Saturday, September 20, 2008

Pico Iyer's "The Open Road": Book Review.

Iyer's reflections on the Dalai Lama's complicated situation, preaching idealism while attacked for his patience rather than expediency to assist the dire plight of his homeland's vanishing culture, animate this very thoughtful commentary. Through not a biography in any conventional sense, more a series of essays on the public, private, philosophical, and political facets of the monk elevated by history into diplomacy, Iyer examines the man fairly.

He interviews the Dalai Lama's skeptical brother, listens to those within the exile community who lament the advice of endurance rather than action, and surveys the predicament faced by the Tibetan government-in-exile as it witnesses from a distance one out of five native Tibetans killed or starved by the Chinese; one in ten having been jailed; thirteen monasteries not demolished or incinerated out of over six thousand before the Communist invasion.

Likewise, in the Dharmasala town set up as the Tibetan capital in Indian exile, Iyer sees a wealth of contradictions that depict the place as the ultimate global village. As you'd expect from his previous travel writing, Iyer's at his best in this section as he catalogues the clashes and contradictions of a place where the boys out of Tibet court European girls, long to get out of India to California, and then-- as Iyer a resident of that state wonders- what then? This restlessness pervades the Tibetans he meets, caught between devotion to the Dalai Lama and resignation to the collapse of their homeland.

He listens to harrowing tales by those who have fled, and about those who have returned only to be incarcerated in what Shanghai calls "New Tibet Reception Center." Since Iyer wrote this book, the recent revolts and their repression in Lhasa occurred must further deepen the despair felt by many Tibetans who have fled, or who have grown up abroad. This aura from the past year makes this account even more powerful. What I wish this book would have included, without compromising its integrity, is some guidance in the closing pages for how best for its readers, moved to act out of compassion, to practically and wisely help Tibet there and abroad.

For, as Iyer notes, combining the global with the local remains the burning core of the Tibetan predicament that the Dalai Lama raises. Gandhi and King helped their people as a small way of saving the world, Iyer agrees; "but in the Tibetan situation, again, the clock was less indulgent. If the Dalai Lama offered a new vision for the global century just dawning, he was essentially addressing a century in which Tibet as we knew it no longer existed." (225)

Yet, Iyer ponders if the Dalai Lama takes a wider, subtler range of advice for the rest of the world.
"Of course, we can see the Chinese as enemies, but if we do so, we are saying, in effect, that we are going to spend all of our lives in the midst of enemy forces; the better situation is to change how we think of the situation, perhaps by seeing that our real enemies are our own habitual tendencies toward thinking in terms of enemies. We can always see the decisive effects of action; but what underlies action, in the way of viewpoint and motivation and feeling, is where the real change has to come." (226)
Iyer's learned much from the Buddhists he's interviewed. No pat solutions, certainly.

As a Hindu Tamil whose father knew the Dalai Lama, and as one who has spent decades exploring the global identity he embodies, Iyer's ideally placed to examine this subject. He pinpoints the Dalai Lama's dilemma: he must leave Tibet to draw the rest of the world towards its heritage; in sharing its spiritual legacy, he must speak in a second language truisms that risk sounding childlike in their ethical simplicity and universal wisdom.

Meanwhile, as Iyer observes inescapably from the outside, the Dalai Lama also transmits the tantric, esoteric "science of the soul" gleaned from 1500 years of investigation within the Tibetan Buddhist schools. Iyer's glimpses of such controversies as the Shugden/ New Kadampa dispute whet the reader's appetite for more about this whole topic of the hidden complexities that the Dalai Lama's public, more anodyne pronouncements to the West necessarily must finesse or minimize.

I wish, in this case and others, that more documentation could have been provided. Although a fine reading list appends the book, often Iyer leaves his sources vague or anonymous. He's done his research, but pithy endnotes might have aided the reader wanting to follow up references too casually made in the text. For instance, he mentions a "Western traveler" who walked eighty-one days across Tibet without seeing another soul, but you have no idea who this was.

Still, with his range of experience in so many places, Iyer does keep the story moving with verve. Iyer also does not forget to guide the reader less versed in Buddhism or Tibet. He phrases much of what for the average Western or non-Buddhist reader might be unfamiliar in pithy terms. He sums up the Buddha as more precedent than Jesus was prophet. He notes how the Dalai Lama tends to stress the accessible, "New Testament" morality of Buddhism to ecumenical audiences instead of the "Old Testament" panoply of deities, magic, and rites known to the initiated monks. He defends such a watered-down sharing of compassion and kindness by the Dalai Lama as the essence of a practice anyone can attempt, and remember easily.

The author contrasts the path of Christians from Jesus' redemption to a linear heaven with the Buddhist progression from the dharma of the Buddha leading to an uncertain possibility of rebirth, and far less likely Nirvana. Iyer reminds us of a crucial difference. St Paul told believers to be "praying ceaselessly"-- stressing the deliverance from above; the Buddha counseled "striving ceaselessly" to work towards one's self-delivered transcendence.

The Dalai Lama's split between empowering practitioners with recondite doctrine, governing the exile and refugee communities (as even the most radical insist on no other leader), shuttling about the world talking to leaders, celebrities, seekers, and often starstruck romantics, and meditating four hours a day starting at 3:30 a.m. His lack of formality, frankness, and humor characterize a man many see as a god, but who himself appears to-- a bit wearily by now-- deflate such claims winningly. Yet, as Iyer witnesses, among newly arrived Tibetan refugees, in one powerful passage, the ancient aura remains as if otherworldly.

Iyer, long range among his dissidents and admirers and up close, gets to know the Dalai Lama over decades. While you sense always the respect between journalist and host, you also get the subtle message, as the book progresses over the decades that Iyer got to know the Dalai Lama, that Iyer begins to take in, cautiously yet ineradicably, the gist of the tolerance, long-range insight, and calm perspective that distinguish the Dalai Lama from the rushed and caustic world of the press among which Iyer has for many years earned his living. The example of the Dalai Lama appears, by the book's graceful end and within its extensive but heartfelt acknowledgments, to have rubbed off on its erudite, globetrotting reporter.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)


Lyara said...

For comments on Pico Iyer's depiction of the Dalai Lama and Dorje Shugden controversy, please check out: and search for Pico Iyer. There is a five-part article on it.

Lyara said...

sorry, should have given you full URL:


Fionnchú said...

Lyara, I appreciate the links to the five-part critique of the Dalai Lama via Iyer's own comments. This whole debate deserves coverage beyond the limits of Iyer's book, although I understand why he probably had to edit down whatever he had intended for a larger audience uninformed about this controversy. I only heard about the dispute recently. By coincidence, perhaps, Kadampa has opened a center within a ten-minute drive of where I live. I wondered about it after finding an introductory flyer left in a Persian ice cream store!