Centered at the Summit
Over the decades that Pico Iyer has known His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he has pondered his many qualities and roles, tried to define the essence of the man and of his importance to the world. He concludes that only the Dalai Lama brings true spiritual peace to the summit of world affairs.
So many depictions and images of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama present him as serenely unmoved, a very beacon of silence and self-possession. And of course his calm, his optimism, his unwavering warmth, the solidity that Thomas Merton stressed when he went to visit him almost forty years ago, are a large part of what makes his presence so emancipating to many people, regardless of their tradition—and so steadying. He sits amidst the changes and convulsions of the world, focused on what counts (while attentive to every moment), just as a rock, a buddha, a meditating mind, might sit, centered on essentials.
Recently coming upon an article written by my father, who visited the Dalai Lama in 1960 during his first year in exile, I was stunned and moved to see that the twenty-four-year-old with the strikingly fresh face and brush cut sounded—in what he said and in what my father saw in him—almost identical to the man of seventy-two we see today. The body has changed, the sense of how best to speak to the West has grown, he has adapted as he has registered changes and new needs in his audience, but the heart of what he's saying remains as constant as the image of the man he sometimes calls his "boss," seated under the Bodhi tree, eyes turned away from the outer world to explore the inner home that sits behind all projections and delusions.
And yet, I thought to myself, what really moves and lifts us about his experience is that he sits like this, and talks unwaveringly about the same principles (shifting his emphases or examples as the Buddha did), in the midst of almost unimaginable challenge. The particular force and fascination of this Dalai Lama lie largely in the fact that he hasn't been able to sit still, or to give himself to solitary meditation, as many a monk might want. He has had to bring that sense of stillness and collectedness out into the center of a world that is accelerating and polarizing with unprecedented rapidity and restlessness.
The calmness of the Dalai Lama, the steadiness with which he walks along his path and pursues what he regards as his core mission, can only be truly appreciated by being set against the very real-world problems that have always been his companion and his daily fare. He spent his early childhood (what would have been his kindergarten years, in our terms) as official leader of his country during the Second World War. By the time he was eight, he was receiving emissaries from F.D.R. with urgent requests for help in the transportation of American troops. He witnessed civil war around him as a boy, barely twelve years old on his seat in the Potala Palace. He was fourteen when Chinese soldiers moved into his country, and of high school age—fifteen—when he was prematurely made the political as well as the spiritual leader of his people.
The force of geopolitical concerns, the urgency of the changing world, denied him the chance ever to give himself as fully to his spiritual practice (he told Merton even in 1968) as he might have liked to do had circumstances been different. Or, to put it better, his spiritual practice was in the public domain, in remaking a culture in exile, in negotiating with prime ministers and representatives from the most populous nation on earth, in finding a way somehow to speak also to the second most populous nation on earth, his new home, and to the reigning superpower of today.
When we think of some of the great spiritual inspirations of our time, or any other—including a Merton or a Mother Teresa perhaps, but taking in all of the great philosophers of India and Tibet, Christian mystics, Sufi poets, Zen masters, rabbinical sages—we are stirred by their ability to root themselves in the eternal (which some would call the moment). Yet few of them have ever had to carry this sense of settledness and attention into the White House, the conference rooms of Beijing, the madness of the modern media moment. Few have had to devote so much of their time to tending the fractured, mixed-up, often warring world that likes to think of itself as real.
The Dalai Lama spends a lot of his time, even in his seventies, on planes and in hotel rooms; he spends an unanticipated amount of his time in front of TV cameras, dealing with huge crowds in rock-concert stadiums, handling the moment-by-moment complexities that attend a head of state who also happens to be a global icon. His name comes up in every other Hollywood movie. The global order—and his ecumenical presence—have made him seem a counselor or protector to Catholics, Maoists, people caught up in the struggle for peace in the Middle East, ecologists. He is more deeply and constantly involved in the world of movement and seeming unpeacefulness than anyone I know.
True to his unwavering beliefs, the Dalai Lama always sees this—all of it—as opportunity. He can visit and seem a member of many countries (and traditions) as no Dalai Lama before him could have. He can talk to and learn from scientists, Hopi wise men, Western heads of state, simple backpackers, as he could never have expected when he was going through the grueling training that befits an incarnation of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion.
Before most of us even knew the word, he saw that globalism was a vehicle and a perfect metaphor for the interconnectedness he's long been speaking about. He realized that this same sense of linkage—or freedom from independent existence—also offered the basis for an environmental vision of the world. He seemed to intuit that even the Internet, the mass media, the power of the image in our new world order, could all be used not just for the transmission of trivia, as most of us saw, but for the transmission of something useful and enduring and previously very hard to communicate quickly. He saw that Tibet could become a part of the global family, as surely as that family could become a part of Tibet.
He also found himself thrown into the middle of global challenges that far exceeded the fractious Tibetan divisions and negotiations with warlike neighbors faced by previous Dalai Lamas. Foreign troops were holding hostage ninety-eight percent of his people, while the other two percent were recent refugees, with few resources and no papers. Critics questioned the use of his image in an ad campaign for Apple computers. Some Tibetan monks looked askance at his wish to do away with some of the formalism and orthodoxy of old, and open up Tibet to a wider modern world. Some foreigners wondered why he couldn't be as radical as various freelance Buddhist teachers.
The young among his people asked him to be more confrontational toward China—effectively, to forswear the nonviolence that was one of his central monastic vows. Others no doubt wished that he'd never been obliged to enter politics at all. He worked tirelessly to try to bring democracy to his people, only to be told by his people that they'd much rather leave power in his strikingly capable and seasoned hands. One Tibetan group accused him of not treating their practice as fairly as another; all kinds of people with all kinds of motives approached him at every stop and asked for his blessing and guidance.
We often need, it seems, to turn to the image of the Dalai Lama when we wish to get away from the clamor of the world, to still ourselves, to guide our minds with a vision of clarity and poise. So often the man we see pictured on the cover of books or whom we evoke in our mind's eye has his eyes closed, sits in a circle of light, and never has reason to stir at all. But as I began to put thirty years of conversations with him into a book, it occurred to me that what makes the Dalai Lama so inspiring and rare is perhaps the fact that his eyes are always open, metaphorically, that he's had to bring hope and warmth to places that are shadowed and live amidst centuries of darkness, and that he is constantly on the move, externally, while profoundly motionless and rooted beneath all that.
Spirituality is all very well for the hermit in his cave, His Holiness has sometimes said; the hermit’s inner life is to some extent taken care of. But where spirituality may be most imperative is in the gritty, unrelenting clamor of the here and now. I thought about His Holiness in Washington and New York recently, as I sat in my quiet home in rural Japan, awaiting his visit here a few weeks later, and I felt that all the stories of his compassion, his laughter, his shining charm, told only one part of the story. The real thing he is sharing with us is that those qualities never exist in a vacuum, and that light can best be understood in the context of all that threatens to obscure it.
For twenty-five years, Pico Iyer has covered His Holiness the Dalai Lama
and the Tibetan situation for Time, The New Yorker, The New York Review
of Books, and The New York Times Op-ed page.