A Sovereign Spirit

Reviewed by Shashi Tharoor
Sunday, April 6, 2008


The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

By Pico Iyer

Knopf. 275 pp. $24

When the United Nations convened a Millennium World Peace Summit of religious leaders in 2000, one major religious figure was conspicuous by his absence. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, was not invited. The implacable hostility of China, a permanent member of the Security Council, has made it impossible for him to set foot in a U.N. building anywhere or to be received by any official of the U.N., let alone its secretary-general. Where millions see a seeker of peace and an advocate of love and reconciliation, the government in Beijing sees only a "splittist," a secessionist rebel.

This dichotomy is inherent in the Dalai Lama's role. He is simultaneously the spiritual leader of a community of believers and the political head of a government in exile. As a Buddhist he preaches non-attachment, self-realization, and non-violence; as a Tibetan he is looked up to by a people fiercely attached to their homeland, most seeking its independence from China, many determined to fight for it. He has been a refugee for nearly five decades but is the most recognized symbol of his country. His message of peace, love and reconciliation has found adherents among movie stars and pony-tailed hippies, Irish rock musicians and Indian politicians; but he has been unable to prevent Tibet's inexorable transformation into one more Chinese province. His sermons fill football stadiums, and he has won a Nobel Prize, but political leaders around the world shrink from meeting him openly.

Pico Iyer's elegant and intensely personal book attempts to explore these contradictions. Iyer's father began meeting with the Dalai Lama when both men were in their 20s, and the author followed in his paternal footsteps, calling on the Dalai Lama and his followers multiple times over the past three decades. The Open Road is an attempt to record, in Iyer's characteristically limpid prose, some of these conversations. It portrays the Dalai Lama as a public figure, at religious gatherings and official meetings; as a private person, reflecting on the values and concerns that animate his life; and, somewhat less successfully, as a politician on the global stage.

The author, despite considering himself a "non-belonger," does not hide his admiration for his subject. Iyer's book is suffused with great affection: Even the Dalai Lama's polishing his glasses suggests, to Iyer, "a metaphor for what he's encouraging all of us to do." The Dalai Lama's easy grace upon entering a room, his infectiously loud laughter, his intellectual agility and scientific curiosity, all leap from the page. So does his sense of being anchored in "reality" (a word that Iyer repeatedly cites him as using). The Dalai Lama calls himself "a simple Buddhist monk" bound by 253 vows, but he has proven to be anything but simple and so much more than a monk. To Tibetans he is "their homeland, as well as their faith and their sense of self." In a world where "celebrity is ever more a global currency," he is a "spiritual celebrity" who can "change the coin of the realm into something more precious or sustaining."

The Open Road intermittently showcases Iyer's distinctive strength, his vivid travel writing. In several books now he has demonstrated a talent for evocative description, and in The Open Road he conjures up the Tibetan settlement of Dharamsala in the northern Indian hills so wonderfully ("a community founded on longing, on homesickness and restlessness and dreams") that one is afraid to visit the town for fear that it will not live up to his recreation of it. (Can one hope to find the meditation center whose typed schedule lists "Breakfast/Impermanence and Death/Suffering/Selflessness/Dinner/Equanimity"?)

The Dalai Lama's faith in the importance of debate and scholarship has also found a worthy acolyte here. Iyer is nothing if not well read, as an excellent bibliographical chapter testifies; in this slim volume he quotes St. Teresa of Avila, Graham Greene, Thoreau, Emerson, D.H. Lawrence, the Bible and Gandhi, not to mention a dozen other authorities. Bishop Tutu walks on these pages, often hand-in-hand with the Dalai Lama; Vaclav Havel makes an appearance; but both are overshadowed by the luminous presence of the author's companion, Hiroko, the "uncrowned princess" of Dharamsala. The result is a curious combination of travelogue and reportage, fascinating and readable throughout, which manages to be thoughtful without quite being analytical enough.

Politics is an activity for which Iyer has not quite the same feel as the other topics on which he has brought his intelligence and erudition to bear, and it shows; the Dalai Lama's relationship (or lack thereof) with the Chinese government and the complications this has caused him are barely mentioned. The Open Road quotes Tibetans who are critical of the Dalai Lama, but with no assessment of their impact or plausibility.

The Dalai Lama's commitment, Iyer writes, is "always to the future, which can be changed, and not to the past, which cannot." Thanks to him, Tibetan Buddhists have created a global network that might well assure their future. The spiritual message -- to build one's home within oneself -- is all the more relevant when one can no longer rebuild the external home that one has been forced to flee. Some impatient young Tibetans want freedom in this world rather than freedom from this world, but the Dalai Lama has long realized that the only transformation that is possible for his people is within themselves. Beijing does not seem to realize that the reviled secessionist is more interested in sovereignty over the self than in the sovereignty of his now-vanished state.

The Dalai Lama, The Open Road acknowledges, doesn't have all the answers; "it's the questions he puts into play that invigorate." One could say the same about Pico Iyer's marvelous little book. ยท

Shashi Tharoor is a former under secretary general of the United Nations and the author, most recently, of "The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone: Reflections on India in the 21st Century."

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