The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer (Knopf)

Kristianne Huntsberger, bookseller emeritus and professional nomad, from wherever she may be at the moment, sends a review of Pico Iyer's examination of one of the most revered men in the world.



How are we to think about the Dalai Lama, the Nobel laureate, the king kept from his country, the spiritual leader, the pop culture darling and the unswerving voice of global compassion? In the past half- century the Dalai Lama has been thrust onto the world’s stage, first as a fairy tale prince driven from his home and now as the beatific wise man who has charmed billions of people across the globe. Because the Dalai Lama maneuvers a variety of roles, a biography of him is a daunting task. Seasoned travel writer Pico Iyer rises to the challenge in his newest book, which, far from inappropriately simplifying the Dalai Lama’s life, instead concentrates on the complexity of all the interpretations and expectations of him.

Drawing on experiences from his 30-year acquaintance with the Dalai Lama, Iyer addresses both the public and the personal life of the monk, the politician, the philosopher and iconic figure of both tradition and change. We learn the history of Tibet’s entry into the global neighborhood and the Dalai Lama’s reactions to these changes. We see crowds come like moths to flame and see the man grow tired, or long for the simple life of a monk.

Ultimately, Iyer considers the Dalai Lama a doctor in our global neighborhood who is trained to heal specific ills. His focus lies less in our physical human ailments than in our spiritual needs and his strategy is distinctly focused on showing us how important our own role is in our healing. The Dalai Lama is thus a good doctor, according to Iyer, because “a doctor’s paradoxical wisdom often is to make himself redundant.” He strives to inspire each of us to take control of our own health, either by using the tools and advice he gives us, or by going ourselves to the source.

The future looms as Iyer follows the Dalai Lama through Japan, Canada, the United States and back to his exile home in Dharamsala. There is a palpable question that lies between everyone who works closely with the Dalai Lama: What will happen when he is gone? Will we succeed in adopting global policies of compassion? Will the Chinese government install a political puppet in the Dalai Lama’s place? He has done what he can as a philosopher, a politician and a global icon but, in the end, he must simply hope that the wisdom he has prescribed will be taken to heart, and that his country and the world will recover from their maladies. Meanwhile, he continues to pray for his Chinese brothers and sisters daily and he turns out each light when he exits a room because, he tells Iyer, even such a small gesture can have effect, especially if more people in more rooms remember to do this.