The Open Road

Pico Iyer has reported on Tibet and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in major publications for twenty years. Iyer first met the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism in India in 1974, when the author was seventeen. Iyer’s father, Indian by birth, and the Tibetan shared an interest in Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, one as a scholar, the other determined to employ nonviolence as a response to China’s 1959 military takeover of Tibet. One result of their conversations was that the forward to Iyer’s father’s book about Gandhi was written by the Dalai Lama, and the book was dedicated to Pico Iyer and “those of his generation for whom there will be no curtain.” A common desire to see artificial barriers between people and cultures come down became the bond of friendship for Iyer and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

During the next thirty years, as Iyer and the Dalai Lama watched the development of a world more and more connected economically and technologically, they dreamed of finding the emerging global community’s spiritual and ethical foundation. Iyer traveled the world as a journalist and became increasingly dissatisfied with the media’s constant reporting about the mechanics of human connections across the globe, looking for something more spiritual. Disturbed by that same lack, the Dalai Lama took to his message of spiritual interconnectedness outside of Dharamsala. As both journeyed the world, Iyer often met his friend in private, and when the Dalai Lama began his public mission, Iyer attended many lectures. Always the reporter assessed the impact of the spiritual leader’s words on himself and on others. In The Open Road, the writer reports and critiques these conversations and lectures, concluding that the Dalai Lama’s ever-larger audiences around the world seek, as Iyer does, a spirituality for the emerging global community,

The strength of Iyer’s narrative lies partly in a tone that combines deep affection for his subject and continued questioning of the teacher’s message. Callng himself a “skeptical journalist and non-belonger,” Iyer relates his own spiritual journey, his walking alongside the Dalai Lama on an “open road.” Although Iyer’s view of the Dalai Lama is subjective, this quality and especially the many private conversations the author retells allow the reader to expand his or her own perceptions of Buddhism and global spirituality. The resulting narrative is very readable, as informal as its subject, whose gestures, words, and laughter break down any barriers between him and his listeners, whether one or many thousands.

Iyer divides his study into sections titled “In Public,” “In Private,” and “In Practice.” In the first section he observes the Dalai Lama as an idealized, iconic, although puzzling figure who attracts followers from all over the world. In the second section, the writer brings the reader into his private conversations with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhists, some of whom dispute what their leader is promoting. The third section recounts Iyer’s final extended visit to Dharamsala; in this section, Iyer presents some of his conclusions. Most valuable to one seeking additional information on the Dalai Lama, Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism is the final chapter of The Open Road, “Reading.”

The Dalai Lama, who was born in 1935, was selected to be Tibet’s spiritual leader when he was two years old. Leaving home and family, he moved to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, to begin a monastic life dedicated to long days of praying, studying, debating, and practicing Tibetan Buddhism. In 1950 he assumed leadership of his people. The country he ruled had been isolated from the world for centuries. Tibet was not part of the industrial age, and even in the first half of the twentieth century, the country by choice adapted almost nothing from the advances of modern science and technology. Indeed, to the outside world Tibet, which allowed few visitors, was a hidden and mysterious land of myth.

When the Chinese army invaded the country in 1949, Tibet lacked any defense against the well-armed invaders. As a result, an estimated ten million Tibetans died, and many more were imprisoned and tortured. The Chinese destroyed several thousand Tibetan monasteries and burned most of their treasured ancient Buddhist texts. In 1959, following many of his people, the Dalai Lama fled over the Himalayan mountains to India, where that country granted the Tibetans a new home in...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)