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Heart of the Dalai Lama
For thirty-five years Pico Iyer has been a friend, observer,
and student of the Dalai Lama. In this exclusive and heartfelt essay, he
reveals the simple human secret that makes His Holiness the most beloved
spiritual figure in the world.
"When I was your age," the Fourteenth Dalai
Lama is telling a group of six hundred or so young female students at Chikushi
Jagakoen school in Fukuoka, Japan, "I was a quite lazy student. I didn't
have much enthusiasm for studying." Though sitting politely, their hands
in their laps, the girls almost visibly come to attention, drawing closer as he
says this (they weren't expecting such words from a celebrated visitor).
"So my tutor always kept a whip," he goes on, as naturally as if he
were talking to his oldest friend. "I was studying with my elder brother,
so the tutor kept two whips. One was yellow—a ‘Holy Whip!’ But I think if you
use the ‘Holy Whip,’ the effect is the same as from the other one. ‘Holy
Even the girls, trained to be reserved and demure since
birth, cannot contain their laughter—and delight, perhaps, and relief. Even
this man regarded as an incarnation of a god by his followers is, at some
level, just like them. Even he has been in need of discipline at times, and is
in the lifelong business of finding an answer to suffering, or "Holy
Pain," as it might be. I scribble down his every word and notice how
seamlessly he's transmitting certain fundamental truths of Buddhism. Don't be
distracted by externals, or signs of ceremony—a yellow whip hurts just the same
as any other whip. Don't think of holiness as something separate from the realm
of suffering—if anything, our most sacred duty comes in our response to the
realm of suffering, which evolves throuh a change in perception. Don't think of
people as unequal—everyone has to go through the same lessons, and the Buddha
himself, master democrat, gave us a sense of power and potential by always
reminding us that he was no different from us.
And yet, as ever, the Dalai Lama conveys all this without
using the word "don't" at all. "But," he tells the young
students, "I believe some years I lost" through not paying attention.
"Please pay attention to your studies." It's a tonic and liberating
idea: excitement is in the eye of the beholder, a reflection of the choices
that we make. He's already told the girls, at the beginning of his lecture,
that he's "nothing special," no different from any one of them, in
his human challenges (or his human potential). So if they are impressed by the
sense of presence, alertness, and kindness they see before them, embodied in
one being, they're essentially impressed by an image of what they can be, too,
if they so choose. Indeed, by learning from his mistakes, they can go beyond him
in certain respects, and pay attention to the possibilities around them from a
younger age. At some point, he assures them, he realized that his studies were
in fact the most exciting adventure around; it wasn’t necessarily that the
difficult Buddhist texts changed, but that his way of seeing them did.
He doesn't tell them, I have noticed, that whenever he has
a spare moment on the road he turns to a copy of some Buddhist teaching, his
greatest joy whenever he isn't inspecting the world around him (to get a
deeper, more detailed and empirical sense of what reality looks like). In
Yokohama he'll ask an engineer, backstage, before a large lecture, how the
soundboard works. When we have lunch with an ambassador from Bahrain, he'll try
to learn more about the history of Islam and Arabic culture. When old friends
come to meet him in his hotel room, he asks them how things are going in Japan,
and listens to their answers closely, like a doctor hearing a list of symptoms.
One reason he's in this little girls' school in Fukuoka this morning is that so
many Japanese mothers, on recent trips, have told him of their urgent concern
about alienation among the young in their country, children who shut themselves
in their rooms and never have contact with the world, teenage suicides.
The other reason he's here is no less practical: these
students, some barely out of kindergarten, are the ones who will make the world
we live in thirty years from now, the real power brokers in the larger view of
things. On his previous trip to Japan, one year before, the Dalai Lama had
spent his one day in Tokyo not visiting politicians or cultivating the media or
talking to movers and shakers; he'd spent the entire day visiting two boys’
high schools associated with temples, offering them lectures like this one and
sitting in meditation with the boys in a school zendo. Children are not only
more open to transformation and more in need of positive direction than their
elders are; they're also potential more or less incarnate. Two months after
this meeting, I'll meet one of Britain's leading young writers, who has worked
hard for Tibet, turning a rigorous, scrupulous eye on the events of the day,
and becoming one of the leading modern historians of India.
"The Dalai Lama came to my school when I was very
young," he told me. "I was just in my teens. And it was a school run
by Benedictine monks. But somehow it made an incredible impression on me."
As soon as he finished his studies, he went to Dharamsala to study in the
Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Later he would spend two months on a
punishing trip across Tibet, recording what's really happening there.
It's so easy not to listen to the Dalai Lama, I've found
over the decades I've been traveling with him. It's almost impossible not to be
inspired by him, to be warmed, to be clarified, to feel that you've come into a
presence of rare goodness and uncanny, omnidirectional compassion. I've been
lucky enough to know him for thirty-five years now, since I was a teenager, and
every November, when he comes to Japan, I travel by his side EVERY DAY from
around 7:30 every morning, when his working day begins, to around 5 p.m., when
it concludes. I sit in on his closed-door meetings with parliamentarians, his
audiences with old friends, his chats with ceremonial hosts, his discussions
with leaders of all Japan's religious groups. It's exhausting even watching him
go through his day. He comes down to the hotel lobby for his first event, after
four hours of meditation, and finds five Tibetans who have traveled across the
island to see him. He stops to receive and bless the ceremonial silk scarves
they've brought to him, and as they sob with emotion and gratitude, he gives
them heart and tells them not to give up sustaining their culture and their
confidence in its survival. And then he GOES and does the same thing for the
next ten hours, as he’s done every day for seventy years.
Yet so often, even as we're being moved by the way he
instinctively knows how to see past divisions, laughs to dissolve our tension,
or manages somehow to make us feel we’re meeting not just a great philosopher
and global leader, but an old friend, we come away—at least I do—with our head
in the clouds, unstoppably grinning and with tears in the corners of our eyes.
We talk about all that he's given us and all that we've learned from his
being—what a great sense of humor!—and we (or at least I) grow wild with our
own ideas of him, instead of the ideas he's come to offer to us. Thirteen years
ago, I heard from a writer in Hawaii (skeptical, non-Buddhist, famously
unimpressionable) that when the Dalai Lama came to his city, he went to the
lecture, took down every word he said, and then kept the transcript by his bed,
so he could read it again and again.
Now I do the same. It's not hard to transcribe every word,
since the Dalai Lama speaks slowly and very deliberately in English and, when
he's speaking in Tibetan, his words come to us through a translator. I get a
lot of instruction from them as I write. But I get even more when I go back to
my desk and read the words over and over, and copy them out again and again, as
if they were (and why should they not be?) a text I am studying at college.
Even in his second language, the Dalai Lama speaks with meticulous precision,
and a quarte of a century of traveling has allowed him to hone his words down
so that the simplest-sounding sentence in fact contains volumes of teaching.