Book Review: The Open Road

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The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, by Pico Iyer, is not a biography. It’s not a treatise on Tibetan Buddhism or an examination of the political situation of Tibet as a nation. Pico Iyer is a travel writer, so true to the title, it’s a book about a journey. Or better yet, it’s about journeys. The first, the journey of the Dalai Lama as he moves around the world, from Japan to L.A. and then back to Dharamsala, his home in exile in India. We journey around and through Dharamsala, itself. We journey with Iyer from his father’s original meeting with the Dalai Lama when he first arrived in India in 1959 to his own relationship with the man. We journey through some of the central ideas of Tibetan Buddhism with Iyer, who is not, himself, a Buddhist.

I picked up this book because I was looking for something quiet to read. The television I watch is almost uniformly violent bordering on disturbing. I was looking in my reading for something that was neither. Something almost meditative in the extent to which very little happens.

There’s no suspense in Iyer’s book. You meander. You wander. You pick up one question and ponder it for a bit, then you put it down. There are real things at stake, but in a very quiet sort of way.

As someone who’s read a bit about Buddhism in my own journey, there were a lot of interesting things in the book. Some of them were things I knew but that Iyer did a particularly good job of explaining. Some of them are new. Here are a few.

– One of the Dalai Lama’s older brothers worked for about four years as a janitor at a high school in New Jersey. No one knew who he was. They called him Joe. This was a man who had traveled with his brother to meet Mao Zedong. Who had sat in the room with the ruler of the most populous nation in the world, as well as being related to a man who’s considered to be a god by Tibetans. Yet, there he was, cleaning up after high school students in New Jersey.

I’m more than a little fascinated by this story. How did it happen? What was he thinking? Did he want to get away from being the Dalai Lama’s brother for a while? To have some anonymity? Did anyone find out while he was there? So many questions.

– The Dalai Lama gets up at about 4:00 every morning and meditates, says prayers, etc. for four hours. He does that every day. I do my very best to meditate for 10 minutes every day, which feels sometimes like a small miracle when it happens. Sometimes like the most important thing I do all day.

Iyer spends some time contemplating the specialness of the Dalai Lama. Is he really that great? If you met him, would you feel some kind of holiness in his presence? Or is his charisma simply the result of what we want to project onto him?

dalai lamaIn the world of Tibetan Buddhism, meditating for four hours every day isn’t that big of a deal. Some of the monks meditate for years at a time. Some meditate all day. But I have to believe that even the Dalai Lama’s paltry four hours every day probably makes him a pretty special human being. The real deal, so to speak. I meditate daily. I don’t pretend to understand how it works or what it does, but it does something. I imagine if you committed to it for four hours every day, it would do a lot.

– It seems sometimes that many Buddhist ideas suffer greatly from bad translation into English. The “suffering” Buddhists talk about all the time is really better translated as “discontent.” Contentment with your life is hard to find; we almost always feel like things could be better. The Dalai Lama translates the concept of “emptiness” as “empty of independent identity.” It’s not that our selves are empty, but that there is no me that’s not connected to someone or something else.

Iyer provides the very nice metaphor of the body to explain what the Dali Lama means: “…all he is really saying is that we are all a part of a single body, and to think of ‘I’ and ‘you,’ of the right hand’s interests being different from the left’s, makes no sense at all. It’s crazy to impede your neighbor, because he is as intrinsic to your welfare as your thumb is.”

I’ve read about this idea of interconnectedness before and it’s not a concept that’s unique to Buddhism. But Iyer does a particularly nice job explaining it and pointing out that this is might be why the Dalai Lama finds so many things amusing. As Iyer says, to someone like the Dalia Lama, “…much of our fascination with surface or with division seems truly hilarious.” And that is power. Power not just to see that being angry at someone is like being angry at your big toe, but to be able to laugh about it, too. This book was worth is just for that–just to think about how to get to a place where being angry is laughable in its stupidity.

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