When Pico Iyer was a small boy growing up in Oxford, England, his father would tell him a story about another young boy “born in a simple rural cowshed far from anywhere, and very high up, who was seen by some passing monks one day and declared to be a king.” In proper fairy- tale form, when this young king became a teenager and a leader of millions of people, he was forced to flee his palace. And so, one night, dressed as a soldier, he crossed the highest mountains on earth to find safety in another land.
It’s ironic that years later, Iyer, a prolific journalist and novelist, would write a book about that little boy, dispelling the fairy-tale romanticism that exists about the head of state and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama goes beyond Beastie Boys at the Tibetan Freedom concert and Richard Gere’s pleas, to give an eloquent exploration of the Dalai Lama’s teachings and beliefs.
Iyer has been visiting the leader, an old friend of Iyer's father, for 33 years. “Some of those visits when I was just 17 years old were what they officially call audiences---private discussions where everything is off the record, but I would absorb something about his thinking,” says Iyer, calling from his mother’s home in Santa Barbara. Iyer spends most of the year in Naro, Japan, without internet or even a bicycle, and much of the rest of his time in a Californian monastery. For three of the last five spring seasons, Iyer lived in Dharamsala, India---the seat of the exiled Tibetan government (he paints wonderful scenes of the lost, lonely and devout who travel and live there) across the street from the Dalai Lama’s house.
“Ever since 1988, I often went to visit him as a journalist. I would take a tape recorder. He’s more than used to that. It’s funny when you put the tape recorder down, he’ll notice that the battery light is flickering off and on, or the tape is run out. He’s much more alert to that than interviewers. When TV cameras come he knows exactly where to set up; partly because he loves machines and partly because he’s a real pro.”
Iyer presents a global thinker that gets angry at the suggestion he’s a supernatural force. The Dalai Lama’s a doctor of metaphysics, although some, as one journalist pointed out, think he’s “not exactly the brightest bulb in the room,” mistaking his habit of giggling as a sign he's a simpleton. “He’s an empirical, rational scientist whose words always were ‘let’s investigate, let’s explore, let’s analyze what lies here.’ The best service I could pay to him was to investigate him and what he was saying and his experiences and try to bring a very analytical reasoning approach to it,” says Iyer.
Although he's not a Buddhist himself, Iyer wanted to make the book “Buddhist in texture and approach.” He says, “The whole book was a dialogue---I’ll present one position of his and I’ll try to challenge it and see what his answer is. I felt that dialogue and this kind of back and forth is exactly the type of practice that his school of Buddhism cherishes. There’s very little in the book about his personality and what a charismatic man he is, although I hope some of that comes through.”
As news of violent Tibetan protests mount and as the Beijing Olympics draw nearer, more international scrutiny will be placed on the Tibetan leader. “Whenever we see him on his travels, we see him as a celebrity. He’s often on Larry King Live or beaming down from a billboard; a very, very public figure. But obviously the bulk of his mission and life has to do with taking care of his own people,” says Iyer. “That’s the reason why I spent so much time in Dharamsala. I felt that for most of us in the west, it’s the side of his life we don’t see. And that’s the biggest challenge of his life. People have woken up to that a little in the past couple of weeks with the Tibetan situation. It’s sadly complicated---there must be very few jobs in the world as complicated as his.”