The following is an expanded version of an interview that appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Inquiring Mind.

Reading to the Threshold of the Great Unanswerable
An Interview with Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is a novelist, essayist, journalist and travel writer whose writing explores both the outer and inner worlds at once. His books include The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and, most recently, The Man Within My Head, a biography of Graham Greene written through the lens of the author’s own life. When Iyer is not on a journey, he lives in Nara, Japan, with his wife.

A few years ago, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review asked a number of seasoned Buddhists, “What in Buddhism have you changed your mind about, and why?” Both Pico Iyer and I responded with mention of Marcel Proust. This led to a correspondence between us regarding our common, and uncommon, interest and resulted in the following e-mail exchange, which was conducted over a period of a few weeks and posted from different locations around the globe.

The lead-off question of the interview comes from Proust’s preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, where he takes issue with Ruskin’s notion of reading as a discipline in which the reader submits herself to the superior wisdom of the author. Proust counters that our own inquiring minds are the source of wisdom and counsels the reader “to maintain the mind’s full, fruitful work on itself.” These encouraging words could be particularly addressed to readers of Inquiring Mind.


— Patrick McMahon




Reading is at the threshold of the spiritual life. It can introduce us to it; it does not constitute it.
— Marcel Proust

Inquiring Mind: The spiritual life: what is it (generally speaking)?

Pico Iyer: I must admit that whenever I see the phrase “spiritual life,” I reach for my revolver (which is to say, my defenses). Such a thing exists, of course, and we do need words for it, but I suspect it begins only at that place where words run out. It is—not to sound too much like Wittgenstein—that whereof we cannot speak or claim to understand. Words bear the same relation to a spiritual life as baubles on a Christmas tree do to the heavens.

Everyone has a “spiritual life,” of course, but to me it really manifests in a hand extended to a stranger, a sudden encounter with death. A few years ago, on a 12,000-foot mountain road in Bolivia, the taxi I was in drove at high speed into a mountainside and rolled over, and over—and over. The sudden confrontation with mortality, the kind bishop who stopped along the road to take us to the nearest hospital two hours away, the long trail of meetings with nurses and patients and the terrors that followed—all that spoke to me of the “spiritual life” much more than the cathedral to which the bishop was heading to deliver a New Year’s Day mass.

I’m in Times Square as I say this, and my sense (or prejudice) has always been that a spiritual life is whatever brings the clarity and stillness, the sharpened awareness of the mountaintop into the rush and confusion and congestion of right now. Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother Teresa—they move us not because they’re talking about the “spiritual life,” but because they’re living it.

In a deeper way, what we mean by a “spiritual life” is probably an inner life, an interior relation with what seems truest (the “flight of the alone to the alone,” as Plotinus called it). In that sense, our spiritual life may be the story of our relationship with what we don’t always know. We give it names—God, Allah, Buddha, Nature, Reality—but we know that these are just blankets thrown over a huge space to cover what we can’t claim to fathom.

I love the fact that Emerson, father of the American Religion, said he wanted to banish “spiritual” and “soul” from all descriptions of our inner life. And Thomas Merton wrote, beautifully, in his journals, that he had to relinquish spirituality in order to give himself to God. I’m guessing many a Zen practitioner would understand the truth of that, even if the words and ideas she was discounting were different ones.

IM: Your spiritual life?

PI: I can’t lay claim to a spiritual practice at all, but such wisdom and guidance as I have found has come mostly from those beings wise and fearless enough to explore the mind, and to push past all its projections and delusions to what lies behind all talk and thought. So, Proust, for example, brought such concentration to every moment that it broke apart and revealed a lasting truth. His main character sees a woman at a party and realizes that he isn’t seeing her at all; he’s seeing the figure he wishes to have exist, the person he imagined he saw once upon a time, the person he once was who saw the woman. Everything he thinks he’s seeing is only a thought. Who she is is a truth that stands in back of all that, perhaps far beyond the reach of that man admiring the image he carries in his head.

I love that unsparing investigation into delusion and impermanence. Zen masters, Tibetan monks, Christian mystics and yogis all do this, too, but very often out of our sight, and putting little down on paper. They teach by example, and by the light they cultivate, the shine in their eyes. Where writers come in is by showing us images not of the final attainment, but of the beautiful, treacherous, confounding road towards it.

Look at Thoreau, taking himself away from distractions to see what remained when he sat still. He watched the changing sky above Walden Pond. He watched the reflection of the sky in the water and in his mind. He watched the changing sky in his mind. Rarely have we enjoyed such a sustained and unflinching record of how to work at transformation from the ground up, its nuts and bolts.

Or look at Emily Dickinson, alone in her little room, surrounded by Death and Light and Darkness. The beauty of such a writer’s approach is that she’s not shy about recording a journey into a great unanswerable “No”. Writers sometimes look inside and see nothing but a void. I’ve always felt that a spiritual being is one who lives as open to devils as to angels, because she hasn’t closed the door on what’s larger than herself. Knowing what to fear and to wrestle with can be as critical as being told what to strive for. For myself, I do the same things all of us do, but inexpertly and clumsily. Because I am a writer for Time magazine and a travel writer, I need to spend a lot of time in a small cabin 1,200 feet above the Pacific, trying to find what remains constant in a world of change and trying to see how the rush and clutter of Times Square looks from there. The rest of the time I live with my sweetheart in a two-room apartment in rural Japan without bicycle or car or printer or high-speed Internet, trying to stick with what’s essential. All of this is just about trying—and generally failing—to support my wife and kids, my mother and my friends in various places.

But none of this would I call a “spiritual life.” It’s really a daily life in which I try to find something useful to do or to share. Last month, for example, I went to Venice for a week and, observing its illusory surfaces, tried to take my imagination, my dream life, my subconscious for a walk, all the while knowing that wherever they took me would be only as important as the questions they raised. From Venice I went straight to Alaska, where someone was kind enough to put me up in a little cabin in front of the snowcaps with no running water or electricity or indoor plumbing. Then, emerging from the silence, I took my mother on the Inside Passage cruise she’s always longed to take. So that month became an investigation into the extremities of human culture and of Nature, and trying to see what truths survived them both.

IM: What manner of reading has been, for you, at the threshold of the spiritual life?

PI: I’ve always felt that for matters of life and death I want to turn to the masters, the ones whose wisdom has outlasted them and withstood changes in the world. Many of the books that people call “spiritual” seem to offer solutions or stories of redemption, parables about how to lead a better life. But I prefer those works that take me deeper and more unsettlingly into questions, into the conflict that lies a long way from the mountaintop (though the questions and conflict can be lit up by what has been seen from occasional journeys to the peaks).

Graham Greene, for example, always seems to belong to the church of humanity, of doubt, of right now; his is the call of the lonely, scared soul reaching in his trembling for a solace he’s fairly sure he doesn’t believe in. And Somerset Maugham, who said he began every day reading philosophy the way some people might do yoga, traveled into all the major philosophical traditions of the world, though never expecting to come to a final answer. None of this need be too lofty: like millions of readers in contemporary America, I was deeply engaged by Elizabeth Gilbert’s honest battle with her own fears in Eat, Pray, Love. I like Thomas Merton precisely because he is so restless, ornery and opposed to the doctrine he says he believes in. A movie like Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me has taught me more about fear and death, more wrenchingly, than most of the wise beings I’ve been lucky enough to listen to. Because it’s real, right here, featuring a twenty-three-year-old mother in rural Canada faced, as we all are, really, with a death sentence.

I agree profoundly with Proust’s statement, which you so beautifully invoke above, but for me he’s being too modest. Reading can be not just a form of meditation and prayer—we sit still, we go within, we face those terrors and beauties that in the everyday run of things we try so hard not to confront—but a training in attention and in understanding. The beauty of picking up a book is that it puts you into another mind, which is in the process of putting itself into many other minds. It frees you from yourself, your assumptions, your enclosures, and shows you how you look to people radically different from yourself. And it schools you in listening to the world, attending to it, as a nurse might, to see what’s wrong with the picture and how one might begin to deal with that.

To some, I know, this all sounds arty and pretentious, but when my stepdaughter, at thirteen, got diagnosed with cancer; when my house burned down, leaving me with nothing but the clothes I was wearing; when I am in Ethiopia or Haiti or Cambodia, seeing people in moments of great distress—at such times, although the first imperative is right action, the one that lies behind that is clear perception, and really I am being guided by what I have learned from Emerson, from Greene, from a song I heard as a teenager (“For a Dancer,” by Jackson Browne), from the tussles and lit-up alertness of Annie Dillard.

So I would go further than Proust and say that in reading a real writer—Shakespeare, obviously, but also Thomas Pynchon, Keats, Alice Munro—you learn how to read the world and yourself. You see who you are behind the disguises and you see how the world is beneath all the ideas you have of it. Iago is likely to come into my room this afternoon, and self-help books or works of easy affirmation are not going to help me deal with him. Most of the world that I have seen is living at every moment a whisper away from trauma or oblivion. I’ve sometimes felt a bit abashed not to have a spiritual practice and just to be a recorder of experience, but I’m not sure that we need to create tags, to put boxes around what we call the “spiritual life,” to see it as something separate from our life in the office, our relations with our (always perplexing) loved ones, our attempts to complete our income tax forms. Someone who tells me what not to believe in is doing me as great a service as any wise teacher might.

Look at The Quiet American, say, by Graham Greene. The fact that innocence may be a crime and good intentions may be a veil are things we need to know, as is the truth that we cannot always easily forgive someone who has dared to save our life. Pity, the lesser form of compassion, may be an unacknowledged form of cruelty, and longing to be tough the kindest act of all. The novelist takes the spiritual teacher’s questions and puts them into the thick of real life. We all know the truth of the Golden Rule, after all; it’s sometimes the copper chink of rulelessness we have to live with.

IM: You live in Japan. You’ve written at length about Tibet and the Dalai Lama. Haven’t you ever been tempted to try Buddhist practice?

PI: Buddhism, to me, is one of the most searching and transformational systems of understanding I’ve met, which cuts through illusion after illusion to reveal the logic of interconnectedness (the wisdom of compassion). But to me, as someone born in England and growing up there and in California, it is easiest to digest, and I can most deeply penetrate it, with least danger of misunderstanding, by finding some of its offerings in my own tradition: not just in writers such as Emerson and Thoreau (who, after all, brought Buddhism, and much else, into the American grain), but in Epictetus or Proust. One spring, during seven days alone, I made a short list of sentences that I found in Epictetus, and I sent them to an old friend and serious longtime Zen practitioner in Japan because they sounded so Buddhist. Here are two of them:

“Desire and aversion, though powerful, are but habits. We can train ourselves to have better habits.”

“Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose.”

Epictetus, a former slave, had nothing whatsoever to do, officially, with Buddhism. But he had dug deeply enough into the truth beneath appearances to sound like a Buddhist monk traveling incognito.

You can see a similar spirit at work in wonderful books like Stephen Mitchell’s Gospel According to Jesus or the scholarship of Elaine Pagels. And you could make a whole handbook to right thinking from the pages of Thoreau (“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know”).

In any subject, I want to turn to those people who can teach me with the greatest wisdom and depth; if I want to learn about what’s happening in the world today, I’d rather turn to Shakespeare than to the New York Times or Time. If I want to know what’s happening in the mind, I want to turn to its great and unflinching explorers—a Melville, a Woolf—and not necessarily to someone in my neighborhood today, let alone myself. Every basketball game can be exciting, but if I want to know how the game can be played, I’ll watch Michael Jordan. If I want to see how the game of life is played, I get most by watching the Dalai Lama or an aid worker in Yemen.

Proust spent years on end in his little room sorting through the projections and illusions in his mind; it’s probably no surprise that he came to the same conclusions as many a meditator on a three-year retreat. But he chose to put his understandings into indelible words and to use them to illuminate our movements through the very chatter and social tinkle and daily round we so often ignore.

A Buddhist is most compelling to me when she’s not sure that what she’s learned from Buddhism is enough to deal with the reality that’s crashing down on her.

IM: But many people take you to be a Buddhist.

PI: I take that to be a high compliment. And I can see why they do: I did, after all, leave my job in Midtown Manhattan when I was twenty-nine to go spend a year in a Zen temple in Kyoto. And even though that “year” proved to last a week—life in a temple looked all too much like real life, with much more hard work and daily responsibility than my romantic ideas had allowed for—I have been living in Japan for more than twenty years now, which for me is like the Buddhist equivalent of what living inside Notre Dame Cathedral might be for a Catholic. You cannot fail to learn something about attention, evanescence, practical action and looking beyond the tiny, fixed self when you’re living around Nara and Kyoto, which have been the Buddhist capitals of Japan since the year 710.

Also, my parents were both professional philosophers, with a keen interest in Buddhism, as well as in many other religious traditions. So it was my father who introduced me to the Dalai Lama after he had gone to see him in India in 1959, and in high school I turned to Siddhartha and Blyth’s work, Zen in English Literature, while my classmates were gravitating toward more satirical works. I remember, when I was a boy, Trungpa Rinpoche sitting in our living room—he was studying under my father soon after he arrived in Oxford—and there were stories, symbols of Tibet everywhere in our house. And in later years I’ve sometimes been asked to write on Buddhism from the perspective of an admiring outsider. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about reality and kindness from Western Buddhists, too, such as Leonard Cohen, John Tarrant and Jane Hirshfield.

But the fact of the matter is that I’ve never put in the hard work to take on Buddhism; I’m just another tourist peering through the glass window and catching at reflections. When I listen to the Dalai Lama speak—as I have for more than thirty-four years now—I hear him emphasize determination, constant effort, unflagging rigor, complete immersion in the texts of the Nalanda philosophers, and I could barely tell you the difference between Shantideva and Nagarjuna! Of course much of Buddhist thought is not so cerebral but just involves service, community, recitation and clear-sightedness, as is the case among my neighbors in Japan. But I’ve always been struck by His Holiness telling people from other traditions not to race too quickly to embrace a Buddhism they perhaps don’t understand, but just to concentrate on right action and a sense of responsibility to the people around them.

IM: What reading can take us over the threshold?

PI: Of course no reading can take us across the threshold, truly; that takes place in the world, in the realm of action and personal decision, reaching out to offer what one can, not retreating into the solitary cave of reading. Huston Smith speaks for many a wise man when he talks about the end result of a serious life being “altered traits,” not altered states. Reading can teach you what not to believe or be taken in by (starting with your own thoughts), and can shine a distant light on truth or timelessness, pointing its finger towards the moon. But it is only building your own cabin and serving your own community that really makes a life and a difference.

I think of the great writers as visionaries, philosophers, illuminators, but the great souls we all admire across the world are not known for their writing or their reading. They put their lives to the test and are ready in most cases to do without words altogether. Reading, in that sense, teaches one the limits, as well as the power, of words.

A Proust, an Epictetus, can shake me out of my received notions and much too simplistic ideas of myself and the world, but when it comes to putting these teachings into practice, I can turn to no one but myself.

IM: To return to the sentence we started with: “Reading can take us to the threshold of the spiritual life: it can introduce us to it, but does not constitute it.” If we can say that meditation practice is an aspect of the spiritual life, what relationship would you say it has, if any, with the practice of writing?

PI: What I’ve always felt with Proust, more strongly than with any writer, is that his days at his desk were essentially a meditation practice. He didn’t have any formal teachers, perhaps; he might never have read any sutras; he might even have recoiled at the very idea of anyone projecting a “spiritual practice” on what for him might have just been a way of life, a way of making sense of his movements through the world, but any writer knows that sitting in one place, day after day, in silence, investigating the mind, you probably come to places not so different from the meditation hall.

And any reader, reaping the fruits of such investigations, might feel that the writer, willy-nilly, is guiding her into a mode of meditation, calling to her own interiorness, asking her to respond to his single-pointedness with her own. Reading teaches the reader the attention that the writer must have summoned.

If you read Proust, you soon find yourself ushered into a world far behind duality, an emptiness in which all the figures of his life and his imagination coalesce, starting with himself. A superficial writer catches the changing surfaces of the world; a deep writer stills himself so intently and forswears the easy word or thought so rigorously that he waits for what is beneath those changing surfaces to reveal itself. Instead of judgment or assessment or self-advancement in Proust, you get a sense of silent witness, which many meditators might recognize. Who has watched his thoughts so carefully, waited for them to pass across the horizon, based himself more deeply on what lies behind the realm of thought than Proust?

And in Shakespeare, of course, you get the novelist’s (or dramatist’s) art, which is to inhabit another so fully that you can voice her deepest thoughts, whether she is a Moor, a king, a devil or a Cleopatra. This is what Keats meant when he spoke about “negative capability”: not having a design upon the world, not advancing an agenda, but trying to absorb what is around you without judgment or outsiderness. It’s no surprise that a Snyder, a Ginsberg or a Kerouac could find in Zen a perfect reflection of what they had already been moving towards on the page.

IM: What would your spiritual development have been like without reading?

PI: Alas, I don’t think my “spiritual development” has begun yet. But I hope it may come at some point. I don’t want to rule out any shock, calamity or sweetness that may yet bring me to a clearer understanding of the way things are.

IM: And, finally, would you be able to continue your spiritual development—or nondevelopment—if you were never to read another word?

PI: It’s sobering to realize that reading is just the lesser vehicle that some of us turn to because we can’t attempt the real thing. As drugs or travel or trauma or romance may give us an intimation of what real surrender might be, reading can show us a postcard, as it were, of the states that we might want to aspire to, the way a well-intentioned friend may show us a picture of Lhasa, to urge us to go there. But this can be no more than a replica of the experience. The wiser beings I know—a Dalai Lama, a Huston Smith—read the great texts over and over, meditate, recite and chant, but I take that to be a way of sustaining an action that by now is almost habitual in them.

The last time I was on retreat, a few days ago, I read a handbook on retreats, which offered the unvarying, universal, timelessly accepted truth that one thing to leave behind when you go on retreats is books—your own or anyone else’s. A few devotional texts may anchor the mind, but the rest is silence.

So I am clearly not at the stage even of being able to get to step one, as I open the door to my cell and carry in my copies of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shunryu Suzuki and Robert Stone and Blaise Pascal. If I were never to read another word, I think I would be an infinitely wiser person. In the meantime, all I can do is learn from reading why I shouldn’t be doing it.

Patrick McMahon writes for Inquiring Mind regarding literature, East and West. He facilitates a Proust salon in Berkeley, California, which in part explores the relation of Proust’s worldview to Buddhist meditation. Many thanks are due to Andy Cooper, senior editor of Tricycle, who put McMahon and Iyer in contact in the first place.

© 2013 Inquiring Mind