The Dalai Lama and I

The following is an essay I wrote after a very emotional meeting with His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Inspired, within a month I took refuge, (a short ceremony, usually but not necessarily, conducted by a lama, by means of which one formally becomes a Buddhist) and became deeply involved in Tibetan Buddhist practice which I found both comforting and rewarding. Yet, only two years later I was to drop all religious belief and become a firm atheist. “Just a small glance is enough for us,” said Tsering Yanchen, a 29 year old who was in the crowd with her 13-month-old daughter, Tenzin. “We feel fortunate and peaceful just to see him.” Toronto Star, Sunday, April 25, 2004

Admittedly my motives were not entirely altruistic when I volunteered to help during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Toronto for the Kalachakra 2004 celebration at the National Trade Centre. I wanted desperately to see at least once, the person I most admire in the world and who influenced my life so profoundly in bringing me to Tibetan Buddhism through his books. Volunteering to work the Kalachakra celebration might be the only opportunity I would ever have to see the His Holiness in person, albeit only at a distance.

Thus, I arrived at the National Trade Centre at 10:30 AM to start my scheduled 11 o’clock assignment at the main doors. However, before reaching my post I was requested by a event organizer to join eleven other early arrivals to load a van with plants and flowers and be transported to the Skydome to aid in decorating the stage for the Dalai Lama’s appearance there later in the afternoon.

Disappointed, my first reaction was, “Rats, I’m not going to see him today,” as I had not planned on attending the Skydome event and if I were to attend, there would be a lengthy wait there until His Holiness arrived at 4:30 PM. For a moment I considered ducking out on the Skydome mission altogether in the hopes of seeing him up close as he left the Trade Centre. That, however, was really not an option. So reluctantly, I joined the others, helped load the van and set off for Skydome.

It took very little time to get the greenery up on stage where a professional florist did the final arranging. As anticipated, there were still several hours until His Holiness would arrive. I had just made the decision to leave for home when the woman in charge of the Skydome preparations asked me and a couple of others to stay in case she needed help – to run errands, keep the musicians and dancers organized with backstage passes and to assist in any other exigency that might occur. Trapped again! And again, I couldn’t refuse. However, now armed with a backstage pass, I began to think my chances of seeing the Dalai Lama might be improving. My hopes were beginning to rise.

The Skydome began filling very slowly because of security precautions that required all attendees to be scanned with a metal detector and all bags and purses to be opened for inspection. It soon became apparent that the event would be late in starting. The performance by the Tibetan musicians was cancelled. Finally, still some twenty minutes behind schedule, the program began with the dancers and a documentary film about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Absorbed in watching the latter from behind one of the large screens positioned on either side of the stage engrossed in trying to read the titles backwards and from right to left, I failed to notice the entrance of His Holiness until he was just a few feet from me. With my head bowed and my hands assuming the “namaste” position in front of my heart, I stood frozen. Peeking from behind a large policeman, His Holiness, looking somewhat amused, smiled and waved to me. I think I waved back.

Because of the delay, His Holiness was asked to wait backstage until the end of the preliminary part of the program. Without a murmur, he sat down quietly a few feet from me on one of a number of folding metal chairs placed along the wall behind the stage. I realized that, aside from two or three security people some distance away, I was alone with the Dalai Lama. I was alone with the Dalai Lama!

Again with my palms together and head bowed, I stood there paralyzed – not knowing what to do. Seeing my indecision and obvious emotional state he nodded and, smiling warmly, gently patted the seat of the chair beside him, beckoning me to sit down.

Unable to believe my good fortune, I sat down gingerly and as I did so he grasped my right hand. Overcome with emotion, my eyes filled with tears, I was only able to mumble “We love you, sir.”

“Thank you,” he replied, squeezing my hand gently.

We sat there for a minute or two, the fingers of his left hand interlocked with those of my right, neither of us speaking. Then His Holiness asked me where I was born? (here in Toronto), where were my parents born? (mother in England, father in Canada), did I have children? (no), did I speak other languages? (yes, Spanish). Still scarcely able to speak, I answered the questions as best I could. I also told him of my companion animals and he was interested to know if the dogs and the cat get along together (they do).

Again, we both fell silent. Then, seeing a security officer nearby, the Dalai Lama laughed and spoke to him, “See us? We have never met before, but we are friends.” He laughed again and turning, touched his forehead to mine, an overwhelming and totally unexpected blessing.

As we sat quietly, neither of us speaking, he gently stroked the back of my hand. I could feel the atmosphere of peace, wisdom, love and compassion that surrounds this extraordinary man, this "simple monk.”

A few minutes had passed when we were approached by a young Chinese man who, kneeling, earnestly asked forgiveness of His Holiness for the actions of the Chinese government in Tibet. For the first time the Dalai Lama let go of my hand and clasped those of the young man. Speaking quietly, he said that he felt conditions were slowly improving and that patience was necessary. Clearly moved by the experience, the young man thanked His Holiness, stood, and slowly backed away, palms together.

A sound technician came to attach a microphone to the Dalai Lama’s robe remarking as he did so that he had performed the same operation some years ago during a previous visit by His Holiness. After a few more quiet moments it was time for him to make his stage appearance. Aided by his translator, Thupten Jinpa, he slowly ascended the steps to be greeted by a crescendo of applause as the crowd of nearly 30,000 caught sight of him.

Seated in the large white wing-backed chair we had placed there earlier, Jinpa at his side, the Dalai Lama gave his lecture on “The Power of Compassion”. Lost in thought, I heard practically none of the speech. Had I missed an opportunity? Should I have asked His Holiness a question about my practice? I’m sure he would have answered. But then I realized how inappropriate and selfish that would have been under the circumstances and I was glad that I had made no demands of him. Perhaps, I conjectured, I might have even been giving to him in that, as I quietly kept him company, he was able to relinquish for a few minutes the pressures of his incredibly hectic schedule. I hope so.

From backstage I could not see the proceedings. So, it was only as His Holiness, having concluded his talk, descended the steps, audience applause still sounding, that I awakened from my reverie. This time we were not alone. Surrounded by uniformed and plain clothed police plus his personal Tibetan “men in black,” he stopped only for a moment or two to shake hands with some local Tibetan dignitaries before being whisked to a waiting limousine. I followed to the motorcade parking area and stood there hoping to catch a final glimpse of His Holiness. As his limousine started to move, he rolled down the window. Our eyes met and he waved goodbye to me. My eyes again filling with tears, I waved back.

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