrontation with the Chinese (125). The Dalai Lama does not include this small detail among discussions of international diplomacy in My Land and My People, and in Freedom in Exile, it is just one of many fine points that bestow humanity upon the Dalai Lama.

In addition to disclosing his emotions and other elements of his personality, the Dalai Lama uses Freedom in Exile as a forum to make his philosophies and thoughts on many topics—among them Western society, Marxism, and the Tibet’s future—known. In doing so, the Dalai Lama contributes a fresh and nuanced outlook to these topics. One example of this critical perspective is his view on Western society. He writes: "There are a lot of people in the West who live very comfortably in large cities, but virtually isolated from the broad mass of humanity. I find this very strange —that under the circumstances of such material well-being and with thousands of brothers and sisters for neighbors, so many people appear able to show their true feelings only to their cats and dogs. This indicates a lack of spiritual values, I feel (199)."

What is most interesting about this viewpoint is not its content; writers have been critiquing the West for its materialism and isolationism for centuries. Rather, what is significant about this commentary is that it is even being made at all. For most of its history, Tibet was an isolated country with little contact with its neighbors in Central Asia, much less the Western world. When Tibetans did encounter foreigners, such as the British or Chinese, they were usually in positions of subordination. Thus, for a Tibetan to write of his travels in the West and give critical opinions of it is a milestone in Tibetan studies.

This is just one example of the Dalai Lama’s worldview, but it is indicative of his memoir as a whole: unique and highly personal. It provides a crucial, personal lens in which to view the major events of 20th Century Tibetan History, and a fascinating, humanizing glimpse into the life and philosophies of a self-described “simple monk” who became the leading figure of Tibetan autonomy and a leader celebrated around the world. As such, Freedom in Exile is a valuable volume and will satisfy the interest of both the casual reader and of scholars of Tibetan and Asian studies.

Book reviewed:
The Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991.