Pico Iyer on his bestseller, The Open Road, his longtime friendship with the Dalai Lama, and his special relationship with Seattle (International Examiner, April 2008)
By Shiwani Srivastava
Tibet may lie between India and China, two of the world’s rising superpowers, but nothing has put it on the map in recent memory quite like the protests surrounding the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
Suddenly, a country whose political situation has remained largely the same for decades is taking center stage once again. Aside from all the media coverage, the Dalai Lama’s visit to Seattle drew exceptional crowds, with an audience of 65,000 attending his speech at Seattle’s Qwest Field this past weekend. And Pico Iyer, a writer who has covered Tibet for publications like Time and The New York Times for 20 years, is finding his book on the Dalai Lama (The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama) rapidly climbing best-seller lists.
“I planned the book from the beginning [April 2003] to coincide with the demonstrations that have seized the world’s attention and pulled at our consciences in recent weeks. I think everyone who follows Tibet and China knew that there would be great disturbances in the months leading up to the Olympics,” said Iyer. “I don’t think I expected the confrontations to spread so quickly and so far, though.”
A portrait of a Lama
But The Open Road (288 pp., Knopf, March 2008) isn’t about the Tibet-China controversy, per se. It isn’t even really about the Dalai Lama’s public persona and presence on the world stage. Rather, it is the observations of a man who has known the Dalai Lama for over 30 years through his father’s friendship with him dating back to the earlier years of exile.
The book is an intimate yet journalistic portrait of a spiritual and political leader who, behind the superstardom and almost godly image into which he’s been cast, is a complex man struggling to mediate between hope and reality as he travels the globe meeting devotees and dignitaries alike. And part of the struggle includes delicately managing this public perception, which in some ways exoticizes the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, yet also brings significant attention and global sympathy to their cause.
“Even though Tibetans chafe against our ‘Shangri-La’ notions of them – and the Dalai Lama tries constantly to demystify himself for the world – they know that Tibet’s innate charisma, the place it has occupied for so long in the world’s imagination, and the great magnetism of its leader has given it a prominence that the Uighars [in China] or the Kurds might envy,” noted Iyer.
In bridging this disconnect between self versus external perception, we start to see elements of what makes the Dalai Lama “the most realistic and practical political leader I have met in 26 years of covering the world as a writer for Time” for Pico Iyer. While the world talks of hope for Tibet in terms of maintaining an ancient culture and religion, Iyer’s Dalai Lama talks of a global, modernized Tibet rooted in tradition.
A success story in exile?
This willingness to modernize, according to Iyer’s March 31st cover story for Time, has made the Tibetans one of the great success stories of exile communities. Modernization, in this case, has included Tibetans in exile studying English, learning about China, and keeping abreast of world events.
“I think Tibet, so rooted in the old and the ancestral, has gained from also incorporating some of the new and the global,” said Iyer. “Women can study for doctoral degrees as they could never do in old Tibet, monks study science, and democracy – the most important innovation – has brought a freely elected Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Tibetan people for the first time … Tibet is learning some of the best things from the larger world while still remaining distinctly and compellingly Tibetan.”
That being said, Tibet still remains a country largely in exile where entire generations have never even seen the homeland that has become so mythologized. As Iyer addresses in the book, some Tibetans are growing impatient and “success” remains a relative term that is solely measured by the strength of China’s grip on Lhasa.
Last month, the Venerable Lama Tenzin Dhonden – the Dalai Lama’s emissary of peace – visited Seattle and gave a series of talks. During a session at the University of Washington, he shared a saying that he has often overheard: “The Chinese are fooled by doubt, the Tibetans by hope.” This sentiment was echoed by an outspoken Tibetan in Iyer’s Time magazine article who states, “I want freedom in this world, not from this world.” It seems the Dalai Lama is being faced with increasingly restless followers.
The China question
But according to Iyer, the Dalai Lama’s response to this, in the face of mounting protest and unrest surrounding the 2008 Olympics, has been remarkably practical. “He often says, ‘dream nothing,’ and urges people not to wait, pray or hope for some miraculous solution in the future, but to work for one right now,” said Iyer. “He has worked hard to try to protect his fellow Tibetans from the greater suffering that will come down on them if they confront China too directly, too recklessly or too short-sightedly.”
Certainly, the Dalai Lama is in an unenviable position. The recent protests surrounding the Olympics has illustrated that the unrest in Tibet has become a global concern – but a burden that ultimately weighs heaviest on his shoulders. But that raises a major question, one that Iyer addresses quite a bit in his work – what is going to happen when the XIVth Dalai Lama, now in his seventies, passes away?
Iyer raises a particularly interesting point: “The one Tibetan who really knows and understands China is the Dalai Lama. He’s been dealing with the Chinese leadership for 58 years now, since the times of Mao Zedong.” Keeping the complexity of that relationship in mind, is it advisable for his predecessor, who will be reincarnated as a child, to take his place as a political leader?
This raises a host of other questions. How significant of a role will China play in selecting the next Dalai Lama? Will the institution as we know it today cease to exist? What will happen to Tibet as a nation and the generations of Tibetans living in exile who may never set foot in their homeland?
While the Beijing Olympics are only a few months away, there are a number of big questions that hang heavy, not too far in the distance either. And this is something that The Open Road reminds us as it traces the long and winding global journey of the XIVth Dalai Lama – this is a deeply rooted issue that could come to a head in the near future, causing suffering for Tibetans and Chinese alike. But change will rely on the global community remembering that the unrest witnessed in the news will not disappear once the torch is extinguished at the closing ceremonies in Beijing this summer.
Pico Iyer will be discussing The Open Road along with his other works at Benaroya Hall on Tuesday, April 29th at 7:30pm as part of the “Literary Lectures Series” through Seattle Arts and Lectures. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.lectures.org.