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Book Review

A timely look at the life of the Dalai Lama

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Askold Melnyczuk
April 16, 2008

The Open Road: The Global Journey
of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

By Pico Iyer Knopf, 275 pp, $24

These days, everyone has advice for the Dalai Lama: monks, former monks, ex-employees of various Free Tibet organizations, government officials from China, the European Union, and the United States. Moreover, he listens: Pico Iyer presents him as open, deeply curious, committed to truth even at the expense of doctrine. At the same time, he is a philosopher, with values rooted in age-old principles. Unless their counsel accords with the wisdom of Nagarjuna (a second-century Indian philosopher, and perhaps the most influential Buddhist thinker after Buddha himself), advice isn't likely to throw him off course. A genuine anomaly, a philosopher-king-democrat, the Dalai Lama takes the long view.

"Of all the many books and films that have brought the Dalai Lama and his people to the world," writes Iyer, "I'm not sure any of them has addressed that most central of questions": Has the Dalai Lama improved the lives of Tibetans?

In reflecting on this, Iyer has written one of the most thoughtful and eloquent books yet about the Dalai Lama. Considering his subject is one of the world's most analyzed and photographed men (and recently in the public eye after last month's riots in Tibet), that's no small feat. Iyer reminds us how little of the Dalai Lama we actually see. His public persona is grounded in four hours of daily meditation, as well as numerous esoteric rituals and practices: "Like any being, Tibetan Buddhism has a daylight side and a nighttime side, a part that belongs in the public, visible world and a part that belongs in the realm of dreams and premonitions and everything that exists outside the conscious mind." The Dalai Lama (real name: Tenzin Gyatso), notes Iyer, "[tends] to shield the wider world from the esoteric side of Tibetan Buddhism." Iyer reminds us that Tibetan culture is nearer to Shakespeare's, where "every comet or cloud formation is a direct message from the gods," than to our own.

As the secular head of state, Tenzin Gyatso reflects his studies in the school of Gandhi. What other political leaders approached their "enemies" by refusing to identify them as enemies? The Dalai Lama has turned his cheek so often he resembles one of those many-headed, thousand-armed deities in Tibetan iconography.

Part of the fascination of Iyer's account springs from the fact that he's had privileged access to the Dalai Lama. Iyer's father, a philosopher who studied at Oxford, befriended "the simple monk" shortly after his arrival in India in 1959. The monk's first gift to the 3-year-old Iyer was a photograph of himself seated on a throne at the Potala Palace in Lhasa. He was 5 years old at the time. Iyer's portrait presents the human being in all his poignant agony and grace.

So how successful has the Dalai Lama's approach been? On today's map, Tibet appears to be in China. At a recent gathering of the Tibetan diaspora in Boston, someone passed around a piece of Tibetan currency from before 1959. The aim was to let the young people assembled hold tangible proof giving the lie to China's claims. The bill represented another world, with its own discrete culture, laws, and values. It was not Chinese.

The assertion is both clear yet complex, partly because of the paradoxical nature of self and identity as they're presented by Buddhism. "I" and "self" are relative terms. Buddhism doesn't adapt easily to our lust for instant gratification. There are no mass conversions in Buddhism, no discount tickets to nirvana. It is also radically egalitarian: Every sentient being possesses the same spiritual potential. Asked what all his meetings with the world's leaders had achieved, the Dalai Lama replied: "One simple innocent sincere spiritual seeker - that's more important than a politician or a prime minister. When I see some result then I feel today I did some small contribution."

Reading that makes one hope the Dalai Lama's advisers are wise enough to ask for some in return.

Askold Melnyczuk recently published his third novel, "The House of Widows."

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