Eat the Buddha : Review

Tania Branigan, in the Guardian, reviews a book which provides a detailed, vivid – and rare – portrait of the Tibetans struggling as their way of life is eroded by Beijing. August 2020.

Reincarnation of all living Buddhas “must comply with Chinese laws”, Beijing reminded Tibetans last spring. At stake, of course, is the identity of the next Dalai Lama. Inconveniently for China, which sees the Tibetan spiritual leader as “a jackal in monk’s robes” and would prefer someone more pliant, he insists he will be reborn in exile.

Tibetans protest

The determination of the avowedly atheist Communist party to assert its primacy in the spiritual realm, as much as every other, illustrates a collision with Tibetan life that can be glimpsed through such incongruous official announcements but is rarely fully witnessed.

Eat the Buddha is a powerful exception: a deeply textured, densely reported and compelling exploration of Ngaba, Sichuan, a “nothing little town that had just gotten its first traffic light” but that became, horrifyingly, “the undisputed world capital of self-immolations”. More than 150 Tibetans, and at least 42 in Ngaba, have set fire to themselves in just over a decade.

While the eastern side of the Tibetan plateau can be visited somewhat more easily than the Tibet region (for which foreigners need special travel permission, not often granted to journalists), the cases led to intense security around Ngaba. At their height, communications to the town were almost severed and reporters hid in the boots of cars to document paramilitaries armed with semi-automatic weapons and fire extinguishers. It takes a certain kind of reporter to embark on an in-depth account of such a place, and Barbara Demick has form.

Her last book, Nothing to Envy, was an extraordinarily intimate, detailed and moving account of life in North Korea. Here, surreptitious trips to Ngaba supplement the same technique of interviewing exiles.As in Nothing to Envy – and her first book Logavina Street, on the siege of Sarajevo – she captures crushing historical events through the stories of individuals: the novice who thrives on the monastery’s intellectual debates but is also thrilled to find it “an oversized playground” where he can slide down a heap of dirt; the teenage girl with a soft spot for handsome soldiers who begins to feel “like a double agent”; the young man who relishes his job entertaining Chinese tourists with songs and dances but becomes disenchanted and turns to activism.

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