Essential Life Advice: How Not To Greet The Dalai Lama

Will Hersey recalls a disastrous encounter with the holiest man alive

Most Popular

What are we doing today?” I asked my already-ex-girlfriend, who I’d somehow found myself travelling with in India. Probably another story for another time.

“The usual,” came the reply. In the Himalayan hilltown of Dharamsala, “the usual” had come to involve long breakfasts, sitting about, afternoon walks and eating cake. “And later we’ve got that meeting with the Dalai Lama.”

As the days rolled into one, I’d forgotten how several days back we had put our names down for a public audience with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, widely known as one of the wisest and holiest men on the planet, who had made Dharamsala his, and his countrymen’s, Indian home in exile after the 1959 Tibetan uprising.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

At the time, I’d imagined a small band of spiritual travellers down at the temple and a chance to shoot the breeze with His Holiness over a cup of chai. On arrival, however, the queue looked exactly like the ticket line at Wimbledon except with a significantly higher proportion of monks.

There were backpackers, sightseeing tours, locals and pilgrims, too, and the line snaked ahead for what seemed like miles, inching forward at a slow but steady pace.

Most Popular

As we turned past a clump of trees, I got my first glimpse of the Dalai himself several hundred metres ahead, bedecked in trademark red robes with yellow sash. This was happening.

Either side of him stood what can only be described as two security monks in black robes and mirror shades. As I watched from a distance, the set-up was becoming clear. This was a straightforward drive-by greeting. Upon your turn, you were to greet the Dalai warmly and move on. Simple.

Except the specifics of each greeting I observed were markedly different in style and technique.

Some people performed elaborate bowing, kneeling and hand gestures. Others, visibly moved, clutched his hands imploringly and even exchanged words.

I started getting nervous. There was no industry standard. A straightforward English handshake wasn’t going to cut it. What was my move? What do you say to a man in possession of the wisdom of the ages, who had remained resolute and yet free of judgment throughout his persecutions? I asked my ex for guidance: she just rolled her eyes as if I was being ridiculous.

The queue inched onwards and the Dalai was now clearly visible, his beatific smile and wise eyes were only seconds away. One of the security monks, complete with FBI-style earpiece, ushered me on. This was it.

Acting only on fear and instinct, I found myself committing to a hybrid bow and curtsy-influenced crouch with a subservient handshake gesture thrown in for good measure. Odd, yes, but no one can say it wasn’t respectful.

I raised my head to greet his divine gaze but it was too late. He had already moved on to an American tourist behind me who he appeared to be joking and shaking hands with. Were they laughing at me?

I was ushered away by the other security monk. My chance to look into the sea of wisdom represented in the eyes of the 74th manifestation of Lord Buddha himself had passed. It was time for cake.

Originally published in Esquire's Big Black Book. Download the digital edition here.

***
MORE TRAVEL:

What Makes A True Adventure?
Tom Parker Bowles On The Horrors Of The Family Hoilday
74' And Sunny: Doing Las Vegas at 40
***