This review is for Rochelle, my dear departed Buddhist friendTibet is a land rich not just in history, but also in irony.
"The Roof of the World" holds a special place in the popular imagination because of the movie Shangri-La and other gauzy Hollywood treatments, as well as one individual, the Dalai Lama. But those celluloid depictions are fawningly unrealistic, while the Dalai Lama is typically reduced to a caricature.
One in five Tibetans has died, one in 10 has been jailed and most of their 3,000 monasteries laid to waste in the 58 years since the Chinese invasion and systematic gulagization of its people and culture, and very soon the real Tibet will cease to exist.
With Tibet recently making one of its fleeting appearances in the headlines because of the brutal suppression of anti-Chinese government protests in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games, it is worth remembering that Tibet's own history is riven with wars between competing Buddhist sects, sexual exploitation, usurious taxation, serfdom and other forms of economic enslavement that extended well into the last half of the 20th century, while the Dalai Lama himself was once a de facto military leader.
This does not forgive the Chinese occupation, but provides some perspective, and it is perspective that is the strong suit of veteran journalist-novelist Pico Iyer's recently published book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama himself is a deceptively simple man by the name of Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th in the line of Tibetan political and spiritual leaders dating back to the 16th century.
Iyer's connection to Gyatso, who turned 73 in July, is deeply personal.
In 1960, his father traveled to Dharamsala, the town in the Himalayan foothills of India where Gyatso fled to escape his Chinese pursuers and today is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. Iyer himself first met the Dalai Lama as a teenager and has communed with him for over 30 years on six continents, hence the "Global Journey" reference in the title.
Of the many insights that Iyer provides in this fairly brief 275-page book, perhaps the greatest is that the Dalai Lama is who we want him to be: Head of state. Leader of the best known exile movement on earth. Prolific author. Metaphysician. Cross-cultural icon. Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Oh, and caricature, as well.
"It's funny," says a journalist to Iyer as they leave an address by Gyatso. "There are a lot of people who don't believe in anything, but they will die just to see the Dalai Lama. It's almost like they feel if he touches them, if they get his blessing, they're set up for life. Exactly what he tells them not to think."The apothegems of the Dalai Lama that appear on buttons, bumper stickers and t-shirts make no more sense "than a single thread taken out of a Persian carpet, an intricate web, and pronounced to be beautiful," writes Iyer, and one of Gyatso's longtime translators shouts at him that "It's nonsense! All these things you see ascribed to him, others are just making up!"* * * * *Iyer intertwines his encounters and musings on Gyatso with as clear an explanation of Tibetan Buddhism that I have read:
"Like any being, [it] has a daylight and a nighttime side, a part that belongs in the public, visible world and a part that belongs to the realm of dreams and premonitions and everything that exists outside the conscious mind. Most of us associate the Dalai Lama with the daytime -- waking up before it is light and going to sleep soon after the sun goes down -- but when he sleeps, he readily admits, he enters a different part of his practice, one that reaches even into his dreams.
. . . He tends to shield the wider world from the esoteric side of Tibetan Buddhism the way one might keep a loaded gun in a locked cabinet, so the kids don't start to play with it and it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. But that did not change the fact that this more mysterious, nonrational side -- the part that existed beyond the realm of mathematical formulas -- remained as intrinsic to his practice as logic and debating; you have only to look at any Tibetan temple wall or thangka, swarming with skull-headed beings riding monsters, and copulating deities (the female figure milky white, the male more dark), or look at the mandalas nearby in which all visible and invisible worlds are distilled into a single mystical diagram, to realize that Tibetan Buddhism has taken the nonanalytical side of the tradition, as well as the analytical, to some of its richest extremes."
Indeed, one of the conundrums that the Dalai Lama faces on his world travels is that it is the magically esoteric side of Tibetan Buddhism that is the primary source of fascination for non-Tibetans who want to turn away from their own religions.
Gyatso warns that if you meditate for long periods every morning, you can improve your memory and perhaps develop a clairvoyance, but not to expect anything more.
He says that it is best not to use magic powers because they take most of us away from what is more sustaining, which recalls to mind the story of the Buddha crying out in pity when he heard of a yogic master who had spent 20 years learning to walk on water when he could just have taken a ferry.* * * * *The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has swept away much of the pomp and feudalism encumbering Tibetan Buddhism.
He has making it more democratic and allowed women to become more involved. In 2001, exiles in 37 countries elected the first Tibetan prime minister, while Gyatso has called for his own impeachment and suggested that he could be the last Dalai Lama. His first priority has been to protect his people, but he has not been able to save his homeland.
A consequence, writes Iyer, is that younger Tibetans in exile in Dharamsala have found themselves:
"Lost souls from a lost generation, with no sense of who they were or where they belonged. They spoke fluent Hindi and had grown up entirely in India, with Indian friends and tastes, but they do not wish to become Indian. They spoke good English and had contacts in the foreign world, but each step toward England or America would taken them further from Dharamsala and, most of all, Tibet."
The Dalai Lama's refusal to endorse more direct action, including a guerrilla insurgency and bombings, to save Tibet infuriates some Tibetan exiles and there has been a growing backlash against the Middle Way, which is what he calls his non-confrontational policy, as well as his concession in 1987 that China could continue to control Tibet's external affairs so long as Tibetans could control their internal affairs.
Lhasang Tsering, who runs the leading bookshop in Dharamsala, once worked for the government in exile.
" 'The first thing I must tell you,' Tsering told [a group of] students, in what I took to be his standard address, his gaze as mournful as it was commanding, 'is that I am not from Shangri-La. In fact, I don't know where that place is. And, frankly, I do not have the time or inclination to look for it.' What he was really saying, I thought, was that he was not ready, as he put it bluntly, 'to stand by and watch people suffer.' To talk about peace while Tibetans were dying was, he suggested, tantamount to manslaughter."
Yet Iyer writes that in 30 years of traveling, including visits to Dharamsala and Tibet itself, he could not remember hearing a single Tibetan say a word against the Dalai Lama:
"Over and above the ritual authority that his institution carries, Tibetans inside Tibet and outside know that he is their one hope, the living symbol of their culture, and both their future and their past; they hold on to him, in their heads, as if on to life itself. And they cannot fail to see that he is working, to the point of exhaustion, to try to protect their welfare. Yet for more and more of them, especially the young but even many of those who had worked inside his government and can no longer contain their restlessness, there is less and less hesitation about criticizing his Middle Way policy and the government deputed to implement it."
So while the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has been moving the world by example for almost half a century, he has not moved China and now Tibet is almost gone.
But as he has said, "Until the last moment, anything is possible.Photograph © 2008 The Richard Avedon Foundation