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Book reviews: Holder of the White Lotus and The Open Road

May 12, 2008

Holder of the White Lotus: The Lives of the Dalai Lama by Alexander
Norman The Open Road: The Global Journey of the 14th Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer
Book Review by Patrick French
The Sunday Times (UK)
May 11, 2008

The Dalai Lama is the most influential person in the world, according
to Time magazine. He draws crowds that no other spiritual leader or
politician could hope to match, and sits there laughing, exuding an
infectious joy, despite the suffering that he and the Tibetan people
have known. Unique, celibate, idealistic, compassionate, exotic - he
seems to look at life in a different way to everyone else. What is
his secret? According to these two books, it lies in the fact that
his mind was trained from an early age in an abstruse religious
tradition that makes no distinction between the spiritual and temporal worlds.

Unlike the plethora of Hollywood meditators and their celebrity
appendages who claim friendship with the Dalai Lama, Alexander Norman
has known him well for two decades. As the ghostwriter of his
autobiography, Freedom in Exile, and the ethical guidebook Ancient
Wisdom, Modern World, he spent more than 250 hours interviewing him.
In the eccentric world of Tibetology, it may not be strange that
Norman also happens to be a practising Roman Catholic, a former
British Army officer and a vintage-aircraft enthusiast.

Starting from the first principle that the Dalai Lama is a series of
reincarnations of the Bodhisattva Chenrezig, his book sets out to
examine the historical roots of the lineage. It is not always a
pretty story. Several Dalai Lamas were murdered at a young age, and
one was a notorious seducer who drank hard, wore his hair long and
refused to take monastic vows. Norman seems at times to be shocked by
the fruits of his own research. His starting point is the savage
murder in 1997 of one of the Dalai Lama's closest allies in a
doctrinal dispute, which he calls "a case of hitting the goat to
scare the sheep". Delving into Tibet's past, he examines a complex
interplay of sorcery, reincarnation, divination and the assertion of
worldly power. The establishment of the institution of the Dalai
Lamas in 1578 arose out of a rivalry between monasteries, regional
warlords and the Mongolian descendants of Genghis Khan, who all
needed spiritual sanction for their actions.

The story that follows is some distance from what we are used to in
contemporary political discourse: we meet a protector deity who
emerges from a lotus flower, "his mouth open with warm blood bubbling
at the corners", a key religious text that has been hidden under a
rock for several hundred years, and a group of monks who recite a
mantra more than 21m times in order to save the life of a sickly
Dalai Lama (they were not successful). Even at the time of the
Chinese communist invasion in 1950, Buddhist monks "made mystical
bombs, in the form of dough pellets charged with spells and
incantations, and tossed them in the direction of the advancing troops".

Some of the most interesting material is in the footnotes; the author
has an endearing willingness to present the Dalai Lama's statements
at face value. So when he asked the exiled Tibetan leader about the
references to "flying monks" in early travel texts, Norman was
informed that "from a traditional Tibetan perspective, the idea of
one man levitating was just about conceivable, but the idea of 400
people flying through the air in an iron bird would have been
dismissed as completely unimaginable".

The Dalai Lama has a curiously sceptical faith in his own cultural
background. He has swept aside many of the arcane traditions of old
Tibet, and is fascinated by modern science. But he is still willing
to rely on the pronouncements of oracles. He spends the first five
hours of each day in prayer and meditation and, in accordance with
his monastic vows, never eats meals after midday (although he will
sometimes sustain himself with a biscuit). It is this interplay
between different eras in the person of one man that Pico Iyer
examines in The Open Road. He, too, has known the Dalai Lama for many
years, and has watched him with a keenly perceptive eye as he has
travelled round the world.

Iyer has made a reputation as an analyst of the social changes that
are arising in the wake of globalisation. He notices and admires the
Dalai Lama's ability to reach out across many cultures, his knack for
reading faces in a crowd or the calming effect he can have on a
disturbed person. Trailing His Holiness in Japan, Iyer is struck by
the way he is able to switch "at lightning speed from monk to head of
state to philosopher-scientist to regular man". This success as a
communicator comes in part from a childlike ability to notice simple
things. The Dalai Lama tells Iyer that his pet dog has adopted a
rabbit from his garden: "Even the rabbit is trying to suck at the
dog's teats. Of course, a little disturbing for the dog!" For most of
us, this is a funny story; for the Dalai Lama, it is a lesson in
compassion, almost an instruction in better social behaviour for us
human animals.

The Open Road jumps cleverly between the Dalai Lama, the people
around him and the community of exiled Tibetans based in Dharamsala
in India. Iyer describes, for instance, the government-in-exile's
state oracle being attached to a giant metal hat as he begins to
enter a trance: "The odd impression was of an astronaut being
prepared for a long and dangerous journey, less into outer than into
inner space." Throughout, he seeks to comprehend the mental world of
the Dalai Lama, but is aware of the impossibility of doing so, since
"what I was brought up against again was an almost unimaginable
otherness at the centre of him. Much of what he did, I was reminded,
was invisible".

Iyer is careful not to offend anybody in his writing, skirting
sensitive issues such as the shoddy treatment of new arrivals in
Dharamsala by the established Tibetan exiles, who regard the refugees
as too "Chinese" in their language and behaviour. Dazzled by the
stars he has encountered in the Tibetophile orbit, Iyer makes
embarrassing paeans to the likes of U2 and Richard Gere. He avoids
tackling the central question thrown up by the Dalai Lama's decision
to become a lama to the globe: has his strategy of being a ubiquitous
man of peace while simultaneously encouraging the western pro-Tibet
lobby brought any real benefit to the 6m Tibetans who continue to
live under Chinese communist rule, or has it alienated the hard-faced
men in Beijing still further? Since The Open Road is so interesting
and well written, I was hesitant to express this reservation until I
read a splendid piece of philosophy in Iyer's book. He says, "Why
despair, indeed, when you can change the world at any moment by
choosing to see that the person who gave your last book a bad review
is as intrinsic to your wellbeing as your thumb is?

"Holder of the White Lotus" by Alexander Norman
Little, Brown £20 pp464

"The Open Road" by Pico Iyer
Bloomsbury £12.99 pp288
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