For 50 years, Pico Iyer has been traveling the globe, seeking out sacred sites from the hidden shrines of Tehran to the funeral pyres of Varanasi. Iyer believes that travel can help us confront questions that we tend to avoid or bypass when we’re at home, forcing us out of our usual routines and bringing us into contact with the “crisscrossing of cultures.” In his latest book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, Iyer investigates how different cultures have understood the notion of paradise, recounting his travels to places of religious conflict as far flung as Jerusalem, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Ladakh.
In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, sat down with Iyer to discuss the risks of the commercialization of paradise, the power of not knowing, and how we can find paradise in the midst of impermanence.
James Shaheen (JS): To start, what is the half-known life?
Pico Iyer (PI): For me, the half-known is the source of everything essential in life: when we fall in love, when we’re terrified, when we have an epiphany. We can’t begin to explain these things, and yet they determine our lives much more than the things that we seem to be on top of. We might tell ourselves we’re masters of the universe, but I think we’re really servants of the universe. I almost imagine us living inside a tiny lighted tent in the middle of a vast darkness under the stars. We steady ourselves by holding on to the little that we know. But really, we’re defined and shaped by this vastness we can’t begin to understand. And so I suppose the book is a call to humility and a reminder to address the things we can’t hope to know because that’s where the substance of our life takes place.
JS: The second half of the title is “In Search of Paradise.” What is this notion of paradise that we’re searching for?
PI: Like happiness or peace or calm, paradise is not found by looking for it. Instead, it comes upon us, or we put ourselves in the right place where it can visit us. In fact, our notions of paradise can often keep us from paradise. Paradise, by definition, has to be open to everybody. This is at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. And so the notion that I have a paradise that excludes you is already an expulsion from paradise. I was writing this book in response to an ever more divided world in which each group has its own, often strict notion of the paradise that awaits them but that excludes almost all of us. And so in that sense, to think that you know what paradise is and that other people don’t know is a great obstruction, which is why I’m happier to say I don’t know. It’s what we don’t know that really brings us together more than what we know.
At the very heart of this book is the framework that His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes in his book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. My sense is that he has witnessed so much violence and dogmatism perpetrated in the name of religion that he wants to rescue us from some of the doctrines or imprisoning notions that religion can bring. He’d like to take us back to a human reality of responsibility and kindness and interdependence where, freed of our notions of paradise, we can see that we belong to everybody else.
JS: In the book, you write at length about your travels to Varanasi. Can you say more about what your time in Varanasi taught you about paradise?
PI: Urban India can be like a psychedelic Hieronymus Bosch painting with all the world and its contradictions put together, and nowhere more so than Varanasi. There are bodies burning and people performing Hindu ceremonies and everything in human existence compacted in a very small space. I’m a Hindu of Indian descent, but I didn’t know what to do with Varanasi’s chaos and intensity.
One day, as I was walking down to the ghats by the Ganges River, suddenly there appeared two monks in Tibetan robes. One of them said to me, “Isn’t this glorious? Isn’t this wonderful? This is what life is all about. This is human existence.” Both of them were just exulting in this human swell. It was like a wake-up call: Don’t run away from this reality. This reality is where we have to find our paradise. This is what we have to work with. And this is what I have to train my eyes, my mind, my soul, and my being to appreciate as the best possibility I can find.
One thing I found in Varanasi was that the City of Death is a city of joy. As devout Hindus are carrying dead bodies to be burned by the Ganges, they’re not despairing. They’re in a state of exaltation and gratitude that they have the chance to commit the decaying body to the holy waters.
E. M. Forster said, “Death destroys a man but the idea of death saves him.” In other words, we have to make our peace with death. And so Varanasi, the City of Death, seemed the appropriate place for me to find what I could trust as a viable paradise, not on the far side of reality, but right at the heart of it.
I suppose my feeling is not just that paradise has to be in the middle of life, but it also has to exist in the face of death. I don’t trust a paradise that writes death out of the equation because, as the Buddha taught, death is the one inarguable fact of life. During the pandemic, living so close to death made me ask, How do we live in this world of uncertainty? This was the koan that the pandemic presented to us, but it’s also what life presents to us. This state of uncertainty is the only home that we have on Earth—and therefore the home we are obliged to make comfortable. How can we turn the life we know, with all its difficulties and its impermanence, into the best kind of paradise we can have here on Earth? It’s almost a pilgrimage into real life. How can we affirm life and throw our arms around it, even as so much is falling away?
JS: At the end of the book, you say that you decided to stop seeking out holy places and instead let life come to you. Can you tell us more about this decision?
PI: That was the culmination of the book. Six miles from the mad intensity and carnival of Varanasi is Sarnath, where the Buddha delivered his first discourse. When I was in Varanasi, the Dalai Lama was giving a series of talks in Sarnath on Shantideva’s The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. I went to go hear him speak, and it struck me that the bodhisattva, by definition, is somebody whose life project is to walk away from paradise back toward the rest of us to help us in any way she can. Once, when I was sitting in on an audience that His Holiness was having with a Korean man, the Korean man was so moved to see the Dalai Lama that he said, “You will go to the Pure Land!” The Dalai Lama replied by quoting the First Dalai Lama and said, “I don’t want to go to the Pure Land. I want to serve where I am needed.” And of course, the Dalai Lama lives that in every breath.
To go to Sarnath in the middle of the chaos of Varanasi and hear about the bodhisattva committing himself to return to the real world was really the lesson I needed to hear. It taught me that paradise is the place we find when we’re no longer longing for paradise. And so I was so grateful that in the great Hindu holy city, I chanced to hear a Buddhist teacher reminding me, “Don’t look anywhere other than right here, right now, for whatever you want to find.”
Listen to the full interview below.