Journalist Perry Garfinkel’s interview with the Dalai Lama was to be the culmination of his twenty-week study of Buddhism in the West. Full of preconceptions about meeting such a renowned spiritual leader, he found himself unexpectedly—and delightfully—disarmed.
“His Holiness is ready for you now,” an assistant announced.
I have done thousands of interviews in thirty-five years as a journalist. This one was scaring the shit out of me. The night before, I had reviewed my questions and my strategy. I cued up the tape to the message from his nephew that I had recorded in Tibet and practiced how I would suggest the Dalai Lama attach the headset to his ears. I tried to make myself pure, knowing full well if I had one impure thought he would be able to see right through me and terminate the interview then and there. I nibbled simply on fruits and nuts, no alcohol.
Now, as I stood and gathered up my paraphernalia, I went into a panic. I had not studied—or even bothered to ask anyone—the protocols involved when meeting a Tibetan lama, much less the highest ranking lama. The one rule, which seems to be appropriate upon meeting any Buddhist priest of any rank throughout Asia, is “Look but don’t touch.” I decided I would bow with palms together, but not extend my hand, as is the almost involuntary gesture Western men make with each other.
We walked out the door of the waiting room that leads to a veranda overlooking a garden and lawns. I was expecting a long walk to yet another holding area and then, perhaps, to be ushered into His Holiness’s interview area. As we turned the corner, I was looking down because when I am nervous I have a tendency to be klutzy. When I looked up, I almost walked into His Holiness. I stepped back quickly, placed my palms together and modestly dipped my body from the waist up. As I began to bow again (I remembered you are supposed to bow three times, one for each of the three jewels of Buddhist wisdom: the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha), out of the corner of my eye I saw him stepping toward me, hand extended presumably to shake mine, Western style. I looked to Mr. Lhakdur, the translator, inquisitively. He read my mind, smiling and nodding ahead, which I took to mean it was okay to make physical contact.
The Dalai Lama—the fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, Nobel Prize winner, revered as an enlightened being—took my hand and shook it robustly. Awkwardly at first and then enthusiastically, I returned the shake—and added a bit of my own robustness. Still trying to maintain decorum and out of great respect (and the fear that my sweaty palms would belie my exterior cool), I tried to withdraw my hand, working on the assumption that there must also be some protocol that defines the length of time it is appropriate to shake a Dalai Lama’s hand. But much to my surprise and delight, he tightened his grip.
Sure, I thought, keep my hand—forever. His grip softened slightly but he did not let go. Rather, he led me like that—his right hand holding my right hand, walking side by side—from the veranda all the way into and across the length of a large room until we came to a stop in front of his seat. Finally he let go, at this point to my relief. If he did not let go—and halfway across the room I decided I would hold on until he let go, and no sooner—I was already strategizing how I would maneuver the tape recorder with one hand.
We must have held hands for close to a minute. I have never shared an experience like that with another man, and I have hugged more men than the average guy. 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 very sensual. His gentleness was palpable. And somehow his calm made me feel calm. It was like he gave me a tranquility transfusion from his hand through mine.
The man had me at hello.
So much for your journalistic objectivity, I thought. I was putty in his hands and any idea of a no-holds-barred interview vanished. He took his seat, a high-backed stiff-looking wooden chair, covered with the thick tapestries that are characteristic of Tibetan furniture. I sat beside him on a high, oversized couch that made me feel about nine years old, my legs dangling over the sides.
Seeing him so close up, about two feet from me, I was riveted. He has a huge face, dominated by his glasses, and it is an expressive face. He shifts from earnest man to wise man to the jokester in the same sentence. He has very few age wrinkles, just laugh wrinkles.
I immediately went into the spiel I had been rehearsing for about six weeks.
“Holiness, I know I sent some questions and I’ll get to as many as you let me ask. But I want to depart from that and ask your indulgence first.”
I briefly explained about my journey to Taktser. “So I brought you back something from where you were born,” I said, and with that I brought out the photos I’d had printed back in D.C. and showed them to him. Among them was a shot of the white stupa in the next rise from Taktser. He stopped at that one and said, “Has anyone told you or not…?” he started. I knew the story I thought he was going to launch into but I shook my head. I wanted to hear his version, already prepared to ask a question about it.
“It was in this place that Thirteenth Dalai Lama…I don’t know exactly but I was told the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was passing through this way. Then here he stopped and took some rest, and looked toward my village. Then he exclaims, ‘Ah, this village is very beautiful.’ People said the Thirteenth Dalai Lama determined his next reincarnation will come in that place.”
He told it simply, careful to add that qualifier of “I was told.” I waited a second to see if he would go on, ready to ask my first potentially upsetting question, which would have been, “Do you believe that story?” Before I could, however, he paused with perfect Borscht Belt timing and added, “Who knows?” Then he let out his signature laugh, a rippling giggle that went on so long it seemed to have a life of its own. Though obviously a believer in reincarnation, he looked at such divinations with a certain realism.
Then I pulled out my tape recorder. “Now I have a message for you from someone you know in Taktser,” I said and handed him the earphones, which he took and adjusted on his head without hesitation, apparently happy to play along. For no particular reason, it was an odd sight: the Dalai Lama wearing a headset. Very un-Dalai Lama-like.
I put on the tape of his 58-year-old nephew, Gongbu Tashi, whose message in Tibetan had been translated to me this way:
“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 back. The statues of Buddha and pictures you gave me in India, we put up and every day a lot people come to this place to worship. Not a few—a lot. Here especially we are free to believe in Buddhism or whatever religion. It’s pretty good now. This is from the bottom of my heart. Now the government is doing really good job and gave us all freedoms.”
The segment lasted about three minutes. During that time he listened intently, his face softening, his brows furrowing at one point. He smiled, and nodded.
“Every day they are thinking that way,” he said. Then he went silent.
“Walking up to that village,” I said, “I thought, ‘How amazing that from such humble beginnings a man could rise to such world renown.’ Does it ever amaze you too?”
“Yes, 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, as though the implausibility of it just struck him.
It made me think of Abraham Lincoln, who every American kid knows was born in a one-room log cabin to poor Kentucky farmers and from whom every American kid of humble roots takes hope that he or she too could rise to be president of the United States. I mentioned this to His Holiness, then recalled Lincoln’s nickname, the Great Emancipator, being widely regarded as a champion of freedom for American slaves of African descent. Now I was sitting with a man of similar humble background who may someday be recognized as his nation’s emancipator. Of course, I did not forget the major difference between the two: Lincoln was elected by the American people and the Dalai Lama was elected thousands of lifetimes ago and happened to take his incarnation at the time Tibet was overrun by China.
“We believe we have not one but many lives,” he continued, “So we can explain something as very certain or coincidence…Of course generally speaking, all human beings have same potential, each individual, no matter where that person or little boy was born. I don’t know if it’s facility or opportunity or circumstance. From Buddhist viewpoint, we have limitless past lives. So then during last, say, hundred or several thousand years or lifetimes we make different karmas, or links, so that eventually creates different destinations… Something like that.”
Something like what? It sounded like Buddha-babble to me. I tried to interpolate it to something I could understand: “So maybe humans start out headed for one destination but then, like Ping-Pong balls, they are hit and move in other directions? Something like that?”
“That’s right,” he confirmed. “Also, from Buddhism viewpoint, from those thousand lifetimes or years certain shapes eventually develop, but until last moment other factors are possible and can make changes. Many factors. Like from a seed growing into a flower, until the last moment anything is possible.”
“Like the wind takes it in another direction and you could be a farmer in Taktser?” I asked.
“Ohhh, that’s right,” His Holiness laughed.
“Though somehow I don’t think you’d still be a farmer in that village,” I put in. He laughed more loudly. “Well, I’m glad to bring you these things from Taktser.”
“Thank you, thank you,” he said.
Now I was ready to launch into the questions I had prepared. But, as his front men had predicted, he took so long to answer the first question I barely got to the rest. The Dalai Lama is a systematic thinker. I had recalled that among his hobbies was taking apart and putting together watches. It was evident in the way he organized his answers. When I asked why he thought Buddhism was growing in popularity in the West, the sixty-four-thousand dollar question I’d been asking around the world, he began creating “categories,” as he called them. They came fast and furious.
“In the West, people have a view that Tibet is a mysterious land. And then also I think there is a generation who enter the establishment now, so they want something new. During the happies…”
Here Lhakdur corrected him, “That’s hippies.” We all laughed.
“I like your pronunciation,” I said. “‘Happies’ is better than hippies.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” His Holiness got it. “I think they are quite free, quite happy. So that’s one category. Another factor, another category maybe, genuine Buddhism concept is self-reliance, and self-transformation. Why do I put ‘genuine’? On a popular level many people worship something like prayer flags or…these people are usually satisfied with these things but that’s not genuine Buddhism concept. ‘Genuine’ means he looks inward to self-transformation. Not only true prayer or recitation but meditation, analyze, thinking. I believe genuine Buddhist technique is just increased awareness: what’s the reality on the basis of the law of causality?
“Another category: Then some describe Buddhism as a kind of humanism, just emphasis on the human good quality.
“Next: some people not much concerned about next life or nirvana. They want some kind of transformation on an emotional level. Result: more happier, more calm.
“Then another category, thinking, reality. Buddhism’s explanation about mind is quite sophisticated. Now some scientists are carrying some experiments.”
“Yes,” I butt in, dying to impress him with my contacts and knowledge. “You might be talking about some of my friends, Richie Davidson, Dan Goleman, all good old friends of mine.” Luckily he did not call me on my egotism, nice guy that he is.
“Yes,” he went on, “they found some effect, new findings, new fact. So, including some scientists, it appeals to intellectuals and philosophers who are showing deeper and more and more interest in Buddhist explanation.
“Another category: Buddhism has different gods and goddesses, of wealth and long life and curing illness. Something like that. Protection cords. Pray to gods to cure illness and or for more successful business. [Here he let out a chuckle.] That’s superficial. Not the main thing.”
Now I offered my own theory: “In my interviews around the world, I’ve noticed people and even countries historically find Buddhism when they are fed up with money, success, political power. Even religion: they question the faith-based religions. Buddhism does not ask you to take a ‘leap of faith,’ as we say. It’s all empirical, as you said. Do you think there is validity to this idea? That people shift to Buddhism when they are full and not satisfied? And then, therefore, the West is at that same point—full, but empty.”
“Yes,” he said. “This is a new category. Firstly, the material. There are limits. At the beginning we felt, ‘Ah, once we have prosperity, then all problems can be solved.’ We put every hope on money or power. Then when you have these things, through your own experience you notice their limitations, you could be billionaire then still something missing.”
“We call this diminishing returns,” I suggested.
“So, through deeper awareness, through one’s own experience, they turn to inner value. Inner value is not necessarily Buddhism’s alone but other traditions’ too. Then I have Christian friends who adopt Buddhist techniques for meditation or to reduce anger and increase patience. Perfectly fine, without losing one’s own main faith, to increase some of the basic human values. This should be alright for an open-minded Christian.
“This leads to another category: kind of people curiosity. Once people get to deeper levels, they ask: ‘What’s reality? What is I? What’s God? What’s the beginning? What is the ultimate reality of nature?’”
“You describe me,” I said.
“So finally, I usually describe Buddhism as a combination of science, philosophy, and religion. Combined. As a science, we look for external signs of mind or emotions. From Buddhist viewpoint, I think this is a science. What is reality? It’s a subtle energy. We call it wind. Wind means movement, energy. In scripture it mentions wind, means energy. The description of reality is a science. On that basis, the reality itself should change. By nature there are contradictions. So first things always changing, then second contradictory movement. Therefore transformation is possible. That is basis of buddhadharma. We take the values of good and bad out of the opposites. Now I can take action. Karma. But we cannot make distinction on the action itself—the demarcation of right action or wrong action or positive action or negative action—but on the motivation. Motivation is so important. So motivation means hatred, jealousy, compassion, forgiveness, fear, all those emotions. Some action comes from serving without self-interest, genuine service and helping, not due to money or fame but genuine altruistic motivation. That really brings positive, useful, beneficial actions. Therefore when we realize that, then try to transform or reduce negative and try to increase positive. How? Understanding the contradiction of forces.”
“And wrestling with them,” I said, but what I thought was, “Whew, that was a mouthful.”
He tried to reduce it to simple terms: “Like once you recognize anger is bad—for myself, my body, my peace of mind, for my friend and the whole world on a global level—then you consider what is the opposite force? Compassion, love. Try to increase love and compassion. And why do I need loving-kindness toward others? Because it brings increased benefit to me. Not for next life but even in the moment. The more compassionate mind becomes something fuller. Self-confidence. Fearless determination.”
This was something I could grasp. Though he talked in circles and fragmented sentences, with imperfect grammar, he nonetheless conveyed his meaning. The man is brilliant, there is no doubt. Part of his brilliance is his way of explaining Buddhist concepts, and the complexities of Tibetan Buddhism in particular, in a way that Westerners can comprehend. It was hard not to idolize him.
“How do you keep people from hero-worshipping you?” I finally asked.
“In the realistic way,” he replied and explained by small example: “Yesterday I met one sick girl. They brought her to me with some expectation. I said, ‘I can’t help you but I can give some advice.’ That is my limitation. I just share their worry, same worry. I can’t do anything, I accept the reality. So when I describe myself as a simple Buddhist monk, that is reality. That is realistic. I don’t care what other people say or feel. Important is mindfulness myself. I should not exaggerate from reality. I am human being, I am Buddhist. But in the name of humility, you can belittle yourself too much and then that is also not realistic. One of the important purposes of education is to try to reduce the gap between appearance and reality.”
I got to witness his skillfulness with this “reality” after my interview ended, when some dozen Westerners, fresh from a three-month retreat nearby, filed in, bowing almost obnoxiously. Their leader pulled out a sheet of questions each had composed for His Holiness. They preceded their questions with elaborate intros like, “Holiness, in your infinite wisdom and with greatest respect for your thousands of lifetimes and bowing to the gods of compassion and…” Then they would launch into questions that, I am sure, were causing each of them great suffering. They were the most inane, selfish questions, of such a personal nature that there would be no way for His Holiness to offer guidance without spending hours (in some of their cases, years) in personal psychoanalysis with them. One woman wanted to know what Buddhist tradition of retreat she should do next? Another was struggling with his relationship with his mother and his stepfather, and some business he was being asked to join with them even though he did not get along with the stepfather. It went on.
With each question, the Dalai Lama listened patiently, scratched his jaw, even asked a question or two. Then, with great delicateness and discretion, he made simple recommendations. Mostly his suggestions could be reduced to two words: keep sitting. But I saw how these people, vulnerable in that way people are when they come out of long retreats, hung on his every word. I knew they would do whatever he said. They would go home and for months his off-the-cuff suggestion would be their guiding mantra, their compass in life. What a burden. What a responsibility. What ridiculousness to carry on this charade. But he too knew that they would do whatever he said, so he was careful and conservative in his responses. It only made me respect him more.
In sum, I would like to report, first, that the forty-five-minute interview turned into ninety minutes. Later I was told that that was quite exceptional. “He really warmed up to you,” Lhakdur said. He liked me; he really liked me. For months afterward, when people asked about the encounter, I joked, “We really bonded.”
I would also like to report on all the details of the encounter but in truth the whole thing went by in a blur. Later when I transcribed the taped conversation—and I waited six months to do so, like a kid who saves the cherry on the sundae until the end—I discovered that much of what he said was just barely interpretable. Sometimes in interviews people express what they mean more through inflection and pauses and meaningful looks, or even through physical gestures and mannerisms, or through the trappings of their clothes or the room furnishings. But this was in the extreme. I pieced together fragmented sentences to make it all make sense.
In an attempt to glean deeper meaning from it all, I noticed how many times he used certain words, thinking that he might have been talking cryptically. Indeed, the words he used most frequently—reality, realistic, reason, intelligence, intellectual—spoke volumes about the deeper point he was making.
I came away believing His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a man of science, a man of intellect, a man of reason, a man of ethics, who himself is part of the reason Buddhism has grown in popularity. Had he not become the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, I think he would have become a valued citizen of the planet. He is a man of deep compassion, embedded in all the best religions, and, finally, he is a religious man. He is the leader of a nation not through instinct or desire, but because history required it of him. He had told me that he does not proselytize Buddhism, that he rather promotes “human values.” Nonetheless, without ever intending it, he is Buddhism’s best advertising agency.
From Buddha or Bust, by Perry Garfinkel. © 2006 by Perry Garfinkel. Published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House.