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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Hand In Hand With The Dalai Lama

January 3, 2008

by Perry Garfinkel
Hall of Fame Magazine
December 31, 2007

Boston, Massachusetts

In the lotus-strewn wake of the Dalai Lama's recent North American 
tour, anybody who is a somebody (and frankly, these days who isn't?) 
will have a how-I-met-the-Dalai-Lama story to tell. At the slightest 
instigation or with none at all, Catholic, Jew, atheist, they'll 
regale you with the encounter, eyes misting over. Often these turn 
out to be 30-second meetings in an elevator or hotel lobby. Even the 
shortest exchange takes on Greater Meaning. Such is the profundity of 
his presence and his ability to be so present with whomever he meets.

I listen politely to such stories. Then I struggle with my ego: 
should I trump theirs and tell mine? My ego usually wins, as it will 
here, because my meeting with his holiness was so touching and 
revealing.

I had scored a one-on-one 90-minute interview with the 14th Dalai 
Lama, largely - okay, solely - because I was writing about the 
growing popularity of Buddhism for one of his favorite magazines, 
National Geographic.

I was to meet him in Dharamsala, India, headquarters of the Tibet 
Government in Exile since 1959. His secretary recommended I ask 
questions that were not the run-of-the-mill sort he has fielded for 
some 50 years and who knows how many lifetimes. In preparation, I 
read his autobiography, My Land and My People. It begins: "I was born 
in a small village called Taktser, in the northeast of Tibet, on the 
fifth day of the fifth month of the Wood Hog Year of the Tibetan 
calendar - that is, the year 1935."

I stopped reading after the first paragraph, fixated on that village 
of his birth. This would be my unique angle. I convinced National 
Geographic to send me to Taktser, so that I could open the 
conversation with something like, "So I just happened to be in your 
old neighborhood, Holiness..." It might have been the most expensive 
icebreaker in National Geographic history. The village, it turns out, 
is one of the most humble I have ever seen. Dirt paths, tiny mud 
houses set against a cliff, not a Starbucks in sight.

At the top of a hill, I found the house where Lhamo Dhondrub was born 
and from which he was taken at age four to begin his life as a future 
Dalai Lama. Rebuilt in 1986 as a monastery, the structure is now 
administered by the Chinese Government, a superficial gesture to make 
Tibetans believe the Chinese actually care about them and their 
leader. The Chinese government's clear discomfort (to put it mildly) 
with the attention showered on him in the United States two weeks ago 
more accurately reflects their position.

Inside, I met the Dalai Lama's nephew, Gongbu Tashi, a man of 58 who 
the Chinese government pays to maintain the monastery. He told me 
more and more Westerners make the long pilgrimage to this now 
historic site. After he showed me around, we stood outside the 
monastery, overlooking the magnificent rolling green mountains of the 
Kunlun Range. My tape recorder running, I suggested he send his uncle 
a message that I promised to deliver personally. "What would you tell 
him right now?" I asked, putting the recorder to his mouth. He 
started: "Uncle, every day we are waiting and hoping and expecting 
you. You are my uncle and you are getting older and it's time for you 
to come home."

It was such a poignant moment because it was such a futile and 
implausible hope.

Six weeks later, tape in hand, I arrived at McLeod Ganj, the section 
of Dharamsala where the Tibetan Parliament, monks' school and Dalai 
Lama's offices are located. I was ushered through several security 
checks and then sat in a waiting room, nervous as hell. In all my 
preparation, I had not studied or even bothered to ask about the 
protocols involved upon meeting a Tibetan lama, much less the highest 
ranking lama. I knew that one should not touch a lama. So I decided I 
would just bow with palms together at my chest. But as I approached 
him, he extended his hand, Western style. The Dalai Lama - the 14th 
reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, recipient of the Nobel 
Prize and now the Congressional Gold Medal, revered as an enlightened 
being - took my hand and shook it robustly. After several shakes, I 
tried to withdraw my hand, working on the assumption there must be a 
protocol I was equally unaware of that dictated when to let go. But 
much to my surprise and delight, he tightened his grip.

Sure, I thought, keep my hand - forever. Then he led me, his right 
hand still holding my right hand, across a long hall to where we 
would sit. I decided I would hold on until he let go. We must have 
held hands walking side by side like that for close to two minutes. 
It completely disarmed me - as a man, as a journalist, as a human 
being - and at the same time it made me feel completely embraced. It 
was asexual but it stimulated, or perhaps awakened, a place deep in 
my soul I knew existed only theoretically. But now that place felt 
palpable. Somehow his calm made me feel calm, as though he was giving 
me a hand-to-hand tranquility transfusion.

The man had me at hello.

As soon as we sat down, I pulled out my recorder, explaining I had 
been to Tatkser and had brought him a taped message from his nephew, 
Gongbu Tashi. His eyes lit up. As he listened to the three-minute 
section I'd cued up, this almost fatherly look crossed his face. This 
time it was his own eyes misting over.

"Every day they are thinking that way," he said. Then he went silent.

I told him when I first saw the village, I thought, "How amazing that 
from such humble beginnings a man would rise to such world renown."

"Does it ever amaze you too?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "If you look back, a person from very small village 
eventually reaches Lhasa with the name of Dalai Lama. So then in the 
last few decades the Tibetan nation's interest is somehow very 
connected with that village boy." He laughed his signature laugh - an 
endless, uninhibited giggle -- as though the ludicrous randomness of 
his own life had just struck him.

I held the tape recorder up to his mouth as he laughed. Nowadays when 
life seems ludicrous and random - and frankly, these days when 
doesn't it? - I replay the Dalai Lama's laugh track. I don't know; it 
seems to help.

Perry Garfinkel is the author of Buddha or Bust a national best 
seller published by Random House - www.buddhaorbust.com
He can be reached at perry@buddhaorbust.com
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