In the Shadow of the Buddha weaves two narrative threads together. The first follows the journey of the man whom the current, 14th Dalai Lama once designated "the great protector of the Tibetan nation," Tetron Sogyal, who lived from the latter years of the 19th century into the early years of the 20th; the second is the story of Matteo Pistono, the book's author, in the steps of this master, at the direction of his own teacher, Khenpo Jikme Phuntsok. Together with the better-known Sogyal Rinpoche, Khenpo was one of the two concurrent 20th century reincarnations of Tetron Sogyal; and Sogyal Rinpoche, you'll recall, is the author of the justly celebrated and influential Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Does this sound complicated? Be ready for the infinitely mysterious, alluring, and disturbing world of Tibetan Buddhism. The story's roots go back much further, to the vajrayana master Padmasambhala, the "Father of Tibetan Buddhism" who, in the 8th century established the religion and went about the country concealing "treasure teachings" in remote locations, to be revealed across the centuries at an appropriate moment by those gifted with special powers--among them, Tetron Sogyal. Under the threat of invasion and occupation since the late 19th century by, among others, Britain, Russia, and China, tiny--and virtually defenseless--Tibet has been a turmoil of political intrigue and violent uprising, mixed in with religious fervor and centuries-old ritual.
Enter, in the late 20th century, our guide Matteo Pistono, a native of the American West brought up with a conscience that enjoined him to engage in social activism, who found in the Buddhist dharma a meaningful call to the service of his fellow beings. Drawn to Tibet--or rather, directed there by his influential teachers--he finds himself engaged in a personal pilgrimage, an inner search conducted in meditation practice and prolonged solitary retreats; and, at the same time, in the Tibetan struggle against the brutal Chinese occupiers. Part spy, part warrior, part courier, he acts as a go-between for the exiled Dalai Lama with monastic and secular leaders inside the country. The latter role is an often dangerous adventure under the suspicious and watchful eye of the omnipresent occupying Chinese forces; Pistono's major purpose is to bring documentary and photographic evidence of Chinese abuses to political leaders in the West--a risky undertaking in a time of unremitting tyranny.
These are the bare bones. The flesh is in the maze of intrigue, the narrow escapes, the perilous journeys on foot, horseback, motorcycle or jittery jeep; it's in the (sometimes confusing) cast of saints, mystics and hermits, the teachers and spiritual leaders we encounter in dizzying array from page to page; it's in the majestic landscapes of Tibet and the hearing rooms of Washington, DC, the remote caves and the magnificently decorated temples--the former glory of the "Land of Snows"; it's in the observation of esoteric traditions and prayers, the oracles and seers, the venerated ritual objects and the offerings to protective deities. A rich tapestry, indeed, a panoply in which this unique religion amazes and, at times, confounds the lay reader like myself.
The 14th Dalai Lama has become the major voice for Buddhism in the world today. Part politician and diplomat, part spiritual leader, he speaks for a particular, esoteric branch of Buddhism that is perhaps too easily mistaken for the larger picture. The mysticism, the ceremony and ritual of Tibetan Buddhism are not to everyone's taste--and, I feel obliged to add, not to mine. This does not mean, of course, that they are not authentically fascinating and rich with history and human significance. And the fundamental teaching of the dharma is common to Buddhism in all its manifestations: that we human beings have within us the ability to find happiness in our lives, no matter the social or political circumstances; and that we will not find that happiness without compassion for all our fellow beings. As Pistono writes, toward the end of his compelling narrative:
In politics, ultimately, there are no winners, for every politician will die and every government will fall--the wise, the durable question is not if a political system will survive, but when will it fall? Because everything is impermanent, including politicians and their governments, we have a responsibility to effect change that will bring about conditions right now for others to find contentment and happiness.
And surely there are few among us who would quarrel with that. At the same time, who could fail to be moved by the tragedy of this beautiful country and the life-and-death struggle for the survival of its religion, its people and their customs? May Pistono's story prove an important reminder to the conscience of the world. Long live Tibet!