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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Pico Iyer talks about the Dalai Lama, Leonard Cohen and the virtues of traveling within yourself

April 6, 2010

By Jeff Baker, The Oregonian
April 04, 2010

Pico Iyer was in town last week to give a lecture and meet with students and
faculty at the University of Portland. Iyer is the author of 10 books,
including "The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, & the Search for Home"
and "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama." He was
born in England and grew up there and in California, graduating from Oxford
and traveling widely. He's more settled now, in Japan, and talked about how
he's spending more time traveling inward than around the world. This is the
first half of a 90-minute interview with Iyer, conducted on March 31. Iyer
talks extensively about the Dalai Lama and Leonard Cohen. I'll post the
second half on Monday, after I finish editing it.

Q: What have you been up to over the last 12 years?

A: Descending deeper and deeper into seclusion, and therefore into books,
and therefore into self. When I last saw you I was here with this collection
of essays but I was about to write "The Global Soul"so I was still
pinballing around the world. Having felt that I satisfied my quota of
movement, I've been spending a lot of time in stillness. I haven't moved
into the last 12 years, I would say, and have been experimenting with a
different kind of writing, and of reading.

I know you and I always talk books, and so many of the writers I couldn't
get before are now my heroes, like Alice Munro and Colm Toibin.

Q: You haven't moved from Japan?

A: Yes, rural Japan. And as you remember, that part of my life hasn't
changed one iota -- no newspapers, no TV, no high-speed Internet, no
bicycle, no car. It's almost like living in a monastery. For months on end,
I only spend my time really within four square blocks. It's luxurious. I
can't imagine a better thing for me. It's also a safe distance from watching
the Titanic sink ... I think if I were here, I might get a little
disspirited because so many of the things out of which I make my living -- 
books, newspapers and magazines -- seem to be endangered species. But there
I can forget all that and spend time just reading Proust and Melville and
taking these big voyages through them.

Q: When you say it's like living in a monastery, you're speaking from

A: (laughs) I am, because the rest of the time I am in the monastery. I
think that experience so moved me that it just filtered into the rest of my
life and I found that the greatest luxury in my life is to be without a cell
phone or a laptop or a computer screen. Interesting experiment for me to be
in one place.

Q: How's your Japanese?

A: No better (laughs). Barely better. One thing I do there every day is play
pingpong with a group of very elderly retired Japanese people who are
incredibly kind to me. Most of them are in their 70s and I'm the only
foreigner so I'm there sort of pet. That has forced me to learn a little
Japanese, even if it's only service return or out (laughs). I tell myself
that it's a virtue an illiterate and all this is about being free of

My sense is right after I last saw you I wrote this book "The Global Soul"
about how we're so surfeited with distraction, stimulation and data that the
human soul seems to be crying out for the opposite. I felt that sufficiently
myself that I've been trying to take myself away from data and stimulation.
It's a curious thing. I'm still like you, I'm a functioning journalist, but
I'm a journalist who doesn't follow the news, or who follows the news by
reading Emerson and Melville rather than watching CNN. I think I'm in the
position of being about a quarter-millimeter from what's happening in the
world and being unable to discern, really, what's going on because it's
coming at us with such intensity.

Q: How does this fit in with the Dalai Lama, who you've spent a lot of time

A. Not explicitly. Though I would say that insofar as the two poles in my
life are movement and stillness, I'm very interested in those monks who move
around a lot. I've written a lot about Leonard Cohen, especially in the last
12 years, and I've been writing about the Dalai Lama a lot, but I wouldn't
say he's related to this because I've been writing about him since about
1985, I would say. He is an interesting example of a man who's in the
political sphere who because he's taking a much longer view and seeing
things against a much broader backdrop has a wisdom and a clarity that I
think most of our politicians who are always campaigning don't have. So I
suppose the Dalai Lama is confirming my prejudices rather than giving me
useful new prejudices.

Q: If you've been writing about the Dalai Lama since 1985, did you plan to
do the book since 1985?

A: I didn't. I'd been writing more and more and more and more articles for
18 years and then I finally thought I should think about this in a sustained
way and write a book. Also I'd noticed ... in '85 he would come to New York
and he'd give a press conference and three people would show up, two
Tibetans and me. Most of my friends didn't know who or what he was. I never
anticipated there would be such global interest, but I found more and more
of my friends would say 'you've been lucky enough to spend all this time
with him. What's he like? Is the hype true? How much is distorted?'

I thought I would ask some of those questions because so many people are
interested in him and he offers such an interesting ... like our current
president, such an inclusive, non-polar view of things that I thought it was
a good moment to look at his vision.

Q: How did that go?

A: (laughs) I learned a lot. I think at this point I only write books about
questions I really want to figure out. They're indulgences, essentially. I
think 'what would I like to spend five years really thinking about? What
could I gain from thinking about for five years?' He is a perfect example. I
do think he's one of the richer and more unexpected public figures and
philosophers around and I'm lucky enough to have access to him.

I'm not a Buddhist, and when he talks to non-Buddhists like us he's really
offering general principles for living. A bit like even the stoics. I was
just reading Marcus Aurelius and thinking he and the Dalai Lama would have a
good conversation. So, tips for mental health, essentially. I felt that
could only be a good thing to think about for five years.

I think before, when I last saw you, I felt that I was trying to write ahead
of the curve. Each of my books was aimed to anticipate the theme of the
country, or a theme of the country, two years later. Now I'm probably trying
write against the curve because I believe the world has speeded up much too
fast, much too intensely for me to keep up with it, so maybe I'm offering a
counter view rather than an anticipating view.

Q: Would an example of that be your Canada book?

A: Certainly I think Canada is many years ahead of the curve and still the
great global pioneer. One example is that "Global Soul" book that came out
the first month of this millennium and it was about some of the issues that
we're going to have to address and I think we are addressing. Actually the
Dalai Lama book came out the week Tibet was suddenly in the press with the
uprising but it's not about the events of the day so much as how to make
sense of the events of the day.

The first impulse is to gather as much data as possible and the second is to
step as far back as you can to begin to thread those into a pattern that
makes sense.

Q: When you say you have access to the Dalai Lama, what does that mean?
You've known him for a long time and he's comfortable around you?

A: Essentially that. I stumbled, lucked into this acquaintance with him when
I was 17, at a time when nobody was seeking him out. Then when he became
more prominent, partly because he has such a good memory and he's such a
kind person, he would always remember that my father had met him in 1960 and
I'd met him thereafter. I always felt that the foundations of an easy
working relationship were laid a long time ago.

Q: What's he up to now?

A: Trying to tell people to go to Tibet, people like us. Mostly what he's
been up to for a long time is to prepare the Tibetan people for his
succession and when he's no longer around. That I think has been his big
challenge and one I'm not sure he's answered successfully. I don't think he
ever could answer and that's how to make them non-dependent on him. He's set
up a full democratic system there and done everything he can to try to
essentially depose himself, but understandably after 400 years of turning to
the Dalai Lama it'll take awhile for them to get out of that habit. It's
interesting we've seen the same thing in Bhutan where the king deposed
himself and imposed democracy on the people, who didn't want it. Nepal is
moving in that direction now.

Q: In fits and starts.

A: (laughs) Exactly. Very fitfully. Obviously in exile Tibetans have been
looking to the Dalai Lama to be the human glue, the one thing holding them

Q: How old is he?

A: 75 this year, in July. I think his health is pretty good. His stamina is
amazing. Whenever he comes to Japan I travel with him for eight or nine days
and I'm exhausted just from watching him go through his schedule and I'm 25
years younger than he. It goes back to your first question: I think part of
the reason why his stamina is so amazing is he spends his first four hours
every day in meditation. I think seeing people like him or Leonard Cohen,
who is doing three-hour concerts at the age of 74 and 75, has if nothing
else shown me that it's only by composing yourself and sitting still for a
long, long time that you can really bring the focus and clarity to guide you
when you start moving. Those two are good examples of that.

Q: I was going to wait to ask you about Leonard Cohen but he keeps popping

A: He does keep popping in.

Q: Start from the beginning: What's your connection to him?

A: Like many people, maybe you, I was a devotee growing up. I remember when
I was 17 I went to India, really for the first time, for three months and
all I had was an acoustic guitar, a very worn copy of his first album, and
the dream of becoming the Indian Leonard Cohen. I would traipse along with
long hair, English boarding school, and every time I'd see a beautiful Mogol
garden I'd sit down and strum something horrible and try to create some
moon/June terrible verse to replicate him. I was a fan for a long, long

Then in 1995, to my delight, a magazine asked me to spend some time with him
in his Zen temple where he'd gone on retreat because I had written a book
about Japan and Zen. Since then, because he's such an open, generous and
humble man, as his monk-ly robes would suggest, disarmingly so. It's almost
shocking when people meet him how much he's left Leonard Cohen the celebrity
behind. He presents himself as somebody who just wants to look after you and
tend to you anonymously. He was really nice enough to keep up the

I reviewed his album in 2001, "Ten New Songs," and I think he liked that
piece. He often asked me to write, I guess the text for his Essential
Leonard Cohen album and then something about his next album and the text for
his recent concert program and the bio for his Web site. I think it's mostly
because maybe two reasons. One is he's such a literary person at heart. As
you know, he began his life as a poet and he's always hungering for a
literary appreciation for his work, not just the typical music critic
response. And also he doesn't know so many people who spend a lot of time in
a monastery and that seems to make a connection whereby I could understand
him in a certain way that made sense to him. Of course he's ... like any
charismatic person who's been in the public eye for 40 years but more than
most he exerts such a fascination for people. He, like the Dalai Lama in a
different way, has set up such an elaborate screen of myths and projections.
When people hear the words Leonard Cohen they think of all kinds of things
but probably not of the monk or the poet. Maybe he was glad to have someone
respond to that.

Q: I was disappointed he didn't come here. Did you travel with him?

A: I didn't but I saw a couple of the concerts.

Q: I heard they were both artistic triumphs and rapturously received.

A: Rapturous. I've never seen anything like it. I went to see the first
concerts in Toronto, which were the start of the official tour, and for
Leonard Cohen to return to a big arena in Canada is like the Pope to show up
in St. Peter's square or whatever it's called. He only had to come out
onstage and the whole place was up, and then regularly after every song. It
was very touching. I've never seen such an intimate connection between an
audience and a star onstage. I think that's because his skill at
demystifying himself and creating that air of intimacy, even in a big arena.
I thought a lot about what it is that holds people so about his work and I
think there is a pitiless, unsparing honesty that very few writers in any
form can conjure up. I more and more think that he is one of the enduring
poets of English literature. I would put him right next to Emily Dickinson.

Q: Do you think that his performing aged well? He is a spare arranger and
his voice is not considered classically beautiful and maybe sounds better
now than it did when he was younger.

A: That's a very interesting point and makes a lot of sense to me. I think
it's also that he's sitting apart from the time and that he's singing to the
tune of his own drummer. I think what people respond to is a composure and a
wisdom to his delivery that we're not accustomed to seeing even among his
contemporaries like Bob Dylan. I think they feel that he's not trying to
keep up with the moment or traffic in the latest MTV styles or playing
elaborate games of that kind.

He's presenting himself almost as a monk in prayer on the stage and that
cuts through some of the stuff I was saying we're so tired of. We feel more
and more manipulated by image and more hostage to the moment and he's not
about moment and not about image. And yes his voice, which was always a
little uncertain, is now more hauntingly uncertain. When I play it in Japan
my Japanese wife runs out of the room holding her ears. She says 'this is
just Buddhist chanting. This is like going to a Zen temple.' (laughs) And
she's right. That has a certain appeal now.

The arc of his career is so interesting. He began as the bright troubadour
romantic and then in the 70s his songs were all about self-hatred and being
messed up and lost and then he went into the Zen temple and came out with
these very worldly songs, "First We'll Take Manhattan," almost like a
prophet returning to the mountaintop. I do feel, and maybe it's just my
prejudice, that those years as a monk prepared him for being able to come
out in the world and an extraordinary collected energy that almost no other
musician can command. One reason the concerts were so successful was his
transparent humility. We're not used to a performer thanking the audience
over and over and not trying to hog the spotlight.

Q: As far as putting him in the pantheon of poets, I've read comments from
him that writing is a very painstaking process for him and he wants to make
sure to get it right.

A: Yes, exactly. I remember when I was staying with him in the Zen temple in
this little rickety cabin on the mountainside and he had all these notebooks
up there and he pointed and said those six notebooks are one song. For
something like "Halleluyah" he wrote 80 verses and recorded four verses and
he sometimes sings a version with two different ones so he's employed six
out of the 80. I think that perfectionism, that absolute meticulousness that
you see in his dress and his presentation of himself, means that he'll
continue to make minor changes in a song even after it's recorded.

He approaches life as a poet and I think he's almost unique in the rock and
roll domain in that there are many people like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan
and subsequent ones who have a great gift for poetry but are musicians
first. I see Cohen as being very similar to Thomas Merton. I was just up at
the monastery reading Merton and it's word for word similar but even more
Emily Dickinson with those riddled quatrains where each word is so uncanny
but so perfectly put together in this little jewel box that can explode in
your hand. It's a very rare thing even in poetry because not much mainstream
poetry is rhymed and observes so specific a rhythm as his.

Q: The current Bob Dylan is revealing himself to be what he was when he was
20, a troubadour and a collector and interpreter of old folk songs. He'll
reinterpret himself differently every time where Cohen will make sure to get
it exactly right.

A: Yes, and invested with the changes himself. When he sings "Suzanne" it's
note for note the same as in 1967 but what you're hearing is a 75-year-old
man singing a 40-year-old song of love so it instantly has a different
coloration. But you're right, he's not playing games with it, he's counting
on the years to speak through it. I think Dylan is the great minstrel of
people when they're young and walking down the road and they don't know
what's beyond the next mountain and the excitement of exploration and
leaving everything behind and Cohen is about what's on the other side of the
mountain. He's the only person I know in the contemporary music world who's
speaking for the wisdom of the 75-year-old rather the questing nature of the

I was listening to some early Dylan recently from the Scorsese documentary
"No Direction Home" and there's some early songs when Dylan was 19 and I
suddenly got it and I realized when he was 19 he sounds like he's 1,000
years old and he sounds like a prophet who's come down from the mountain or
forest and it's really uncanny to me now. In some ways he's gotten younger
and younger as the years have gone on whereas I think Cohen is more about
how we've watched him deepen and mature and go from this person singing
about division and confusion to this sage who's beyond it all.

-- Jeff Baker
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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