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Review: The 14th Dalai Lama – a manga biography
September 23rd, 2010
10:51 AM ET

Review: The 14th Dalai Lama – a manga biography

Editor's Note: CNN's Gabe La Monica files this report on the new manga biography of the Dalai Lama.

“Manga” in Japanese means “whimsical pictures.”  Author and illustrator Tetsu Saiwai brings whimsy to life in "The 14th Dalai: a Manga biography."

The book is a hybrid comic book/graphic novel. The central character, Tenzin Gyatso, is introduced as a kind of 2-year-old embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim: an audacious and quick-witted boy with no fear. He grows up fast. At the age of 5, in 1939, Tenzin Gyatso becomes officially recognized as the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and is renamed “Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom.”


The black and white images are quick and light, but even at the book’s airy beginning, they convey a mood of portent. Everything moves fast; the reader’s eyes race across open blocks and pages. At one point there is a discussion about war while the Dalai Lama looks up at a starry night sky. On the next block, on the same page, everything has changed: Clarity and innocence turn quickly into confusion and fear.

The rise of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is painted as forever complicit in Tibet’s demise. On October 7, 1950, the Chinese Liberation Army crossed the Tibetan border under the guise of emancipating Tibet, “a part of China,” and its people from foreign imperialists.

The Khampa Resistance Army and the Tibetan border police are crushed by the Liberation Army, which numbers in the tens of thousands. Food becomes scarce as the occupation decimates farmland and remaining supplies. Confusion reigns when China announces the enactment of a 17-point “agreement” for the liberation of Tibet.

In the book, as the Dalai Lama grows up he is often pictured looking down on his people from a temple with a telescope. He is high and lonely and they are poor and happy. But if the Dalai Lama was previously blind to his own elitism - or to the dichotomy between the power structure in Tibet and its poverty-stricken people - he seems awakened to it under the domination of China’s army.

It’s suggested that the Dalai Lama comes to think of Chinse leader Mao Tse-tung as a reformer for good, with a flawed means to an adulterated vision. He meets with Mao once. At the end of a tense but outwardly amiable meeting, the chairman leans over and whispers in the Dalai Lama’s ear. “Religion is evil,” he says. The meeting was a ruse by China to show good intentions and togetherness between Tibet and China to the rest of the world. The world does seem to turn away from the plight of Tibet, while real diplomacy between the two nations disintegrates.

Massacre after bloody massacre contributes to a rising tension of fear and anger that culminates in a storm of fury when the Dalai Lama escapes Tibet and the capital city of Lhasa is brought to its knees. He stays in exile for the rest of his life, advocating a nonviolent struggle free from hatred as the only path towards peace. His life is committed to the idea of a world free from hate.

Since the 1950s, manga has been a common form of cartoon and comic art in Japan. Likewise, since 1950, when the Dalai Lama became the official political leader of Tibet, he has become a household name around the world. But the history of his ascension and of the destruction and degradation of Tibet are less well-known. Saiwai’s book is a quick read packed with the history of a life that spans nearly eight decades. It’s a tribute to the book’s form that so much is conveyed in such a small space.

The book releases September 28.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Art • Books • Buddhism

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.