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'Are You God?': The Open Road:
The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Ideally, biography scrubs the varnish from our popular idols and restores them to a humbler, more human state. That task is made more complicated here, since the most persistent myth surrounding the Dalai Lama is precisely that of his uncanny humanity. His Holiness, like the historical Buddha before him, has always insisted that he is just a regular man; indeed, in The Open Road we learn that he worries whether his efforts make a difference, gets angry when his time is wasted, and likes to play with dogs. He also pushes himself, waking up every morning at 3:30 a.m. for four hours of meditation. (This meditation, unlike any I’ve heard of or practiced, allows him to simultaneously listen to the BBC’s World Service news, to which he proudly declares himself addicted.)

In at least one respect, though, the Dalai Lama is not at all like most of us: he is an unparalleled optimist. In fact, his optimism is so unrelenting that it can occasionally be mistaken for naïveté. His indefatigable cheerfulness, his guileless insistence that we treat each other better — it can inspire equal measures of admiration and cynicism. Listening to him laugh off Beijing’s most recent denunciations or instructing Tibetan exiles to cultivate more compassion for their Chinese “brothers and sisters,” it is hard not to wonder if the Dalai Lama isn’t just blissed out. Iyer acknowledges the modern discomfort with this kind of cheerful simplicity, but takes the Dalai Lama’s creeds at face value, as the coherent positions of a thoughtful leader. In doing so, he reminds us that even seemingly banal truths — “that anger backfires against the one who feels it, that kindness helps us if only by making us feel better, that ignoring another’s perspective is to create problems for yourself in the long run” — can form the basis of a profound political philosophy.

Whether that political philosophy will produce results remains to be seen. So far, his Middle Way approach has elicited no concessions from the Chinese. All but thirteen of Tibet’s 6,000-plus monasteries have been razed. Lhasa’s economy is now run by the city’s Han Chinese majority, a major gripe leading up to the recent riots. “In the course of his life,” writes Iyer, “and thanks in part to him, Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism have become a living and liberating part of the global neighborhood; and yet at the same time, on his watch, his own people have lost most of their contact with their leaders, their loved ones, and their culture, and one of the great centers of Buddhism, five times as large as Britain, has been all but wiped off the map.” If the Dalai Lama chooses to be reincarnated — and he is emphatic that he will do so only if he can continue to be of benefit to the Tibetan people — he will likely return to find Tibet even more firmly under Beijing’s thumb.

The Buddha was a renowned empiricist who accepted nothing on faith. He often said that his followers should test the truth of his method for themselves, discarding any parts of it they found to be incorrect. The Dalai Lama, too, is a self-described empiricist, and says that any aspect of the Buddhist canon that can be disproved by science should be eliminated. He regularly chides the Tibetan community for accepting teachings — even his — without examining them first. In other words, his religious practice is built on reason. His politics, however, rely on faith. He has been “practicing nonviolence and moving the world with his example for almost half a century,” but he has moved China “not at all,” Iyer laments, “and Tibet now was almost gone.” When he, too, is gone, will the faith that has sustained Tibetans for so long survive?


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