LA Yoga Magazine: May 2008: Volume 7 / No. 5

May 2008: Volume 7 / No. 5

Reflects On Thirty Years Traveling with Tibet’s Exiled Leader


Well-traveled writer Pico Iyer’s newest book, The Open Road, shares an intimate glimpse of the Dalai Lama at a time when the global monk is in a bright spotlight on the world stage. For the past thirty years, Iyer has been fortunate to travel with the Nobel Laureate and observe him in settings formal and informal. The best way to repay that fortune, Iyer recounts, was to share those experiences, which he does in The Open Road. In the midst of Iyer’s own whirlwind tour, giving interviews and talks around the world and offering his perspective on peace and politics in Tibet, LA YOGA sat down for a few minutes with Iyer, to hear about The Dalai Lama, the man who journeyed from personal friend to friend of the global community.


Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer



FMT: What made you decide to write and release this book now?

PI: I wanted to bring the book out right now because I think anyone who cares about Tibet knew there would be disturbances in the run up to the Olympics. Many Tibetans feel it’s their last chance to broadcast their suffering and frustration and pain to the world before the Olympics take place and China is accepted as a modern nation and the world forgets about Tibet.

I began [The Open Road] as the war was breaking out in Iraq, five years ago. Our own country seemed more polarized than it’s ever been and since the two terrorist attacks of 9/11, religion was in greater disrepute than at any other time in my lifetime. At the same time, more people were crying out for the help, support and guidance that religions have traditionally provided.

I’d spent thirty years visiting the Dalai Lama, and twenty years as a journalist going to difficult places, war zones and revolutions from North Korea to Haiti and Beirut to Sri Lanka, and the question came up: What does this man have to offer to this world which seems so torn up and so attached to conflict?

The Dalai Lama says Tibet and the modern world can engage in a conversation; perhaps Tibet has something to share with the rest of us based on its researches into mind, and we have a lot that we can share with Tibet. For example, he says Western traditions can teach Tibetans a lot about social action, and he thinks some Christians are very good at that.

FMT: Some people say all religious traditions really are different means to the same end. But you write in The Open Road that the Dalai Lama states that that’s really not the case.

PI: More than any religious figure that I can think of, he goes out of his way to attend interfaith conferences; religious harmony is one of his urgent priorities in life. He’s very interested in learning from and sharing tips with people in other traditions, but he always stresses that we shouldn’t underestimate the important differences between them.

The Dalai Lama, these days, encourages Westerners not to take up Buddhism, partly because he feels that our roots are deep in other traditions, and we should go deeper into our own traditions rather than just acquiring the surfaces of others. He says that when a Catholic and a Buddhist speak, the Buddhist becomes a deeper Buddhist and the Catholic becomes a deeper Catholic. Yet he acknowledges that he’s met Westerners who to some extent are clearly Easterners at heart, and he would never want them not to become Buddhists just because they happened to be born in California. I think it’s a case of listening to oneself as clearly, carefully and rigorously as possible and finding what’s best suited to one’s own background, temperament and culture. I think of him as a doctor of the mind offering medicine and specific counsel and cures in the way a great doctor would.

He says don’t pray for peace, don’t wait for peace, don’t talk about peace – do it right now. In that way he’s a great pragmatist. Unlike many spiritual leaders, he’s never been in a position to just sit on a mountain top handing out wisdom. He’s had to live out his principles in the middle of this very complex situation, every day for sixty years or more. I think it’s something that moves many people about his example.

 How does meditation fit in?


PI: He would say that meditation is something that can help everyone. But he’s aware that it can be misused or things can go wrong; I think he’s always careful about stressing that people be led into the practice by somebody who knows what’s going on.

In November, I spent a week traveling across Japan with the Dalai Lama. The last day, in Tokyo, the Dalai Lama decided to spend the whole day visiting two high schools associated with Buddhist temples. One of the most moving things I saw was the Dalai Lama arrive in this school of 1,200 teenage boys, all very gracious and excited to see him. After his lecture, he meditated with a group of these boys; each of them meditates every day for thirty minutes. Any school would gain, he seems to feel and now I feel, if the students began the day with meditation, cleared their heads and got themselves centered.

FMT: Commenting on your relationship with him, you wrote that, “Something changed in me every time that I left his company, even as I told my friend that no one changes.” What was changing in you?

PI: When I was two years old, I heard about his flight from Tibet. Being very little, I said, “Oh, good Tibetans, bad Chinese.” Those were the black-and-white ways that I thought. Of course, as soon as I began to talk to him, I realized that Chinese and Tibetans from his point of view are mostly the same. And as he pointed out during the recent disturbances, the Chinese are suffering under a tough government much as the Tibetans are. So I would now put all my heart with the Tibetan people and the Tibetan cause, but not at the expense of the Chinese, and not say that Tibetans are good and Chinese are bad. And in my own life, I hope I would learn to be a little less full of right and wrongs, and a little more able to see everything as a potential right.

I’ve also learned from him that we make the world by how we choose to look at it. In any situation you can make it constructive or dismaying, depending on that powerful computer we call the mind.

Often when we think of exile we think of destruction or loss. But the Dalai Lama always says exile is reality, it’s something we can make use of, and he has used it to get rid of everything that he thought was stifling and old, and to create a new, improved and much healthier Tibet. You can see exile as loss, and then it will be a loss for you. You can treat it as opportunity and then all kinds of benefits accrue. I remember twenty years ago, I asked him about exile and he said: “Well, exile is good because it’s brought me and my people closer to reality,” and reality is almost a shrine before which he sits. Exile brings us up against the wall and forces us to rise to the challenge of the moment.

He’s made new opportunities for women that they never had in Tibet, introduced science into the monks’ curriculum and had Tibetan students in exile take their classes in English after the age of ten so that they will know more about the outside world. But one of the great things he’s done is to bring all the Tibetan groups together in exile, as perhaps they couldn’t have been when they weren’t in exile and they weren’t under such pressure. He has made it his mission to say, “We can’t afford to squabble over minor differences, we have to concentrate on what we have in common, our common mission, our common culture – and indeed what we have in common with the rest of the world.”

FMT: You can suffer and be away from your homeland, or you can be away from your homeland and try to find some sort of way out of suffering.

Basic freedoms of thought and speech have to be respected in Tibet and they’re not at the moment. Tolerance doesn’t mean accepting what’s unfair.

PI: Exactly, and that’s one way in which he’s become a great exemplar of the global possibility by enforcing the sense that location is unimportant. You can continue your practice, you can exercise kindness, you can practice meditation whether you’re in a prison or a millionaire’s house, whether you’re in India or Tibet.


FMT: And you recount that he wonders if his efforts have been enough.

PI: Most of us who have been lucky enough to hear, read and see the Dalai Lama, often come away thinking, “What a kind, inspiring and golden human being!” That is true, but I think it does him an injustice. He’s not coming to show us his kindness, so that we can enjoy his charisma, he’s coming with a specific message for the specific circumstances of the world today.

It’s impressive that a man, on the day after his Nobel Prize was announced, in October, 1989, said to me, “I really wonder if my efforts are enough?” Most of us, if we just won the Nobel Prize, would think this is vindication, or at last there’s a chance for Tibet. He’s the rare person who thinks, as a Buddha would, “I don’t know if I’ve done enough, I don’t know if I will do enough.”

FMT: Do you think his efforts have been enough?

PI: I think his efforts have been heroic. If you’d asked me twenty years ago, I would have said he’s an extraordinarily compassionate, clear-sighted, calm human being. But now, I’m more convinced than ever that his political positions as well as his spiritual positions arise out of such precise and realistic thinking that they’re extremely sound.

Somebody interviewed me the other day and said, “Well clearly he’s a great spiritual leader, but do you think he’s maybe not such an effective leader?” I think he’s far and away the most solid, deep-thinking, far-sighted politician I’ve met, and I’ve been a journalist for 26 years for Time magazine, so I’ve met a lot of politicians.


The Global Journey of the 14th Dalai Lama

The Global Journey of the 14th Dalai Lama


FMT: It brings up the question of the criteria we are using to judge.

PI: As I see it, he’s transforming those criteria – and the whole way of conducting politics. He’s conducting politics in a much deeper way than most politicians are able to. He’s the only politician I know of who’s a monk. The Pope, of course, is in a similar position, but the Pope isn’t in the same way leading a country of many million people.

I would say that by virtue of transforming politics, he’s in fact easily underestimated. He told me ten years ago, “I’ve made every concession to China, and I’ve been as open and tolerant as I could, and still things get worse in Tibet.” If you look at it from one point of view, as he himself says, his monastic position of forbearance and nonviolence hasn’t reaped any benefits. And yet, he’s thinking in terms of the long term, of centuries.

FMT: Some people’s criteria of success would be that Tibet would be free, which of coursewould be ideal, but there are other potentially important criteria of success.


Pico Iyer (right) on his own open road

Pico Iyer (right) on his own open road


PI: What he would say is: “How do you define freedom?” I think China’s view of freedom has to do with material wealth and modernity, and his view of freedom is liberation in the Buddhist sense, which is freedom from ignorance and freedom from suffering. And many people would say that A Tibetan monk, even in Lhasa, may be free while the ruler of China may not be free.

Yet he’s said very strongly that basic freedoms of thought and speech have to be respected in Tibet and they’re not at the moment. Tolerance doesn’t mean accepting what’s unfair.

And when one questions his political actions, it is worth remembering that he’s the single most experienced politician on the planet at this moment. He’s been leading his people for 67 years, longer than any king, or queen, or prime minister or president. He was leading his country during the rigors of World War II, he was in Beijing for a year in 1954; he was up against Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai from the time that he was fifteen. So he’s no newcomer or naive when it comes to politics. He feels, and I feel, and everyone feels the suffering and frustration of the Tibetans who long for action, who long for a militant response. But, in some ways very few of those individuals have ever been in the position of being head of state.

FMT: What do you hope that people gain from reading your book about the Dalai Lama?

PI: I’m hoping my book will elucidate and illuminate his thinking, and the deeper causes and sources behind his actions. Many of us, when we see him sitting calmly while many Tibetans and many people around the world are calling for a boycott of the Olympics or direct confrontation with China, may say, “What a strange response, or how can he take that position?” He is taking a subtle and nuanced view of politics and he is thinking in terms of events well beyond our lifetime. For example, with the war in Iraq, he feels that the causes of that lie maybe hundreds of years ago, and he says, “What we do now may have consequences far into the future that we will never see.” But what we have to do is act as clearly and with as pure motivation as is possible now, and that will sow the seeds for good action maybe in the twenty-second century.

The Dalai Lama, these days, encourages Westerners not to take up Buddhism, partly because he feels that our roots are deep in other traditions, and we should go deeper into our own traditions.

Spending time with him has been, for me, a way of trying to learn about human potential and the different things any one of us can do if we’re so disposed. His message is not, “I am kind, attentive and selfless,” but “Anyone of you can be kind, attentive and selfless. I am just showing you what any of you can be if you apply yourself.”

Pico Iyer is the author of six nonfiction books and two novels; his newly released work (March, 2008) The Open Road is published by Random House. Pico Iyer will be sitting down with author Salman Rushdie on Sunday, May 4 at 4:00 P.M. at the University of California Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Campbell Hall. On Monday, May 19 at 8:00 P.M. at UCSB, Pico Iyer will be speaking on Seeing Things Differently—The Dalai Lama and Our Divided World. For more information on his appearances, visit

By Felicia M. Tomasko, R.N.

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