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Book Review: The Little Boy and the Monk

May 28, 2008

Pradeep Sebastian
'By looking at this 'simple Buddhist monk' from every available light, Pico Iyer's 'The Open Road' reveals why the 14th Dalai Lama is our most moving inspiration and our fondest hope for peace.'
Deccan Herald (India)
May 25, 2008

When Pico Iyer was a little boy, his father would tell him a story every night. The story that especially transfixed little Pico was about, "a little boy" who was seen by some passing monks one day and declared to be a king."

However, the young king had to suddenly flee across mountains to another land to save his life. The next part is fascinating: the fairy tale becomes real, and father and son follow it on the radio, tuning in to BBC late in the night, as they learn of the young monk-king making his daring escape. Will he make it to safety?

Pico’s father was one of the few Indians then, and perhaps a handful anywhere in the globe, to have the realisation that the 23-year-old Dalai Lama beginning his exile in this land was not only Tibet’s great spiritual treasure but that of the world’s itself -- indeed, a kind of Buddha returning to his ancient home.

As soon as he could make the journey, his father visits the Dalai Lama. At the end of their meeting, the father tells the monk that his only child -- a boy of three -- had followed the monk’s life with great intensity. In response, the Dalai Lama sends a picture of himself as a small boy on the Lion Throne of Lhasa, which Pico keeps on his desk. It would be another 14 years or so before Pico’s first meeting with the monk-king, and since that encounter, the author and the lama have deepened their uncommon friendship.

In his new book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Pico Iyer brings his many gifts (and selves) as journalist, travel writer, novelist and contemplative to give us a hardnosed, vastly researched, spiritually reflective and radiantly intimate biography of this Buddhist monk-king.

One stormy evening in Dharamsala, their umbrellas tearing in the wind, Pico and Hiroko, his longtime Japanese companion, fight the rain to make their way back to their little room in the guesthouse on the hill. On the way, he is reminded of something startling the Dalai Lama had said just after he had won the Nobel prize: “I really wonder if my efforts are enough.”

In all the many books and films on the Dalai Lama, realises Pico, that central question never seems to have been really answered. And that evening, in the presence of his "sweet and shining companion," he picks up his pen and begins writing.

The Open Road answers that question by looking deeply, honestly and sympathetically at the many selves -- the many meanings -- the Dalai Lama inhabits. Monk, philosopher, globalist, icon, mystery, politician; in public, in private and in practice. An incident from the book that haunts me is when the Dalai Lama, walking with a throng of people in a Japanese deer park, suddenly spots on the fringes of the crowd, two women and a little girl in a wheelchair. He crosses over to them quickly, and the mother explains that her daughter is well, except that the use of her legs is gone.

The Dalai Lama looks into the girl’s eyes for a long moment, places his hand against her cheek, and tweaks her affectionately. He is already walking away, and the mother is saying thank you, thank you, while her friend’s face looks like it will crumple any moment. “The little girl,” writer Pico Iyer, “is swinging her legs back and forth as if the day is just beginning.”


In the chapter titled ‘The Monk’, you can see that Pico really knows what it means to be a monk. (He lives right around the year like a contemplative). The monk who is the subject of this book wakes up at 3.30 am every morning "to spend his first four hours of the day meditating on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the “Chinese brothers and sisters who are holding his people hostage, and the rest of us, while also preparing himself for his death."

He cares for animals and "practices vegetarianism himself as much as he can (true to his Middle Way) having been forbidden by his doctors from practicing it entirely." A chapter, ‘The Globalist’, is a witty, finely observed and compassionate account of the town of Dharamsala (“as compressed and bittersweet an image of the global village as I have ever seen”), and its varied inhabitants in the way only this celebrated travel writer can render it. ‘The Politician’ is a thorough and thoughtful examination of the central dilemma (and conundrum) facing the 14th Dalai Lama, and how he has been addressing it since his exile.

Iyer notes that the Dalai Lama often ends his sentences with "That’s my view" or "That I really believe," as if to acknowledge that this is only "his thinking, not absolute truth." Often he would say, "I don’t know."

When Pico once asked him how things had changed since they had last met, he replied, "Less hair, I think, both of us...And my spiritual practice, not much. But as usual I carry it." There has been so much discussion recently on whether the Dalai Lama is the right leader for Tibet, and if his example of forbearance, gentleness, compassion and non-violence in the face of all provocation is not unreal in a global order ruled by realpolitik. But, when I read something like the above responses, I can only think: How poor this world would be without him. Is there another world leader today who is as honest, searching, gentle, humble, (witty), compassionate and wise?

A king, a monk-king, but still a king who actually lives and practices the Middle Way of the Buddha.

The Bodhisatva as political leader. And it is thanks to him and the exiled Tibetans here in India and everywhere else that Buddhism has returned to India and the world with such vitality. By looking at this ‘simple Buddhist monk’ from every available light, Pico Iyer’s The Open Road reveals to the reader why the 14th Dalai Lama is our most moving inspiration and our fondest hope for peace, clarity, depth, and inwardness in this accelerating, jam packed, exhilarating new global order.

The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Pico Iyer
Penguin India
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