Pico Iyer Journeys

The Doctor Is Within

“Dream–nothing!” is one of the many things the Fourteenth Dalai Lama regularly says to large audiences that startles the unprepared. Just before I did an onstage conversation at New York Town’s Hall with him this month, he told me, “If I had magical powers, I’d never need an operation!” and broke into guffaws as he thought of the three-hour gallbladder operation he’d been through last October, weeks before being in hospital for another ailment. For a Buddhist, after all, our power lies nowhere but ourselves. We can’t change the world except insofar as we change the way we look at the world–and, in fact, any one of us can make that change, in any direction, at any moment. The point of life is happiness, the Dalai Lama always points out, and that lies within our grasp, our untapped potential, with every breath.

Easy for him to say, you might scoff. He’s a monk, a practiced meditator and, many believe, an unusually wise and even enlightened soul. Yet when you think back on his circumstances, you recall that he was made ruler of his people, responsible for more than 6 million Tibetans, when he was only four years old. He was facing a civil war of sorts in Lhasa when he was eleven, and when he was fifteen, he was made full political leader and had to start protecting his country against Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, leaders of the world’s largest (and sometimes least tractable) nation. This spring marks the completion of half a century for him in exile, trying to guide and protect 6 million Tibetans he hasn’t seen in fifty years, and to rally 150,000 or so exiled Tibetans who have in most cases not seen Tibet. This isn’t an obvious recipe for producing a vividly contagious optimism.

Yet in 35 years of talking to the Dalai Lama, and traveling with him everywhere from Zurich to Hiroshima, as a non-Buddhist, skeptical journalist, I’ve found him to be as deeply confident, and therefore sunny, as anyone I’ve met. And I’ve begun to think that his almost visible glow does not come from any mysterious or unique source. Indeed, mystery and rumors of his own uniqueness are two of the things that move him most instantly to erupt into warm laughter. The Dalai Lama I’ve seen is a realist (which is what makes his optimism the more impressive and persuasive). And he’s as practical as the man he calls his “boss.” The Buddha always presented himself as more physician than metaphysician: if an arrow is sticking out of your side, he famously said, don’t argue about where it came from or who made it; just pull it out. You make your way to happiness not by thinking about it or wondering how to capture it, but simply by finding the cause of your suffering, and then attending to it, as any doctor of the mind might do.

The first words the Dalai Lama said when he came into exile, I learned not long ago, were “Now we are free.” He had just lost his homeland, his seeming destiny, contact with the people he had been chosen to rule; he had been forced to undergo a harrowing flight for 14 days across the highest mountains in the world. But his first instinct–the result of training and teaching, surely, as much as of temperament–was to look at what he could do better now. He could bring democratic and modern reforms to the Tibetan people that he could not so easily have done in old Tibet. He and Tibet could learn from Western science and society at last, and give someting back to them. He could create a new, improved Tibet–a Tibet 2.1., in effect–outside Tibet. The very condition that most of us would see as loss, severance and frustration, he saw as possibility.

Not all Tibetans can be quite so sanguine and far-sighted, of course, and in terms of a resolution of Tibet’s political predicament vis a vis China, the Dalai Lama has made no visible progress in fifty years. Beijing is only coming down harder and harder on Tibet, as he frankly admits. But when I travel with him around the world, I see that he’s coming to the U.S., as he did this spring, to offer concrete, practical tips for happiness, or inner health, the way any physician might offer you advice for external health. Think in terms of enemies, he suggests, and the only loser is yourself. Concentrate on external wealth, he said at Town Hall, and at some point you realize it has limits–and you’re still feeling discontented. Offer assistance to that friend in need, and you’re likely to feel better–even if your friend does not.

None of these are Buddhist laws as such–though in his case they arise from Buddhist teaching–any more than the law of gravity is Christian, just because it happened to be pinned down by the Christian Isaac Newton. I spend much of my time in a Benedictine monastery in California, and the monks I know there have likewise found how to be delighted by the smallest birthday cake. Happiness is not pleasure, they know, and unhappiness, as the Buddhists say, is not the same as suffering. Suffering–in the sense of old age, sickness and death–is the law of life; but unhappiness is just the position we choose–or can not {itals} choose–to bring to it.

Not long ago, I was traveling with the Dalai Lama across Japan and a journalist came into our bullet-train compartment for an interview. “Your Holiness,” he said, “you have seen so much suffering and loss in your life. Your people have been killed and your country has been occupied. You have had to worry about the welfare of Tibet every day since you were four years old. How can you always remain so happy and smiling?”

“My profession,” said the Dalai Lama instantly, as if he hardly had to think about it. His answer could mean many things, but one of the best things it meant to me was that that kind of happiness is within the reach of almost anyone. We can work on it as we work on our putting, our cooking or on training our bodies at the gym. True happiness, in that sense, doesn’t mean trying to acquire things, so much as letting go of things (our illusions and attachments). Our real nature, the Dalai Lama is essentially suggesting, is blue sky; it’s only the clouds of ignorance or short-sightedness that sometimes prevent us from seeing things as they are.

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