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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Book Review: The Open Road

May 30, 2008

Ross Southernwood, reviewer
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
May 28, 2008

Worldwide protests during the Beijing Olympics torch relay against
China's continuing occupation of Tibet have again brought the once
forbidden kingdom to international attention.

Journalist and author Pico Iyer's insightful and thoughtful book, The
Open Road: The Global Journey Of The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is
timely, for it presents an intimate account of the Dalai Lama and his
world by one who has, during the past 30 years, spoken with and
followed Tibet's spiritual (and effectively political) leader's
global travels. The book is particularly timely for Australians, as
the Dalai Lama is due to visit here in June.

Iyer, a Tamil brought up in England and now living in the US and
Japan, depicts a warm, complex, energetic and, at times, humorous
man, now in his early 70s.

A Nobel Peace laureate who describes himself as a "simple Buddhist
monk", he is also the temporal leader of Tibetans, organises 50
exiled communities in the worldwide Tibetan diaspora and frequently
deals with China and the US. He is the head of one of the major
schools of Buddhism, as well as being a scholar, administrator,
teacher, writer and lecturer.

Little wonder, then, that Iyer writes: "The Dalai Lama has, in only a
few years, and unexpectedly, become one of the most visible figures
on the planet."

The author recounts the Dalai Lama arriving in India in 1959, aged
23, having been forced to flee Tibet after China threatened war
against the capital Lhasa and his seat, the Potala Palace.

China had invaded eastern Tibet 10 years earlier and in the following
years more than one million Tibetans are thought to have died of
starvation or in direct encounters with the Chinese.

All but 13 of more than 6000 monasteries were destroyed. Parents were
forced to applaud as their children were shot dead.

Tibet's Government in Exile was established at Dharamsala, a small
town in northern India, from where the Dalai Lama, Iyer writes, has
"tried to construct a new, more durable Tibet outside Tibet and to
see how he could protect the rights of his people without denying the
legitimate rights of their 'great neighbour' as he called it,
Communist China". It is an example of the Dalai Lama's practical
realism, as is his Government's readiness, since 1987, to concede
China can continue to control Tibet's external affairs as long as
Tibetans can control their internal ones.

This does not sit well with all exiled Tibetans, some wanting him to
be more decisive in his opposition to Chinese oppression in Tibet,
accept no compromise, and speak for action and full independence.

Here lies a problem - for Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is more than a
spiritual and political leader, he is their godhead. Hence, as Iyer
points out, the Tibetan Government in Exile is notional, since the
Dalai Lama is beyond reproach and challenge.

Yet the Dalai Lama wants Government members to be more independent in
thought and action. But, so far, they aren't.

The Dalai Lama's travels take him throughout the world - as a
religious teacher telling people not to be entangled or distracted by
religion; as a Tibetan suggesting Tibet does not have all the
answers; as a Buddhist urging foreigners not to take up the religion
themselves but to study within their own traditions.

"At the very least, something quite radical is being advanced," Iyer
writes of a man who defines himself as "an internationalist" and
speaks on behalf of what he calls "global ethics" - basic principles
of kindness and responsibility that anyone can implement.

Carrying his Tibetan tradition out of its past isolation, he stresses
his culture needs to be less solitary and in closer contact with
modernity. He asks, too, for help for his people, suggesting if we
inhabit a global universe, then our welfare depends on that of Tibet
as much as its on us.

Pondering Tibet's future, Iyer recalls the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the Cold War's end. Then, who would have thought it? Yet the
Dalai Lama, he says, reposes his faith on such a surprise. After all,
the man known in Beijing as a "wolf in monk's clothing" has said:
"Until the last moment, anything is possible."
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