In our media- and soundbite-driven age, every public figure runs the risk of becoming submerged in celebrity status and losing integrity. After all, as author Pico Iyer points out, we live in the Age of the Image (p. 41)--he could just have well said the "Age of Hype"--and media images, unlike the realities they pretend to represent, are one-dimensionally, simplistic. Know this is enough to make any reasonable person a bit suspicious of the buzz surrounding any celebrity, and this is especially true with religious celebrities. How genuinely spiritual can someone who's constantly in the public eye be?
I admit that at times I've asked this about the 14th Dalai Lama. But reading Pico Iyer's intriguing and informative book has set my mind at ease. If Iyer's account is at all accurate (and it should be; Iyer, whose father was a friend of the Dalai Lama's, has known him for many years), the Dalai Lama is a man with such a constant commitment to reality (p. 49) that there's little danger of him buying into the superstar the media insists on giving him. In keeping with his Buddhist tradition, the Dalai Lama has spent a lifetime trying to puncture illusion, deception, interpretive filters, and ideological beliefs--including his own. The Buddha once insisted that he didn't teach "knowledge," because it's too easy for people of knowledge to get trapped inside their beliefs (p. 157). The Dalai Lama lives by these words.
This immediately suggests a tension, which in fact is one of the central themes in Iyer's portrait of the public and personal life of the Dalai Lama. On the one hand, the Dalai Lama insists that the only truths there are must necessarily be universal, cross-cultural ones, and that putative truths which pertain only to specific cultures aren't truths at all (p. 15). This is a reflection in part of his acceptance of the doctrine of shunyata, the interconnectedness of all things, including beliefs (p. 146). Therefore, he looks constantly for the commonality across different cultures and belief systems, and urges others to do so as well.
On the other hand, though, the Dalai Lama is squarely in the Tibetan Buddhist ethos. Iyer points out, for example, that he's actually quite conservative textually. He believes that homosexuality is morally wrong, and he has strong things to say about the use of intoxicants and the permissibility of divorce, and he bases all of these perspectives on a close reading of Tibetan sacred texts. He operates, therefore, within a very specific, culturally-defined belief system.
Far from suggesting an inconsistency, this tension in the Dalai Lama's life is a happy one, and indeed serves as a model for the rest of us, who are after all each come from a specific cultural context. The Dalai Lama is able to bridge the universal and his own religious tradition by not taking himself too seriously. One of his most common expressions, Iyer notes, is "I don't know." He repudiates the title of "Living Buddha," which he claims is a mistranslation of the Tibetan (p. 51), and he tends to think of the institution of the Dalai Lama as a job rather than as prophetic (pp. 73, 131). He insists that his words, and the words of all people, especially those who have a reputation for holiness, should be scrutinized, analyzed, and discussed, and this is exactly the perspective he brings to his own tradition. He remains loyal to it, but he also knows that it doesn't exhaust the realm of possibility. In this regard, he's very much like the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose 1968 visit to the Dalai Lama is described by Iyer (pp. 146-50).
Humility, then, is what protects the Dalai Lama from stardom, keeps him focused on his commitment to reality, enables him to seek for universal truths while at the same time celebrating his own particular tradition, and gives him the ability--a rare talent in religious leaders--to laugh at himself. In capturing the contours of this humility, Iyer not only provides us with an insightful portrait of the Dalai Lama. He also gives us some guidelines for living well worth considering.