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The Dalai Lama and Monica Lewinsky

October 9th, 2007

I’m a bit slow about things, and it’s taken me this long to realise that a blog can also be a ‘Commonplace Book’. I was concerned that dropping in interesting stuff I find along the way was ‘cheating’ – avoiding the serious task of ‘deep articulation’ (sounds ghastly doesn’t it? Like some sort of dentistry…) But this morning walking the dog on the Downs I had a flash-back to a previous life as a Victorian. There was Aunt Matilda playing the piano, which had doylies on its legs so that we wouldn’t be embarrassed by seeing its ankles. And there I was on the settee sharing my Commonplace Book with my sister…

Yesterday I was researching the Potala Palace for a book I am writing on sacred places, and I found this story which I’m sticking into my book with this pot of glue:

The day I interviewed the Dalai Lama happened to be the day after President Clinton admitted to having an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky. This was before the U.S. had split down the middle, before the partisanship, the hatred, the petty slandering and questioning and distrust. We knew only that the news had reached even the mountaintop in Dharamsala and that we felt betrayed and disappointed and hurt by our president. In my second question, I’d begun with Clinton, intending to ask about his visit to China. Before I could finish, the Dalai Lama drew his head back in surprise and looked at me incredulously. “You mean with Lewinsky?” he shouted.

I froze. Behind me, Ann’s camera shutter stopped. I bumbled an apology on behalf of my president. But suddenly I realized the irony of discussing the world’s biggest sexual faux pas with the world’s most famous celibate man and I burst out laughing. That the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had entered my mind’s trajectory simultaneously seemed sacrilegious even for a democratic agnostic. I realized that I hadn’t broached this issue with his secretaries, but I pressed ahead anyway. “Actually,” I laughed, “that’s not my question, but I would like to know what you think.”

He threw his head back and laughed with me. All at once, the tension dissolved, he slapped his hand on his knee and together we cracked up. Even his secretaries, who were largely humorless, laughed; Ann snapped photos and suddenly I saw that the way to the Dalai Lama was through his laughter. Here was a man who had escaped his country, who had endured for nearly 50 years without wavering, indeed who never even called his enemies such and he had a laugh as big as the sky. I’ve heard that he knows the power of his own laugh, that he has used it to manipulate other journalists, but with me it felt wholly sincere. I couldn’t help thinking of my country, of the ultimatums we offer to the Iraqs and the Bosnias and the Vietnams of the world, of the shame we all feel, Democrat or Republican, at having officials who lie and get caught. But if a man like the Dalai Lama, who had lost an entire country and countless friends, could still lose himself in gales of giggles, surely there was hope for the rest of us.

We discussed politics, religion, autonomy, refugees, opposition groups and Chinese oppression, but the thing I remember most was his penchant for laughter. “You know,” he spoke in a conspiratorial whisper about midway through the interview, “you really are spoiled. Your generation.”

I told him my grandmother had said likewise for 30 years.

“I think the younger generation of America all have great potential if utilized properly,” he said. “They can think, and that’s important.”

My 20 minutes turned into a half hour and my half hour turned into an hour and we laughed and talked and joked. He grinned at Ann’s camera. He asked if we had enjoyed India. He put his hand over mine when we talked of refugees. When it was all over, I asked him how he had endured for 50 years — with that deep well of laughter — and he told me this story: “One Tibetan monk who is now close with me came [to Dharamsala] in the early ’80s [and] joined with me. He [had] spent more than 18 years in a Chinese prison labor camp. So we used to talk and he told me on a few occasions he really faced some danger. So I ask him, ‘What danger? What kind of danger?’ — thinking he would tell me of Chinese torture and prison.

“He replied, ‘Many times I was in danger of losing compassion for the Chinese.'”

Ann and I gasped. He paused and studied us.

“That’s marvelous, isn’t it?” he grinned.

From Laughing with the Dalai Lama by Rachel Louise Snyder

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