Putting a Human Face On Wisdom 

Book shows Dalai Lama as a man of humor, warmth

Cynicism. Mistrust. Doubt. These are things you won't find in The Wisdom of Forgiveness, a new book co-authored by the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan, a writer who has known His Holiness for more than 30 years. Ostensibly a collection of conversations meant to illuminate various aspects of the Dalai Lama's spiritual philosophy and development, what develops is a portrait of a great man who recognizes the qualities that make him great without deifying him.

Since his exile from Tibet by China in 1959, the Dalai Lama has ascended from a leader-in-exile to a symbol of peace and the spiritual icon of millions, earning numerous awards along the way, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Such accomplishments would probably leave most people petrified and tongue-tied to meet with him, yet Chan manages to sidestep the awe and engage His Holiness in conversation, beginning with their first meeting in 1972. From that meeting, Chan became a member of the entourage, following the Dalai Lama around the world and meeting diplomats, scientists and other Nobel laureates such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (And don't forget His Holiness's recent September 11 visit to the Gem State via Sun Valley.)

What impresses most about this book is the very real sense of humanity that emanates from the prose. The Dalai Lama and his support staff are not just the stereotypical wise and benevolent monks one might expect from watching the tube, but real people, with doubts and contradictions, who nonetheless strive for and succeed at living on a different level. One of the biggest surprises is how Chan shows the Dalai Lama to be a man with a strong sense of humor, who is frequently amused by the events Chan describes and shares giggles and laughing fits with many of the book's secondary characters, Archbishop Tutu among them.

Much of the book is devoted to the precepts of the Dalai Lama's approach to his faith, as revealed in his conversations with Chan and others. Compassion and emptiness--which Chan interprets as the idea that objects have no inherent existence of their own and only exist as part of a complex web of events--are the two philosophical underpinnings of the Dalai Lama's worldview, and they are given in-depth coverage here. Although Chan presumably didn't set out to write a textbook, there is good reason to think that this book will be used as such in philosophy and religion classes to come.

But it all comes back to one man: the Dalai Lama himself. Over the course of many conversations, discussions with his translator, doctor and other staff, and personal observations on Chan's part, a deep and interesting picture of a truly great man emerges. Humble yet strong-willed, good-humored and jovial yet distanced from most, devoted to peace yet keeps a rifle on the wall of his bedroom (don't worry: he has an excellent reason, and it's not what you think): All of the pieces add up not only to an inspiring leader, but a man who most people would like to have over for dinner. It's easy to assume in this cynical age that leaders and other "great" people have feet of clay; the gift Chan gives us is a demonstration that the Dalai Lama's feet are flesh and blood, just like ours, which makes his greatness all the more striking.

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