In This Review

The Search for the Panchen Lama
The Search for the Panchen Lama
By Isabel Hilton
W. W. Norton, 2000, 336 pp.
Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-la from the Himalayas to Hollywood
Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-la from the Himalayas to Hollywood
By Orville Schell
Henry Holt, 2000, 340 pp.

Both these books capture the magic of Tibet by combining personal experiences with detailed historical and religious expositions. Schell was smitten early in life with yearnings for Tibet. He first made a disillusioning visit to Lhasa and then went to the Argentine Alps, where Hollywood was filming Heinrich Harrar's Seven Years in Tibet, the book that had ignited Schell's youthful imagination. But for all of its magical powers of enchantment, which included reproducing Lhasa in the Andes, Hollywood was not up to preserving the illusions of Tibet. To make matters worse, as filming began it was revealed that the Austrian Harrar, a sympathetic champion of Buddhism, had in fact been a dedicated Nazi and S.S. trooper. And modern Lhasa, which until 1979 had been seen by only a handful of Western visitors, has seen its Holiday Inn overrun with foreign tourists and its streets filled with Han Chinese.

The British journalist Hilton tells a mystery tale of her secret role in the exiled Dalai Lama's scheme to get the Chinese to accept the boy he chose to be the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The plot failed, the Chinese were alerted, and the boy and his family have not been seen since. Hilton fills out this story with an informative account of the history of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. One is left wondering whether Tibetan Buddhism will survive if the selection of the next Dalai Lama falls into the hands of the Chinese rather than those of dedicated Tibetan monks. Both Schell and Hilton bring home the tragedy of Tibet's current domination by China. The old Tibet probably could not have survived the challenges of modernity, but the authors show that the country certainly would have made a more graceful adjustment to the twenty-first century under the wise leadership of the Dalai Lama than under the Chinese gun.