Pico Iyer Journeys

The Heart of the Dalai Lama

Now I do the same. It’s not hard to transcribe every word, since the Dalai Lama speaks slowly and very deliberately in English and, when he’s speaking in Tibetan, his words come to us through a translator. I get a lot of instruction from them as I write. But I get even more when I go back to my desk and read the words over and over, and copy them out again and again, as if they were (and why should they not be?) a text I am studying at college. Even in his second language, the Dalai Lama speaks with meticulous precision, and a quarter of a century of traveling has allowed him to hone his words down so that the simplest-sounding sentence in fact contains volumes of teaching.

“I am a simple Buddhist monk,” he says, and once upon a time I’d have been warmed and disarmed by the comment, so modest and transparent. But now, as I listen to him, I hear him say that he’s come to this formulation, as to everything he says, through an extended process of research, reflection, and analysis. When he’s dreaming, he says, he usually sees himself as a monk, but almost never as the Dalai Lama. When, occasionally, he has faint memories of earlier incarnations, he generally sees himself in a monastic role, but only very rarely as the Dalai Lama. More important, his monastic commitment is one that he has undertaken and that no one can strip from him but himself; the Dalai Lama is a title, a position—a set of rites—that could be taken from him at any moment. When the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was asked who he was, I found out when I researched it, he said, “A simple Buddhist monk.” Listen to the doctor’s careful prescription instead of just raving about his bedside manner, I tell myself as he returns to Japan in the bright autumn days for another few days of engagements. It’s too easy to fly off into lofty theorizing about the man, into essays on him or abstractions, into comparisons and projections and all the kind of vagueness or myth-making that he would forcefully counsel me against. Maybe on this occasion I can just try to take down what he says—to listen— and to see how every sentence contains a teaching. How even a modest-seeming event at a girls’ school can offer as much as some of his most sonorous discourses.

There are rows and rows of six-year-olds, impeccable in their blue skirts and tops and bonnets, lined up in the brilliant sunshine as the Dalai Lama and a small group of secretaries, bodyguards, and attendants arrive (along with my wife and me) at Chikushi Jagakoen. High schoolers are standing, equally serious and attentive, at their side, and even some college students, in scrupulously quiet styles and pale colors. Fukuoka is a long way from Tokyo and Kyoto, on an island to the south, and not many dignitaries trouble to come here. But as I walk behind the Tibetan leader on the warm November day, it’s clear that we could be walking around any school in Nova Scotia, or Indiana—or the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama bends down to shake each little girl by the hand, sometimes affectionately tweaking a cheek as if this Yuki or Sachi were his great-niece. He engages the high school girls in conversation, looking into their eyes and attending to their answers as if they were his guides to contemporary Japan. “How many of your students speak English?” he asks the teachers on arrival, so he can make best use of the hours. Given that most have at least studied it, he can speak to them directly, and not have to lose time on translations.

One day before, he had been addressing a group of 400 local Buddhists, from different sects, burying their differences to come together to listen to him direct them toward certain useful texts from Shantideva and Nagarjuna as an answer to loneliness and confusion. In the afternoon, he’d addressed thousands of regular folks in the Kita Kyushu Dome on his usual themes of compassion and responsibility. The previous weekend, in Tokyo, he’d spent a whole day speaking to Chinese individuals living in Japan—looking for common ground, as always—and then had devoted one and a half days to talking to the international media. But now he’s giving himself to the schoolgirls as attentively and enthusiastically as if he were visiting the White House or the Vatican.

Japan is the strongest Buddhist nation in the world, of course—until China comes around. More to the point, it’s also one of the only ones that opens its doors to the Dalai Lama. Not the least of the ironies of his life is that the most visible and probably most respected Buddhist in the world is not invited to Buddhist Sri Lanka or Burma or Thailand or Vietnam, because they fear the consequences from China. Japan, however, is powerful enough to risk his presence, and the Dalai Lama, in turn, has long turned to Japan for instruction in mixing modern innovation with ancient tradition, and in blending efficiency with humility, hard work with a wish to do better. The previous spring I spent two days with him in Santa Barbara, and did an event with him at New York’s Town Hall, but I see him most engaged in the Buddhist part of his public life as he travels around Japan and thinks about how to make strong and deep the future of Mahayana Buddhism.

Now, as the girls sit silently before him in the school auditorium, he offers something of a lesson in “skillful means.” With fellow monks and philosophers, I’ve seen, on this trip as on every other, he will quickly dive into texts and exchange ideas and explanations with the excitement of a lifelong scholar; but with these girls, he’ll find the place of common experience between them and him—his life as a student, his life as a brother—and exchange certain basic human principles of attention and self confidence to kids who may not know or care about the four noble truths. A large part of a doctor’s skill comes not in making the diagnosis, but in explaining it in simple, everyday, human terms that any lay person can understand.

The fact that his own English is imperfect is itself a small reassurance — a reminder that he’s on the same level as his listeners and is not an all-knowing sage laying down the law from a throne or a mountaintop. His voice goes up and down, never a monotone, and his sentences are as full of emphases and clarity as his famously articulate Tibetan. Yet at the same time, in its calligraphic directness, his solid and succinct English gets the point across with little room for ambiguity, or wild misinterpretations. As he speaks about our “global family” and the “new reality” of a world without “them and us,” the Dalai Lama speaks always with his being, leaning in toward the students, rocking back and forth while sitting cross-legged on his chair, coming to the front of the stage when he arrives so he can make eye contact with as many people as possible. He waves to familiar faces. He looks up at the adornments of the stage. He conveys his humanity through pulling a tissue out of his robes. And when he asks for questions, to my astonishment a hundred hands shoot up, the generally reticent Japanese clearly so engaged by his presentation that their defenses are gone and they’re as eager to speak to him as they are to some respected classmate.

One girl after another stands up, and poses a question as direct and to the point as any the Dalai Lama could ask for: “How do I bring peace and love to the world—I’m only small?” “Do you get disappointed trying to protect Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism?” “What do you do if you’re losing hope?” Clearly, like most audiences he visits, they’ve been studying the Tibetan issue in preparation for his trip. But clearly, too, they’re posing the questions that are most urgent to them right now—the bullied girl or the scared one, the idealist and the one who is feeling isolated and frustrated. They all get up and find a way to frame question after question that comes from the heart.

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