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

Bookworm Issue 81 Jul, 2010
Text by Pico Iyer

Who better than Pico Iyer to write this book?—an inti mate and at times quite per sonal and introspective glimpse of the person and the challenging life of the Dalai Lama, the world peace icon of our age. Worshipped as a god by his own people, venerated as a living saint in the West, alarmingly misunderstood and mistrusted by the Chinese leadership, the Nobel Laureate and 14th Dalai Lama is revealed in this book as a remarkably sharp-witted, at times quite humorous human being, a humble man who prefers to call himself “a simple monk.”

Some years ago my extended family and I met the Dalai Lama personally. For most of an hour he spoke with us about family, love, world peace and cultural values. And he laughed at himself, at a broken phrase in English, at a joke he told. The Dalai Lama is famous for his infectious laugh, a meaningful chuckle, almost a giggle, from deep within.

This book reveals the Dalai Lama much as I have always envisioned him—as a wise man, a philosopher-monk, a respected and admired world figure, and a national leader in exile, who is, at the same time, someone with whom to enjoy a quiet chat.

Pico Iyer is a talented author. Perhaps you’ve read his The Global Soul (which someone described as “a breathless look at today’s world, where borders are passed through as quickly as an airport gift shop”), Falling off the Map (Iyer’s take on eight isolated and “lonely places” as far flung as Bhutan and Iceland), or Video Night in Kathmandu (essays from Asia), or dispatches in Time magazine for which he’s worked since 1982. Iyer is a skilled observer and a witty, insightful scribe, one of our best contemporary travel writers.

The Open Road, however, is not a travel book, except for a brief description of Dharamsala-McLeod Ganj, the Dalai Lama’s north Indian home-in-exile. Rather, it is a biographical book based on Iyer’s almost half century of personal association. A man so famous and revered as the Dalai Lama is hard to get as close to as Iyer has. Their friendship began in 1959 when a 17 year old Iyer first met the then 24 year old Dalai Lama.

With the keen eye on human events, people, places and political movements, this book is Iyer’s culmination of what he has learned over countless hours, days, weeks, year upon year, in the Dalai Lama’s presence, all over the globe. No Tibetan could have written this story. For Tibetans, His Holiness is too closely identified with godliness. No non-believer could have written it, either. Iyer fits somewhere in between, a “non-belonger” he calls himself, but swayed by the Dalai Lama’s logic and sentiments about how to restructure and retain a rich cultural heritage in exile, and how to become more fully in touch with self, society and the environment. Along the way, Iyer brings other philosophers and leaders into the story—Gandhi, Thoreau, Thomas Merton, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Václav Havel, and Desmond Tutu, for example. A respectable list, with some of whom the Dalai Lama has held meaningful discussions.

The book reveals many examples of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom. There are passages where Iyer attempts to define his remarkably insightful but seemingly contradictory nature. As he points out, the Dalai Lama is at once –

A religious teacher who is telling people not to get confused or distracted by religion; a Tibetan who is suggesting that Tibet does not have all the answers; a Buddhist who, more and more, is urging foreigners not to take up Buddhism but to study within their own traditions, where their roots are deepest: at the very least, something quite radical is being advanced, it seems. The world at the beginning of the new century is more divided than I have ever seen it, and its strongest power is fractured by loud disputes; in the middle of this, the head of Tibetan Buddhism is urging people not to listen to doctrine, which can so often be a source of divisions of its own, but to push beyond it something human, in which ideas of ‘clashing civilizations’ can seem remote.

A few months ago I heard Iyer speak about the book to an overflow crowd of admirers. He spoke extemporaneously, without notes, about how he came to write it, what moves him about the life and philosophy of the Dalai Lama and, more importantly, about who the Dalai Lama is at heart and how he wants to be known and remembered. Iyer is an impressive speaker and his book is a captivating read.

It has nine chapters in three parts: ‘In Public’ (The Conundrum, The Fairy Tale, the Icon), ‘In Private’ (The Philosopher, The Mystery, The Monk) and ‘In Practice’ (The Globalist, The Politician, the Future). It includes a studied and balanced overview of issues that the Dalai Lama confronts daily: peace, cultural values, religious belief, nonviolence, democracy, life in exile, patience and forbearance with those who misunderstand him, and much more,
including the militancy of some modern and impatient Tibetan youth seeking a ‘Free Tibet’.

When referring to the Dalai Lama’s ‘open road’, the difficulty of defining precisely who and what the Dalai Lama is arises sharply. The first chapter raises the conundrum and, later, near the end of the book, Iyer sums it up:

The heart of the conundrum, again, seemed to lie in the fact that the Dalai Lama served two constituencies—his own people and the world—and the smaller group and the larger often pulled him in opposite directions. The more he gave himself to the world, sometimes, the more his own people felt... like natural children bewildered by the fact that their father has adopted three others...

How to be local and global at the same time? The Dalai Lama has observed that Tibet’s “greatest mistake” was being so isolated for so long from the rest of the world. Once out of Tibet, with a virtual blank slate on which to redefine things, he encouraged conversations between scientists and monks, Westerners and Asians, Tibetans and Chinese. In time, concepts like Tibet, Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhism began to be opened up, scrutinized and changed. “Change is part of the world”, the Dalai Lama once said, apropos of it all.

The Open Road is a trip through some of the Dalai Lama’s dilemmas and delights, and captures both his private and his public persona. It is a profound and remarkable journey. 

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008. 275pp. Available in Kathmandu bookstores for NRs 500.