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Before reading Pico Iyer’s The Open Road, my understanding of what’s going on in Tibet was embarrassingly vague and never top of mind. So the impact of this book took me by surprise. It’s taken up residence in my head, replacing all kinds of pop media junk I need to stop reading anyway.

After almost 30 years of visiting with and reporting on the Dalai Lama in his exile, Pico Iyer writes about the experiments, philosophies and challenges that compose his dear friend’s life. Neither history nor straight biography, this contextualizes the political situation of Tibetans in exile through the spirit and actions of one man, who reluctantly carries the hope, anger and fading optimism of his people.

The Open Road by Pico Iyer

The Open Road by Pico Iyer

The Dalai Lama was a young boy when he had to flee the Tibetan uprising in 1959.  That boy grew to be a man who wakes at 3:30 am to spend the first four hours of every day meditating on the roots of compassion. He does this whether he’s “home” in Dharamsala or traveling the world giving talks and workshops. His message is simplified but not simple: it’s time to train our minds with as much discipline and focus as we train our bodies. Iyer opens with a meeting in suburban Japan where His Holiness sits with university researchers to share thoughts on the meditative mind.

The mind was something we had potential to transform. So, too, therefore was the world that the mind created.

Iyer shows the Dalai Lama from public, private, spiritual and political perspectives. He is a paradox, an “expansive thinker” in a time when one image can reach the whole planet  in moments. His smile evokes existential sighs, thoughts of unlimited possibilities. And yet more than fifty years after China slammed down its fist, his people are not free. The physical Tibet that exists today is a cruel joke – littered with high rises, luxury shops and brothels.

Still the world looks to the Dalai Lama for wisdom and he rises to the occasion. He…

…spent no time mourning the past he had lost but concentrated his energies on how he could construct a more useful and inclusive future across the globe.

Iyer is not a Buddhist, and maybe that’s why he’s able to look through its lens  with a sense of urgency. Many of the Dalai Lama’s philosophies apply to anyone who has insulated themselves, disengaged in favor of Dreamland. Iyer emphases that we’re all part of the same mechanism – Interconnectedness is a human concept.

If one part suffers, we all do.

If you miss Iyer’s point the first or second time don’t worry, he’ll hit you with it again and again until it hurts. The west still thinks of Tibet as this Shangri-La even though we know Tibetans are not free people. Why is this? One of the talks he gives is with his good friend Desmond Tutu. Iyer compares the two as they stand on opposite sides of oppression: Tutu travels the globe saying “Thank you” while the Dalai Lama is still saying “Please”, but we don’t hear that part.

So much of his life is lived beneath the surface. The public only sees the smallest fraction of the 14th Dalai Lama. As a political figure, he’s noted that humanity appears to be maturing. You want to wonder if it will ever lose its taste for bloodshed, but that kind of thinking negates will and individual responsibility.

Our whole life, human affection is most important factor for our survival.

The ground Iyer covers in this book is covered with land mines. Internally, Tibetans in exile still want to put all of their hope into this one man despite his efforts to democratize by holding elections in Dharamsala. Within the community, Iyer introduces a young generation of Tibetans who have never been to their homeland. They want to talk politics not religion. They’re intelligent, furious, frustrated and motivated. Some blame the lack of international response on the Dalai Lama’s middle way approach.

One of the biggest challenges facing Tibet is time. Those ready to fight for their independence still abide by their leader (mostly) for now, but his successor may not have the same counsel or influence. The Dalai Lama has dedicated his life to teaching people to look within themselves, but what is a young, restless Tibetan in exile going to do when what he finds steers him to fight and protest not pray? This new generation could be the crack that that splits open its paradox.

The contents of this book are so significant I wish they could be fused with our air waves or sprinkled on pizza – whichever is the most direct route for mass consumption. I find myself thinking of Tibetans every day. This is one true story that I hope will have a happy, bloodless ending, but for now it’s a To be continued…

At the end Iyer provides a long list of recommended films and reading on Tibet. I picked up one newer book called “Beyond Shangri-La”, but it was too dry to hold my interest. I’ll keep reading, and looking for ways to stand in solidarity with Tibet.

…happiness is a function not so much of our circumstances as of our perceptions.