Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Match Made in . . . . This World

The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Vintage Departures)Pico Iyer's The Open Road: The Global Journeyof the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2008) (252 p.) proved itself the ideal read following the Jaipur Literature Festival. As readers will know from either this blog or Iowa Guru's, these two individuals were both favorites in our family. The combination of subject and author didn't disappoint. 

Pico Iyer was a teenager when his parents drug him to Dharmasala, India to meet with the Dalai Lama, at that time a young and virtually unknown figure. The Dalai Lama had fled from the Chinese occupiers of Tibet in the late 1950's, and he'd taken with him a remnant of the nation and culture that was Tibet. Iyer's early introduction to this unique personage allowed Iyer access to the Dalai Lama and his community that few in the world can match. The even better news, however, isn't just Iyer's access, but his attitude. This is not an exercise in hagiography; instead, it’s a frank treatment of the many worlds in which this ordinary, extraordinary person lives. The extraordinary aspect of the DL's life arises from the requirement of fate (or karma?) that he must exist in multiple worlds at one time. The DL is political leader of the Tibetan people (although he's attempted—unsuccessfully—to slough off this burden), while at the same time, he serves as a global figure for peace and justice, as recognized by his Nobel Peace Prize. Even as a representative for Buddhism, he must occupy two positions simultaneously. As a representative for the values of Buddhism around the world, he emphasizes our common humanity and the universal concerns that Buddhism addresses to the world at large, including those of different religions or no religion at all. On the other hand, as a leading figure of the unique tradition of Buddhism that came from Tibet, he heads a practice that maintains shamanistic and ritual elements that are truly esoteric to most people, rather bizarre. Indeed, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition splits between the shamanistic rituals that seek to probe the interior world and another aspect of the tradition that emphasizes a highly developed philosophy that thrives on language and argumentation. Imagine the DL sitting pensively (as happens) as a young monk enters into argumentation with him and steps forward in a loud voice clapping his hands in the face of this revered figure to make a point. (Check out this video, which seems tame compared to a demonstration that I saw in Macbride Hall at the UI. Iyer notes that they trash talk playing b-ball, too.)

These and the many other dualities (or multiple realities) mark the DL's existence and create and define him. Arising at 3:30 every morning and meditating for four hours, he then enters into discussions and debates with scientists, religious leaders, and ordinary people (as he did at the Jaipur Literature Festival). When one contemplates this performance, it becomes truly mind-boggling. An ordinary peasant boy becomes a world-historical figure, coming out of one of the most remote and forbidding places in the world, but a country with a culture that is deeply rich in learning and art. 

Given his own multi-polarities, I can't imagine anyone more qualified to write this book than Pico Iyer. As a global wanderer and the product of multiple cultures, Iyer appears to gain some additional insight into this extraordinary man that I wouldn’t expect from others. Iyer understands and appreciates the ordinariness of him that complement his extraordinary performances. Iyer also describes the places, persons, and issues that surround the DL in a way that deepens and situates his observations of the man himself. 

For anyone interested in the Dalai Lama, Buddhism, Tibet, or, more widely, the challenges of how someone with deep moral convictions attempts to navigate this all-too cruel world, I can't recommend this book too highly.   

Cross-blogged in Steve's View from Abroad

1 comment:

Tom said...

Just added "The Open Road" to my wish list. I can't believe I haven't already read it since I've heard so many great things about the book. Thanks for the reminder. - Tom