I’ve fallen into another bad reading habit, now that I’m taking the subway more regularly. Fifty pages from the end, I realize that there isn’t quite enough left to get me through a day’s commute. So I start another book. In the last month, I’ve cliffhangered:

    A Cook’s Tour
    The manuscript of Max’s new novel
    The Art of Happiness
    On Writing

I’m not counting the books dropped less than halfway through:

    The Hobbit
    Adventures in the Screen Trade
    No Logo
    The Blind Assassin

This is a poor show. Each of these books was enjoyable: I just got panicked at the thought of anything less than an abundance of pages remaining (and, okay, I got excited about the next one). As a child, I skipped to the end of each book halfway through to find out what happened. It was a disappointment to learn that not all stories ended with a thrilling climax that tied up all the plot points. But that doesn’t justify abandoning my charges so recklessly now.

Tibetan Foothold
I did manage to finish Dervla Murphy’s Tibetan Foothold today, however. My namesake and countrywoman deserved no less. In 1963, she cycled from Ireland to Delhi and from there made her way to the Tibetan refugee camps of Northern India, where she pitched in for several months. She fell in love with the ‘Tiblets’—cheerful, uncomplaining, affectionate children. We romanticize Tibetan Buddhism so much that her skeptical but loving perspective brings balance. I’d just finished (ahem) The Art of Happiness, which was interesting but somewhat unsatisfying for being ‘as told to’ an American shrink, whose new-agey style made it hard to get to the Dalai Lama’s twinkly wisdom underneath. Dervla Murphy met the Dalai Lama in 1963, and her impressions show a very different man:

    ‘Where someone of His Holiness’s stature is concerned, there are probably as many different versions of the man as there are people who meet him; unavoidably one has one’s instinctive personal reactions. One also has certain preconceptions and it would be untrue to say that I met the Dalai Lama with an open mind; all my conversations with those who knew him had led me to expect an outstanding individual—not necessarily likeable, but certainly a Personality. Instead, I found myself talking to a simple pleasant young man, who has the gracious manner and lively humour of the average Tibetan, but who failed to impress me by any unusual qualities—apart from a total lack of egotism, which by our standards is remarkable enough in the circumstances.

    On meeting some High Lamas one spontaneously recognizes them as deeply religious men, yet with the Dalai Lama I had no awareness of being in the presence of an ascetic whose life centered on things spiritual. This is not to imply that His Holiness’s life is otherwise centered; it may merely be that he is as yet too immature to convey such a feeling to others.

    However, half an hour’s conversation convinced me that here was a ruler whose chief concern would always be the welfare of his people—though unfortunately, he showed no sign of an intellectual ability equal to the enormous task of solving their present problems. But I was also becoming aware of a certain tension in the atmosphere. I felt that the Dalai Lama was constantly on his guard, that he was unsure of himself in dealing with foreigners, and that he was continually attempting to gauge my reactions to him. One can only pity the vulnerability of this sensitive young man, who is so often exposed to the relentless scrutiny of a world either politely sceptical or impatiently contemptuous of the values which he represents.’

Later, her attitude softens:

    ’And this morning provided another pleasant surprise when I had an audience with His Holiness and found him much more relaxed and approachable than during our last meeting sixteen months ago. He seems to have matured a great deal in that brief time and to have gained in self-assurance, as though he has at last been able to come to terms with his strange situation. The impression I had today was of an astute young statesman in the making—yet when we came to touch on religion he spoke with an easy sincerity that was immensely moving and quite unlike his tense, watchful manner at our previous meeting. He looks considerably older now, and very much thinner—but very much happier.’
In the afterword, written in 1998, she writes:

    ‘Four decades have passed since the Dalai Lama fled to India, and those anxious and demanding years have not been made any easier for His Holiness by the Western media’s adoption of Tibet’s God-King ( in tabloid-speak) as one of their Cold War heroes. In this role, the Dalai Lama was all the more useful because of his appeal to young Westerners earnestly seeking ‘eastern wisdom’. This is not to suggest that His Holiness lacks wisdom, compassion and genuine spirituality. But what I wrote recently about Nelson Mandela could equally apply to him: ‘In President Mandela the media have an ideal hero, someone whose image needs no touching up. Yet every leader deserves some criticism and may be rendered less effective by a media canonization that stifles it.’

Doughty Dervla is sobering. I admit to being drawn to the Dalai Lama for a self-help fix more rigorous than Mars and Venus on a Date. I’ll also admit to wanting to pull back the curtain to expose the wizard. ‘But what’s he really like?’ The earnest shrink who relates The Art of Happiness spends most of the book reassuring us that for the Dalai Lama there is no Miller Time. When I mention that I’m reading the book, Paul, unprompted, writes:

    ‘The thing that interests me most about the Dalai Lama is his ability to live his role. There is no inner child, no thing he’d rather do. I asked Tom about it, whether the Dalai Lama was ever some guy and not the Dalai Lama, and he said that there’s no one that isn’t the Dalai Lama in there. He doesn’t seem to need to get away and play video games. That focus appeals to me; in a world of people trying to choose for their entire lives, the person who chooses and takes the consequences is indomitable. And probably happier.

    Plus he eats Yak.’

Murphy quotes Carl Jung: ‘I have serious doubts as to the blessings of Western civilization, and I have similar misgivings as to the adoption of Eastern spirituality by the West.’ She speculates that her own ‘…involuntary hostility aroused by those who adopt alien philosophies is probably mainly due to a basic suspicion that they are guilty of attempting to escape from their inherited responsibilities.’

Well, she may be right. Or it may be that these days we inherit no spiritual framework at all, and must patch something together if we feel the need. And what’s so wrong with peace, love and understanding? Except that it doesn’t get your country back.

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