By Pico Iyer

Alfred A. Knopf. 275 pp. $24

As the Chinese government cracked down on Tibetan protesters last week, the Dalai Lama surprised some journalists who don't usually cover him or Tibetan-Chinese issues.

Speaking to reporters in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, for almost 50 years home of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the 72-year-old spiritual and secular leader of his people expressed concern for Chinese injured by his followers in Tibet, even threatening to resign from his secular duties if violence against Chinese persisted.

This from a Tibetan leader who fled the Chinese in 1959 as a "boy king" of 24, whose homeland, after Mao Tse-tung's Chinese forces attacked in 1949, suffered what the International Commission of Jurists judged to be genocide. (Iyer writes: "One in every five Tibetans - more than a million in all - died of starvation or in direct encounters with the Chinese, according to Tibetan estimates.")

This from a man the Chinese government calls "a wolf in monk's clothing."

It doesn't happen much around the world - "dissident" leaders expressing sympathy for their enemies and oppressors. Hamas honchos don't weep for slaughtered yeshiva boys. Members of Colombia's FARC don't bat an eye as their hostages wither and die. Supposedly devout Muslims in Iraq kill fellow Muslims without a second thought.

But the Dalai Lama, like the great men to whom he's most rightly compared - Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - lives by his own rules of compassion and consistency, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who embodies the spirit of that sometimes oddly bestowed honor. Unique in his office as both the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and head of state of a land that China says it runs as an autonomous province, he remains a blend of Caesar and Christ, ruler and philosopher, canny scientist and devout monk.

The Open Road

, Pico Iyer's beautifully written, up-close meditation about him - a superb portrait of a celebrated figure whom the master journalist and his family have known personally for 30 years - arrives at a perfect time. As the International Campaign for Tibet tries to get news out about what's happening in Tibet despite severe Chinese censorship - some unofficial reports speak of Lhasa in flames, with far more killing than official Chinese media acknowledge -

The Open Road

provides context for the tragic events of this month and illuminates how a singular personality born to a highly ritualized leadership role has evolved over time.

Iyer's Indian father, an Oxford-educated political philosopher who met the Dalai Lama shortly after the latter's exile to India, used to tell his young son the story of the Lama's dangerous escape from his palace in Lhasa. Iyer as a boy received an inscribed photo from the Dalai Lama of himself on the Lion Throne of Lhasa, which Iyer long treasured until it was destroyed in a fire.

That initial contact led to Iyer's many meetings with the Dalai Lama over the years, as he became an accomplished journalist for Time and a much-praised author. From the first chapter of

The Open Road

, when Iyer greets the Dalai Lama on a visit by the latter to Japan (where Iyer lives), the author's smooth conversational prose, a mix of sharp tactile detail and confident insight, convinces us that we're in the hands of a writer who completely understands his subject.

And what a subject. A supposed godlike figure who repeatedly tells one and all that he is not a "Living Buddha" but just a "simple Buddhist monk." A charming "hyperrealist" head of a religion who describes himself as an "experimenter" who rejects any religious belief, Tibetan or otherwise, that does not square with modern science. A turn-the-other-cheek ethicist who speaks of Tibetans' "Chinese brothers and sisters" even as they massacre his people. A dynamo, Iyer notes, always switching "from monk to head of state to philosopher-scientist to regular man."

"Over and over," Iyer writes, "he counsels a practical realism and a refusal to get caught up in the lures and distraction of mindless optimism, least of all the kind that comes from indiscriminate faith."

Whether it's the Dalai Lama's "warmth and charisma," his childlike laugh, his love of animals, his news-junkie intake of journalism, his awakening at 3:30 a.m. every day for four hours of meditation, his burly body language (former New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal once compared him to "a middle linebacker"), Iyer concretely conveys his truths, making it seem as if he, the reader, and the Dalai Lama are all sitting in the same room.

Iyer also explains much that may puzzle readers. For example, the Dalai Lama's own school of Tibetan Buddhism cherishes philosophical debate, making his skeptical air strange only to those who ignorantly identify any kind of Buddhism with mysticism. Iyer wonderfully describes the strange place that Dharamsala or "Little Lhasa" has become - a kind of global village full of "Swedish girls arm in arm with ponytailed boys from Eastern Tibet." From it, the Dalai Lama and his circle hold together about 50 Tibetan-exile communities torn between the tolerance their leader urges and fury at China's increasing erasure of Tibetan culture in its homeland.

Iyer's book might have ended on a depressed, elegiac note. After all, he writes, Tibet's fate in the face of Chinese expansionism represents, for the Dalai Lama, "the most agonizing and mounting of all the conundrums he travels with . . . the country that he was born to rule is slipping ever closer to extinction . . . one of the great centers of Buddhism, five times as large as Britain, has been all but wiped off the map."

Still, Iyer closes by explaining how he's learned from the Dalai Lama the importance of trying to do one small, worthy thing at a time, of emulating the "constant effort, tireless effort" of the Buddha, even if one is not a Buddhist.

The word


, Iyer's famous friend once told him - exasperated at the way he's referred to in headlines as "Tibet's Living Buddha," or a "God in Exile," rather than an ordinary man with a very distinctive 400-year-old job - simply means, in Tibetan, "someone worthy of respect."

No one who reads

The Open Road

will question that.