The Marginalian
The Marginalian

In Search of the Sacred: Pico Iyer on Our Models of Paradise

In Search of the Sacred: Pico Iyer on Our Models of Paradise

“The mind is its own place, and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” Milton wrote in his immortal Paradise Lost. With these human minds, arising from these material bodies, we keep trying to find heaven — to make heaven — in our myths and our mundanities, right here in the place where we are: in this beautiful and troubled world. We give it different names — eden, paradise, nirvana, poetry — but it springs from the selfsame longing: to dwell in beauty and freedom from suffering.

With soulful curiosity channeled in his ever-lyrical prose, Pico Iyer chronicles a lifetime of pilgrimages to some of Earth’s greatest shrines to that longing in The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise (public library).

Art by Gilbert James from a 1900 English edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyām.

He begins in Iran, replete with monuments to Omar Khayyām, who built “a paradise of words” with his poems while revolutionizing astronomy — a place of uncommon beauty and uncommon terror, with roots as deep as the history of the written word, and living branches as tangled as the most contradictory impulses of human nature:

After years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict — and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences. And the natural place to embark upon such an inquiry — should we discard the notion of heaven entirely? — seemed to be the culture that had given us both our word for paradise and some of our most soulful images of it.

In Jerusalem, he walks through the Damascus Gate to find himself in “something as irreducible as life.” He visits the Himalayas and North Korea. As he travels, he is reminded of the seventeen years he spent at a Benedictine monastery in the mountains of California — an experience that forever imprinted him with the voice of inner stillness and the awareness that presence is the fundamental portal to the sacred:

Days, sometimes weeks, in the silence had given me a taste of what lies on the far side of our thoughts. Who we become — cease to become — when we put all ideas and theories behind us. I went often through pages of Thomas Merton there, but they seemed to belong to the cacophony below the stillness; the golden pampas grass in front of me, the dry hills beyond, the fleecy clouds stealing up the hillside — not what I thought about them — were the truth.

He arrives at the oceanic idyll of Sri Lanka in the lull of ceasefire after twenty years of violent fighting between the separatists and the government, not long after a deadly tsunami devastated the island. Over and over, he finds himself contemplating the interplay of beauty and brutality, in nature and human nature, reading the solution to the riddle in the still stone countenances of the statues in a local temple:

The Buddhas… stared at me impassively. Onto the quiet faces in the sun I could project anything I needed. Our one task is to make friends with reality, I could imagine them whispering — which is to say, with impermanence and suffering and death; the unrest you feel will always have more to do with you than with what’s around you. In one celebrated story, the Buddha had come upon a group of picnickers who were enraged because they’d just been robbed. “Which,” he’d famously asked, “is more important? To find the robbers or to find yourself?”

Walking through a cemetery in conflicted Kashmir, he thinks about the bygone people buried under the stone inscriptions, and about the mercy of being blind to our own fates:

I’d long been drawn to graveyards in the places where cultures cross if only because headstones put every kind of division in its place.


Few of them had probably seen what was coming: our lives can only be half known insofar as their final act, which seems to put all that has come before in place, is always hidden, and we seldom wish to think of it. We step out of the play with no chance to think back on it — and even as we’re trying to make sense of life, things are shifting, falling away from us on every side. The older I got, the more I began to feel that almost everything that had happened to me, good or bad, seemed to have come out of nowhere. As Leonard Cohen, faithful for life to the Old Testament, put it in one of his final songs, we’re “none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace.”

Liminal Days by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

He visits another cemetery atop the sacred mountain three hours from his home in Japan, accompanied by the poems of Emily Dickinson — that supreme patron saint of death, who believed that “wonder is not precisely knowing and not precisely knowing not.” In consonance with poet Mark Doty’s Whitman-fomented insistence that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death,” Iyer arrives at the deepest yearning of our paradisal pursuits while walking the ghostly cemetery, aware that in the Japanese vision of an afterlife, the transience of things — the transience of us — is “not a cause for grief so much as a summons to attention.” He reflects:

The thought that we must die, I might have heard the two hundred thousand graves saying, is the reason we must live well.

Complement The Half Known Life with Tolstoy’s vision of the afterlife and Iyer on finding beauty in impermanence and luminosity in loss, then savor this poetic meditation on how to live and how to die.

Published February 4, 2023




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