The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
By Pico Iyer
Published by Alfred A Knopf
Asia Books, Bt695
Reviewed by Rod Borrowman
Pico Iyer sulked in silence through his first meeting with the Dalai Lama—a strange start to the three-decade-old friendship that this book draws on. The author describes how, as a reluctant teenager, he was dragged to a misty mountaintop in North India by his father, who was eager to introduce his son to an old family friend. Back then in 1974 few people were visiting Dharamsala, the muddy huddle of huts that had been home to the Tibetan leader and his government since they snuck out of the capital Lhasa in 1959 under the noses of their Chinese occupiers and over the Himalayas into exile.
Things had changed by the time of his subsequent trips up the mountain, taken over the years as a journalist, when Iyer picks up the trail of the Dalai Lama's "global journey" to carry Tibetan culture onto the world stage while maintaining a peaceful opposition to Chinese oppression in his homeland. It's an impossibly rocky road, as the author makes clear from the start: "In the course of his life, and thanks in part to him, Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism have become a living and liberating part of the global neighbourhood; and yet at the same time, on his watch, his own people have lost most of their contact with their leaders, their loved ones and their culture, and one of the great centres of Buddhism ... has been all but wiped off the map."
And the book doesn't pull its punches from here on in, exploring the different conundrums of the Dalai Lama's life and work through three chapters—In Public, In Private and In Practice. His peaceful stance against China's presence in Tibet, for example, gets a full working over. The dissenting voices are led by Lhasang Tsering, the indignant owner of a bookshop in Dharamsala. When asked if he's in favour of violence, Tsering shoots back: "I am in favour of action ... If a man is raping a girl and she cries out for help, you don't wait and pray for peace."
Iyer gives space to other challenges to the official Tibetan line, too, but his response points up one of the book's weaknesses. Rather than go to his subject for a straight answer, he muses airily on the Dalai Lama's commitment to openness and engagement with the world, his deeper vision of non-duality, then throws in a comparison with Martin Luther King for good measure, casting his opponents as Malcom X types. It doesn't convince, though to be fair the author refuses to come down on one side or the other, acknowledging both make valid points.
The blasts of airiness in the pages that deal with philosophy make them the weakest part of the book. Here's the reader being patronised by an explanation of interdependence that equates the body with the world and runs for page after page: "It's crazy to impede your neighbour, because he is as intrinsic to your welfare as your thumb is. It's absurd to wish to get ahead of your colleague—it's like your right toe saying it longs to be ahead of the left." Then, as he heads towards the more esoteric branches of Tibetan thought, Iyer leads us down a blind alley: "...a much wilder and more radical kind of Buddhism, 'crazy wisdom' [is the expression of] ideas and acts so far beyond the norm that most of the rest of us don't know what to make of them."
Skip a few pages, though, and we get back down to Earth with an eye-witness description of the Dalai Lama's chief oracle, Nechung, in action. Dressed in heavy ceremonial gear that would pin any ordinary mortal to the ground, the oracle suddenly lurches to his feet as he's taken by the trance. Attendants struggle to hold him while he morphs into an out-of-control pressure cooker, jerking back and forth and spewing jets of water from his mouth. Scribes take down his oracular utterences, just as they did in 1959, when Nechung furnished them with the Dalai Lama's escape route past the Chinese and over the Himalayas.
One of the most vivid pictures we get of the Dalai Lama himself is in the section on his life as a monk. It comes through the eyes of a Christian counterpart, the Cistertian monk Thomas Merton. Merton was one of the first Western visitors to Dharamsala, in 1968, passing through on a spiritual tour of the East that was to end abruptly in Bangkok six weeks later, where he was found dead of suspected electrocution in his hotel room. The Dalai Lama, his journal reports, "is a fully awake, energetic, alert, nondusty, nondim, nonwhispering Buddha".
Merton's accounts of the meetings bring the Tibetan leader back into bright focus, but the encounter between these two astronauts of inner space is over in just two pages. It leaves the reader, already starved of descriptions of the Dalai Lama in the flesh, hungering for more.