Interview with Pico Iyer
He is one of the most revered and respected travel writers today. He was born in England, raised in California, and educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. His essays, reviews, and other writings have appeared in TIME, Conde Nast Traveler, Harper’s, the New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Salon.com. In fact, Pico Iyer has never written any political editorials about any country except Tibet. His books include Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, Cuba and the Night, Falling off the Map, Tropical Classical, and The Global Soul. They have been translated into several languages and published in Europe, Asia, South America, and North America. He has written many articles about Tibet as well. Iyer is presently writing an article for the TIME, and a book on His Holiness the Dalai Lama. TibetNet caught up with him, excerpts….
TN- Born in England to Indian parents, brought up in the US, schooled in England, spend most of your time in Japan, where does your heart belong?
Some extend to the globe, and in some ways, I am sitting on a great opportunity because like many people I have grown up with little bits of me in different cultures, as you say and so my loyalty is not narrowly limited, I hope, to any of those cultures but when I talk about planetary conscience or global sense of responsibility I think it has some meaning for me because I really feel as if the whole world has been my territory and I have been travelling around it since I was only nine years old, going back and forth between my parent’s home in California and my school in England. I think if I had to pin down where my heart is, Japan is one place. My heart led me to Japan, and even though I speak very little Japanese and I have never been a grownup in Japan, I have never actually worked in Japan, still I spend eight months of the year there and there is a mysterious connection whereby I feel at home and I also spend probably two months of every year in a catholic hermitage in California and that is a place that I carry around with me everywhere I go. A few years ago, as you may know, I had the rather dramatic event of my house burning down in California and losing everything I owned. And that really was a good way for me to remind myself that home is internal and that the only home I would have is whatever I carry around with me in the form of associations or friendships or beliefs.
TN- You first came to Dharamshala and met His Holiness in 1974 when you were just a teenager. Your impression about His Holiness, then and now.
That’s right, the most obvious difference I see is that it was much easier to see him when the world had not discovered him. It feels to me in my memory and I am sure this could be exactly right, more or less. My father who was bringing me and I just drove up in the car and rang the front bell and we were able to spend an hour and half conversation with His Holiness. On the other hand, I think the fact that the world has discovered him has allowed His Holiness to discover the world in turn and I think when I saw him at that time he was engaged in a very rarefied philosophical discussion with my father who was a professor of philosophy. But in some ways, a part of me has rejoiced in the fact that as recently as the eighties when I was living in New York, and when I would talk about the Dalai Lama or I would invite colleagues in the TIME magazine to meet him, very few people were interested and now those same colleagues are flying all the way across the world from New York for ten minutes with His Holiness. So, I have heard, for example, professor Robert Thurman say that at that time that His Holiness, before he was hugely discovered by the west, was able to give so much time to meditation and to really deepening his practice that when he came out to the west, there was this sense of command and focus and compassion that was electrifying. So I think in 1974 he was obviously less familiar with dealing with outsiders and he was just sort of act for over the drama of really intensifying his skills as we witness now.
TN – What qualities of His Holiness the Dalai Lama do you think attracts the westerners? What would be the one special trait, if you were to mention, of His Holiness that has influenced you the most?
I think to start with the second part of the question first; the thing that really moves me about His Holiness is his ability to combine realism with optimism. That in some ways if the first noble truth is the reality of suffering there are few people on this planet who are more closely acquainted with reality and with suffering. And so when he speaks about optimism and determination, and not giving up, it comes from somebody also has more reason to lose heart than almost anyone on the planet. In some ways, many of us in our lives want to look at the world clearly and without any illusion or sentimental projection, see the world as it really is and all its difficulty and yet want always to have hope and I think His Holiness represent that better than anyone in my lifetime. And the other thing that speaks to both to me and to all the westerners and foreigners who are attracted to him is obviously just his humanity and I think he has this rare gift of communication just with his presence and actions. And being here during the teachings, when I have attended the teachings, my suspicious is, I and a lot of the foreigners who listen to His Holiness can’t follow all that he is saying when he is delivering his very rarefied philosophy. And just seeing him and the attention he brings to every moment and the fact that just walking from his gate to the temple, he is picking out everything in a way that few of us would be able to. I think he gives this very practical, direct sense of how we can make some of these principles alive in the world. In other words, his teaching is not abstract but extremely concrete, visible, and palpable and that is what has enabled him to communicate with people with whom he doesn’t share any words. And I remember I was lucky enough to spend a day with His Holiness when he came to my little town of Nara in Japan, about 18 months ago. When he was addressing 2000 Japanese and they were asking him all kinds of questions, what do we do with our boss who is difficult or what do I do with my girlfriend, you know the kind of things the foreigners ask him and he gave very quick practical advice, not airy fairy stuff, just very direct methods. But more than anything, I remember, at one point he was visiting a major temple with all the high-flown Japanese abbots, and leaders of that temple. And he was on his way to discussion with one of the abbots about Buddhist issues. As he was walking to that town, suddenly he saw a little girl in a wheelchair on the side and instantly he went over and the whole entourage of 50 people followed him over and he just bent down and started communicating with this girl. Of course, she only spoke Japanese and he could not, but he just touched her and he bent down and you just see something being transmitted there that I don’t think any of us have seen with any public figures. And in some ways, it is eloquent as all the things that he said in his formal address. And I think any foreigner, probably any Tibetan you talk to will have many of those private particular moments about His Holiness that in some ways inspire them for the rest of their lives. I mean words inspire our mind, but he has this gift of inspiring our heart just by watching him in action.
TN – Your father brought you a picture of His Holiness as a young monk when you were just three. Tell us about your father’s association with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, what would he tell you about His Holiness? Did your father influence your attraction towards His Holiness?
In some ways, my father passed on to me his friendship with His Holiness and I think that is one of the great inheritances he has given me. We were living in England at the time of His Holiness’ flight from Tibet, and although my father was a Hindu origin, he was very very interested in Buddhism. I remember my first among is when I was 2 years old in 1959. We had a crackly little radio and my father would tell me this palpitating story about the little boy, (pauses and laughs), well, young man who was fleeing with his family across the highest mountains in the wood and planes were circling over head and each day, we didn’t know he would be apprehended. And even though I was only 2 years old it made such an impression on me because such a dramatic story continued day by day that to this day, I think that still remains inside me almost like a going on the stay of His Holiness’s flight. And soon after, he arrived in India, my father came to meet him in 1960, at relatively early stage when not so many people were coming to meet him. And I can’t remember so much that my father actually told me about His Holiness because I was still small. But what I do remember is that in our home in Oxford, England, there were ways things connected with Tibet, books about Tibet, thankas probably, pictures of the Potala Palace. Even couple of Tibetan monks came to study with my father in the early 60’s, Chogyam Trungpa and another one who went to Oxford. And somehow from the time I was 5 or 6 I felt very intimate with this mysterious culture that to other people really belonged only in fairy tale. So when my father told His Holiness that he had a 3 year old boy in Oxford, was given by His Holiness a picture of His Holiness when he was in the lion throne in Lhasa at age 4 or 5 and that sat on my desk all the time I was growing up and so without even understanding a huge amount about who the Dalai Lama was, he was presiding over my life until I was 33 and then a forest fire came and destroyed my house and I lost everything including that picture but by then I had pictures in my heart because I had spent more time with His Holiness. So I am forever grateful to my father for bringing what to most people then seemed like something that belonged to another planet and making it so real and close to me.
TN – His Holiness turns 70 this year, and there is an apparent worry among the Tibetans about the future of Tibet without His Holiness. How justified are they? How would you feel, as an outsider, about the Tibetan people without the Dalai Lama at a critical period in their history?
I think it is a very justified worry and my suspicion is that this worry has been hanging more intensively over His Holiness then almost anyone in the world from many many years. I know he gave an interview with Time magazine last October and the question came up and he wasn’t able to say everything is going to be well. I think he said “I don’t know” a well just have to find when I am no longer here.” And I had a private audience with His Holiness and it was one of the rare questions when he didn’t give a decisive answer as he can’t necessarily see into the future or if he can he can he is not going to tell me what he sees. I think that apprehension is very justified, and as an outsider, one of the sad ironies of the Tibet situation that I witnessed is that as soon as He came to India and saw the opportunity for creating a new kind of Tibetan structure His Holiness has been urging democracy on the Tibetan people and actually writing the constitution (Charter) early in the 60s with a clause allowing for his own impeachment and really trying to give as much power and responsibilities as possible to historical reverence to the Dalai Lama’s position the Tibetans seem always eager for him really to carry much of the responsibility, and I am not sure if Democracy has been embraced as intensely and wholeheartedly as he would like. Of course, we all know that every time a Dalai Lama leaves the earth there’s always this difficulty period and that seems to be one of the difficulties intrinsic to the Dalai Lama situation that there will always be about a twenty year period in which they will be looking for the next Dalai Lama and even when they find him he is not really in control. So that situation is difficult which would be difficult even if all Tibetans are still in Tibet. Well, I think it will just be aggravated. I think in some ways, it is a challenge to the Tibetan to try to take seriously the democracy that His Holiness has be been giving to them. When I asked him this question four days ago, he emphasized how elections have been held and all the engines of democracy are in place. And it’s really just up to the Tibetan people to realise that will have to be their leadership in the short term.
TN- You are familiar with the politics of Tibet and China. His Holiness seeks to resolve the issue of Tibet through negotiation with China, and as you may be aware, envoys of His Holiness have visited Tibet thrice since 2002. How good do you feel are the chances of the efforts bearing any positive results?
On something like that I suppose I defer to His Holiness because he knows more and follows issues more closely than any of us. He always says in short term it seems very bleak but in a long term he is optimistic. That seems to be very reasonable assumption. While I have been in Dharamshala this time I have gone out of my way to speak to as if they are loyal opposition or the distant voices of Tibet who are very impatient and whose impatience I can understand and who really want action and some way of shaking China up. My sense is although that would shake China up, in some ways what would stir China ultimately most is public opinion and so I personally think that His Holiness’ position is very wise. I think one of the great blessings Tibet has, and no other nation does have, is they have a monk as the head of the state and a monk who unlike any other politician is able to see things in terms of generations and centuries and also to see things in terms of principles and who realises that Tibet could make certain political actions now that would make the headlines and shake China and the world up for a little while but in the long run would does much unique thing that Tibet has to offer. When I think of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or some of the other people from whom His Holiness is probably taking inspiration, the reason that we see their inspirations now is that they kept to the high road to the end and there were lots of people around them urging violence and if they had instigated violence then, I think those instances would have been forgotten and wouldn’t be in a position to inspire His Holiness or other countries now. So I am not optimistic about a quick resolution but I am optimistic about His Holiness’ wisdom in actually transforming the way that we look on politics. Tibet is arguably in a difficult position because it is only country I know that has spiritual political and temporal ruler in one. But I think His Holiness has seen that is a potential blessing that he can bring the wisdom and benefits of his spiritual training to the political arena so as actually to transform the political arena.
Full interview will be published in Tibetan Bulletin, May- June issue