Recommended Readings, Weekly Reader
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In search of paradise

Paradise — that often sought-for and always-elusive vision — is integral to many religious traditions. It seems appropriate, given the elusiveness, that the culture which officially invented Paradise was, upon closer inspection, a “treasure house of riddles.”

That observation came from one of the world’s most seasoned travelers and astute cultural commentators, who set off around the globe to explore a number of our holiest, yet very troubled, sites of paradise. Almost immediately he wondered what kind of paradise could ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict. It was a question that would continue to surface throughout his travels.

The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise (2023) by Pico Iyer — both an external odyssey and an internal journey — is the result of those travels. In a series of memorable essays, Iyer takes the reader from places like the mosques and gardens of Iran, where paradise was invented, to the lakes of Kashmir, which were part of his mother’s childhood. From what one reviewer aptly described as “the wrathful Old Testament landscape of Broome, Australia,” to the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. From the contested center of Jerusalem to the sterile towers of North Korea and the temples of Koyasan, Japan.

Iyer, as one expects from such an experienced travel writer, leads the reader with skillful and expressive descriptions of the physical places. But he also calls upon a rich array of literature to flesh out the meaning of these holy shrines while examining the conflicts — open and hidden — often found there. We learn of the contradictions of paradise, such as in Iran where passionate, holy pilgrims were eager to live their faith and dreams but who wished to have no part of religious rule.

In one essay, Iyer recalls his days traveling throughout Japan with the Dali Lama and recounts the story of how, inevitably, someone would ask what to do after having been disappointed by a dream not realized. The dreams differed but the disillusionment was always the same.

“Wrong dream!” the Dalai Lama would respond.

While he has Buddhist sensitivities, Iyer is a secular seeker at heart who invites us into a deeper spiritual meditation by using these travels to explore his personal journey toward his dreams and paradise. Why search? In one answer he quotes the Irish poet Seamus Heaney who, upon the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, wrote lines that dared to believe that longed-for possibilities can come true: “Once in a lifetime . . . hope and history rhyme.” Heaney “was wise enough to know that a life that doesn’t know possibility takes in only half the truth.”

But what we know of reality has its limits. Jerusalem, Iyer writes, “was a parable that had turned into a cautionary tale, a warning about what we do when we’re convinced we know it all.” Some aspects of paradise defy explanation. Outside the city’s Basilica of the Agony, an unintentionally ironic sign reads, “PLEASE, No Explanations Inside the Church.”

There is usually a gap between our preconceived notion of happiness and a deeper truth. “The places we avoid [are] often closer to us than the ones we eagerly seek out,” Iyer notes.

Other observers have considered the limits of our understanding of reality in this life. C.S. Lewis, for instance, has written that “he — along with every other mortal at any time — may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is in.”

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them — never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?

The contradictory notions about reality are of our own making, says Lewis, and the notions will all eventually be knocked from under our feet. Lewis has the sense that “some shattering and disarming simplicity is the real answer.”

The fact of the simplicity is clear, even if the true understanding of reality remains cloudy, for some Christian and Buddhist mystics. Iyer has clearly read and embraced the work of the Christian monk and mystic Thomas Merton, who traveled to the paradise of Sri Lanka and immersed himself in Buddhist thought just weeks before he died in Bangkok. In a reflection of his time with the Dali Lama, Iyer quotes Merton approvingly when the Trappist monk says that to have all the answers might be proof that you weren’t asking the right questions. “Uncertainty was perhaps the place,” adds Iyer, “where all of us — even a monk — have to make our home.”

Iyer ends this fascinating journey in a paradise his relatives encouraged him to avoid. The holy city of Varanasi is where many Hindus are cremated on funeral pyres after death. Iyer brings it together as he quotes scholar Diana Eck: “Death is not the opposite of life. It is, rather, the opposite of birth.”

The epic poem Paradise Lost, ends with “perhaps its most beautiful line: Adam’s task, the archangel who accompanies him to the gates of Eden observes, is to find ‘a Paradise within thee, happier far.'” Reviewer Thúy Đinh writes that “Seeing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as a necessary fall, and the Buddha’s departure from his princely estate as a conscious acceptance of human frailties, Iyer concludes that a true paradise is only attainable through displacement.”

Paradise on earth is a paradox. Often located in unimaginably beautiful landscapes or containing great holy shrines, these cities and sites have also seen incalculable suffering. Life is and. There will be good and bad. But as Merton put it, “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer.”

It is the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, Iyer reminds us, who says, “Our goal in life is not to become more spiritual, but to become human.”

That’s where we find paradise.

More to come…


This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry. 

Image by Harkiran Kaur from Pixabay

This entry was posted in: Recommended Readings, Weekly Reader


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


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