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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Philosophy across borders

December 23, 2008

Deccan Herald, India
December 21, 2008
Pico Iyer's new book 'The Open Road' is not just about the many lives of Dalai Lama, but also serves an extended enquiry into how we might lead a clearer life, discovers Pradeep Sebastian
Novelist Pico Iyer’s latest book The Open Road explores the life, philosophies and status  of spiritual leader Dalai Lama.
Excerpts from an interview:
In ‘The Open Road’ you examine the many selves of the Dalai Lama, are there also many selves to Pico Iyer that you brought to the book?
To some extent, I think the book is a culmination of all I’ve done so far, a bringing together of what I’ve written over twenty years as traveller, exile, globalist, journalist, secret monk and human being. As you noted, I tried to approach the many lives of the Dalai Lama through my many lives. What I could bring was the perspective of a person of many cultures, someone who has pondered the issue of home, someone who wants globalism to answer the needs of the soul and not just of the senses.
You’ve written often on the Dalai Lama before — interviews, essays, and of your travels to Tibet. What did you think you would do differently here — was there something new you set out to do in a full length book?
I’ve never worked so hard before as I did in completing The Open Road. As you point out, I’d been writing about the Dalai Lama and Tibet for almost twenty years already when I began this book, and so I knew all I didn’t want to say or had said already; in some ways, I’d already written portraits of him, introductions to him, effusive paeans to a man of more clarity, kindness and warmth than pretty much anyone I know. The challenge in this case was to cross-question my own assumptions, to push myself deeper, to do him the service of not just offering praise, but fruitful and constructive challenges.
The ‘Open Road’ is so much more than a biography; I would say this book is a meditation, an essay, an extended enquiry into how we might lead a clearer life.
And do you feel now that you succeeded?
 I quickly came to feel that the Dalai Lama would not mind what was written about himself, so long as it was carefully reasoned, empirical and frank, but that he would want me to take great care in anything I wrote about Tibetan and Chinese individuals, whose lives are in the balance, and who can be so harmed by distorted or incomplete reporting. With most of my books, I feel I have to do justice only to my (feeble and anyway subjective) impressions; with this one, I had to be aware of the delicate position of an exactingly accurate thinker and people whose lives are hanging by the thread. So, yes, I think I’ve succeeded here in finding a way to write about him that takes all of the above into account.
Since this was a book long in coming, there must have been many impulses that led you to write it, but was there an immediate, fundamental one that compelled you?
Every book I undertake is my way of trying to teach myself something, and in this case, after finishing my long novel Abandon, I felt that the best way I could spend the next few years was in trying to think more and more clearly about what this unusually rigorous and realistic thinker was really offering us, and to see how his ideas could light up and offer solace to a divided and ever more fractured world that I’d been covering for 20 years already at that point as a journalist — travelling from Beirut to Sri Lanka, from North Korea to Haiti to Cambodia — and wondering, as any traveller might, what could be done or thought to free such places from their seemingly intractable problems.
As you began writing the book, what became clearer and clearer to you about your subject?
What I found, very quickly, was that the more I looked at and thought about even the Dalai Lama’s most casual comments, the more I saw there; beneath even such transparent-seeming phrases as “simple Buddhist monk” or “the mind is its own master” lay volumes and volumes of precisely considered and logically developed arguments. One of the things the Dalai Lama has done so impressively is to compress huge acres of philosophy into crystal-clear, everyday precepts that any child could follow (even at the risk of being underestimated by the world).
And for your readers — what meaning will the book carry?
The Dalai Lama has a specific meaning for Buddhists, for Tibetans and for monks; but even for those of us not lucky enough to be members of any of those groups, he’s offering certain human possibilities that it would be foolish to turn away from — especially because those possibilities are being presented to us also by Vaclav Havel, Bono and U2, Barack Obama, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aldous Huxley and Leonard Cohen. Part of the beauty of the global moment is that more and more of us can learn and draw from traditions that, in my grandparents’ day, were as far away as Pluto. As the century began, people were more horrified than ever before by what was being done in the name of religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, atheism), and yet those horrors were propelling them more powerfully than ever in search of the solace and wisdom that religion traditionally provides.
They needed religious counsel without religious dogma. A Buddhist who urges people not to take up Buddhism, a religious figure who tells people not to get lost or imprisoned in texts or theologies, a Tibetan who delivers talks on the Gospels and calls himself a ‘defender of Islam’ and a scientist who  seemed to offer a way out of our “with us or against us” simplicities.
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