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'Are You God?': The Open Road:
The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

An online exclusive review

(Knopf)

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Friday, April 18, 2008

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

By Pico Iyer
(Knopf)

Reviewed by Adam Bright

A few years ago, I came across Barbara Walters chatting with the Dalai Lama on TV. They were sitting across from each other in plush, high-backed chairs, discussing the ethical life. During a pause in the interview, she collected herself, leaned forward and, in her very serious, very pert way, asked, “Are you God?” His Holiness laughed so hard he broke into tears.

We are not accustomed to thinking of our leaders as perennially jolly, which has at times proven to be a problem for the Dalai Lama. Though he is one of the world's wisest and certainly one of its most spiritual men, Pico Iyer reminds us that he sometimes sounds like he is promoting saccharine, feel-good truths — “bromides, as it may seem, that tell people no more than any Golden Rule or Boy Scout’s manual might.” In part, this is because he must regularly condense his 18 years of higher-level academic training in Buddhist metaphysics and dialectics into one-minute morsels suitable for audiences with no understanding of his philosophical background or his country’s complex history. He then appears in magazines and newscasts as an amalgam of scattered aphorisms delivered in blurb form. Journalists help perpetuate this impression by continuing to ask him inane questions, as if he were still a boy-king and not a renowned 72-year-old philosopher. This may just be a symptom of the style of the modern interview, in which the perplexingly simple question is a gambit for the surprisingly deep answer. But, as Iyer points out, “No one asks the Pope whether he has dreams of women, or what makes him angry.”

It shouldn’t be so difficult to see the Dalai Lama as a bona fide world leader. Aside from having won a Nobel Prize and having maintained his political position longer than any other living leader, he wields a myth no modern politician can match: Shortly after his birth, auspicious signs — including letters floating in a sacred lake and a corpse’s head turning to the northeast — directed a search party from Lhasa to a crude mud-and-stone house in Amdo province, where the two-year old Lhamo Dhondup greeted old friends from his previous life. Then there is his lonely boyhood in the vast Potala Palace, his exposure to the outside world through a cinema constructed by an escaped Austrian prisoner of war, his meetings with Mao, the invasion of his country, the shelling of his summer palace and his flight over the Himalayas atop a half-bred yak.

While this is a spectacular story, it has its prosaic corollary: The Dalai Lama is still a leader without a state, trying to persuade a superpower to compromise — an effort which has so far been fruitless. Despite his many influential admirers, he has failed to inspire the world community to do more than issue a few tepid UN resolutions acknowledging the value of Tibetan culture. Even after the most recent crackdown on protesters in and around Lhasa, real political support for Tibet remains muted. The US urges restraint. Germany expresses concern. France’s Sarkozy threatens to lead a boycott not of the Olympic Games, but perhaps of the opening ceremonies. Meanwhile, a surprising number of other nations — mainly those with “splittist” problems of their own — extend their sympathies to Beijing.

Considering the epic nature of the conflict between Tibetans and their occupiers, and the impossibly heroic role the Dalai Lama has taken on, one’s natural inclination is to be both moved by the Dalai Lama’s heroic efforts and skeptical of his chances of success. Pico Iyer has written a biography that encompasses both these sentiments. As a journalist, Iyer has been writing about the exiled leader for over twenty years, but he has been an acquaintance of the Dalai Lama for even longer. His father, Raghavan Iyer, a scholar of Eastern and Western philosophy, flew back to India to research a book on Ghandi in 1960 and then made a trip up to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama, who had established himself there after escaping Tibet the previous year. Iyer writes that his father went because “he was aware, as not so many people were then, that a great treasure had come out into the world for the first time, really in history.”

The Open Road, in keeping with Iyer’s longstanding interest in the twin themes of globalism and exile, places its emphasis on the years since 1959, during which the Dalai Lama has become the world's most celebrated refugee. Iyer is often praised as one of the greatest living travel writers, but there are few passages here that crackle; instead, it’s the spirit of Iyer’s investigation that is most engaging, his ongoing struggle to balance his admitted awe of the man with his journalistic objective, which is to frankly assess the Dalai Lama's legacy as a serious leader and thinker.

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