Pico Iyer has been conversing with the Dalai Lama for 33 years. Iyer talks Tibet, faith and Martin Scorsese with Lumière’s Associate Editor ALEXANDER BISLEY.

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SPEAKING from New York, Pico Iyer is warm, generous, charming and intimate; it’s like a fireside chat with an old friend. These qualities shine through The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Bloomsbury, $37.99), Iyer’s beautiful biography of the man he has been conversing with for 33 years.
You could say The Open Road is the book Iyer was born to write. As soon as the Dalai Lama arrived in India in 1959, his philosopher father sailed back from Oxford to have a long talk. “Most people didn’t know who this exotic man from this fairytale country was. My father had been studying Buddhism for a while. He suddenly thought this amazing treasure is available for the first time, I’ve got to go and meet him.”
Three-year old Iyer had been captivated nightly by radio accounts of the Dalai Lama’s escape through the mountains. When his father recounted Iyer’s enthusiasm, the Dalai Lama sent him a present. “From the time I was three years old, I had this photo of the Dalai Lama aged five (in Lhasa) on my desk and I had that connection. One of the impressive things about the Dalai Lama is his incredible memory. Even though he meets hundreds of people each day he remembers every one. So he always remembered that he’d met my father very early on and my father, when I was a teenager, took me to meet the Dalai Lama, so that really opened the door.”
Indian- born Iyer has written on Tibet for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times and Time. Iyer wants to surprise readers by reminding them of the everyday humanity of the Dalai Lama. “Though he is a kind and strikingly charming monk, he is also a doctor of philosophy, a keen scientist, a religious figure so open that he gives lectures on the gospels and calls himself a ‘Defender of Islam’. Most importantly, in ways we see daily right now, he is also the most seasoned political leader in the planet, who has ruled his people for 67 years.”
I want to startle people by giving them a sense of his complexity, depth and down-to-earthness, all things that sometimes get lost in the image of him we want or need to have. And I want to show he is, perhaps surprisingly, a hyper-realist, the most practical politicians I’ve run into in my 26 years of being a journalist.” The Dalai Lama also brings the larger vision and stillness of a monk to politics. “The only monk I know who holds to nothing if it has been disproved by scientific research.”
Iyer is currently touring his musically written book across America. He says increasingly audiences , like some of the restless among Dharamsala’s exiled Tibetans, are calling for more decisive action and a head-on confrontation with China, but doesn’t think that would do much good. “The Dalai Lama is the one Tibetan in exile who really knows China’s leadership and how it works and thinks, having travelled across China for a year in 1954 and been dealing with Beijing since the early years of the rule of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.”
Iyer spent a week travelling with the Dalai Lama across Japan in November, by his side daily from dawn to dusk, hearing him address everything that is in the news today. Iyer thinks the Dalai Lama’s talk of potentially resigning is mostly a symbolic act, since he has been saying it for fifteen years, and has already installed, for the first time in Tibetan history, a democratically-elected Prime Minister and Cabinet and Parliament in exile. “That said, most Tibetans listen only to the man they regards as the incarnation of a God.”
The hope and empathy (and the positive possibilities of globalism) which charge Iyer’s work continue in The Open Road; one idea being we can keep representative principles of the Dalai Lama and Tibet alive inside us. “I am hopeful about Tibet, and China, their destinies intertwined, though I think you have to see things in the long-term.”
Last April, Iyer did a Tibet talk with Kundun director Martin Scorsese at New York’s Tibetan Rubin Museum, occasioning terrific anecdotes. “He’d tell the monks ‘you’ve got to be angry in this scene’,” Iyer cannily imitates Scorsese’s passionate staccato, “ and they’d look completely blank, ‘we don’t know the meaning of that word’... I was struck and quite moved by how much he still seemed to hold the Tibetans he’d met through Kundun in his heart, and how humbly, and humanly, he reached out to them.”
The Open Road deserves inclusion on the definitive list of work about Tibet’s leader. “I figured that the huge and definitive biographies had already been written, including by the Dalai Lama himself, and great Hollywood movies like Kundun have been done, telling his life. And there’s so much known on the Dalai Lama that I didn’t want to add another 900 pages, so I deliberately kept it as elliptical as possible... I am pulling together a lot of my life, and thinking about him.”
After all his hard work on The Open Road, Iyer isn’t slowing down. “I’m working on another book on the autumn in Japan, what changes and what never changes.” Iyer’s Bible, The Quiet American, continues to influence. “I’ve been haunted by, and working on for years, a work on Graham Greene, another apostle in the church of humanity, and another great traveller, like the Dalai Lama, trying to find how to act with conviction and conscience in a confused and divided world.”