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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