The Open Road by Pico Iyer

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The Open Road by Pico Iyer

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: On the basis of privileged access across three decades, Pico Iyer presents the Dalai Lama as a scientist, politician, statesmen and above all as a monk, examining his thoughts and views on the world in general and the future of Tibet in particular. He also looks at how those views are received by Tibetans and westerners.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2008
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747597261

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Although subtitled The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama The Open Road is not really about the journey. It's about the road itself, what the road is and where the current Dalai Lama finds himself upon it.

Journalist Pico Iyer was born in England of Indian parents, brought up partly in the UK and partly in the US, and now lives in Japan. If this did not give him a global take on the way the world works…then his father's friendship with Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, certainly would. Pico recalls, or has been reminded of, hearing of the Lama's escape from Tibet in the face of Chinese invasion, in 1959, when the writer himself was barely a couple of years old. The day's news was told to him as a bedtime story.

This was to prove to be a fairytale without a happy ending (yet). The monk-king who escaped over the mountains has yet to free his homeland and return.

Anyone interested in world events or in Buddhism will know the story. The Chinese invaded Tibet, the young Dalai Lama escaped over the mountains into India where he was granted refugee status and allowed to build a semi-permanent settlement at Daramsala. There he set up the Tibetan government in exile, and there it remains. Still unrecognised by a United Nations that is insecure enough to face down China and allow the Tibetans the primary right in the UN charter: that of self-determination.

Meanwhile China does what she can to ensure that by the time the UN comes to its senses there will be so many Han Chinese living in Tibet that any vote will have become meaningless. The legal battle may already be lost.

The spiritual one; the cultural one; continues.

Iyer's book cannot avoid touching on such subjects. Being aimed at the general reader, he has to give background wherever it is required to understand the philosophical points at issue. When he does so, he is succinct. The facts are given either in his own clear journalist tone as facts, or where attributed to his many interviewees are reported as their personal views on the subject. Iyer claims not to be a Buddhist, but his ability to sit on the fence, to 'not know', to enquire after an elusive truth, suggests that he may be more of one than he knows.

History, however, both Iyer and the Dalai Lama himself tell us is just that: it is past. We must deal with what is now. In this vein the author slips easily between the past and present tenses when describing the conversations and lectures that form the basis for The Open Road, which has the impact of making everything very present and real, but at the price of a certain loss of clarity on the chronology.

Being in the privileged position of a family friend, Iyer has met and travelled with the Dalai Lama and his family, officers and entourage, on and off over some thirty years. His precision as a journalist is tempered in this work by his affection for his subject…and also, I suspect, by his own lack of clear conclusions.

I further suspect that his subject would be pleased by all of that. Much of the work focuses on the uncertain nature of the Dalai Lama's own position. Throughout his tenure he has done everything possible to bring Tibet's crisis to the forefront of the wider world, but used his own political influence to argue for accommodation with China rather than outright confrontation.

Whilst all Tibetans revere the office, and perhaps even the man, as a demi-god, Iyer makes clear that not all of them actually agree with his standpoint. Many younger exiled Tibetans wish for a stronger taking of action to regain the homeland they have never seen. For those of us brought up on the peaceable nature of adherents and the overriding virtue of compassion, the idea of monks with guns and 'positive action' is hard to absorb, whatever the justification. It would not be the first time, however, and Iyer does point out that Buddhism is a relatively recent religion in Tibet – a country which once itself ruled a large empire stretching well into modern China. Nothing is ever quite what it seems. There are those who hark back to such times. When given the choice, however, a democratic vote voted against democracy in favour of retaining the secular role (in addition to the religious one) of the Dalai Lama as head of state, whatever they may feel about his policies.

The man himself is now ageing and conscious of doing so, despite the punishing schedule of teachings and political meetings he still keeps up. What will happen next? is clearly the question on every Tibetan's lips. Tenzin Gyatso has gone so far as to suggest at times that he might even be the last Dalai Lama, quickly countering it with a statement that there will be such a person so long as Tibet needs one.

Listening to his speeches and conversations, through Iyer's interpretation of them, you cannot help but come to the conclusion that it is not Tibet that needs the Dalai Lama – nor Tibetans – most of whom would prefer to join the acquisitive modern world of plenty and affluence. Rather it is the wider world. We who were born into that world of greed and lack of compassion are the ones who need Tibet to be as she once was, and we need the Dalai Lama to keep that myth alive.

It is intriguing therefore to read the detailed thoughts of the man himself and learn that he is not so sure that that is a good idea.

Particularly appealing for me was the personal side of the man that comes through this particularly specific access to his thoughts and habits. Learning that he isn't a vegetarian was something of a shock. That he scarcely sleeps came as no surprise.

Iyer even touched on my question for His Holiness. I have read elsewhere that he does not want westerners or others to assume Buddhism. He makes no claim for it as being 'the way', merely 'a possible way'. Instead he urges us to study within our own traditions, where we have stronger roots. But what if we do not feel rooted in our own tradition? What if we see its empirical shortcomings? How do we reconcile that with his urging us to accept things only as the result of rational enquiry? My enquiries into my Christian heritage have taught me that the teachings of Christ as they pertain to our relations to the planet and all that lives upon it are sound; the wider doctrine of the Christian church I utterly reject. Slowly I am coming to Buddhism. I have not adopted it, partly because it too has flaws, largely because I'm conscious how little I yet know of it. But it still makes more sense to me than anything else – as a philosophy, rather than a religion. On that basis I would ask, would His Holiness accept my choice?

I don't get an answer.

I get an even greater confusion. Two people the Dalai Lama greatly admires are Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the rock start Bono. Both are ardent Christians. He clearly has affection as well as respect for these committed workers towards a better world, but not so much as to suggest that Christianity is another path to the same end. Indeed he underlines the fundamental opposites of the two faiths: the one focussed on an afterlife in which all of the sins of this one will be forgiven; the other based on the possibility of another very real present life in which all of the mistakes must be paid for.

Such are the workings of the philosophical mind. This is much more a philosophy book than a biographical one.

The book's title comes from D. H. Lawrence The great home of the Soul is the open road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not 'above. It would seem from Iyer's understanding that the Dalai Lama's road is to take Tibet out of its closed romantic seclusion as a fabled Shangri-la and into a modern world that the country and her people can fully engage with on their own terms.

Being a romantic westerner, I find that rather sad. Not wrong. Just sad. I believe we need mythical places just as we need sacred ones. The real shame is that we cannot protect their gatekeepers better than we have thus far, so that those who would choose to stay might do so, whilst their brethren might equally freely leave.

The Open Road is not an easy read, in the sense that whilst the words flow over you and you listen to the conversations, you suddenly realise that you're not necessarily really grasping the concepts that are being discussed. Many of the passages I had to read over to be sure I had a working knowledge of their intent before continuing. I will have to read the whole again before I can say that I fully understand. For anyone interested in either the development of Buddhist thought or the ongoing history of Tibet it is a must-have addition to the library.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

You might also like A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun.

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