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'Open Road' Recounts Dalai Lama's Global Journey

Journalist Pico Iyer has a long history meeting with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet who lives in exile in India. Iyer joins Fresh Air to discuss how the Dalai Lama is responding to the current Tibetan uprising and protest against Chinese rule.


Other segments from the episode on March 26, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 26, 2008: Interview with Pico Iyer; Review of the Russian rock group Auktyon's music.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Pico Iyer discusses the Tibetan uprising and the Dalai
Lama's reaction to it

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're going to talk about the Dalai Lama with Pico Iyer, a journalist who has
had a series of conversations with him dating back 33 years. Iyer's father
was a friend of the Tibetan leader. Iyer has written a new book called "The
Open Road: The Journey of the Dalai Lama." Iyer also wrote the cover story of
this week's Time magazine about the Dalai Lama and the current protests in
Tibet over Chinese rule. As China prepares to host the Olympics this summer,
Tibetans have rioted in protest against Chinese restrictions on their religion
and culture. China has responded by arresting hundreds of people. The
Tibetan government in exile, which is based on Dharamsala, India, says at
least 140 people have died in demonstrations in Tibet and neighboring areas.
The Chinese government has blamed the Dalai Lama for the unrest. He's the
spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists and the political leader of Tibet in
exile. China invaded Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama fled in 1959 after
Chinese rule became more oppressive and his life was threatened.

Pico Iyer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with what's happening in
Tibet now. Why are Tibetans rebelling now?

Mr. PICO IYER: Just out of an uncontainable suffering and frustration that
has been going on for 50 years, though of course they know that right now, as
the world's attention turns to China, this is the one time when they can make
their sorrows heard across the world. And I think it's hard for those of us
who've never been to Tibet really to imagine how difficult the conditions are
there. But the Dalai Lama is for them the reincarnation of a god, so it's as
if those of us in America were told that if you have a picture of Jesus or if
you have a copy of the Quran, or if you have anything that speaks to your
religious inspiration, you can be thrown into jail for many, many years. And
imagine how hard it would be for us in those conditions.

GROSS: Give us more of a sense of why things are so difficult for Tibetans
right now who are living in Tibet.

Mr. IYER: They've seen their capital of Lhasa turned from a Tibetan city
into a largely Chinese city. They're not allowed to have contact with their
exiled leader, who is in some sense not just their political leader, but their
spiritual faith and even their homeland. And mostly I think they're denied
freedom of speech and freedom of thought, the most basic things. They're not
allowed to practice their religion.

And it must be said, as I say all that, that China has brought material
prosperity to it, and it's brought many good, modern developments to Tibet.
And I think the Tibetans are grateful for that. They just wish that, in the
process of gaining these useful new technologies, they didn't have to lose the
most fundamental thing of all, which is freedom.

GROSS: Now, on Tuesday, at least one monk was killed and another critically
wounded. Are monks involved in the uprising in Tibet?

Mr. IYER: Monks have always been the leaders of demonstrations or peace
marches in Tibet, partly, of course, because they're the conscience of the
culture. Partly, too, monks will often say that they have no wives and
children, so they can afford to give their lives to the cause. And partly
also because, of course, they're most immediately affected because their whole
life is based on the practice of a religion that, if not entirely stifled, is
very strongly controlled in contemporary China. So imagine if your whole
livelihood was in some ways constantly under surveillance and perhaps taken
away from you entirely.

GROSS: Are monks allowed to live like monks in Tibet?

Mr. IYER: They are. For example, when I've been to Lhasa, one of the most
moving things is to go to a monastery there and to see them chanting their
sutras and performing their debates and conducting, on the surface, the same
kind of practices you would have seen 100 years ago. But to some degree, that
is all for the benefit of people like me. It's there because the Chinese
authorities are aware that foreigners are drawn to Tibet by Tibetan Buddhism
and want to see Buddhism being freely practiced in the most visible places.
But deep down beneath that, I think they're always looking over their
shoulder. And if you ever sneak into a darkened corridor in a monastery in
Tibet and somebody is aware that nobody's listening, he'll say, `Please,
please, please, take our story to the world. We are living in the equivalent
of solitary confinement or life-long imprisonment.'

GROSS: The people who are violently rebelling in Tibet are rejecting the
Dalai Lama's, quote, "middle way." What is the middle way?

Mr. IYER: The middle way really is just about communication and
acknowledging that another person has rights, just as you do, and always
speaking for more dialogue rather than more confrontation. I think it's
almost as if--let's say your sister took away your handbag tomorrow, and you
can either punch her or shout at her or sue her, or talk to her. Probably
none of those are going to have an effect because she took the handbag away
knowing it would upset you, and is unlikely quickly to give it back. But
given that she's your sister, and given that you're going to have to spend the
rest of your lives together, if you sue her or shout at her or punch her,
that's probably going to damage your relationship for life. That's going to
make things much harder the next time the two of you are trying to deal. And
so he would always say, far and away the best thing is just to talk to her, to
speak to her better nature, to hold to reason and to think in terms of the
fact that your destiny's intertwined with this other person for the next 50
years. So to precipitate a conversation now is to maybe to resolve the issue
this moment, but to leave unimaginable bad consequences for every future

GROSS: And what the Dalai Lama is asking for isn't independence from China,
it's autonomy. What's the difference between the two, in his mind?

Mr. IYER: He has said for 21 years now that China is free to take control of
and continue controlling Tibet's defense affairs and foreign affairs, but
please can Tibet just have control of, as it were, its domestic world, which,
if you think about it, is a Buddhist notion, and it's certainly not a
confrontational notion. As you know, many of the people around him are
speaking for absolute independence. But he's always said that Tibet needs
China, as well as China needs Tibet.

And one thing that I think is startling about him and speaks for what makes
him such a kind of liberating politician, is that he says that Tibetans need
material progress, and they're very grateful to China for bringing them what
China has brought them. So he would never want Tibet to be separate from
China or vice versa. But he would just like Tibet to enjoy normal human
freedoms within its own territory.

GROSS: Do you think the Dalai Lama himself has doubts about the middle way,
since China hasn't budged? I mean, the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet in 1959;
it's been nearly 50 years and, you know, things have, in anything, maybe
gotten worse.

Mr. IYER: No, you're absolutely right, and yet I think he has no doubts at
all because I think his policy comes from so deeply rooted and clearly
reasoned a philosophy. In fact, I remember more than 10 years ago, I was
talking to him in Dharamsala, and he said, `Well, if you look at it one way,
my policy is hopeless. The more concessions I make, the more I opened a door
to China, the more they cracked down on people in Tibet.' And I think as a
human being and as a very compassionate human being, his heart is constantly
breaking for what the people in Tibet are going through. But at the same
time, I think he's unwaveringly confident that this, in the long term, is the
best policy. And I don't he will move from this policy. And remember that,
as a monk, one of his first commitments is to nonviolence. So to ask him to
embrace violence would be like asking the pope to sanctify Martin Luther or
something. It's not going to happen.

And I think, you know, the other thing, that it's easy for us to forget, is
that I think some people might imagine the Dalai Lama is a somewhat unworldly
monk or that he's a naive or neophyte when it comes to politics. And I think
we often overlook the fact that he's in fact the most seasoned ruler on the
planet. He's been in charge of his people now for 67 years. And whenever I
see him, what strikes me most of all is that he's a hyper-realist. In fact,
to me, he's a greater pragmatist than most of the other politicians I've met
in my life as a journalist. And so I don't think he's under any illusions
about either China or how the world works. But he also understands that the
only way to change the way the world works in the long run is to stick to
these clear and peace-loving policies.

GROSS: You know, we've been talking about how the Dalai Lama's middle way
hasn't gotten any concessions from China, and the Dalai Lama's actually
considering stepping down as the political leader of the Tibetans, but not as
the spiritual leader. What would it mean for him to step down as the
political leader, and why is he considering doing that?

Mr. IYER: I think it's really just a symbolic act, and actually I must say
he's been saying this for 15 years now, that if violence continues, either
among the Tibetan exile community or especially within Tibet itself, he'll
have to depose himself. But really that means very little because one of the
main things he's done in exile is to set up a democratically elected
government. So there is a prime minister in Dharamsala and there's a cabinet
and there's a fully functioning political framework there. And yet every
Tibetan will only essentially listen to the Dalai Lama. And so in some ways
he's in a fix because he can't dethrone himself.

And one of the interesting curiosities of the Tibetan situation is that the
Dalai Lama has been trying to push democracy onto his people every since he
arrived in India in 1960, and his people have been saying, `No, no, no.
Please, we don't want democracy. We just want to listen to you.' And so, one
way or another, there's nothing he can do to avoid being the leader of the

And I must say, when we talk about his relations with China, I think one of
the essential things that's worth remembering is that because he's
unillusioned, he doesn't expect the Chinese leadership to come to its senses
overnight, as it were, or to undergo some great spiritual transformation. But
for 15, 20 years now, he's been talking about how much faith he has in Chinese
individuals. So one gamble, as it were, he's taken for more than 20 years now
is that every point to open to the door to contact with Chinese individuals,
whether he's in India or whether he's traveling. And I think slowly, one by
one, transformations are happening, and all of that is bearing fruit. And his
determination never to stigmatize or demonize the Chinese people who have
suffered so much at the hands of their government is really paying off.

GROSS: You know, it's kind of incomprehensible to me that like everybody
knows that the Dalai Lama stands for nonviolence, and yet China is accusing
him of provoking the uprising in Tibet.

Mr. IYER: It makes no sense. His fundamental principle is interdependence,
and they call him a "splittist," and his other fundamental principle is that
there are no enemies in the world, the enemy is a creation in the head, and
they call him an enemy of the people. And he says, throwing his hands up, in
some ways, just what you said, `I've done everything I can, and still they
demonize me. All I can do is wait.'

GROSS: My guest is journalist Pico Iyer. His new book is called "The Open
Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama." We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Pico Iyer, and he's been having a series of conversations with the
Dalai Lama for the past 33 years. His new book is called "The Open Road: The
Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama."

Has there been a big divide in the Dalai Lama's life between his role as the
political leader of the Tibetans and the spiritual leader?

Mr. IYER: I think not because I think all his political actions arise from
his spiritual principles, which is partly again, what makes him such an
unusual politician. He's the only leader in the world, political leader,
who's a monk. And so I think it's not akin to some of us saying, `Well, we're
good at science and bad at history,' or we have a strength in one position and
a deficiency in the other. I think for him all of these are intertwined. And
when he speaks politically, he's only speaking on the basis of the principles
that he has clarified for himself as a monk.

GROSS: Now, he says--and you describe this in your book--he says spiritually,
we can change our world by changing how we choose to look at the world, that
suffering is the state of the world, but unhappiness is just how we choose to
look at the world. Or we can choose not to look at the world that way. That
kind of makes sense on a spiritual level, but politically I don't see how you
can tell people whose country has basically become a living prison, who've
been denied basic, fundamental rights by the Chinese government, many of them
are literally in prison, how do you just tell them, `Well, unhappiness is just
a way of looking at the world, so meditate, open up your mind and heart, and
change your way of looking at the world, and you'll feel better.' So you know
what I'm saying?

Mr. IYER: I do.

GROSS: It's not much of a political solution.

Mr. IYER: It's not, and clearly he's aware of that. But I think in some
ways--he's not, as it were, giving them placebos or out passing on aphorisms
that won't help them in the day to day. I think he's just saying, `Well,
remember, that freedom can be thought of in many ways. I am working night and
day to try to give you those basic freedoms. I'm doing everything I can to
conduct negotiations with China. But in the meantime, remember that there are
myriad freedoms.' And some of his monks, for example, will say that even
though they're deprived of so many other things, as long as they can keep that
space open in their heart, something is OK.

GROSS: Where do you think the situation in Tibet might lead? I mean, the
Olympics are coming up this summer. China is going to be hosting people from
around the world. Heads of state have to decide how they're going to deal
with this--are they going to go to the opening ceremony or not, are they going
to go to the Olympics or not--so what are some of the possible scenarios that
will play out now?

Mr. IYER: Well, the Dalai Lama--and I think he's right in this--has never
spoken about boycotting the Olympics, and he feels that if you cast China or
anyone into isolation, that only aggravates the problem and creates
abstractions in the head. I think the best possibility would be for the heads
of state whose approval China so much depends on, to urge them to talk to the
Dalai Lama and urge them to open Tibet to independent investigation. And just
use the particular sway they have over China in these few months to try to
talk to China's leaders, just to talk to the Dalai Lama.

GROSS: And do you think that the protests will quiet down, or do you think
that they're going to get more confrontational?

Mr. IYER: I think we're going to see them continue right the way through the
next five months until the Olympics are complete. And it's interesting,
again, the Dalai Lama long before all of these recent disturbances began, said
that his main concern was for what happened after the Olympics are over.
Everyone is assuming that China will put on its best face and will be on its
best behavior while the world's attention is turned to it in these next few
months. But what happens when we all start thinking about the presidential
election in November or we start thinking about an uprising elsewhere? Then
it might be able to prosecute some fairly terrible things, and that's perhaps
the time when we most need to be thinking, both about China and Tibet.

GROSS: There's so many contradictions in the Dalai Lama's life that he has to
contend with. Like, one of them is that he's keeping alive a society in
exile, and this is a society that, before it was exiled, had been isolated
from the world. And now he is so much in the world, and he's made many
changes intentionally in that culture. You write about many of the reforms
that he's made in Dharamsala, which is the capital of Tibet in exile. What
are some of the ways he's intentionally changed Tibetan culture?

Mr. IYER: I think he's thrown out everything that he regarded as just
ritualistic or outdated from old Tibet, that he felt was stifling Tibet. He's
allowed women to study for doctoral degrees and to become abbots, as they
never could before. He's introduced science into his monks' curriculum. I
think everything has been about trying to incorporate Tibet into the modern,
larger world. And one small measure he's taken, for example, is to say that
Tibetan children in exile should take all their lessons in the Tibetan
language until they're 10 years old so that they'll be deeply rooted in their
own culture and tradition, and then take all their lessons in English
thereafter so they'll be connected to the modern world.

GROSS: You've met a lot of the young people who are living in exile in
Dharamsala. And they yearn for a Tibet that they've never seen, they've never
lived in, and that actually no longer exists and probably will never exist
again because the Chinese have changed it too much. There's some things where
you just can't go back. So they're in quite a predicament.

Mr. IYER: They are. It's a very poignant thing because, of course, with
every breath they're fighting and yearning for Tibet because, as you say,
they've never seen Tibet. Meanwhile, the people in Tibet itself haven't seen
their own leader in most cases for 49 years. And so you see these two
communities both in a kind of limbo. And your heart goes out to, I think,
such individuals. But the thing that the Dalai Lama always says is just what
you said, you can't go back. And unfortunately, the only practical thing we
can do now is to try and construct a strong settlement in exile as possible
and to work to the transformation of Chinese minds, one by one.

GROSS: The Dalai Lama is revered as a god by his followers, and he's
considered to be a living reincarnation of the Buddha. Does he see himself as
a god?

Mr. IYER: No, the opposite. And I think just like the Buddha, he sees
himself entirely as a human being. The fiercest I ever saw him was once when
I carelessly in an article 20 years ago referred to him, as many do, as a
living Buddha. And he really took my two words apart the next time I saw him
because the whole essence of his philosophy is not that he's somebody up in
the clouds doing miraculous things. He's somebody just like you or I. And in
some ways, the Dalai Lama's message when he travels around the world is not
just that he is kind and clear-sighted and selfless, which I think he is, but
that any one of us can be so if so we apply ourselves.

When I saw him traveling through Japan four months ago, a journalist came up
to him and asked him, as probably many journalists do, `If you had a magic
wand, what would you do to resolve the situation in the Middle East?' And the
Dalai Lama just looked at him and said, `Silly question. If I had a magic
wand, I'd resolve the situation in Tibet, I'd bring world peace, I'd find a
cure for cancer, I'd help my own health. I don't have a magic wand. I'm just
a human being with the same struggles and conflicts and challenges as any of
you.' And I think that's exactly where his potential lies, showing that he's a
regular human being in the midst of a difficult situation, but trying every
now and then to rise above it, and any of us could try to do that in our own

GROSS: Now, you first knew of the Dalai Lama through your father, who met the
Dalai Lama in, was it around 1960?

Mr. IYER: That's right. The very year after the Dalai Lama came into exile,
when I think most people didn't really know who or what he was, my father, who
was teaching philosophy at Oxford, was very interested in Buddhism, realized
suddenly for the first time in history this great treasure was available to
everybody. So he went and scheduled a meeting with the Dalai Lama, and it's
because not many people were approaching the Dalai Lama in those years, it was
relatively easy. And they had a long talk about philosophical issues. And
interestingly enough, my father told the Dalai Lama, `Well, I have this little
three-year-old son in Oxford, and he's been taking a keen interest in the
flight of Tibetans into exile.' And the Dalai Lama, with his characteristic
aptness, found a picture of himself when he was five years old already on the
lion throne in Lhasa, and sent it through my father to me in Oxford. So...

GROSS: And what does that picture mean to you?

Mr. IYER: Well, for the next 30 years, it sat on my desk, and I think
whenever I felt burdened, or I thought, `Oh, life is very difficult for me as
a small boy alone in a foreign country,' I just had to look at that picture of
a five-year-old who's responsible for six million people and is already the
leader of his people, and put things into perspective. And then one other
thing I should say is that the picture followed me over with my family when we
moved to California, remained on my desk, and then one day a forest fire broke
out half a mile away from our house, wiped out our house, wiped out everything
in it, and I lost the picture. And so in some ways, I learnt one of the
fundamental Buddhist truths about impermanence. A picture can be inspiring,
but it's not going to be around forever.

GROSS: Pico Iyer will be back in the second half of the show. His new book
is called "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the Dalai
Lama with a journalist who's known him for more than 30 years, Pico Iyer.
Iyer has written a new book called "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the
Fourteenth Dalai Lama." Iyer also wrote the cover story of this week's Time
magazine about the Dalai Lama and the current protests in Tibet against
Chinese rule. He's also written about Tibet for The New Yorker, the LA Times
and the Financial Times.

Now, you see the Dalai Lama as having a special interest in science. And I
wonder, since the connection between science and religion, or the lack of a
connection, is such a kind of much talked about issue in the United States,
how does the Dalai Lama see science and faith as being connected?

Mr. IYER: The last time I saw him he said expressly Buddha was a scientist,
he was an empiricist. And in the Dalai Lama's reading of Buddhism, faith
plays very small a part. As with the Buddha himself who said `let's not
speculate on the afterworld or the existence of God, or let's not even address
those issues, let's deal with the here and now.' And so if you listen to the
Dalai Lama speak when next he comes to the US, you'll notice that the verbs he
loves are "investigate," "analyze," "explore." And really that is the way that
he tackles everything around him. Indeed, in the wake of these recent
disturbances, his response to China was `let's conduct an investigation.' And
that was such a characteristic response, because investigation is what he's
all about.

And he very eagerly seeks out Catholic monks and goes to Muslim mosques to
learn what they can teach him about a spiritual life. But at the same time,
he's talking to neuroscientists, and I think might well define himself as a
scientist. And I think that offers, as your question suggests, an interesting
possibility at the time when science and religion are so much at odds, for
somebody who's going back and forth and trying to find the common places
between them.

GROSS: You say that he added science to the course of study for Tibetan
monks. Was it intentionally absent before?

Mr. IYER: It was. I think one of the problems, it seems, with old Tibet was
that education was almost entirely monastic education there. I think there
were very few schools. I think it was just monks who got educated. And I
think their training was rigorously, intensely philosophical--which is one
reason why they've come to so many of these realizations that they're sharing
now with us--but perhaps philosophy to the exclusion of many other things.
And the Dalai Lama himself said to me 15 years ago, `our biggest mistake, our
greatest mistake in Tibet was isolation, being too cut off from the other
world.' And as somebody who speaks through communication, I think introducing
science into the curriculum is his way of trying to ensure that there'll be as
many channels open as possible between the Tibetan community and even the
monastic community and the modern techno world at large.

GROSS: Now, you describe the Dalai Lama as being, in his own way, a
scientist, an empiricist, but at the same time he uses oracles. And you saw
one of the oracles work. Would you describe what you saw?

Mr. IYER: I went into a little temple at dawn in Dharamsala and I saw a very
quiet monk come out and sit in a kind of throne. There were about 50 of us in
this small chapel. And for 10 minutes nothing happened. He was just silent.
And I felt I could almost see him descend into himself. And then suddenly he
began shaking and convulsing. And although he's wearing a crown that weighed
70 pounds, I found out later, he began jerking around the room and froth was
coming from his mouth and then words began to come out of his mouth. And he
is the official state oracle who Tibetans believe speak for a certain deity.
So he began clattering around the room, as he was supposed to, as our ritual
was meant to encourage, and two monks stood by his side and transcribed all
the words they heard coming out of his mouth. And it's true that the Dalai
Lama has often said that some of his most critical decisions have come from
the counsel that he's received through this deity speaking via a human medium.
Indeed, when he fled Tibet it was a Nechung oracle who told him `you've got to
leave today' and who actually gave him the map of the best route by which to
take off from Lhasa.

So I think when I, as a non-Buddhist, am confronted by something like that,
all I can say is, I don't know what's going on. I'm not a Buddhist. I'm not
in a position to say anything about it. But it's certainly true that, as your
question suggests, that all of these rights and customs in Tibetan Buddhism is
something very different from the logic and the scientific procedure that the
Dalai Lama so often speaks for.

GROSS: There's a quote from the Buddha on the wall of the temple next to the
Dalai Lama's home and it reads `As one assays gold by rubbing, cutting and
melting, so examine all my words and accept them, but not because you respect
me.' What does that mean to you?

Mr. IYER: In my book, I think what I was trying to do was to cross question
the Dalai Lama and to interrogate him as intensely as I think he likes to
interrogate the world. And the reason for that is, I think often I speak for
myself, I remember when I would go to listen to him 20 years ago, I'd come out
of the hall saying `what a kind man' or `what a great sense of humor' or `how
striking the image as he goes after that little girl in the wheelchair.' And I
think he speaks for kindness and he embodies kindness, but to say all that is
in some ways to diminish him. And I thought that really, insofar as he's
trying to take these principles around the world just the way an Emerson or a
Newton might do, the best thing I could do was to hold them up against the
light of the global world that I've witnessed and just as that quotation
suggests not to take anything on faith, not just to say well, this is an
impressive man speaking for peace, but really to bring challenges at him from
every direction and to see how well his positions stood up to them. And I
think that's what he's always saying. He's the rare leader who likes to be
challenged, likes even to be proven wrong.

GROSS: So tell us about a time when you asked him a challenging question and
what kind of response you got from him.

Mr. IYER: Well, I'll tell you about a friend of mine who was a Buddhist monk
and is a translator for the Dalai Lama and is also gay. And the Dalai Lama
has often said because of ancient Tibetan text, at least for monks,
homosexuality isn't a good idea. Because there's a text from 2,000 years ago
that speaks against these forms of sexual union. So he takes a fairly strong
line on that position. And my friend, who's a Tibetan scholar, went to him
and said `actually, I think the text was different and it was mistranslated,
and if you look at this text, it opens onto a very different possibility.' And
the Dalai Lama said, `well, I will look at that text. If you're right I'd be
more than happy to change my position, and I'm so grateful to you for
presenting this other approach to these texts.' And I think that's the way he
is almost with everybody.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Pico Iyer. His new book is called "The Open
Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama." We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is journalist Pico Iyer. And he's had many conversations
with the Dalai Lama dating back 33 years. Now he's written a book about the
Dalai Lama called "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai

The Dalai Lama isn't doctrinal, like some leaders of Western religion, but you
point out that a lot of Western admirers would be disappointed to hear about
the things he disapproves of. He disapproves of homosexuality, which you've
already discussed as a good example; divorce; sexual license; intoxicants,
which I assume includes drugs and alcohol. Do you think most of his Western
followers know that?

Mr. IYER: I think they do. Because what they tend to ask him as soon as he
comes to a large hall in Philadelphia or Los Angeles is about their personal
lives and, for example, their relations with their wives or their girlfriends
or their teachers. And one of the first things he often says is `I don't
know. I'm a celibate monk. I'm the last person you should be asking for
marital counsel.' But I think they do know that, and I think that they are
made a little uneasy about it and maybe that is one reason why, as the years
have gone on, he's more and more, when he travels in the West, told people
`please don't take up Buddhism, please work within your own cultural
traditions where your roots are deepest.' And I think that's because he's seen
some of the confusions or misinterpretations that can result when we too
eagerly embrace another tradition without realizing all the very different
cultural and traditional baggage that it involves. And it's interesting, you
know, he is the rare Buddhist to tell people please don't become Buddhists.

GROSS: You're not a Buddhist, right?

Mr. IYER: I'm not a Buddhist.

GROSS: Do you practice any religion?

Mr. IYER: No. I have my convictions and I suppose I've worked hard over
many years to try to fashion exactly what my direction and my position is.
And I've been lucky because I was born to Hindu parents, I went to Christian
schooling, I've lived more than 20 years in deeply Buddhist Japan, and I spent
nine years researching and writing a book on Islam. So I'm a happy global
citizen who's been able to learn from many, many traditions. But in myself
I've tried to create what most makes sense to somebody who belongs to many
countries. You know, the great Peggy Lee once famously said, `I learned how
to live from Jesus, Cary Grant and Buddha.' And I thought well, that's not a
bad formulation. Any of us could probably gain from those three.

GROSS: Pico, I think it's fair to say that the--correct me if I'm wrong--that
the Dalai Lama is very interested in other religions.

Mr. IYER: Very interested, and in fact, again, it startles his flock or his
followers by saying that Tibetans have a lot that they can learn from
Catholics as well as vice versa, and of course from other religions, too.
He's gone out of his way. Went to visit places of worship from every
tradition, and I think one of his great enthusiasms and he says his second
central mission is to speak for the harmony of religions. But he never says
there should be one synthetic world religion. Again, he uses the analogy of
medicine and he says somebody's best treated if they have cancer, say, by
radiation and some by chemotherapy and some by perhaps Chinese herbs. So
there ought to be a variety of practical responses to suffering in the world,
and that we should never try just to pretend that there's no difference
between Catholicism and Buddhism, say.

GROSS: I want to play you a sound bite. And this is from a few years ago. I
was interviewing Tim LaHaye. He's a very powerful figure on the religious
right, and he's the co-author of the "Left Behind" series...

Mr. IYER: Yes.

GROSS: ...the series of novels about the apocalypse and the second coming of
Jesus and the tribulations of the people who are left behind to suffer because
they have not been born again. So I said to him, `you believe that the the
only true faith is born again Christianity and that only born again Christians
will be redeemed and go to heaven. You know, during this time on earth, what
are your feelings toward people of other faiths or your feelings about people
who are Christians but not born again Christians? Do you respect their faith?
Do you respect them as Catholics or Jews or Muslims?'

And he said `Well, I respect them for what they believe and I try to be
respectful toward all people and yet disagree with what they believe.' And
then he talks about how Jesus is the truth, he is the way that God has
prescribed to come, and he says no man comes to the father but by him. And I
want to play you what he said next.

(Soundbite of previous FRESH AIR)

Mr. TIM LaHAYE: I'll tell you a little secret. I was in the holy land when
they were having a religious conclave, and who should be walking down the hall
toward me with an entourage but the Dalai Lama. And I didn't know--here I am
a minister from America visiting, and I just stuck out my hand and shook hands
with him and said `Sir, has anyone ever explained to you who Jesus Christ
really is? If they haven't, I'd be glad to spend an hour with you and just
share with you the truth about him.' And his aide, of course, brushed me off
and told me that he was busy, he didn't have time. But that was just an
involuntary response to a man who is very religious and very pious and
probably very sincere. But he doesn't know the truth of the way to God. And
I think we Christians have to be ready at any moment to share that truth with

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That was Tim LaHaye. I think I was kind of speechless after he said
that because it sounded as if he was expecting to be able to convert the Dalai
Lama to Christianity. I guess I'm interested in hearing your response to what
Tim LaHaye had to say, and how you would have responded to him had he said
that to you?

Mr. IYER: I would have said, `Well, Mr. LaHaye, I wonder if you have read
the book called "The Good Heart" in which the Dalai Lama delivers a series of
lectures on the gospels and goes line by line through the gospels before a
group of Christians in London, and as he speaks about the transfiguration and
many of the great moments in Jesus' life, tears came to his eyes and I think
tears came to the eyes of many of the life-long Christians in that room.' And
one of the beauties I think of the Dalai Lama's life or fortune is that, of
course although a Buddhist, he's spent a majority of his life in a Hindu
country taking a lot of inspiration from the Hindu Gandhi. And many of his
closest associates and friends and people who are working for the same things
as he is are Christians. Desmond Tutu, very notably, I think Vaclav Havel,
Jimmy Carter. When he's looking for associates and trying to share with the
world some sense that we may partake of a larger identity, it's in fact those
Christian people that by circumstance he's found himself working with. So I
think the Dalai Lama would have been very glad to be told about Jesus by Mr.
LaHaye. But I think he would have known most of that already.

GROSS: But you think he probably wouldn't have wanted to be told that
Christianity was the one true way, the only way?

Mr. IYER: He wouldn't mind being told that. I remember I saw him once with
Desmond Tutu in Vancouver four years ago, and it's lovely to see the two of
them together because each has suffered so much and worked so hard for his
cause. When you see them together, it's almost like somebody who's been
working in isolation for a long time and meeting someone who absolutely
understands. And so they just love one another and can't get enough of one
another's company. And at one point Desmond Tutu accepted an honorary degree
and sat down and the Dalai Lama came up and he looked around and he beamed at
his old friend and he said, `Archbishop Tutu and I have exactly the same aim.
I love listening to him. We do have differences, because I don't believe in a
creator and he does, and those are important differences, but I'm so thrilled
to be working with somebody who thinks about the same aim.' So again he's very
clear in where Buddhism and other religions can converge, but what is
non-negotiable and where they cannot converge.

GROSS: What happens after the Dalai Lama dies? I mean, he is believed to be
the reincarnation of the Buddha. He was discovered to be that reincarnation
when he was--was it three or something, four? How old was he?

Mr. IYER: Yes, he was discovered to be the incarnation when he was two, and
he was actually brought to Lhasa and installed on the throne when he was four.

GROSS: Right. I mean, that's an amazing way of looking at the world and at a
child and at the ability of somebody to symbolically lead their people. And I
think it's a very difficult concept for Westerners to comprehend. But, given
the faith in the Dalai Lama, what happens when he dies, particularly now that
Tibet no longer exists in the way that he did when he was discovered?

Mr. IYER: Well, that's such a good question. And needless to say, I think
it's the question the Dalai Lama has been asking himself almost since the day
be came into exile. And, in fact, for 39 years now, since he was in his
mid-30s he has said `if I die, the next Dalai Lama will, by definition, be
somebody who's continuing my own work.' In other words, if China suddenly
alights a little boy who's four years old and say this is the new Dalai Lama,
the Dalai Lama is pre-empting that option by saying he's not. Because by
definition a 15th Dalai Lama will only be somebody who's continuing along the
path and extending the work of the 14th Dalai Lama.

But he's also said there may be no future Dalai Lama. It's one of the radical
things that he's unsettled his people by saying. He's said the next Dalai
Lama may be a woman. He's open to any possibility. But my suspicion is that
he's already put very firmly in place a system whereby, as soon as he leaves
the world--and he's 72 years old now--another figure or some group of people
will be there whom the Tibetans have been instructed to listen to. Because
you're absolutely right, although there's been a democratically elected prime
minister there, the Tibetans for centuries have only listened reflexively to
the Dalai Lama. So he has to find somebody else that they will listen to with
the same trustfulness.

GROSS: Pico Iyer, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. IYER: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Maybe we should end with a song by Leonard Cohen.

Mr. IYER: Yes.

GROSS: You have that nice list at the end of the book of books and records
that have inspired you and that are similar in thought to the way you're
thinking in the book. And Leonard Cohen has lived with Buddhist monks, and I
know you've been a fan of his music for many years. So what do you think, a
song by Leonard Cohen?

Mr. IYER: Yes. I mean, actually there's a particular song, which I'm sure
you know--in fact, I heard your lovely conversation with him two years ago.
But his song, "If It Be Your Will" which I think is addressed to his Buddhist
teacher. That's I think one of his greatest songs. It would be a lovely note
to end on.

GROSS: Perfect. Thank you.

(Soundbite of "If It Be Your Will")

Mr. LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before

I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen singing "If It Be Your Will." Before that we
heard from Pico Iyer, the author of the new book "The Open Road: The Global
Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama."

Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a CD by a Russian band that became popular in
the rock underground during the glasnost era. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Milo Miles reviews Russian rock group Auktyon's music

Back during the Cold War, Russian authorities were fond of denouncing rock
music as capitalist decadence. But after Gorbachev introduced reforms, the
police eased up on underground Russian culture and rock music took off. One
leading group, Auktyon, has devoted the past several years to cracking the
American market. Music critic Milo Miles says they have a good chance of

Mr. MILO MILES: It's just a guess, but I would bet that, for Americans,
Russia has the largest, least-known rock legacy. During the openness of
glasnost, one of the many bands that sprang up in St. Petersburg, the
epicenter of Russian culture, was Auktyon. Their new album, "Girls Sing,"
confirms that they are more than worthy to come in from the cold. Any
20-plus-year-old Western rock band would be proud to deliver such vibrant,
loose and confident work, particularly on the first studio album in 12 years.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEONID FEDOROV: (Russian sung)

(End of soundbite)

MILES: In addition to eight regular members, Auktyon has several adventurous
eclectic guest stars on "Girls Sing." Organist John Medeski, guitarist Marc
Ribot, and Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London. These players add a welcome
jamming feel to the tracks, which were recorded last year in New York. But
they are enriching an already developed band sound.

Auktyon began as jagged art punks who liked Frank Zappa as much as The Gang of
Four. But they've always had a voracious appetite for new styles. As they
dart up, down and around rhythms that spring from free jazz as much as Russian
folk dances, you never know what Auktyon is going to throw at you: punk
yammer, Klezmer, gypsy, circus marches, atonal squawks or even the number
"Girls Sing" itself which sounds like a long prog rock workout as well as an
avante big band showpiece.

(Soundbite of "Girls Sing")

MILES: Throughout, vocals from songwriter and guitarist Leonid Fedorov and
lyricist and keyboardist Dmitry Ozersky add dabs of longing, anger and mania,
with particularly brash hollers and chants coming from Oleg Garkusha, who's
sort of the group's wild man dancer.

(Soundbite of music)

AUKTYON: (Russian sung)

(End of soundbite)

MILES: Auktyon is very up front that they care about their often literary or
absurdist lyrics. For instance, `stop the plane, I want to get off.' But they
emphasize that understanding the words isn't necessary. They want to deliver
the old fashioned rock 'n' roll surprise and celebration.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FEDOROV: (Russian sung)

(End of soundbite)

MILES: In addition to "Girls Sing," Auktyon has a well selected anthology of
earlier material called "Pioneer" and a media-rich, informative Web site.
Check out the albums, and, if you can, try to catch them on their short
current US tour. I want to see these Russians coming and coming back.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed "Girls Sing" by Auktyon. The
group performs in Chicago on Friday, Denver on Saturday, San Francisco on
Sunday and winds up their tour in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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