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Author’s note: On the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against the Chinese occupation, and on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, a violent protest movement has been launched in parts of Tibet. The Chinese government dismisses this significant protest as “splittism” and has suppressed it with its customary ruthlessness. Many protestors have been arrested, and there is a blackout on news from Tibet. The Dalai Lama has condemned the brutal suppression as “a reign of terror” and called for an international probe into this “cultural genocide.” Pico Iyer’s The Open Road is timely reading for understanding the Tibetan tragedy and the Dalai Lama’s attempt to seek a non-violent solution.
I caught up with Pico Iyer, the nowhere man who is at home everywhere, andtraveled with him for a while on the virtual road of email, discussing his latest book, The Open Road. I knew Iyer’s paternal grandmother and attended his parents’ wedding in the 1950s. Who knew then that I would become a fan of their son and review his books?
Is there any significance to the title The Open Road? Since yana, or journey, in the Buddhist tradition means “road” or “vehicle,” is the Dalai Lama showing the world a new way, based on human values rather than strictly Buddhist values?
I’m so thrilled and honored to meet a friend of my grandmother’s (and someone who actually attended the wedding of my parents, when I was just a dim foreboding, perhaps, or something even more distant); thank you so much for your interest in my books and, even more, for being a friend of our family’s for more than half a century.
I love what you say about human values being at the core of the Dalai Lama’s message to the larger, non-Buddhist world, and those being different from Buddhist values, which is indeed what gives such a non-denominational openness to his message, as if he were just a doctor sharing tips that anyone can perhaps make use of, whatever her religious orientation (or lack of same). That is certainly one respect in which he is traveling along an unusually open road, as the rare religious leader who tells people not to get needlessly confused or distracted by religion, the rare Buddhist who advises non-Buddhists to stick within their own traditions, where their roots are deepest, even as they can perhaps learn some practical tips from Buddhism.
Even more, though, my title is meant to convey the way that Buddhists often talk about a “path,” more than a doctrine, and that Buddhism seems to be much more about a continuously evolving journey than a fixed structure, much more about self-questioning and learning and not knowing where one will end up than about a particular monument or even destination.
I took the phrase “The Open Road” most specifically from D.H. Lawrence’s essay on Walt Whitman, to remind us of a course that does not need holy texts or theories about god, the soul or the afterlife, but simply suggests an open-minded, open-hearted responsiveness to the here and now. I liked the fact that an English novelist writing about an American poet was describing something akin to what the leader of the Tibetans talks about and lives—reminding us, as you say, that these are human, universal truths, coming from the ideas that unite more than divide us. And, for those who’ve read some of my earlier books, I wanted to take them back to the third chapter of my first book, Video Night in Kathmandu, in which, traveling around Tibet, and talking about democracy—soul meeting soul in the open road, as Lawrence has it—I first used the phrase, twenty years ago.
To me, the process of writing is one of always coming back to the same questions and talismanic issues, but each time from a different place along the road. In that sense, the title might even refer to the process of living and writing as each of us experiences it.
I remember that your grandparents were involved with the Theosophical Society; your father was also a well-known theosophist. Does this account for the mystical strain in your writings and your interest in the meditative traditions of the major religions?
Not explicitly, I think. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household of two globally curious parents, both of whom were teaching philosophy at Oxford when I was born, and I consider myself very fortunate to have been surrounded by books and conversations and explorations of all the major traditions from the time I was a baby. My father went to visit the XIVth Dalai Lama as soon as the Tibetan leader came into exile—which is how I, aged three, first crossed his path—and my parents seemed often to be entertaining Tibetan monks or Western philosophers in our home.
Plus, as you suggest, there may be something in the genes!
But beyond that I think I’ve ended up following my own explorations, perhaps on the foundations that I inherited from my parents. I went to Christian schools, after all (and still spend much of my time, though not a Catholic, in a Benedictine monastery). I’ve lived in deeply Buddhist Japan for more than 20 years. And I spent nine years researching and writing on Islam in my last novel, Abandon. Plus, of course, I did grow up in a Hindu household. And whenever I have questions about these traditions, I can turn to my mother, who retired only recently from teaching comparative religions in California.
Your father has written several essays on Buddhism, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. When did you become seriously interested in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama?
My father first went to see the Dalai Lama in early 1960, and he told the Dalai Lama that his two-year-old son in Oxford had followed his flight through the mountains as it was reported on the radio every evening. With typical aptness and sweetness, the Dalai Lama sent me a picture of himself, aged five, on the Lion Throne of Lhasa, which I kept on my desk for 30 years until our house and everything in it burned down in a forest fire in 1990.
I first went to meet the Dalai Lama, with my father, when I was a teenager, after which I began returning to Dharamsala and following him around the world, from Harvard to Hiroshima. My father opened the door, as it were, to an interest that became quite vital, especially after I first started visiting Tibet in 1985. And because the Dalai Lama has such a compendious memory, he still mentions, often when I see him, that very early visit from my father, and even remembers the kind of shirt my father would wear when they met.
In The Open Road, you write that “the small town (Dharamsala) looked like a Buddhist parable, the kind of story a grandfather might tell the children at his knee …” Does this mean that Tibet will fade into mythology, and that its statehood is not achievable?
In the sentence that you’re referring to, I think I mean only that Dharamsala often feels like a kind of allegory, a fascinating story of desire and detachment, of serious monks and the less exalted things that we project onto them, that might be the kind of parable that a Buddhist would use to teach a child about the folly of attachment and expectation.
But Tibet in its deepest self will surely always remain, just as the Buddha’s teaching and Jesus’s and Mohammed’s do. One of the things that is so impressive about this Dalai Lama is that he has used exile as a chance to remake and refine Tibet and its cultural inheritance—to throw out everything that is extraneous, or outdated, while taking great pains to preserve and even extend everything that is essential. He is reminding Tibetans and us and exiles everywhere that Tibet is not a piece of soil but a set of values and principles that, if they’re useful, can be practiced anywhere, in any age and any place. He’s showing that the Tibet on the map can be surrendered so long as a much truer and more sustaining and durable Tibet of the spirit can be maintained. And, of course, even as he has seen his physical homeland attacked and in places wiped out during his life, he has made Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism a living, liberating part of almost every other country, from India to France to the U.S. to Japan.
One thing I like about his actions—and one reason I liken them to parables sometimes—is that they are aimed, as his words are, at a universal audience. By showing how Tibet can be remade and even strengthened outside Tibet, he is offering something to Kurds and Uighurs and Palestinians—and everyone who worries that she has lost a physical home and wants to make sure she still has an emotional center and community.
Are you suggesting that a new wave of internationalism is sweeping the world, thanks to the celebrities like Bono who are better at publicizing causes and communicating with people where governments and politicians have failed? Is it possible that people like the Dalai Lama can transform and transcend traditional notions of government and political entities and bring about a world without walls?
Exactly so. I think this is precisely part of what the Dalai Lama is doing and encouraging. Often religious leaders speak to their own flocks or constituencies; he, thanks to exile, has found himself mostly speaking to people who know very little about Buddhism, and may have no interest in it. Political leaders are often more concerned with just protecting their positions by tending to their own garden. But he is one of the political leaders who belongs to the world, as well as the rare political leader who has been a monk for 68 years and has also earned the equivalent of a doctorate in philosophy.
And indeed one of the expansive and inclusive things one can witness in his cause is that, even though official political leaders (always very keen to meet him and listen to him and to bask in his glow) haven’t helped him very much in moving Beijing, movie stars and rock musicians and scientists and backpackers and just regular people, in Tibet and Dharamsala and everywhere, have often done remarkable and selfless things to bring the situation of Tibet to the attention of the world. And the Dalai Lama speaks for a cause, just as you say, that we notice more when someone like Bono points out that, in a truly global community, the concerns of any place are the concerns of every place. Bill Clinton or Bill Gates now spend more time trying to give to the villagers of Bangladesh or Africa than to their immediate communities or companies.
This will never be a perfect process, but it’s certainly an exciting possibility, perfect for the global moment. And in this way, too, it’s not restricted to people of a certain gender, race, or religion. I try hard in my book to point out how a similarly wide and human vision is being advanced by the Dalai Lama’s great friends, Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel; how the king of Bhutan is believed to have given us the idea of Gross National Happiness as sometimes being as important as Gross National Product; and how none of the old polarities apply in a community that now stretches from New York to Cape Town.
The Dalai Lama talks more and more about the “global ethics” he’s keen to share and explore with what he calls “the global family.” In his last major book,The Universe in a Single Atom, he explicitly calls himself an “internationalist,” and notes that by losing his home, he’s gained a home in every community.
So what he’s doing, again, is not just speaking to his own people, and attending to their particular situation, but speaking to everyone, with a larger vision that perhaps many others could apply. Looked at narrowly, his political policies so far have not worked at all in shifting Beijing’s take-over of Tibet. But in a larger, more global sense, and if we look at the situation 50 years from now, we might come to very different conclusions.
At Home in the World
The Open Road: The Global Journey of the XIVth Dalai Lama, by Pico Iyer. Alfred Knopf: New York. March 2008. $24.00
Pico Iyer, author of several travel books and two novels, is not rooted in any one place, but rather in “certain values and affiliations and friendships,” as he said to Angie Brenner in an interview this year in World River Review. “Home nowadays,” he says in The Journey Home, “has nothing to do with a piece of soil and everything to do with something I carry around inside of me.” This became literally so when his parents’ house burned down in California some years ago. Iyer has been on the open road until recently when he settled down “in the middle of nowhere,” he says, in Japan.
Born to Indian parents in England, Iyer moved with them to California when he was eight. Soon after he was sent to boarding school in England. He was educated at Oxford and Harvard and joined Time magazine as a correspondent for world affairs. He has written for The New York Review of Books, Financial Times, Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times, and many other publications. His most recent book is The Open Road: the Global Journey of the XIVth Dalai Lama.
From an early age, Iyer was drawn to mysticism. Even his travel books have a spiritual quality about them; they are far from touristy. Mysticism for him is beyond time and circumstance. Whether it is the mysticism of Zen, or St. John of the Cross, or Leonard Cohen, Iyer has the feeling of being in the same place, he says, a sense of “a backstage truth that stands behind all the changing surfaces and shifts in the world.” Pradeep Sebastian described Pico Iyer as “Thomas Merton on a frequent flier pass.” He is equally at home in a Benedictine monastery in northern California as he is in Japan where he now lives more or less permanently. Mysticism and the love of travel connect him to the world and have enabled him to stay detached from any allegiance.
The subject of The Open Road is the most famous Tibetan monk, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Iyer grew up, in a manner of speaking, with Tibetan Buddhism. His father, the late Raghavan Iyer, a philosopher and theosophist, had met the Dalai Lama soon after he was given asylum in India in 1959 after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Raghavan Iyer espoused the Tibetan cause in a 1962 essay, “The Soul of Tibet,” in which he stated that the tragedy of Tibet challenged the conscience of the world community, and that it was a “test case” of the survival of a spiritual culture against brute aggression in the name of modernization. The Glass Curtain, written by Raghavan Iyer in 1964, and for which the Dalai Lama wrote the foreword, was dedicated to “Pico” and “to those of his generation for whom there will be no curtain.” Iyer was 17 years old when he first met the Dalai Lama, during a tour in India with his parents. The Dalai Lama was not known to the world at that time. But within 30 years, he had become a global icon, a modern embodiment of the message of Buddha.
The most striking traits of the Dalai Lama, observes Iyer, are his optimism and pragmatism. His standard “I don’t know” in answer to queries is grounded in optimism and honesty. Which of us can really predict anything with absolute certainty? Things that have seemed impossible have come to pass. Who could have predicted, Iyer asks, that a two-year-old boy from Amdo province would become the ruler of Tibet at age four? Or that the Chinese would be plotting the invasion of his country when he was barely 15? Or that he would be exiled in India throughout his adult life?
And yet miracles have happened: the Berlin Wall came crashing down, “apartheid” has ended in South Africa, and the Czechs rose against communism and elected a playwright, Vaclav Havel, as their president. The Cold War that seemed to last forever came to an end in 1989. “Until the last moment, anything is possible,” is the hopeful belief of the Dalai Lama. He is also a pragmatist, who wished to bring Tibet out of its isolation and into the global family through reform and exposure to modern science and technology. In Sun After Dark, Iyer calls the Dalai Lama a “politician of conscience,” “a canny Tibetan scientist,” who repairs old watches, tends sick parrots, and makes broken things whole again. Like the Buddha, he is a physician of the soul rather than a metaphysician.
Forced into exile in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama has made even his vicissitudes a positive experience. He concentrated on setting up “a Tibet outside Tibet.” He has set up a school for children where they learn both the Tibetan language, to be “deeply connected with their original source,” as well as English so that they would be “in tune with the wider world.” Tibet in exile, says Iyer, has been a “tabula rasa on which to sketch a kind of new, improved Tibet … that would draw upon what was best in its past, jettison the rest.” It is a unique community, Iyer says, founded by a philosopher-monk who envisions it to be grounded in spiritual and not political values, where “freedom means freedom from fear and wealth means inner resources.” Power is “self-sovereignty,” that enables you to seek your inner self by yourself, not led by others. Hence, the Dalai Lama has tried his utmost to give up the power given to him by his followers, and rather vest it in them. Like his archetypal teacher, the Dalai Lama advocated the doctrine “Ehi-Passiko,” inviting his followers to see for themselves instead of looking up to him.
The biggest conundrums that the Dalai Lama faces are the two visions of a solution to the Tibet problem. There are those led by the likes of Lhasang Tsering who felt that the Dalai Lama’s peaceful methods are ineffective; they prefer guerrilla tactics and even terrorist methods against Chinese imperialism. Like Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama is uncompromising in sticking to the high moral ground and has advocated the slow Middle Way policy of moral persuasion. In Iyer’s words: “The larger good and the smaller, the longer term, and right now, a monk’s vision and a guerrilla’s.” Meanwhile, as the Dalai Lama has grown in international stature after having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, no government is actively doing anything to stop the destruction of Tibet as a sovereign country and culture.
Iyer says that Buddhism has come back to India, its homeland, with a new vitality because Dharamsala has become a virtual Tibet that attracts people from all over the world. The Dalai Lama, unlike his predecessors, is a global figure who teaches interconnectedness, the essence of Buddhism. When the Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, he proved once again that he transcended geographic and political boundaries by sharing his prize to help the poor in India, Africa, and Costa Rica. Mahatma Gandhi, too, received a belated posthumous recognition, when the Nobel committee announced that the prize was “in tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi.”
The story of the XIVth Dalai Lama is vivid and replete with concrete examples. Iyer’s wry sense of humor enlivens the book. While pointing out that traveling in and out of Dharamsala is risky, Iyer mentions an airport a few miles from Dharamsala, closed most of the time. When a plane does take off occasionally, there is no room for the luggage, so that passengers arrive at the other end, “to learn (as in a Buddhist story about death) that none of their possessions have accompanied them.”
|Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.|