Heinrich Harrer, “Seven Years in Tibet”

Heinrich Harrer, “Seven Years in Tibet”

I am almost finished reading Heinrich Harrer’s “Seven Years in Tibet.” A superb mountain climber, sportsman, geographer, and adventurer, the Austrian Harrer escaped from an internment camp in India and managed with a companion to make his way to Tibet in the 1940’s. Even though Tibet closed itself to foreigners, Harrer was able to navigate incredible physical obstacles and bureaucratic impediments to see rural Tibet and eventually make his way to Lhasa. Over time he became an important figure in Tibetan life and one of the Dalai Lama’s best friends. He learned to speak fluent Tibetan. Harrer was not a scholar or a religious leader, but a practical man whose humanity and spirituality overflow in spite of his apparent skepticism. It was that practicality and his love of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism which made him such a beloved figure in Tibet. Because he knew Tibet and Tibetans intimately, he did not idolize Tibet, but could love it for all its wonder and greatness and its flaws. He criticized the Tibetan resistance to adaptation to the modern world, a view which the Dalai Lama seemed to share. At the same time, Harrer deeply respected the emphasis on spirituality and ritual in Tibetan life. His stories of Tibetan workers who, upon seeing a worm in a shovel full of dirt, stop all their labor in order to preserve the worm’s life, is powerful and inspiring.

In Harrer’s memoir, the humanity of the Dalai Lama also comes through, and my respect for the Dalai Lama has deepened, as his Buddha nature appears not because of his lofty intellect or power, but because of his genuineness and authenticity. That seems to me what connects both Harrer and the Dalai Lama. They are first and foremost fully human, with very little posing or posturing. They are who they are. Harrer’s writing style is very matter-of-fact, which makes readers feels a sense of participating in the events described. I found the book gripping.

The Dalai Lama escaped Tibet in 1959, and he and Harrer remained close friends until Harrer’s passing in 2006 at the age of 93. I recommend this book highly.

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