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Lions Roar : July 2019
almost never on a mountaintop or sequestered behind walls, but always in our midst, leaning forward toward us with a blessing or a smile. WE HEAR SO MUCH THESE DAYS about being a “world citizen,” but we tend to gloss over the fact that global citizen- ship is a much harder honor to win than a Chinese or Cana- dian passport. It requires vision and exceptional powers of tolerance and understanding. The Dalai Lama, as I watch him travel from Newark to Zurich, makes everyone feel at home on this globe, in part because he is so entirely at home wher- ever he is. His home is deeply portable, and inward, which should be a warning to anyone who wishes to erase Tibet from the map. Even as he has seen Beijing’s campaign to eradicate his peo- ple’s identity and culture gain momentum, the Dalai Lama has not just made Tibet a part of every community from Berkeley to Sydney. He has found the universal part of his Buddhist teaching that can sustain Hindus and Christians and the many close friends who, as scientists, delightedly remind him that they have no faith at all. It’s almost shocking, I think, to encounter a universally respected religious leader who insists that religion is not para- mount; that the thing we all need to focus on is the “secular ethics” of everyday kindness and responsibility. Not every- one knows what to do when the most visible Buddhist in the world tells people across the globe not to become Buddhists, even though they can surely learn from lamas and Buddhist neighbors, as well as from compassionate atheists and home- less people. When we read of a philosopher in maroon robes growing tearful as he discusses the Gospels with a group of Christians in England, we realize there’s a way out of the poi- sonous divisions that are cutting up our world and leaving every one of us with scars. The Dalai Lama I know is not a mystic. When people speak to him of “healing powers,” he offers a robust laugh and says that, were he in possession of those, his stomach wouldn’t be hurting so much right now. He’s not an ideal- ist. His commitment, as a Buddhist, is to reality and the possibilities that lie within it. Nor is he attached to the status quo. The institution of the Dalai Lama is of limited use in our new millennium, he says, so we can freely get rid of it—so long as Tibetans have strong spiritual leadership to go with the political leadership they now enjoy demo- cratically (the Dalai Lama having dethroned himself in the temporal realm). What all this speaks for are classical, essential principles from which His Holiness never budges: forms are not impor- tant, the values they speak for are. No need for traditional Tibetan clothing in the heat of southern India, he often says, so long as the unique and still invaluable aspects of Tibetan cul- ture and language and philosophy are rigorously maintained. Look deeper than that terrorist attack of yesterday night, he tells us; a disease cannot be cured until you tend to its root causes. And even the most expert physicians can never save us from mortality. All they can do—and these are the healing powers His Holiness does have—is ease the suffering in our hearts and minds right now. THUS I SIDLE TOWARD THE CONUNDRUM of how a monk born in a cowshed in a rural area three hours from the nearest road, who grew up in one of the most isolated cor- ners of the planet, with almost no access to the outside world, became the great global friend and teacher of us all. Naturally, millions are inspired by how he stresses, at every turn, our connectedness (true to the Buddhist notion of “dependent arising”). We are moved by his emphasis on what unites us, not what divides, and his insistence on the univer- sal. When he keeps invoking empiricism and the laws of sci- ence, what he’s trying to do is take us beyond parochialisms to truths—about peace of mind and compassion—that are as global as the law of gravity. But beyond that, I think it’s the practicality of His Holiness’ message that offers every listener something concrete to incor- porate into their daily life. I remember how he told me point- edly, the day after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, that the world could be saved if only each one of us remembered to turn out the light whenever we left a room. That same morn- ing, he pointed out that all even he could do was take one day at a time, work with whomever was in front of him, and try to temper his expectations accordingly. Often, when I see him give large public talks, someone will stand up afterward and ask, with great sincerity, what to do if you really hope for world peace or environmental reform, and it doesn’t seem to work out. “Wrong dream!” His Holiness responds with warmth, going on to point out that we have to be rigorously realistic in our aspirations. If we aim to change our habits, and maybe those of people close to us, we might meet with some success. If we hope to transform the world overnight, we’ll surely be disappointed. It’s striking—and typical—that the Dalai Lama published a major book under the title Beyond Religion. In truth, he admit- ted to me, it was an editor who chose that possibly misleading PICO IYER is the author, most recently, of Autumn Light, an exploration of impermanence and the beauty that hides within it, and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, coming this September. LION’S ROAR | JULY 2019 42