The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth
By Pico Iyer
Searching for the Dalai Lama
By HOLLY MORRIS
April 6, 2008, The New York Times
Do you get the impression that the Dalai Lama is not exactly the brightest bulb in the room?” a journalist asked Pico Iyer after both men left a speaking event by His Holiness. We know what he’s getting at. At a certain angle, the chirpy aphorisms, the generous stream of book forewords, the Hollywood entourage, all conspire to cast a hue of superficiality that few global pop icons escape.
In that light, it is possible to forget that the Dalai Lama is, in fact, a titan: a head of state, a doctor of metaphysics, a prolific author, a hyperrealist, a newshound, a godhead to the Tibetan people and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize — a man who embodies a “simplicity that lies not before complexity but on the far side of it.”
In “The Open Road,” Iyer takes a long, hard look at the many meanings of this deceptively simple man. At first blush, one might wonder why Iyer, best known as the author of many travel memoirs including “Video Night in Kathmandu” and “Sun After Dark,” would take on such a subject. The answer lies in the understanding that Iyer is not just a travel writer, and the Dalai Lama is not just a monk.
Iyer has set out to examine Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, as a part of a larger set of ideas and thinkers — a towering example of the cross-cultural interconnectedness that has been the author’s particular subject. Iyer has long wondered “how globalism could acquire depths, an inwardness that would sustain it more than mere goods or data could.” And “if our new way of living were to offer any real sustenance,” he posits, “it would have to be invisible, in the realm of what underlies acceleration and multinationals.”
Confused? Me too. A bit. But that’s O.K., because when you have a formidable writer who says I’m curious, catch me if you can, and a subject as rich as the Dalai Lama, it’s best to just hang on for the ride.
Iyer’s connection to his subject is also deeply personal. His father, a Bombay-raised Indian teaching political philosophy at Oxford, went to Dharamsala, India, to meet Gyatso in 1960, when both men were in their 20s, only a year after the Tibetan leader had fled to India ahead of his Chinese pursuers; the men started a lifelong friendship. Iyer himself first traveled to the Dalai Lama’s home as a teenager, and thus began a dialogue that would cover three decades and half a dozen continents — and become the grist of “The Open Road.” Weaving together these conversations (and many with the Dalai Lama’s brother, Ngari Rinpoche, and other Tibetans), along with vast research, Iyer has written an original exploration that occasionally loses the scent and wanders off trail, but largely delivers a trenchant, impassioned look at a singular life.
Right off, Iyer lays out the many paradoxes of a figure he considers one of the best- and least-known people on the planet. The Dalai Lama is a religious teacher who warns of the entanglements of religion and urges people to stay with their original faiths. He is a dedicated man of science, yet beholden to hundreds of religious rites. He continues to urge a controversial forbearance (rather than direct action) toward the Chinese, even as occupied Tibet is a whisper away from gone. He is a head of state, with all the attendant duties, who meditates for four hours every morning on, among other things, the roots of compassion and his own death. In what other person does this depth of monasticism and plenitude of frequent-flier miles so live together? Iyer doesn’t solve the conundrums; he digs toward the nature of what lies below. One man is not likely to have all the answers, he writes of the Dalai Lama, but — and here, Iyer could be addressing his own narrative — “it’s the questions he puts into play that invigorate.”
The Dalai Lama is, above all, what we want him to be. The Western world most wants him to be a fairy tale — a saffron-robed young leader from Shangri-La, where we think a hunk of spirituality is tossed in with every drought of hot butter tea. To the Tibetan people, he is regarded as a god, but to the outside world he is “a secular divinity of sorts, and for that there is less precedent.” Iyer challenges us to see him as one of a group of agents of transformation like Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, people who “change the world by changing the way they looked at the world.”
But the accessible Dalai Lama, whose voice can be downloaded as a ring tone and who crisscrosses the globe with a populist message of compassion and kindness, is only a part of who he is. He is mostly, and radically, a private man. We do not see, nor would most of us understand if we did, the vast esoteric side of Buddhism — a complex world of oracles, ancient enmities and high-level metaphysical pay dirt — that he also inhabits. As a monk, of course, the Dalai Lama spends much of his life steeped in the central Buddhist tenet of interconnectedness, engaged in inner work that supports, and even creates, new outward realities.
Case in point: Dharamsala. The creation of the Tibetan government and community-in-exile there is a hopeful experiment, “as compressed and bittersweet an image of the global village as I have ever seen,” Iyer tells us. With Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama envisioned a new, improved Tibet, doing away with many of the feudalisms and formalities of old and successfully building a refuge for, and incubator of, Tibetan culture. Iyer describes it as a remote outpost of searing spirit, entrenched longing and ramshackle reality. A place, above all, “consecrated to the idea that the problems of one place are the concerns of every place, in our ever more linked universe.”
The Dalai Lama’s commitment to modernize led, in 2001, to exiles in 37 countries electing the first Tibetan prime minister. There was a minor uproar when he included in Tibet’s new constitution a clause for his own impeachment. And he has suggested he could be the last Dalai Lama. All this planned obsolescence makes Tibetans uncomfortable, but it makes sense in light of the six words into which he distills Buddhism: “Change is part of the world.”
And what of Tibet itself? As recent events have shown, it’s hard to feel optimistic. The country teeters dangerously close to extinction by absorption. But Iyer tells us the Dalai Lama rests his faith on surprise, “the sudden result of what has been building invisibly for years.” We are reminded that the Berlin Wall came down seemingly overnight (just as it went up); one day apartheid simply seemed to collapse; butterfly wings, as the notion goes, can cause a tsunami to rise up on the other side of the world. “Until the last moment,” the Dalai Lama says, “anything is possible.”