Pico Iyer Journeys

The Heart of the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama listens to them as keenly as a physician listens to his patients, and, though he hears variations on the same questions several times a day, he responds to each one with unqualified vigor and intensity. “As soon as you feel some problem, some disappointment,” he tells the first questioner, “then you must look at the problem from a wider perspective, through different angles.” I realize, with a pang, how close this issue is to his own predicament, with the Chinese government cracking down on Tibetans in Tibet more unsparingly than ever. “Thenyou can see there’s a possibility of a compromise,” he goes on.

“If you look only in one way, you think, ‘I can’t accept this.’” I recall too how on this trip he’s been talking over and over about the challenge of forgiveness and how much he admires the way the Japanese, after seeing two of their biggest cities destroyed, did not express hatred toward their American antagonists in war but decided to learn from them. Over and over he’s been saying that Japan, particularly as the world’s only victim so far of atomic bombings, can both lead the world in the cause of nonviolence and serve as a model for combatants everywhere of how to break the cycle of vengeance. “You suffered,” he says, “and yet you turned that experience into a determination to prevent war, not into a hatred of your oppressor.” He’s speaking to the Japanese girls, clearly, but it’s not hard for the rest of us to hear

how this might apply to our lives—we all face conflict—and, no less, to the lives of every Tibetan.

Again and again, as the questions continue, I see how compressed and practical his responses are. Asked about getting discouraged in his work for Tibet, he answers, without hesitation, “Here, one sense of hope is, I’m a Buddhist. Although a not very good practitioner.

But still I try to be a practitioner. One of my main practices is to make one’s existence something useful and helpful to others. That’s my prayer.” (His prayer, I notice, is his practice. His practice is his prayer). “That really gives me inner strength. So, generally, when there is some challenge, there is better opportunity to make some contribution.” Again, it sounds so simple, but it is as real and complex an idea as his beloved Shantideva’s reminder that your seeming enemy is your best teacher, moving you to call upon your native clear-sightedness and patience and compassion.

When asked what advice he can give to Japan, he stresses at the outset, “Of course I have no direct responsibility.” But then he responds with typical pragmatism. “But I feel—just one small gesture: you young Japanese have great potential to serve, to help humanity, particularly in Asia. Now, maybe here one obstacle is language. Perhaps learning English more widely may be one factor: you have the knowledge, you have the ability, but language sometimes becomes an obstacle. In order to utilize your abilities widely, perhaps more attention to learning English may be a good thing.” I notice those favorite words of his—“utilize,” “widely,” “perhaps”—but I also notice how he’s speaking about communication, dialogue, the search for common ground, not in the lofty words of the Golden Rule, but in terms of concrete, everyday practices. “Even this poor English, broken English, quite useful in communicating with other people,” he says, and the girls relax and laugh again.

And so it goes. Someone asks him what has touched him most in his life, and he says, “I don’t know” (which always draws a laugh—of surprise blending into relief: he doesn’t claim to have all the answers). “Usually, one is Buddha’s teaching,” he goes on (as he did once in telling me how tears come to his eyes when thinking of the Buddha, or any act of kindness). “Infinite altruism. That shows us the purpose of our life.” That applies even to the media, he goes on, as it can “make clear to the people what reality is” (and I recall how, the previous year, in Japan, he’d said that he thinks of the Buddha as a scientist, whose main aim is to show us reality, objectively, empirically, precisely). “The media should have a long nose, as long as an elephant’s nose. Smell, in front and behind, make clear what’s happening. Media people have great potential to help humanity.”

Throughout the trip, he’s been asking people—scientists, politicians, journalists, and now schoolgirls—to go to Tibet, if they have the chance, just to tell the world what’s happening there. Don’t listen to Tibetan propaganda, he says; don’t listen to Chinese. Just give us a neutral, factual account of how people are living there since the area was blocked from media investigation in March 2008. A doctor who can’t see his patients, or even hear what’s happening with them, is at a loss.

And asked once more what he does when he can’t succeed, he reminds his audience of some of the brighter sides of impermanence.

“This present situation has to change. Change will not come from the sky. We, as individuals, must make some effort, no matter one simple, insignificant case. One person leads, ten people join, a thousand people join, then the media…” I hear, as I listen, the vision of incremental, soul-by-soul change he’d outlined to me the day after he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize. He really wondered if his efforts were enough, he’d told me on the very day when others were celebrating what they hoped would mark a new future for Tibet. But all one could do was try one’s best, and know that the effort might reach to others, and then still others, and then more. Two days before Fukuoka, speaking to more than 300 journalists crammed into Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, he’d suddenly offered, “Blessings come from yourself,” in telling the story of a wealthy Indian family who had come to him to ask for his blessing. Your wealth is itself a blessing, he’d told them; don’t ask me to give you anything. The kind acts you do, the way you share the blessing of your money, is what generates blessings for you. And don’t just give it out, but use it wisely and practically, for education, hospitals, clinics.

And then, as the event begins to draw to a close, I notice, as listeners always do, how much of his instruction comes just in the way he walks through the world. He much appreciates the questions, he says; they were very good (practical, honest, unqualified). He asks all the young ladies brave enough to stand up in front of their classmates and ask him something to come up onstage, so he can greet them personally and be photographed with them. (I remember when my daughter, seeing him as a schoolgirl in Kyoto, was most moved after another girl asked him an anguished question about her life and he said, “I don’t know the answer,” but asked her to come onstage so he could just hold her at least.)

Then one of the students, a smiling girl of about sixteen from Bangladesh, the winner of a contest, I’m assuming, is asked to deliver a short essay on behalf of the school to its visitor. As she stands on the stage and reads, in fluent Japanese (translated for the Dalai Lama by an assistant), about her feelings returning to her very poor home country and then coming back to affluent Japan, where it’s so easy to take everything for granted, the Dalai Lama watches her intently, never taking his eyes off her, as if he were listening to a teacher of his expound a lesson about the Buddha. He embraces her and gives her a ceremonial white silk scarf. The next day, after we fly back to Tokyo, when he addresses a large audience in a sumo stadium, his biggest public event of the tour, equivalent to a talk in Madison Square Garden, he starts, to my surprise, speaking about the student from Bangladesh he’d just met and the story she’d shared with him. Lessons and precepts and stories and practical counsel are filling every moment of his day, as he stops to shake the hand of every waiter after lunch, or suddenly tells me, eyes moistening, how moved he is that Tibetans have brought something of Buddhism back to the country of its birth. I transcribe every moment. But from this particular morning, one thing I take away is how ready he is to learn from a teenage girl and to distill everything he knows for even the smallest and least elevated of settings. When his talk is over and he’s finished going down to shake hands with students in the front rows, posing for photographs with the questioners, draping the head teachers with silk scarves, he’s asked if he’d like to take his lunch in peace, alone. Oh no, no, he says, with absolute conviction. We must all eat together.

We go back out into the bright November sunshine, after lunch is over, to the next appointment, and I suspect that this small event on his schedule is as important to him as any meeting with a head of state or billionaire. I remember, twelve years earlier, his telling me that the press inevitably makes a big deal out of whether he meets a president or prime minister. But for him the much more important thing is just meeting a single soul, sincere, who may look on her life with a little more confidence and clarity after their talk. That is where the possibility of transformation is most great. “Then I really feel I’ve made some contribution,” he had said. Change, again, comes not all at once, but with one turning heart and then another. All that’s needed, he might be saying, is attention.

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