This review is written by Kelly Watt for the Buddhist Fiction Blog. Kelly is an award-winning Canadian writer. She was first introduced to Buddhism while at high school in India and often writes on Buddhist themes. She is the author of two books, a novel, Mad Dog (2001/2019) and the inspirational book, Camino Meditations (2014).
Review of The Green-Eyed Lama, by Oyungerele Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt for The Buddhist Fiction Blog by Kelly Watt
A copy of the The Green-Eyed Lama, by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt, ended up in my TBR (to be read) pile recently, through a series of happy coincidences. Although I was initially daunted by the book’s length, once I started reading, I fell in love with its characters and could not put it down. This sprawling 400-page saga takes place from 1937 – 1946, and charts Mongolia’s transformation from a Buddhist monarchy to the Mongolian People’s Republic, which functions initially as a satellite Soviet state.
The book is both a romance and an engaging political history that explores the destruction of a peaceful Buddhist theocracy, and pays tribute to the persecuted Guardian Families of Genghis Khan or Chinggis Khaan (Mongolian spelling) who upheld that theocracy. The novel opens with the story of a beautiful young herdswoman, Sendmaa who falls in love with a handsome, artistic lama named Baasan. They spend a romantic evening together and pledge to marry. Baasan asks to be relieved of his robes to pursue marriage but is refused and sent off on a spiritual task. Meanwhile, a jealous and manipulative neighbour conspires to have Sendmaa married off to Baasan’s brother Bold, before Baasan can return. The love story forms a backdrop for tragic political events.
A little history is required here. In 1921, Mongolia declared her independence from China only to be co-opted by her allies, the communist government of Russia. A nation-wide purge followed, to rid the country of “yellow feudals,” Buddhist teachings, lamas and monasteries. Mongols were pitted against Mongols. Our hero, Lama Baasan is arrested and narrowly escapes execution and is finally sentenced to hard labour in a barbaric prison for nothing more heinous than singing a religious song. The story charts these individual characters as they struggle for political, emotional and spiritual freedom.
I found the history and culture of Mongolia absolutely fascinating. According to Wikipedia, it is primarily a nomadic horse culture, 30% of Mongolian’s inhabitants are still herdsmen today. Sandwiched between Russia to the north and China to the south, Mongolia has a population of only 3.3 million and is known as the world’s most sparsely populated nation. Although originally shamanic, it became a Buddhist country after the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th century, and the clergy remained intertwined with the feudal government for hundreds of years. By the beginning of the 20th century, approximately one third of all adult males were Buddhist monks and there were around 750 Buddhist monasteries. In 1928, Khorloogiin Choibalsan one of the early leaders of the Mongolian People’s Republic (1921–1952) rose to power after independence from China, but immediately fell under pressure by Stalin to resist Mongolian unification. A series of purges began, resulting in the collectivization of livestock, the subsequent starvation of Mongol herdsmen, and the burning, looting of monasteries and murder of lamas. This Red Terror decimated a once peaceful Buddhist culture.
The novel is essentially a tribute to the many who perished during that violent time. And in a chilling reminder of the real-life consequences, their names are listed in the back of the book. The Stalinist purges in Mongolia murdered 30,000 people, including 18,000 monks. The population of Buddhist monks dropped from 100,000 in 1924, to 110 by 1990. Not only was the Buddhist clergy all but eradicated, but original artifacts and buildings were destroyed. By the end of the book, to appease visiting dignitaries from the U.S. a puppet monastery was erected as a front, where once imprisoned lamas were forced to act as clergy while secretly spying on their countrymen and reporting back to their Russian overlords. After the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1990, Mongolia achieved a peaceful democratic revolution in 1991, switched to a market economy and returned to its former Buddhist leanings. The Green-Eyed Lama is said to be based on a real story. A story silenced for decades. To date, Tibetan Buddhism is once again the predominant religion of Mongolia. The Green-Eyed Lama is an informative exploration of Mongolia’s fascinating history, but also a well-written and moving page turner, that kept me rivetted and rooting for its characters throughout. It is also the first Mongolian novel to be published in the west. Written originally in English, once translated into Mongolian it was a run-away best seller in that country, and also a hit in France in 2018. Anyone interested in the country’s history, or in Buddhism should give it a read. The authors are both human rights activists and lawyers. The book is a cautionary tale about the human tragedy that ensues when a large nation seeks to enforce its rigid ideology onto another. Sadly, such things are still happening in our world.
Oyungerele Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt. The Green Eyed Lama. Independently published, 2008. https://www.amazon.com/Green-Eyed-Lama-Oyungerel-Tsedevdamba/dp/1790364108