Book Review: ‘The Open Road: The Global Journey Of The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’
Tibet is a land rich not just in history, but also in irony.
“The Roof of the World” holds a special place in the popular imagination because of the movie Shangri-La and other gauzy Hollywood treatments, as well as one individual, the Dalai Lama. But those celluloid depictions are fawningly unrealistic, while the Dalai Lama is typically reduced to a caricature.
One in five Tibetans has died, one in 10 has been jailed and most of their 3,000 monasteries laid to waste in the 58 years since the Chinese invasion and systematic gulag-ization of its people and culture, and very soon the real Tibet will cease to exist.
With Tibet recently making one of its fleeting appearances in the headlines because of the brutal suppression of anti-Chinese government protests in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games, it is worth remembering that Tibet’s own history is riven with wars between competing Buddhist sects, sexual exploitation, usurious taxation, serfdom and other forms of economic enslavement that extended well into the last half of the 20th century, while the Dalai Lama himself was once a de facto military leader.
This does not forgive the Chinese occupation, but provides some perspective, and it is perspective that is the strong suit of veteran journalist-novelist Pico Iyer‘s recently published book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama himself is a deceptively simple man by the name of Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th in the line of Tibetan political and spiritual leaders dating back to the 16th century.
Iyer’s connection to Gyatso, who turned 73 in July, is deeply personal.
In 1960, his father traveled to Dharamasala, the town in the Himalayan foothills of India where Gyatso fled to escape his Chinese pursuers and today is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. Iyer himself first met the Dalai Lama as a teenager and has communed with him for over 30 years on six continents, hence the “Global Journey” reference in the title.
Of the many insights that Iyer provides in this fairly brief 275-page book, perhaps the greatest is that the Dalai Lama is who we want him to be: Head of state. Leader of the best known exile movement on earth. Prolific author. Metaphysician. Cross-cultural icon. Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Oh, and caricature, as well.
“It’s funny,” says a journalist to Iyer as they leave an address by Gyatso. “There are a lot of people who don’t believe in anything, but they will die just to see the Dalai Lama. It’s almost like they feel if he touches them, if they get his blessing, they’re set up for life. Exactly what he tells them not to think.”
The apothegms of the Dalai Lama that appear on buttons, bumper stickers and t-shirts make no more sense “than a single thread taken out of a Persian carpet, an intricate web, and pronounced to be beautiful,” writes Iyer, and one of Gyatso’s longtime translators shouts at him that “It’s nonsense! All these things you see ascribed to him, others are just making up!”