Claude B. Levenson : from the Star of David to the White Lotus

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On 13 December 2020, ten years will have gone by since Claude B. Levenson (1938-2010) passed away. She was an activist intellectual who escaped the Holocaust, was close to the Dalaï-Lama and spoke out for the Tibetan cause in France. She made a seminal contribution to informing a much wider public about the tragedy that has been unfolding in Tibet since the Chinese invasion in 1959.

The origin of her indignant attitude

Claude Levenson was born in Paris in 1938. One day in 1941, the militia knocked on the door of the family home. Denounced by a neighbor, her father was arrested and transferred to Drancy (camp), and was sent in the first convoy to the Auschwitz death camp, whence he never returned. Farmers in Nièvre hid Claude while her mother joined the Resistance. They were not to meet again until the Liberation in 1945; this traumatic experience steeled her character. To convey the strength of his wife’s character, her husband Jean-Claude Buhrer, a journalist with the daily Le Monde, writes in the preface to the reprint of Ainsi parle le Dalaï-Lama : « From age three onwards, Claude never cried again ».

A ward of the State and a brilliant student, in the mid-50s she was given a scholarship to prestigious Lomonossov University in Moscow, where she learned Russian, Sanskrit, Hindi and Persian. She also met young Buriats and Kalmuks, minority groups from eastern Russia bordering on Mongolia – who introduced her to Tibetan Buddhism. In those days Moscow was a hub for global movements and Claude met escapees from the Gulag, veterans of the Spanish Civil War and Oriental, African and Latin-American refugees. This is undoubtedly when she became aware of the fact that « beyond the Dalaï-Lama himself, Tibet’s silent tragedy concerns our freedom too. Our freedom to refuse that justice be denied and to welcome the right of self-determination of a people ». From the 60s onwards, with her husband, she never stopped fighting for the survival of an entire people, writing in the media and translating literary works.

A meeting that sealed her fate

It was in 1981 that she first met the Dalaï-Lama, invited to Paris by Mayor Jacques Chirac. In those days, the aura of Tibet’s spiritual leader did not reach much beyond the circle of people interested in Tibetan Buddhism. The meeting was a turning-point for Claude. When they met again in Geneva in 1982, Claude asked the Dalaï-Lama what he thought about the situation in Tibet. He responded by suggesting she go see for herself. She went in 1984, as soon as the Land of Snows opened its doors a crack. This was the first of a dozen trips to the Roof of the World. Claude was shocked by what she found: a ravaged land where only a scant dozen remained of the 6000 monasteries there had been before 1959. But she saw how deeply the Tibetans cherished the Dalaï-Lama in their hearts: « From then on, I wanted to get to know him better myself, instead of relying on the image his people reflected back to me », she explained.

In 1986, Claude told the Dalaï-Lama that a publisher had proposed that she write a biography of the Holy Man. His Holiness replied: « Let’s do it together ! ». The result of lengthy meetings with the spiritual and political head of the Tibetans, Le Seigneur du Lotus blanc was the first in a long series of books. In all, it included no fewer than 25 works, about 15 on Tibet and 2 on Buddhism, interviews with the Dalaï-Lama and many articles in support of the Tibetan cause. These pieces have been translated into about 20 languages, such as Japanese, Korean, Chinese (Taïwan) and in Arabic.

« Once it has been grasped, understood and accepted that all that exists is subject to birth, change and extinction – impermanence in other words – life turns into a phenomenon that will not leave you intact, but which is definitely worth experiencing. »

Very attached to Tibet and to Buddhism, which the Dalaï-Lama incarnated in the eyes of the public, Claude Levenson was « her own type of Buddhist », said her husband. He added that she felt « Buddhism provided a means of interpreting the world and could offset the excessive materialism ». So when she was asked whether she was a Buddhist, she would dodge the issue and reply: « Maybe I was in a previous life and maybe I will be in another life… » When Claude’s response was conveyed to the Dalaï-Lama, he exclaimed: « I think that is a very good definition ! » She was a practitioner nonetheless: her bedside book was Nagarjuna and the doctrine of emptiness, according to her husband.

« Having become philosophically Buddhist », as Philippe Picquier, one of her publishers, put it, she seemed to have grasped its essence. Her husband recalls that she would say: « Once it has been grasped, understood and accepted that all that exists is subject to birth, change and extinction – impermanence in other words – life turns into a phenomenon that will not leave you intact, but which is definitely worth experiencing ».

When Claude Levenson passed away in December 2010, she was holding in her hands, like a symbol, a small statue of the Buddha given to her by the Dalaï-Lama. Who could dream of a better traveling companion ?


At the request of Jean-Claude Buhrer, Claude Levenson’s husband, this text was translated by Marie-Louise Broch and transmitted to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Read in French (original version) :

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Sophie Solère

Sophie Solère est une journaliste économique et sociale qui s'intéresse depuis des années à l'environnement et à l'interdépendance. Elle travaille pour Bouddha News, une plateforme de médias dédiée à la spiritualité et à la sagesse bouddhiste. En pratiquant le yoga et la danse méditative, Sophie a découvert le pouvoir des voyages spirituels, qui offrent tant de chemins pour se (re)trouver. Elle se consacre à partager avec les lecteurs de Bouddha News des histoires inspirantes et des conseils précieux sur la pratique spirituelle et l'environnement.

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