Dalai Lama, My Son: A Mother’s Story by Diki Tsering, edited and introduced by Khedroob Thonup.
Viking Arkana, Penguin Group, New York, 2000.
Autobiography, 189 pages including glossary.
The autobiography of the Dalai Lama’s mother.
I had no idea what to expect from this book. I’ve read quite a few books by or about the Dalai Lama, so my first assumption was that this was a biography of him, written by his mother. However, it actually is something much more interesting – the autobiography of his mother.
The book is broken up into two parts. The first part tells about her early life, from her own childhood, marriage, and raising of children up to the early childhood of the Dalai Lama. The second part represents a big life change and tells of her life after her son was recognized as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
This book was endlessly fascinating to me. Although I’ve read a lot about Tibetian Buddhism, everything I’ve seen has been based on the Dalai Lama or other Buddhist monks and teachers. This is the first book I’ve read about ordinary life in Tibet.
The first half of the book will understandably be of more interest to readers who already are familiar with the basic story of the current Dalai Lama. But the second half does manage to keep the focus on Diki Tsering’s life even as her famous son greatly impacts that life. She writes at length on different folk customs of her family in Amdo province and the differences in Lhasa. I found the naming traditions especially notable – upon marriage, women are renamed by their husband’s family!
I found the family relationships between the various people involved in this book a bit confusing, so let’s briefly recap. Diki Tsering is the mother of the Dalai Lama. He, of course, has no children but had 15 siblings. Not all of his brothers and sisters survived to adulthood, but those that did were able to provide him with nieces and nephews.
His brother Gyalo Thondup married a Chinese woman, and because of the strong feelings against Chinese/Tibetian intermarriage, moved to India. They had six children. One was Yangzom Doma, who was close to Diki Tsering. She came up with the idea of this book, conducted the interviews, and translated them into English. When she died in a tragic accident, it fell to her brother Khedroob Thonup to complete the work.
The Dalai Lama’s mother is referred to by three different names: Sonam Tsomo (her birth name conveying wishes of fertility and longevity), Diki Tsering (her married name meaning ocean of luck), and Gyayum Chenmo (a title meaning Great Mother). However, care is taken to make most of the transitions between names smooth.
Since I’ve already read other biographies of her son’s life, I found the portion after his recognition as the next Dalai Lama to be the least interesting. The story picked up again once the political intrigue started after his father died (or was killed). Although it got slow and was put aside, the short, topical chapters made it easy to pick up again.
A memorable point was when the young adult Dalai Lama comes to visit his family’s home, and they build a new kitchen and driveway for the visit. This book was also clean enough that I think it would be fine for high school, maybe even middle school students.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this dollar shelf find. The angle was unique and fascinating. Diki Tsering is both an ordinary and an extraordinary woman, who quite plainly tells her story in readable chunks. Recommended.