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

Dalai Lama: Down-to-Earth Guy

April 8, 2008

The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

As the Chinese government continues to crack down on Tibetan protesters,
the Dalai Lama surprised some journalists who don't usually cover him or
Tibetan-Chinese issues.

Speaking to reporters in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, for almost
50 years home of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the 72-year-old
spiritual and secular leader of his people expressed concern for Chinese
injured by his followers in Tibet, even threatening to resign from his
secular duties if violence against Chinese persisted.

This from a Tibetan leader who fled the Chinese in 1959 as a "boy king"
of 24, whose homeland, after Mao Tse-tung's Chinese forces attacked in
1949, suffered what the International Commission of Jurists judged to be
genocide. (Iyer writes: "One in every five Tibetans - more than a
million in all - died of starvation or in direct encounters with the
Chinese, according to Tibetan estimates.")

This from a man the Chinese government calls "a wolf in monk's clothing."

It doesn't happen much around the world - "dissident" leaders expressing
sympathy for their enemies and oppressors. Hamas honchos don't weep for
slaughtered yeshiva boys. Members of Colombia's FARC don't bat an eye as
their hostages wither and die. Supposedly devout Muslims in Iraq kill
fellow Muslims without a second thought.

But the Dalai Lama, like the great men to whom he's most rightly
compared - Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. - lives by his own rules of compassion and
consistency, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who embodies the spirit of
that sometimes oddly bestowed honor. Unique in his office as both the
spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and head of state of a land that
China says it runs as an autonomous province, he remains a blend of
Caesar and Christ, ruler and philosopher, canny scientist and devout monk.

"The Open Road," Pico Iyer's beautifully written, up-close meditation
about him - a superb portrait of a celebrated figure whom the master
journalist and his family have known personally for 30 years - arrives
at a perfect time. As the International Campaign for Tibet tries to get
news out about what's happening in Tibet despite severe Chinese
censorship - some unofficial reports speak of Lhasa in flames, with far
more killing than official Chinese media acknowledge - "The Open Road"
provides context for the tragic events of this past month and
illuminates how a singular personality born to a highly ritualized
leadership role has evolved over time.

Iyer's Indian father, an Oxford-educated political philosopher who met
the Dalai Lama shortly after the latter's exile to India, used to tell
his young son the story of the Lama's dangerous escape from his palace
in Lhasa. Iyer as a boy received an inscribed photo from the Dalai Lama
of himself on the Lion Throne of Lhasa, which Iyer long treasured until
it was destroyed in a fire.

That initial contact led to Iyer's many meetings with the Dalai Lama
over the years, as he became an accomplished journalist for Time and a
much-praised author. From the first chapter of "The Open Road," when
Iyer greets the Dalai Lama on a visit by the latter to Japan (where Iyer
lives), the author's smooth conversational prose, a mix of sharp tactile
detail and confident insight, convinces us that we're in the hands of a
writer who completely understands his subject.

And what a subject. A supposed godlike figure who repeatedly tells one
and all that he is not a "Living Buddha" but just a "simple Buddhist
monk." A charming "hyperrealist" head of a religion who describes
himself as an "experimenter" who rejects any religious belief, Tibetan
or otherwise, that does not square with modern science. A
turn-the-other-cheek ethicist who speaks of Tibetans' "Chinese brothers
and sisters" even as they massacre his people. A dynamo, Iyer notes,
always switching "from monk to head of state to philosopher-scientist to
regular man."

"Over and over," Iyer writes, "he counsels a practical realism and a
refusal to get caught up in the lures and distraction of mindless
optimism, least of all the kind that comes from indiscriminate faith."

Whether it's the Dalai Lama's "warmth and charisma," his childlike
laugh, his love of animals, his news-junkie intake of journalism, his
awakening at 3:30 a.m. every day for four hours of meditation, his burly
body language (former New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal once compared
him to "a middle linebacker"), Iyer concretely conveys his truths,
making it seem as if he, the reader, and the Dalai Lama are all sitting
in the same room.

Iyer also explains much that may puzzle readers. For example, the Dalai
Lama's own school of Tibetan Buddhism cherishes philosophical debate,
making his skeptical air strange only to those who ignorantly identify
any kind of Buddhism with mysticism. Iyer wonderfully describes the
strange place that Dharamsala or "Little Lhasa" has become - a kind of
global village full of "Swedish girls arm in arm with ponytailed boys
from Eastern Tibet." From it, the Dalai Lama and his circle hold
together about 50 Tibetan-exile communities torn between the tolerance
their leader urges and fury at China's increasing erasure of Tibetan
culture in its homeland.

Iyer's book might have ended on a depressed, elegiac note. After all, he
writes, Tibet's fate in the face of Chinese expansionism represents, for
the Dalai Lama, "the most agonizing and mounting of all the conundrums
he travels with ... the country that he was born to rule is slipping
ever closer to extinction. ... One of the great centers of Buddhism,
five times as large as Britain, has been all but wiped off the map."

Still, Iyer closes by explaining how he's learned from the Dalai Lama
the importance of trying to do one small, worthy thing at a time, of
emulating the "constant effort, tireless effort" of the Buddha, even if
one is not a Buddhist.

The word "lama," Iyer's famous friend once told him - exasperated at the
way he's referred to in headlines as "Tibet's Living Buddha," or a "God
in Exile," rather than an ordinary man with a very distinctive
400-year-old job - simply means, in Tibetan, "someone worthy of respect."

No one who reads "The Open Road" will question that.
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