Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pico Iyer on the 14th Dalai Lama

OK, my first post, and it’s not at all about what I had planned to address, namely, something that falls within the compass of “law, politics, philosophy:" civil disobedience (still forthcoming however). In correspondence with Dean Chen he reminded me what the “blogging platform is all about—promoting oneself and one’s friends!” There’s probably more truth in that than makes me comfortable. Nonetheless, his words inspired me to share news of the latest book by a dear friend, the travel writer, novelist, and Time essayist, Pico Iyer: The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (New York: Knopf, 2008). I know, that’s name-dropping, but that’s de rigueur in the blogosphere as well. By way of truth-in-disclosure, I confess I would probably promote anything written by Pico, whether I liked it or not (it just so happens I’m quite fond of everything he’s written). So, in the interest of objectivity, please see the properly generous review in The New Yorker by Pankaj Mishra.

Others have sung the praises of Pico’s conspicuous talents as a writer, so I need not rehearse them here. If you’re not familiar with his work, I would recommend one of his best travel books, The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (New York: Knopf, 1991), the novel Cuba and the Night (New York: Knopf, 1995), and a delightful volume of essays, Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions (New York: Knopf, 1997). One might also take a look at his Wiki bio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pico_Iyer, this interview: http://www.rolfpotts.com/writers/iyer.html, and his page from The New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/authors/251

Read the rest of this post . . . .Pico’s mother, Nandini Iyer, was one of my teachers while I was an undergraduate and graduate student in Isla Vista a few feet from the Pacific Ocean. She taught economics and philosophy while at the University of Oxford, and philosophy and religion(s) at UC Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College. Her late husband, Raghavan Iyer, a political philosopher, won in 1950 India's only Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford. Among other items, he is the author of a nonpareil study: The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (1973, 2nd ed., 1983). This book, alongside a couple of works penned by Bhikhu Parekh, constitutes the crème de la crème of sophisticated scholarship on Gandhi’s political philosophy.

Although Pico and I are the same age, his mother happens to be my best friend, as Pico spends most of his time traveling and living in Japan, so I see him infrequently. My friendship with Nandini began during the time I was one of the finish carpenters helping to re-build the Iyer family home which was completely destroyed (thousands of books and exquisite pieces of Asian art up in smoke) in the terrible Painted Cave Fire back in June of 1990 (Pico wrote about his harrowing escape from the fire for Time). It was also during this time that she asked me to fill-in for her “comparative world religions” course at our city college. Long story short: I agreed, and after a few more times substituting, I was given my own course (and a class on ‘critical thinking’), whereupon I eventually hung up my tool belt and re-entered the academic world (in my 40s) I had abruptly left while in graduate school. It’s thus largely to Nandini I owe the fact that I’m now a part-time teacher rather than hanging doors and installing baseboard for the rich, famous, and not-so-famous in Santa Barbara and Montecito.

Back to Tibet. The timing of Pico’s book on His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) could not be more fortuitous, given the recent protests in Tibet and around the world. The Tibetans are said to be an “indigenous” people and their government is now in exile in Dharamsala, India (please see http://www.tibet.com/index.html). I don’t think it’s hyperbole to describe the de facto if not de jure policy of the Chinese regime in Tibet as tantamount to cultural genocide. Tibet, to be sure, is part of the sovereign state of China, but as many recent legal and political analyses of the meaning of sovereignty have made clear, sovereignty is rarely an “all or nothing” affair (i.e., when we ‘unbundle’ the notion of sovereignty we find that contemporary states possess sovereignty over some things and not others; consider, for instance, the power of states in the international society of same vis-à-vis actions taken by the UN Security Council, or the meaning of the European Union for member states, or what sovereignty means in Iraq, Sudan, Taiwan, Kosovo, and so on) and it’s certainly possible for indigenous peoples to exercise self-determination in various forms and degrees that do not threaten the geopolitical territory or constitutional integrity of a modern nation-state and hence its “sovereign” status in international law (i.e., the collective exercise of self-determination need not imply either separation or secession, or, as S. James Anaya suggests, the historical, political and legal processes of decolonization should not be definitive for an understanding of self-determination). It does seem we need a notion of “collective rights” to complement but not in any way trump the Liberal conception of human or individual rights already enshrined in international law (cf. the Draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples http://www.cwis.org/drft9329.html)

I’ve put together here a list of titles by way of introducing many-things-Tibetan for the uninitiated:

Avedon, John F. In Exile from the Land of the Snows. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Beer, Robert. The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2003.

Cabezón, José Ignacio and Roger R. Jackson, eds. Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

Coleman, Graham, ed. (compiled by the Orient Foundation). A Handbook of Tibetan Culture: A Guide to Tibetan Centres and Resources throughout the World. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1994.

Conboy, Kenneth and James Morrison. The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Dalai Lama XIV. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

French, Rebecca Redwood. The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Goldstein, Melvyn C. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989.

Goldstein, Melvyn C. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.

Harrer, Heinrich. Seven Years in Tibet. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997 (1953).

Jinpa, Thupten and Jas Elsner, trans. Songs of Spiritual Experience: Tibetan Buddhist Poems of Insight & Awakening. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2000.

Landaw, Jonathan and Andy Weber. Images of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1993.

Mullin, Glenn H. The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light, 2001.

Pal, Pratapaditya (with an essay by Eleanor Olson). The Art of Tibet. New York: The Asia Society, 1969.

Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1995.

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of the Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Smith, Warren W., Jr. Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Thurman, Robert A. The Central Philosophy of Tibet: A Study and Translation of Jey Tsong Khapa’s Essence of True Eloquence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Tucci, Giusseppe (Geoffrey Samuel, trans.). The Religions of Tibet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980).

Lastly, as I teach in a Philosophy Department, it would be remiss of me not to note that Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is not for the faint of heart, indeed, comparatively speaking, it is quite capable of holding its own as a member of the extended (and dysfunctional?) family of philosophical worldviews, doctrines, and ideas that fall within the purview of contemporary professional philosophy. For instance, see the recent review by Felix Holmgren in the Times Literary Supplement (March 21, 2008) of a translation by Geshe Ngawang Samten and Jay Garfield of Tsong khapa’s Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (New York: Oxford University, 2006).

Update: Please see Robert Barnett's piece, "Thunder in Tibet," The New York Review of Books, May 29, 2008 (Vol. LV, No. 9). In addition to an excellent review of Pico's book, Barnett provides us with a helpful historical background and incisive introduction to the recent protests in and outside Tibet. I discovered after posting this that Pico provides at the end of his book a discussion of recommend reading "For those who wish to turn to books of real authority and wisdom on the subject [i.e., Tibet, Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, etc.]," as well as to "salute, and to direct readers toward, some of the works that have most deeply instructed me and brightened my life." (I was heartened to discover there is some overlap between our lists.)


Blogger restlessthought said...

Your background and connection to Iyer is interesting, am glad you posted this. Will enrich my experience of Iyer's book, I think.

4/02/2008 12:33 PM  

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