Feeding the Spiritually Hungry

For all their material success, says Pico Iyer, many Japanese feel alienated and spiritually starved. They responded hungrily to the Dalai Lama’s teachings on his recent tour of Japan.

Pico Iyer
1 March 2007
Feeding the spiritually hungry Dalai Lama Japan
Watching a Vajrayana initiation by the Dalai Lama at Daishoin Temple in Miyajima, Japan. Photo by Lobsang Wangyal.

For all their material success, says Pico Iyer, many Japanese feel alienated and spiritually starved. They responded hungrily to the Dalai Lama’s teachings on his recent tour of Japan.

Japan has for many years now been the most powerful Buddhist country in the world. Ever since the Fourteenth Dalai Lama first visited the country in 1967—on his first journey outside Tibet, China, and India—he has been telling the Japanese that they have an extraordinary potential to bring their highly sophisticated modern technologies together with the ancient traditions that are still so visible here and there across the country. Material conveniences offer comfort and ease for the body, he points out; spiritual and philosophical teachings offer balm for the soul. If the two can be brought together in a healthy balance, Japan can not only help itself but offer a model for the world.

It was this theme, among many others, that he frequently sounded on his most recent visit to Japan, visiting the nation, as he often does, just as the brilliant blue skies and the first edge of color in the leaves bring home a Buddhist message that everything is constantly changing on the surface, but something more fundamental never shifts deep down. He gave some public talks in Tokyo and visited a school in Osaka, but the heart of his journey came in a two-day conference on peace that he attended in Hiroshima, and in several days of teaching and initiations that he offered at the invitation of a Japanese Buddhist group on the holy island of Miyajima.

Japanese audiences tend to be much quieter and shyer—but also more attentive—than audiences elsewhere; they like to keep their feelings to themselves. Yet wherever the Dalai Lama went in the bright autumn sunshine, the gray roofs of temples rising like mist above the maples as they began to show some red, large crowds showed up to greet him, in part perhaps because his message and wisdom is ever more popular around the world, and in part perhaps because Japan feels an empty space inside itself that it needs to fill. At many events, people stood up and asked him about the increasingly urgent problem of “shut-in” kids in Japan, so estranged from society that they do nothing all day but sit in their darkened rooms and mope.

In response, the Tibetan visitor spoke often about the virtue of volunteering. “If you think only of yourself,” he said in Hiroshima, “then even a small problem becomes something almost unbearable.” Those in Japan, he said in Miyajima (suddenly breaking into English during a question-and-answer session), “have more skill and education. So you can help people in different countries. So, more of your people should go to these areas, volunteer, do something useful. When you see the difficulties there, you will see that your own situation is much better, more fortunate. Also, doing something, then you find the purpose of your life. You can think, ‘I have made some contribution. I have done some service.’ Then you feel some kind of fulfillment.”

Indeed, the interaction between the two—a materially prosperous but sometimes spiritually starving society, and a radiant monk who has lost his own physical country and has now become a citizen and teacher of the globe—seemed to speak at times for something archetypal in His Holiness’ travels. Japan, like the Western nations he often visits, has more stuff, more choices, more freedom of movement and worship than it knows what to do with; and yet something in it seems to cry out for direction, a sense of self. At an invisible level, a romantic foreigner finds Buddhism everywhere in the way people think of others before themselves in Japan, savor transience, even participate fully in the selves and worlds they know at some level to be illusions. But in terms of the philosophical texts and rigorous ideas that, the Dalai Lama stresses, are the intellectual core of Buddhism—its heart (or at least its mind)—Japan seems a long way from home.

It could almost seem a parable, in fact, for what many of us risk doing, as we leave our pasts behind without quite finding anything to replace them; as (in Japan’s case) we take on the surfaces of another culture, but not the assumptions that give them meaning, and end up becoming an imperfect copy of somewhere else instead of a confident model of ourselves. Japan, to longtime visitors like myself, has a sense of discipline, of community, even of instinctive egolessness, that makes it seem at times a kind of Buddhist teacher. But rising crime (by low local standards), increasing looseness, a hunger for a larger sense of purpose that has many of the most intelligent joining groups like Aum Shinrikyo, which planted sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system, suggest that, in taking on the forms of the American West, Japan may be taking on its problems, too.

Therefore, as soon as he met my longtime Japanese companion Hiroko and me for our first private talk on the trip—the sunlight flooding through the windows of his hotel room and a newspaper half open on the table—the Dalai Lama asked us, the way a doctor might, how things were going in Japan and (implicitly) what the country needed, or what was the source of its current suffering. When Hiroko began talking about mothers not passing on a sense of values and consideration as they used to, instantly, in his characteristic way, His Holiness came up with suggestions—those schools that are attached to temples might be able to offer something—and specifically cited a couple of instances he knew. It reminded me of the time when Hiroko had told him about her estranged brother and, quick as a prescribing physician, he’d turned to me and said, “You could write him a letter.” “Because I’m not a part of the family?” I asked. “Also”—the famous, infectious laugh—“not Japanese!”

For those most inspired by the Dalai Lama’s temporal, universal wisdom—the “secular ethics” and scientific principles he brings audiences who have no knowledge of Buddhism—the Hiroshima conference was surely a highlight. After paying a visit to a small Tibetan temple in the hills outside Hiroshima, where a rinpoche has been steadily offering instruction for twenty years—the climb up the steep path through the trees making one feel that one was in Dharamsala, the bare Japanese temple at the top flooded with the rich colors and symbols of Tibet—Tibet’s global leader went to a large conference hall for a day and a half of discussion with his old friends and fellow Nobel Peace laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Betty Williams of Northern Ireland. All three of them have been through harrowing challenges and seen suffering, warfare, and bigotry firsthand, and yet—this was their message—all three of them had come to the city that is a byword for nuclear destruction to share a steady, warming sense of community, delight, even excitement.

When one young woman from Mexico got up—much of the audience was international and college age—and spoke through sobs about her concerns for a wall being built along the U.S.–Mexico border to keep Mexicans out of America, urging the three laureates to help her, Williams sent an assistant up to give the girl a hug. Bishop Tutu offered words of commiseration drawn from his own struggle against apartheid and the temptation toward revenge. And the Dalai Lama shared a typically realistic and practical distillation of Buddhist thought that at once transmitted sympathy and presented a vision of Buddhist self-reliance. “You have to work,” he said. “There are thousands of people who will help you. You are never alone. But the main work is on your own shoulders. You should not lose hope. You should be optimistic and have self-confidence. In our own example, in spite of overwhelming challenges, we have never lost our confidence.”


Over and over, in fact, the Dalai Lama always found ways to share his characteristic gift for finding a positive, some potential, in everything. The current war in Iraq, he said, was a “symptom of a great mistake, some negligence in the past, even in the nineteenth century. Therefore, on the other side, if we start some effort with vision now, then some positive result may happen even at the end of this century, beginning of next one.”

For those who turn to the Tibetan leader for instruction in the great Sanskrit and Mahayana tradition of Buddhism—the “Nalanda tradition,” as he often calls it—the six days in Miyajima were no doubt the high point. The small island forty minutes away from central Hiroshima features a shrine that sits on the water like a golden dream, with temples all along its hills, as well as two thousand deer grazing among its shrines, as if to bring back the park where the Buddha gave his first discourse. The central shrine dates from the sixth century, just as Buddhism was beginning to arrive in Japan. And Daisho-in, the hillside temple where the Dalai Lama was giving teachings, was celebrating its 1,200th anniversary, having been founded by the Japanese monk Kobo Daishi after he returned from Chang’an in the year 804, bringing a tantric Buddhism that he called Shingon and that, with its mandalas, its mudras, and its Vajrayana thinking, is very close to Tibetan Buddhism.

Every morning, great streams of pilgrims climbed up the narrow stone steps that lead to the temple, the polished stillness of the Japanese landscape giving a haunting shine and quiet to the scene. One room in the main temple, where a flame is said to have been burning for more than a thousand years, had been turned into a piece of Tibet, with a great new golden Maitreya statue at its center and thangkas and mandalas all around. As listeners packed the courtyard and the temple where the Dalai Lama was speaking, and the days dawned cloudless and blithe, it felt again as if Dharmasala itself had come to Japan, among the Tibetans with their white scarves extended, the large Mongolian sumo wrestlers excitedly coming into the temple for a photograph with their spiritual leader, and the foreign Buddhists and travelers scattered among the hundreds of quiet Japanese women and fashionable young girls with their Vuitton bags.

The Dalai Lama consecrated the temple on his first afternoon in Miyajima—a group of twelve monks from Drepung Monastery in southern India taking care of all the preparations, and then sitting beside a line of Japanese monks, all in lustrous purple robes, first the Japanese sharing their chants, then the Tibetans. Over the next two days he spoke about basic Buddhist ideas, especially shunyata and the interdependence it suggests. The audience, seated cross-legged before him in the temple and on gray folding chairs in the autumn sunshine all around, sat so quietly and attentively that at one point he joked that he had forgotten that they could not follow the Tibetan he was speaking.

The next three days were devoted to empowerments and initiations, of a special kind that drew scholars from around the world. For someone like myself, an Indian from England raised in California and living now in Japan for its mix of energy and serenity, it was a remarkable gift to feel that Tibet and its traditions were flooding into our midst, so that we might feel that Tibet was part of the world, and the world part of Tibet. Listening to the Dalai Lama in the piercing, aromatic, bright-blue autumn days reminded one that Japan and Tibet share a tradition that Japan is in a unique position to support and to share with the rest of the world, one young rinpoche from California offering simultaneous Chinese translation to an excited group from Beijing, someone else delivering the teachings into Korean (and someone else, of course, into English). And as people brought their daily concerns and problems to the Dalai Lama, as they do at every stop on his travels, he always offered immediate solutions, meeting—and blessing—a young woman who was angrily shouting his name out at a temple and screaming that she needed to confront him; calling on Japan as well as India to recall where it came from, spiritually and philosophically, so as better, perhaps, to see where it is going.

As the Tibetan returned to Dharamsala and prepared for his next big trip and set of teachings, it seemed possible to entertain the hope that Japan—and all of us—might wake up a little to our deeper potential, and that the principles of kindness, self-confidence, and hard work that he had stressed (and embodied) might shine a little more strongly and clearly within. As I returned to my desk near another deer park in Japan, where the Dalai Lama had come three years before, it was possible to believe that the warm and cloudless sunshine that was still in the skies might now be found somewhere inside the heart as well.

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books, most recently Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, twinned works on living with uncer­tainty and impermanence.