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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 51 And yet, I thought to myself, what really moves and lifts us about his experience is that he sits like this, and talks unwaveringly about the same principles (shifting his emphases or examples as the Buddha did), in the midst of almost unimaginable challenge. The particular force and fascination of this Dalai Lama lie largely in the fact that he hasn’t been able to sit still, or to give himself to solitary meditation, as many a monk might want. He has had to bring that sense of stillness and collectedness out into the center of a world that is accelerating and polarizing with unprecedented rapidity and restlessness. The calmness of the Dalai Lama, the steadiness with which he walks along his path and pursues what he regards as his core mission, can only be truly appreciated by being set against the very real- world problems that have always been his companion and his daily fare. He spent his early child- hood (what would have been his kindergarten years, in our terms) as official leader of his country during the Second World War. By the time he was eight, he was receiving emis- saries from F.D.R. with urgent requests for help in the transportation of Ameri- can troops. He witnessed civil war around him as a boy, barely twelve years old on his seat in the Potala Palace. He was fourteen when Chinese soldiers moved into his country, and of high school age—fifteen—when he was prematurely made the political as well as the spiritual leader of his people. The force of geopolitical concerns, the urgency of the changing world, de- nied him the chance ever to give himself as fully to his spiritual practice (he told Merton even in 1968) as he might have liked to do had circumstances been different. Or, to put it better, his spiritual practice was in the public domain, in remaking a culture in exile, in negotiating with prime ministers and represen- tatives from the most populous nation on earth, in finding a way somehow to speak also to the second most populous nation on earth, his new home, and to the reigning superpower of today. When we think of some of the great spiritual inspirations of our time, or any other—including a Merton or a Mother Teresa perhaps, but taking in all of the great philosophers of India and Tibet, Christian mystics, Sufi poets, Zen masters, rabbinical sages—we are stirred by their ability to root themselves in the eternal (which some would call the moment). Yet few of them have ever had to carry this sense of settledness and attention into the White House, the conference rooms of Beijing, the madness of the modern media moment. Few have had to devote so much of their time to tending the fractured, mixed-up, often warring world that likes to think of itself as real. The Dalai Lama spends a lot of his time, even in his seventies, on planes and in hotel rooms; he spends an unanticipated amount of his time in front of TV cameras, dealing with huge crowds in rock-concert stadiums, handling the mo- ment-by-moment complexities that attend a head of state who also happens to be a global icon. His name comes up in every other Hollywood movie. The global order—and his ecumenical presence—have made him seem a counselor or pro- tector to Catholics, Maoists, people caught up in the struggle for peace in the Middle East, ecologists. He is more deeply and constantly involved in the world of movement and seeming unpeacefulness than anyone I know. True to his unwavering beliefs, the Dalai Lama always sees this—all of it—as opportunity. He can visit and seem a member of many countries (and traditions) as no Dalai Lama before him could have. He can talk to and learn from scientists, Hopi wise men, Western heads of state, simple backpackers, as he could never have expected when he was going through the grueling training that befits an incarnation of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. Before most of us even knew the word, he saw that globalism was a vehicle and a perfect meta- phor for the interconnectedness he’s long been speaking about. He realized that this same sense of linkage—or freedom from independent existence—also offered the basis for an environmental Top: On the bullet train from Nagoya to Yokohama, Japan, November, 2007. Above: With students in Tokyo. PHOTOS BY PICO IYER ➢ page 79 MAR 50-51.indd 51 MAR 50-51.indd 51 12/19/07 2:14:05 PM 12/19/07 2:14:05 PM