pico Iyer from the half known life: excerpts | wrong dream

Find a heaven within, Rumi had written–and it came back to me now as Ali, the driver and I sat on a platform in the sun, munching on chicken with barberries–and you enter a garden in which

It had long been too easy to say that Jerusalem is our world in miniature: the family home in which everyone is squabbling with his siblings over a late father’s will.

Yet Jerusalem spoke for a peculiarly twenty-first-century challenge as well, as the dissolution of borders meant that more and more conflicts were internal. In Kashmir, in Belfast, in Tibet, I’d witnessed one belief system against another; in Jerusalem, the fighting was not just between traditions, but within them. Orthodox Jews were spitting at their secular brothers, while those brothers were pinning posters of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus on synagogue doors to affront their sensitive coreligionists. Sunni Muslims lived harmoniously together within the country’s borders, but they were ringed on every side by Shia, who were pledged to committing Israel to oblivion. Far right often made common cause with far left here–ultra-Orthodox Jew aligning with Palestine Liberation Organization–on the grounds that my enemy’s enemy must be my friend.

The Pope himself had, in my lifetime, been denied permission to pray in the Greek chapel of what is often regarded as the holiest site in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And doubters could always point out that the emperor who had ordered that church’s construction, Constantine, had murdered his own wife and son. An English traveler in the nineteenth century who’d gone to observe “Holy Fire”–the apparently miraculous appearance of a light in a crevice in the church on the Saturday of Easter Week, announcing the rebirth of the world–had found himself stepping over “a great heap of bodies” after a stampede in which “soldiers with their bayonets killed a number of fainting wretches, the walls splattered with the blood and brains of men who had been felled like oxen.”

Jerusalem was a parable that had turned into a cautionary tale, a warning about what we do when we’re convinced we know it all. A Jonathan loses his temper and every Jew is condemned to perdition; a Salman misspeaks and every Muslim is assaulted. Even those who had worked to turn the place into a long-planned New Jerusalem could not wish away the bloodstains all around. It was Theodor Herzl, the spiritual founder of the Jewish state, who had written, as to the holy city, “The musty deposits of 2,000 years of inhumanity, intolerance and foulness lie in your reeking alleys.” It was the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, who had observed of Jerusalem, “Anything done to desecrate and defile the sacred has been done. It’s impossible to imagine so much falsehood and blasphemy.”


… to find ourselves in a rich and barely lit Tibetan Buddhist compound. Its chapels were thick with the smell of centuries of melted yak butter; its white terraces …

Ladders led up to rooftops that dropped off into an almost allegorical landscape of sand and space and blue emptiness. Every door through which we passed led to thangkas swarming with skulls, furious depictions of the contest within each one of us of light and dark. Mandalas, often sacred diagrams representing a paradise of Buddhas, lined up in rows or arrayed in receding squares, presented maps for every visitor to awaken a Buddha inside.

Dalai Lama

I remembered how the Dalai Lama, with his emphasis on facts and empiricism, often suggested that the seclusion of Himalayan cultures had perhaps allowed them to develop skills in meditation that had resulted in spiritual technologies not so refined yet in the West.

Whenever someone stood up–this happened after almost every large public lecture–and asked him what to do after you’ve been disappointed in some dream (to bring peace to the Middle East, to reverse climate change, to protect some seeming idyll), the Dalai Lama looked over at the questioner with great warmth and said, “Wrong dream!”

We humans, William James would write …, are akin to dogs in a library: we’re surrounded by extraordinary wisdom and knowledge, but entirely in a form we cannot decipher.

Along the walls were painted orange faces, laughing monkey gods, sacred looming phalluses. Shops on every side were selling sandalwood paste, and clarified butter for dead bodies, tiny clay urns for ashes.

The city of death had once been known as “Kashi,” or “City of Light.” The English writer Richard Lannoy, who had all but lost his soul to Varanasi, had called it a “city of darkness and dream.”