Thomas Laird

     ... journalist. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama is the result of 60 hours of intense conversation between this veteran journalist and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. The remarkable Mr. Laird was based in Katmandu for thirty years, was Nepal correspondent for Asiaweek for a decade and a regular contributor to Time and Newsweek. The author of three additional books, Mr. Laird’s photography has appeared in two books and more than fifty magazines. He now divides his time between Kathmandu and New Orleans.

a History of Tibet


The hard political difference between Tibet and the Chinese about their history was a major reason His Holiness the Dalai Lama spent 60 hours over several years in conversation with Thomas Laird, and why Mr. Laird spent 10 years writing The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. Since 1912, Chinese governments have been telling the Chinese people that Tibet has been part of China since the Great Chinese (sic) Emperor Genghis Khan unified the nation in the 13th century.

Mr. Laird’s additional, extensive research does a great deal more than reassure us that Genghis Khan really was as Mongol as was his Mongolian Empire, the greatest one the planet has ever known. Mr. Laird also makes sense of today’s powerful Chinese nationalism, rooted centuries of being subjugated and humiliated by a series of foreign rulers. Forget communism, Mr. Laird urges, that's not even interesting any more. If the U.S. is to avoid a war with China in the next 20 years, foreign policy makers must appreciate history -- China’s as well as Tibet’s. The story now he says is: What is a powerful successful nationalist state going to do with its abilities in the world?

Like Tibet’s history itself, there is an unrelenting tension between the spiritual and the temporal in The Story of Tibet. As he came to understand and admire the Dalai Lama’s holistic view of history, Mr. Laird was amazed to find how similar it was to his own geopolitical perspective about nomads and farmers, based on Owen Lattimore’s pivotal insight -- you cannot understand the history of Asia unless you understand the great divide between farmers and nomads. (Hint: Urban civilization is all a farmer society -- the only time the nomads have ever dramatically sprung onto the world stage was when those aforementioned Mongols devastated all the agrarians societies -- but the ongoing struggles between the two have made history.)

One can only marvel at how little Westerners know about Tibet. It’s the size of Western Europe and 40% of China’s landmass. The water from all of China’s great rivers comes off the Tibetan plateau. The resources of the Plateau and its strategic importance cannot be underestimated and Mr. Laird’s personal opinion is that China will do anything to retain it.

But shining through this book about Tibet is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And he is the man whom the world has come to know . Tibet’s history? In many ways it is like any other -- greed, anger, ignorance, lust, and pride are problems. The difference is, where others would blame, the Dalai Lama takes responsibility, Mr. Laird says. Whenever he got excited about the politics or something else, Mr. Laird says the Dalai Lama always very calmly reverted back to what he brings to the world stage -- his approach to all problems through wisdom and compassion and human kindness.

War is like dinosaurs, says the Dalai Lama, it’s something that should be dying off. If humans have a future, he tells us, it depends on us learning to work together. The wisdom we need to solve the world’s problems is inherent in each of us. What’s left? The willingness to put caring for other people first -- farmers and nomads alike.


[This Program was recorded January 24, 2007, in Atlanta, Georgia,]


Conversation 1


Asia’s history must be understood as a great divide between farmers and nomads, Thomas Laird tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell The Mongols -- whose empire was the largest ever on earth -- were the only nomads ever to prevail, Mr. Laird says. In this context, he gives a sense of the vastness of the Tibetan Plateau.



Conversation 2


Amazed to understand His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s holistic vision of history, Mr. Laird credits Owen Lattimore for the western version of the farmers-nomads idea, illustrates it with stories spanning Mr. Laird’s own 30 years living in the Himalayas and delights in the similarities between the two visions.  He details what His Holiness means by conventional and non-conventional history, then summarizes the Dalai Lama’s world view. Mr. Laird acknowledges the political importance of putting Tibet’s history on record, then appreciates how this book allows His Holiness to express the nuance of who he is and how he envisions vast and mysterious connections with his predecessors.




Conversation 3


The process by which The Story of Tibet emerged was similar to the ways Buddhist monks are trained, Mr. Laird says, then describes both. He tells his own story and recounts how he and the Dalai Lama interacted in bringing this book to life, in tune both with the ancient Buddhist tradition of dialogue and the historical Buddha’s requirement to test, look for evidence and learn from experience rather than clinging to dogma. Mr. Laird describes how the Dali Lama reveals his own personal nature through this discussion of history, making it a rule to first take responsibility. Tibetan Buddhism (Mahayan) and Hinayana Buddhism are contrasted.



Conversation 4


Tibet’s history shows Tibetans are like people everywhere, Thomas Laird says -- greed, anger, ignorance, lust and pride are problems. He voices impatience with false impressions of Tibet as idyllic and Tibetans as quiet and pacific, using stories of Tibet’s vast 9th century empire to counter widespread Western mis-imaginings. One of the major reasons this book was written, Mr. Laird says, is the hard political difference between the Tibetans and the Chinese about their history. He summarizes what the Chinese government has told the Chinese people since 1912. Mr. Laird distances his own strong opinions from His Holiness’ very careful, calm statements.




Conversation 5


The relationship between the United States and China in the coming 20 years will depend on decisions America makes now, Mr. Laird say.  He expresses confidence that war can be avoided if America’s foreign policy makers approach China with a strong enough appreciation of the history of China to be able to make informed choices. Considering China’s current strategic, political and economic realities, Mr. Laird brings Tibet’s history into the present and reiterates the power of nationalism in today’s China.



Conversation 6


All the great rivers of China come from Tibet, Mr. Laird reminds us, declaring water more important than oil. He describes China’s imperatives and potentially grim realities imposed by the region’s geography. He concludes with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s commitment to pluralism and summarizes his approach to all the world’s problems -- begin by caring for other people.




Related Links:

The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama has a website, where you can learn a great deal more about Mr. Laird’s own remarkable adventure-filled life. The book is published by Grove Press.

Alan Wallace argues that Tibetan Buddhism and other meditative traditions can make major contributions to a science of the mind.

The late Iris Chang provided an account of the Chinese experience in America which adds another dimension to Mr. Laird's accounts of intersecting Chinese and Tibetan history.

Ha Jin's fiction explores life in China today and in recent history.

Christine Loh looks at the role of Hong Kong in China's political future.

Ann Florini explores ways in which forms of democracy can be achieved in parts of the world with only very limited experience in that form of government.

Karin Ryan shows how America's use of torture and other illegal and extra-legal techniques has diminished its influence and the ability of human rights groups to change such behaviors in other countries.

Paul Ekman has been working closely with the Dalai Lama on a variety of projects since early in this millenium.


Unsurprisingly, Thomas Laird's insistence that we must understand history if we are to cope effectively with the future is shared by the historians with whom we've talked, among whom are:  David Cannadine, Ron Chernow, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Nasaw, Terry Parssinen, Kevin Phillips, Simon Schama and Richard Slotkin.


And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.



The remarkable collaboration between Mr. Laird and His Holiness the Dalai Lama brings into sharp focus how vital it is to understand the past while we work to find solutions going forward. This pivotal insight is key to the remarkable story that emerges from two singular individuals as they explore both conventional and non-conventional perspectives over long epochs of Asian history.


The resulting book is a gift to the world and a remarkable labor of love. We admire and appreciate the ways they both are living their commitment to creating and exploring new paths toward a more peaceful world.



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