Pico Iyer: the "Transcendentalist" Dalai Lama

In Tibet the Dalai Lama was an embodiment of an old culture that, cut off from the world, spoke for an ancient, even lost traditionalism; now, in exile, he is an avatar of the new, as if having traveled eight centuries in just five decades, he is increasingly, with characteristic directness, leaning in, toward tomorrow.

Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, page 203.

pico iyerPico Iyer:’open road’ Transcendentalism

The Dalai Lama becomes the best sort of New England Transcendentalist in Pico Iyer’s crystalline meditation on the family friend he’s been watching and interviewing for 40 years — that is, almost all his life. The book opens with an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau (“So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real…), closes with Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit…”) and is brim-full of William James’s wisdom on science, psychology and religion. The title comes from D. H. Lawrence’s paraphrase of Emerson’s child, Walt Whitman: “The great home of the Soul is the open road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not ‘above.'”

Pico Iyer is himself a man of that open road — born of Hindu parents, both from Bombay; schooled at Oxford; long an American citizen; now based at TIME magazine and in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan. In journalism’s upper reaches these days Pico Iyer’s pieces from Havana, Phnom Penh, Damascus and Delhi set the standard of global curiosity and confidence — of the child-like eye and Old Masterly prose. But there is a home inside this traveler. The joy of our conversation was finding that he has vital roots not far from my own, in those beloved New Englanders. “I would like to call myself a Transcendentalist,” he says. “The higher form of globalism, I’ve always thought, is Emerson. That’s why I chose to write a book about the Dalai Lama: because he’s talking globalism but not at the level of Microsoft, McDonalds or Britney Spears, but at the level of conscience, imagination and the heart.”

Take this conversation with Pico Iyer as a first crack at the Tibet questions that will not go away in this year of the Chinese Olympics. This book, The Open Road, is a brief for the Dalai Lama’s brand of urgent patience (“Speak out, not lash out,” as Pico Iyer puts it) which many Tibetans and others find hard to hear. The hope in the Dalai Lama’s circle seems to be that under constant world pressure the Chinese leadership would deign finally to meet with the exiled holy man. “He doesn’t expect the Chinese leadership to come to its senses overnight,” says Pico Iyer, but neither does he see fruits in militancy. “He knows that to prick their pride is to bring down even greater hardships on Tibet.”

Tell us, Open Sourcerers: who has a better take on responsibility, compassion and possibility with respect to Tibet?

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  • hurley

    Lovely conversation on many levels, not least the evident fellow feeling. The Dalai Lama comes across as someone rather different from the “Hindu stooge” described by a certain stooge of another stripe. That said, his insistence on contemplating the fate of Tibet in terms of a cosmic durèe would seem to place its fate with the stars, rather than where it should be, in the here and now…But then Iyer’s version of the Dalai Lama suggests a gifted “realpolitikian,” willing to mortgage his power and authority to the Chinese in exchange for a light hand in the foreseeable future. (Didn’t Herbert Browne have a plan to reforest that space, regenerating the Chilean altiplanoin the process?) Anyone out there who knows something more?

  • Potter

    I loved listening to this interview. The Dalai Lama on the one hand has to be a special person, found miraculously, on the other had very much a tribute to his people and Tibetan tradition.

    Regarding the present and ongoing predicament of the Tibetan people I understand why it’s a hard sell to speak out not lash out. Who knows where we all will be in the next 120 years, but as for Tibet in Chinese hands a lot of damage, irreversible, can continue-to the land, the remaining people, their culture.

    But it is also true that exile has spread Tibetan Buddhism enabled us know it better and that too changes the world. And, at the same time, apparently Tibetan Buddhism has grown, been ( admirably) pruned and remains vital.

    These lines, what Pico Iyer has learned from the DL stood out for me ( along with the comparisons to transcendentalism, Emerson and Thoreau):

    You change the world by changing the way you think of the world, the way you look at the world.

    Your eye may reflect something as bad or you may choose to think of it as a possibility.

    ( I think I got that verbatim ).

    So- once again- big thanks.

  • Buddhi

    Thanks for opening a door in the discourse for maintenance of a vital way for our world to


    Awareness can become a ragged term unless embodied in action, and the first hand

    examples Iyer speaks to, the humanity and situation of the Dalai Llama, are relevant

    as we (‘WE’) move through the cultural soup.

    Ditto Potter above– the change the world comment. Keep Big Mind.

  • Potter

    Nicolas Kristof wrote an interesting column:

    Fed Up With Peace