Pico Iyer Journeys

The Heart of the Dalai Lama

“When I was your age,” the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is telling a group of six hundred or so young female students at Chikushi Jagakoen school in Fukuoka, Japan, “I was a quite lazy student. I didn’t have much enthusiasm for studying.” Though sitting politely, their hands in their laps, the girls almost visibly come to attention, drawing closer as he says this (they weren’t expecting such words from a celebrated visitor). “So my tutor always kept a whip,” he goes on, as naturally as if he were talking to his oldest friend. “I was studying with my elder brother, so the tutor kept two whips. One was yellow—a ‘Holy Whip!’ But I think if you use the ‘Holy Whip,’ the effect is the same as from the other one, ‘Holy Pain.’”

Even the girls, trained to be reserved and demure since birth, cannot contain their laughter—and delight, perhaps, and relief. Even this man regarded as an incarnation of a god by his followers is, at some level, just like them. Even he has been in need of discipline at times, and is in the lifelong business of finding an answer to suffering, or “Holy Pain,” as it might be. I scribble down his every word and notice how seamlessly he’s transmitting certain fundamental truths of Buddhism. Don’t be distracted by externals, or signs of ceremony—a yellow whip hurts just the same as any other whip. Don’t think of holiness as something separate from the realm of suffering—if anything, our most sacred duty comes in our response to the realm of suffering, which evolves through a change in perception. Don’t think of people as unequal—everyone has to go through the same lessons, and the Buddha himself, master democrat, gave us a sense of power and potential by always reminding us that he was no different from us.

And yet, as ever, the Dalai Lama conveys all this without using the word “don’t” at all. “But,” he tells the young students, “I believe some years I lost” through not paying attention. “Please pay attention to your studies.” It’s a tonic and liberating idea: excitement is in the eye of the beholder, a reflection of the choices that we make. He’s already told the girls, at the beginning of his lecture, that he’s “nothing special,” no different from any one of them, in his human challenges (or his human potential). So if they are impressed by the sense of presence, alertness, and kindness they see before them, embodied in one being, they’re essentially impressed by an image of what they can be, too, if they so choose. Indeed, by learning from his mistakes, they can go beyond him in certain respects, and pay attention to the possibilities around them from a younger age. At some point, he assures them, he realized that his studies were in fact the most exciting adventure around; it wasn’t necessarily that the difficult Buddhist texts changed, but that his way of seeing them did.

He doesn’t tell them, I have noticed, that whenever he has a spare moment on the road he turns to a copy of some Buddhist teaching, his greatest joy whenever he isn’t inspecting the world around him (to get a deeper, more detailed and empirical sense of what reality looks like). In Yokohama he’ll ask an engineer, backstage, before a large lecture, how the soundboard works. When we have lunch with an ambassador from Bahrain, he’ll try to learn more about the history of Islam and Arabic culture. When old friends come to meet him in his hotel room, he asks them how things are going in Japan, and listens to their answers closely, like a doctor hearing a list of symptoms. One reason he’s in this little girls’ school in Fukuoka this morning is that so many Japanese mothers, on recent trips, have told him of their urgent concern about alienation among the young in their country, children who shut themselves in their rooms and never have contact with the world, teenage suicides. The other reason he’s here is no less practical: these students,

“The Dalai Lama came to my school when I was very young,” he told me. “I was just in my teens. And it was a school run by Benedictine monks. But somehow it made an incredible impression on me.” As soon as he finished his studies, he went to Dharamsala to study in the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Later he would spend two months on a punishing trip across Tibet, recording what’s really happening there.

It’ s so easy not to listen to the Dalai Lama, I’ve found over the decades I’ve been traveling with him. It’s almost impossible not to be inspired by him, to be warmed, to be clarified, to feel that you’ve come into a presence of rare goodness and uncanny, omnidirectional compassion. I’ve been lucky enough to know him for thirty-five years now, since I was a teenager, and every November, when he comes to Japan, I travel by his side every day from around 7:30 every morning, when his working day begins, to around 5 p.m., when it concludes. I sit in on his closed-door meetings with parliamentarians, his audiences with old friends, his chats with ceremonial hosts, his discussions with leaders of all Japan’s religious groups. It’s exhausting even watching him go through his day. He comes down to the hotel lobby for his first event, after four hours of meditation, and finds five Tibetans who have traveled across the island to see him. He stops to receive and bless the ceremonial silk scarves they’ve brought to him, and as they sob with emotion and gratitude, he gives them heart and tells them not to give up sustaining their culture and their confidence in its survival.

And then he goes and does the same thing for the next ten hours, as he’s done every day for seventy years. Yet so often, even as we’re being moved by the way he instinctively knows how to see past divisions, laughs to dissolve our tension, or manages somehow to make us feel we’re meeting not just a great philosopher and global leader, but an old friend, we come away—at least I do—with our head in the clouds, unstoppably grinning and with tears in the corners of our eyes. We talk about all that he’s given us and all that we’ve learned from his being— what a great sense of humor!—and we (or at least I) grow wild with our own ideas of him, instead of the ideas he’s come to offer to us. Thirteen years ago, I heard from a writer in Hawaii (skeptical, non-Buddhist, famously unimpressionable) that when the Dalai Lama came to his city, he went to the lecture, took down every word he said, and then kept the transcript by his bed, so he could read it again and again.

Scroll to top