You’re Looking Swell, Dalai…


An old friend invited me to an intimate audience with the Dalai Lama at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning. Of course, I accepted, although, as it turned out, I had two conflicting funerals, a dentist’s appointment and a board meeting on the same day. But what better way to improve your karma than to start your day off with the ultimate rock star of Buddhist monks?

For security purposes, I gave them my social security number, confident that if anyone who had taken a vow of poverty ever hacked into my bank accounts, they’d be singularly unimpressed. I arrived 20 minutes early at the Charles Hotel, where the Dalai Lama was staying. A dining room at Rialto (the restaurant) was arranged with seats against the wall along three sides of the room, and an armchair with a table and a glass of water sitting by itself at the other end. There was a good deal of kerfluffle, as the security detail announced that His Holiness was on his way, even before some of the other guests had arrived.

Attended by an interpreter, some guys in suits with wires in their ears and more monks in crimson and saffron robes than you generally see, even in Harvard Square, the Dalai Lama arrived. He took one look at the seating arrangement and started pulling his chair into the center of the room while encouraging us to do likewise. Soon, it was as cozy as a kindergarten class, and Dick Friedman, our host and the owner of the hotel, was sitting inches from the Dalai Lama. Dick is a man with whom my personal interchanges tend toward the trading of good-natured but profanity-laced wisecracks, but for the next hour, he held the Dalai Lama’s hand, as I marveled that the longest I can hold anyone’s hand is a few minutes before it gets clammy or one of my knuckles starts to hurt.


Dick welcomed His Holiness and asked if he’d rather address us or field questions, to which the Dalai Lama answered that it’s much nicer to have a conversation. There was an awkward silence as he waited for someone else to speak—a silence that he seemed perfectly comfortable and serene with, while everyone else looked like they were rehearsing a Cosmic Inquiry inside their heads.

So I just blurted mine out.

“Has anyone ever had the nerve to say, ‘Well, Hello, Dalai?'”

A much more awkward silence ensued, as the interpreter explained the cultural reference (which I was surprised he didn’t get, given the number of friends he has in show business).

Then the Dalai Lama chuckled and looked at me. “I don’t think so,” he said, “but with that hair, maybe you could.”



Yes. The  Dalai Lama poked fun at my hair. Then he said something delightfully polite about how much he loved the informality of Americans, and I’m pretty sure everyone else in the room breathed for the first time since I’d opened my mouth.

From there, the conversation got serious, with questions about China, meditation, US foreign policy, etc., and I was sorry not to get in a follow-up question (which, much as I was tempted, was not going to be whether he believed the rumor about Richard Gere and the gerbil). The whole experience, needless to say, was fascinating. His Holiness explained that the Tibetan people have their own culture, language and traditions, and therefore deserve autonomy despite acknowledging themselves as part of the People’s Republic of China. He reiterated the sentiment that Tibet has been transformed into a prison for its people, and said that totalitarian states or any authority that relied on violence to retain power were illogical and couldn’t possibly sustain. He said that there are countless ways to meditate and characterized his own style as “analytical.” He explained that altruism was the surest path to happiness and fulfillment. Surprisingly, he even praised many Chinese leaders, past and present, and called himself a “Marxist Buddhist.”

It’s probably common for someone who embodies patience and compassion to spend more time talking to people than his handlers, who were getting increasingly antsy, are happy about, but the Dalai Lama willingly posed for a group photo, hugging as many people in as tightly as possible. Then he systematically worked his way through the room, touching his forehead to some people, blessing the scarves that several women had brought along, and shaking hands.
He made sure he got to every single one of us, and when he reached me, he took my hand in both of his. Then he looked up at my hair, smiled, and nodded.
To borrow Bill Murray’s line from Caddyshack: “So I got that going for me, which is nice.”


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