Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pico Iyer's Dalai Lama is a global citizen

Pico Iyer's biography of the Dalai Lama, The Open Road -- five years in the making -- hit the bookstores just as all hell broke lose in Tibet.

Blogging the crisis in Tibet exposed me to the political side of a figure I have admired as an eastern philosopher. With new questions for new times, I decided to reacquaint myself with the Dalai Lama. Pico Iyer, a personal friend of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama for some thirty years, seemed the ideal author to help me do this.

Iyer attempts something that sounds very Buddhist: to write about a man largely by describing his path -- the lives and places his subject has touched. Iyer said in an interview,
One of the things that I felt I was beginning to understand about Buddhism and the Dalai Lama as I progressed through the book was that the Dalai Lama himself wasn’t important, except insofar as he challenges or encourages us to be different in ourselves.
The book then, literally, is about the road. And it concerns one of Iyer's favorite topics, globalization.

A few weeks ago, before hearing about the book, I blogged: The Dalai Lama "is many things to many people in many countries from many walks of life." Iyer shows us how this statement plays out; he presents the Dalai Lama as world celebrity, contrasting this simple talker with the inquisitive and disciplined monk he has come to know. Now a septuagenarian, he is ever the eager student. And a forward looking one. Iyer asks how an incarnated lama from a lost world became the most future-oriented person he had ever met. To the Tibetan people, Dalai Lama is someone else again. We are told that even the fiercest Tibetan critic of Dalai Lama's pacifistic China policy revers him as a living god.

Indeed, we learn the Tibet exile community is split between the calm monks and the angry militants. Not only is this relevant to the current situation in Tibet, Iyer's description of this situation brought to mind my own discussions with escaped monks and guerrilla leaders on the Thai-Burma border in the wake of the Burma crisis.* The safe houses which harbored the escaped monks along the border were often run by militants. The militants' ideas about how deal with the Myanmar junta were at odds with the sacred affirmations of their house guests. Maung, the rebel leader said, "Most of the journalists just want to talk to the monk. So far you are the first one who has taken any interest in talking about our battle plans." Iyer observes that whereas the Dalai Lama gets more than the lion's share of media attention concerning Tibet, some within the Tibetans community seem to wish he was less of a global-minded citizen, and put Tibet and Tibetans first. The Tibetan militant leader Lobsang Yeshi told the author:
"China should be grateful to the Dalai Lama." His eyes began to flash, a little. . . "They call him a separatist, a splittist, but if the Dalai Lama weren't there, the Tibetan struggle would have taken a different turn." (The vehemence in his voice left me in no doubt as to what kind of turn that would have been.)
This -- as I blogged -- is how I view the Dalai Lama fitting into the present crisis: he is China's opportunity. In contrasts to short-term thinking of the more militant Tibetans (and Beijing), the Dalai Lama's strategy has been to uphold a long-term perspective that emphasizes our shared global citizenship. Pico Iyer tries to summarize that ethic:
. . . Of course we can see the Chinese as enemies, but if we do so, we are saying, in effect, that we are going to spend all our lives in the midst of enemy forces; the better solution is to change how we think of the situation, perhaps by seeing that our real enemies are our own habitual tendencies toward thinking in terms of enemies. We can always see the decisive effects of action; but what underlies action, in the way of viewpoint and motivation and feeling, is where the real change has to come.
By this way of looking at things, the apparent conflict between ardent nationalism and global citizenship is actually an illusion. And that is the real message of Pico Iyer's Dalai Lama.
Photo: Dalai Lama via Lehigh

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