This outstanding book covers not just the search for the Panchen Lama - currently the biggest struggle in Tibet/China relations, but offers an extensive history of Tibetan Buddhism's struggle with the Chinese communists. Isabel Hilton has become a trusted correspondent of the Dalai Lama, and has gained his confidence in accurately reporting his conflicts with China. Thus Hilton not only gets many interviews with the big guy himself, but also extensive access to the intricate world of Tibetan Buddhism.
The search to find the current Panchen Lama, the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama who died in 1989, is not covered in detail until you are two-thirds through the book. In the meantime, Hilton interrupts descriptions of her travels through Tibet, China, and India (which serve as an enjoyable travelogue in themselves) with extensive forays into the history of the numerous Dalai and Panchen Lamas, as well as Tibetan Buddhism itself and the Chinese invasion and continuing suppression of the religion. The late Panchen Lama is covered in great detail, and his lifetime of persecution by the Chinese government occupies much of the book.
Hilton delivers many keen revelations about the current situation. She debunks the view of our American celebrity Buddhists that Tibet is a shangri-la in which everyone deeply meditates in pure devotion, and a serene life of deep thought is enjoyed by all. We learn instead that they have their factionalism and infighting like everyone else. We also learn that the Dalai Lama does not have the universal devotion of all Tibetan Buddhists (there are some dissidents), and that he may be losing his spiritual grip on his people, from his continuing exile in India.
The heartbreaking conclusion of the book reveals the cruel fate of the little boy who was found by the Dalai Lama to be the reincarnated Panchen Lama. He was taken into custody by the Chinese and hasn't been seen since. The Chinese have spent the past fifty years suppressing all religious activity, but now are trying to convince the world that they are better able to perform a profoundly religious ritual, the search for the Panchen's reincarnation, than the spiritual leader himself (the Dalai Lama). The actions of the Chinese have lead to scorn and derision from the rest of the world, as they have imprisoned one small boy indefinitely and installed another boy as the spiritual leader of a religion that doesn't accept him, and condemned him to life as a puppet. Yes, the Chinese government has egg on its face, but that doesn't alleviate the sad fate in store for those two young boys.