The Open Road, Pico Iyer’s new book about the Dalai Lama, is less a biography than an extended profile. Although it gives us some sense of the Dalai Lama’s tumultuous life story, Iyer avoids the linear, chronological form and quotidian details of biographical narrative. He chooses, instead, to take advantage of his long association with, and proximity to, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people (Iyer’s father was a friend of the Dalai Lama’s) to explore, with considerable success, his public and private faces.
Indeed, Iyer is perhaps the ideal candidate for such a book, because over the last three decades, both he and his subject have distinguished themselves by their attention to the problems and opportunities of globalism. The Dalai Lama has used his prolonged exile to take Buddhism out into the world. He has promulgated a system of “global ethics” that does not rest on a foundation of religious belief or practice and allows the denizens of our shrinking global village to cut across their differences. He has used the support of influential thinkers and artists (Vaclav Havel, Bono, Richard Gere) to popularize the cause of Tibet, and provided support to Tibetan communities in exile the world over. Thanks to him, Iyer writes, “Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism have become a living and liberating part of the global neighbourhood.”
The Open Road: Penguine, 252 pages, Rs499
In the same way, in his celebrated travel books, Iyer has explored the question of how the change in humanity’s horizons—newly extended by television, cheap travel, and the Internet—have affected both individual psychology and the exchanges between cultures. Even in The Open Road, he remarks in passing that “restlessness has gone global, and hopefulness, and the sense of an answer somewhere else”, both among the Westerners who arrive in Dharamsala and the local Tibetans, who often seek a passage to America.
Elsewhere, he speaks of how, in the span of a generation, “the world seemed to have moved from having too little information about itself to having too much.”
Iyer’s book, then, explores the life of the Dalai Lama through the prisms of the concerns that have preoccupied him: the close study of Buddhist thought and practice, the management of the government-in-exile in Dharamsala, the pressures of making Buddhist teaching available in a simplified form for lay people the world over, the negotiations on behalf of his suppressed and expectant people.
Iyer highlights the extent to which the 14th Dalai Lama, as the first in his line to spend his life in exile, faces problems very different from those faced by his predecessors, as notes the steps he has taken to embrace new ideas and scientific knowledge. In one sense, the Dalai Lama is a conservative, seeking to follow the path of the Buddha and to explicate the teachings of the great Buddhist texts. But he is also at the same time an innovator, happy to declare that science renders some age-old conceptions untenable, and enthusiastic about what Buddhist thought, with its emphasis on the mind and on meditation, might have in common with modern cognitive science. Following his subject around the world, Iyer studies his rhetorical style, and observes how he speaks “in precise, rounded phrases, as if offering the stones out of which he has built his thinking”. In contrast to other religious leaders, Iyer notes, the Dalai Lama “seems to exult in meeting people from traditions other than his own”.
But the fact remains that the Dalai Lama is not just a religious leader, but also a political one. Although Iyer shows how he has consciously elevated the level of political discourse, and emphasized the ways in which all the citizens of the world are connected, the feeling persists that the Dalai Lama has done a great deal for those who could conceivably do without him, but not enough for those people who need him the most: the Tibetan people who live in China-occupied Tibet and suffer on a daily basis the brutality and condescension of the Chinese government.
Iyer notes that the Dalai Lama takes as his political model the figure of Gandhi, a man whose commitment to non-violence and to peaceful resistance brought down a powerful empire. Just as Gandhi opposed British dominion without demonizing the British people, so the Dalai Lama has always emphasized forbearance and the need for Tibetans to look within. But, as Patrick French pointed out recently in The New York Times, “Gandhi took huge gambles, starting the Salt March and starving himself nearly to death—a very different approach from the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way,’ which concentrates on non-violence rather than resistance.” Iyer acknowledges that as the years roll by and Tibet’s situation remains unchanged, among Tibetans “there is less and less hesitation about criticizing his Middle Way policy and the government deputed to implement it.”
Even though Iyer defends his subject from these charges, the picture that emerges from his book is that of a man whose Buddhist beliefs sometimes limit his options as a Tibetan political leader—a figure who has succeeded as a globalist, but is struggling as a localist, in the face of an adversary determined to malign and misrepresent him and is impervious to moral and ethical scrutiny.
The Open Road closes on a cautiously optimistic note. Iyer observes that no one knew at the beginning of 1989 that by the year-end the Berlin Wall would have fallen, and the Cold War would come to an end, and suggests that something similar may happen with China and Tibet. It is to be hoped that this is so but, in the year of the Beijing Olympics, and at a time when paeans to China’s rising economic power are being sung in many quarters, the immediate future of Tibet appears to be a closed rather than an open road.
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