Behind the Scenes with the Dalai Lama

An insistent volunteer corners me at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. “His Holiness needs a new toilet seat,” she says.

The day before the Dalai Lama’s arrival, the tension is high, stirring up behaviors that seem very non-Buddhist. The woman goes on to demand a new sink for His Holiness in the bathroom behind the stage. John reminds her that the Dalai Lama is, after all, a monk, and will not care about such things. “You don’t know that,” she says.

I’m at the event chairs for the Dalai Lama’s visit to San Francisco. His Holiness has chosen the Gyuto Vajrayana Monastery in Silicon Valley to host him for a San Francisco teach-in. The 20 Tibetan monks, who live in a 3-bedroom house in San Jose, have chosen me to volunteer.

The monks have rounded up a few others from their motley collection of friends. Their overtone chanting—one voice sings two or more notes at the same time—is at once medieval and surround sound. Their striking symphony caught the ear of Micky Hart, The Grateful Dead drummer, who helped them produce a CD. Cameron Sears, the Grateful Dead CEO, is coordinating production.

Ven. Thupten Donyo, the energetic founder of the Gyuto monastery, has been asking the Dalai Lama to visit for years. His greatest wish came true, and now Donyo and his handful of monks are in charge of bringing the political and religious leader of the Tibetan people to the Bay Area. His Holiness is not only a Nobel Laureate and an international icon for world peace, he is their leader, their king, and their father. Tibetan Buddhists believe him to be the incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, the equivalent of God coming to town.


Dodalailamabottomnyo is a wiry man, the same height as my 9-year old daughter, always in a flowing burgundy robe. When he first came to the United States he worked as a waiter. “An undercover monk,” he says. He grew up in a Sherpa village shadowed by Mount Everest, and is now a monastic entrepreneur. Cell phone in hand, he sits at his cramped desk, in touch with other monasteries via high-speed internet. He is buried in bills, requests for blessings, CDs, tours, and Dharma teachings, and now a stream of faxes and emails from His Holiness’s people. He is a tornado in the calm monastery, the only monk fluent in English, and more importantly, the only monk who can drive, which means that he must do all the shopping. During the last year, since the Dalai Lama granted his wish, Donyo has grown thinner, never finishing a meal. Another monk says he is very special as he has three beds while the others have one—though it sounds like he rarely sleeps in any of them.

Donyo has been our constant companion the last six months. When my stepfather asks him if he teaches at the monastery, Donyo grins at the compliment. “Not me—maybe in five life times,” he says. “Me, I’m good on the phone.”

At first when Donyo drove to San Francisco for meetings, Donyo would sit cross-legged in the back seat of my Yukon. “Uh, you better put on your seatbelt,” I would say. Now he rides shotgun. He calls constantly, even from Nepal. He unexpectedly went there to shop for auspicious decorations for HH’s stage, where the monks will chant and bow and prostrate. Though the Dalai Lama has said that he wants to minimize personal ceremony and to greet him from the heart—the event is in the details.

The TV and phone must be removed from His Holiness’s hotel room. The bed needs more fluffing. Donyo hates the carpet. HH prefers Tibetan bread for breakfast, which the Tibetan community will deliver. The email requests overwhelm us. Curiously, many people are trying to bargain down the ticket price from the $100 per person—some feel that if they’ve already met the Dalai Lama they should be let in free. A self-proclaimed Native American Chief wants a photo of himself with the Dalai Lama to balance out the energy of the photo he has with George Bush.

“I’m picking up the Dalai Lama at the airport,” I told my friends, but now I’m feeling its real significance as we climb out at the curb and are swarmed by police and Defense Security Service (DSS). Donyo has arrived hours early. He’s waiting at the gate with shiny white prayer scarves in his arms. He looks peaceful and perplexingly still. “Today is the happiest day of my life,” he tells us.

I wait an hour at the curb in the cold wind off the bay while security fine-tunes the Dalai Lama’s exit.

“Get him in the car as fast as you can.”

“Donyo—jump in the car with the entourage.”

“Keep him moving.”

All of this will takes seconds. Donyo gives scarves to me and shows us how to make them long, drape them over our outstretched arms and offer them to His Holiness with a bowed head. Donyo is a new person, completely relaxed. Meeting with His Holiness is something he’s practiced for all his life.

I practice saying Tashi Delek, the Tibetan greeting which means may everything be well. It is a great honor that just the three of us are greeting him, of course surrounded by the San Francisco police, DSS agents in headphones, and a SWAT team medic.

The head DSS agent is in touch with the plane. “Thirty seconds and he’s here,” he says.

The entourage of four monks appears first in the burgundy robes and sandals, then the Dalai Lama, unmistakable, steps through the sliding glass door and immediately sees us holding the white scarves. He approaches us, smiling and delighted. He is lively, energetic. He spends about 15 seconds with each of us, holding our hands and really looking at us, amused and chuckling that he would receive such a reception. I feel his warmth and calmness, his humility. He is not in the least bit of a hurry, even though behind him DSS is signaling, in no uncertain terms, to move him along, finally whisking him into a bulletproof sedan, windows layered like a magnifying glass. The police escorts light up with a screech of sirens and the motorcade speeds away.

A van stops. Five college girls in Stanford Sailing Club T-shirts climb out. They have missed the Dalai Lama by five seconds.

A business traveler, checking in curb-side at the exact time of our greeting, has stopped in his tracks. He is still staring at the space that the Dalai Lama has just departed. “I feel more spiritual now,” he says.

The Dalai Lama says that our adversaries are opportunities to practice compassion. Likewise, mishaps are opportunities to practice serenity.

DSS is less than thrilled that the press knows where HH is staying. In a charming article in the San Jose Mercury News , Donyo dropped the name of His Holiness’s San Francisco hotel and produced photos of his bed. Protestors, alleging war profiteers amongst the organizers, threaten to show up. We get word from HH’s people that HH has changed the topic of his talk, or has added a topic (we’re not sure which). This is after 5,500 programs have been printed for $35,000.  On top of that, HH’s people are not sure where HH will hold a private audience for a group of twenty major benefactors that I have organized. The Asian Art Museum is expecting us at 4 p.m.; the audience of people coming from all over the world might be held in a tbd room in Bill Graham Auditorium.

Late that night Donyo calls with the most alarming news yet: HH has just asked to have eggs and potatoes delivered to his room for his 4:30 a.m. breakfast. The hotel has sent room service home. Donyo’s English comes in fits and starts. Do we know how to make hashbrowns?

Donyo is very grateful for our help and is constantly expressing his gratitude to everyone who has materialized to help—many who are having difficulties seeing eye-to-eye.  Cameron Sears, the other “professional,” seem above the fray, bantering about the alleged war profiteers and the protestors who might or might not show up.

Over four thousand arrive at Bill Graham Auditorium. To the extent you can have an MC at a Buddhist teach-in. No jokes, and the Dalai Lama has specifically requested no long introductions, especially layered introductions, where one introducer introduces the next.  His Holiness strolls onto the stage through a wispy cloud of incense. He greets the monks, smiling, encouraging them to get up from their prostrations. He seems happy and relaxed as he greets the different nationalities in the audience—Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese. “American Buddhism, most junior,” he says in English, which gets many laughs.

The chanting of the monks reverberates through the auditorium, the impossibly low acoustic voices lifting the ceiling. The stage glows with its $20,000 jeweled throne and luminous ornamental bowls; orange and red lanterns light the way—the auspicious decorations all found and purchased by Donyo. I spot John sitting cross-legged on stage with the burgundy-and–gold-robed monks in his dark business suit like a battleship in a sacred red sea. They are gathered at the bare feet of the Dalai Lama who is seated in the hand-carved throne. Swirls of incense rise like heat waves.

The Dalai Lama grows increasingly amused at the length of the Chinese sutra. He seems very human, laughing, occasionally scratching his head, and donning a red visor to protect his eyes from the bright lights.

The Buddhist teachings are intense, high-powered, and mostly in Tibetan. The Dalai Lama’s eloquent silver-haired translator scribbles notes while HH speaks for long stretches, then does a remarkable job of translating the Dalai Lama’s words into English. HH listens to the English translation and occasionally adds a few clarifications in Tibetan; the translator then translates his comments back to English. The essence of the talk—Dependent Origination—comes down to “emptiness”: one must be empty to be complete, emptiness allowing coexistence. This is not Art of Happiness : the Dalai Lama teaching us that love and compassion are necessities. This is a scholarly lecture and even many of the Buddhists are struggling—one of the attendees compares it to “dropping into grad school.” But everyone is paying strict attention. When His Holiness asks us to pull out the paper insert in our program, the sound in the room is like four thousand birds suddenly taking flight.

Since I’m wearing a “Dalai Lama Entourage” name badge, many people approach me. A woman wearing a turban comes right up me with a shopping bag in her hand. She wants me to take a gift to the Dalai Lama: a lovely mosaic-framed painting she has made. She also has some wrapped packages for him that contain who-knows-what. I’m thinking that security isn’t going to like this. Probably a million people are trying to give His Holiness gifts.

Around us, people are bowing to him, the association with the Dalai Lama is so powerful. Backstage, gifts are a problem. Someone brought HH a 5-lb box of Godiva chocolate. Donyo accepted it. As a result, security has evacuated everyone from backstage until the chocolate can be investigated. Meanwhile, the show goes on.  The turbaned woman tells that while praying to Buddha she had a vision that she would walk right on stage and give the gifts to His Holiness.

The Godiva chocolate is back in the house. The factory-sealed box has been cleared. Security hoped to eat it themselves, but it turns out that the Dalai Lama likes chocolate.

It is the last stretch of the talk, and we now have a vague idea that the twenty benefactors are going to have their audience in a room behind the stage.  Tashi, the representative from HH’s office, smiles and folds over and covers his ears, shaking his head. The audience will happen, that’s all that’s important. I see that Tashi is holding the shopping bag from the turbaned woman—alas, the power of visualization. It strikes me that the Dalai Lama is more accessible than people might think.

The event is only allowed to make a small profit. Two-thirds will go toward the Gyoto monks daily operations and a possible future monastery. One-third will go to the Dalai Lama’s chosen charities.

I have trouble assembling the twenty benefactors, lingering in the auditorium and in the hall. One woman is late and calls from her cell phone. “Park anywhere,” I tell her, afraid she is going to miss the moments we get with His Holiness. Some have come as far away as Bhutan to meet him. Our friend Ed has brought Life Fitness founder Augie Nieto, a handsome middle-aged man terminally ill with ALS and in a wheel chair. Ed and his wife Betty have brought their 3-year-old daughter that they just adopted from Bhutan. It is the first Bhutanese adoption to a U.S. couple, clearing the way for future adoptions. Loving the people and culture, Ed and Betty were married in Bhutan years ago. Two Bhutanese men—who helped facilitate the adoption—are traveling with them. Two months ago Serena was a “wild-animal child,” clawing at her parents, screaming, bewildered after being taken from her village people trying with difficulty to take care of her. Today Serena is feisty and excited, but obviously happy, attached to her new parents and insisting on wearing a cropped pink cardigan. Ed and Betty promised Serena’s relatives that they would expose her to Buddhism. Lately, her relatives in Bhutan have been calling their home late at night, nervous about Serena.

I hear applause, signaling the end of the talk. I get into a horseshoe. Ed passes out prayer scarves that he got in Bhutan. My 9-year-old daughter is standing to my right, holding out her prayer scarf—ready to offer it to the Dalai Lama. She knows little about Buddhism but feels the electricity in the air and is certain that she is about to meet someone very special who she will always remember.

More applause then the Dalai Lama wanders into our room with the abbots, his advisors, his elegant translator, and Donyo floating behind on the hem of his robe, humble and head bowed.

They stop in front of our horseshoe, and I’m hoping that someone has given His Holiness some background. We stare at them and they stare at us. They’ve been steered into this room and are now unsure what to do. I think of my friend Jeff. One evening he stepped out of his San Francisco office building into an alley exactly when the Dalai Lama was getting out of a car. They were the only ones in the alley for a few moments and they stared at each other, both not knowing what to do. Then the Dalai Lama gave Jeff a peace sign.

His Holiness looks for direction, introducing our group, then the Dalai Lama says in English how happy he is to see children there. He embraces Serena, blessing her, and putting a prayer scarf around her neck. The news of Serena’s happiness and the photos of her with the Dalai Lama that the Bhutanese men will take back to Bhutan will go a long way to reassure her uneasy relatives.

His Holiness spends a few moments with each person, lingering with the people who need him most. When he gets to Augie in the wheel chair, he whispers to him, rubbing his head and kissing him. Next to me, my stepfather, a strapping 6’4’ man of 250 pounds, lets his tears fall to the floor. My daughter, still holding her scarf straight in front of her, says with a twinkle, “He got a kiss.”

To my left, the Bhutanese men have fallen to the floor, in prostration. The Dalai Lama gestures that they should stand up. The men stand, but as he approaches us, they fall to their knees again. They can’t seem to help themselves, their devotion is so strong. I am almost embarrassed that I’ve been allowed into this intimate experience.

My 86-year-old relative has been wanting to meet the Dalai Lama since he was in high school (the time of the 13th Dalai Lama). He told his doctor on Thursday that if he was going into the hospital, he would have to wait to check him in on Tuesday, because he was going to California. I’ve been watching him out of the corner of my eye to see his reaction. When His Holiness gets to him, he strikes up a conversation, saying that he’s interested in what he’s been doing at MIT.

His Holiness, always looking outside the group, goes over to the security guard at the door and puts a prayer scarf around her neck while she stands guard.

“Mom, look, Donyo has a cell phone.” my daughter looks disappointed, but also a little delighted. Last night at the Asian Art Museum, Donyo and the other monks taught her how to make sand mandelas: intricate paintings of sand to be brushed away, showing the impermanence of life. It’s a concept not readily grasped by my 9-year-old who wanted to take hers home. After a short time, Donyo took her up in the elevator and delivered her to us in the Himalayan gallery. Even monks have their babysitting limits.

Sunday morning we follow a group of monks through the hotel lobby, past the Victoria Secrets with its window displays of bursting bras and clingy fishnets. A glossy poster promises a blissful perfume—Dream Angels, Heavenly .

We are about to visit the Dalai Lama in his room on the top floor. I feel like we’re taking the elevator to see God. The elevator is glass and after several floors it bursts out of the paneling, then floats the final floors to the top of San Francisco like a Willy Wonka ride. We are eyelevel with the billboards—an iPod dancer gyrating, an impossibly leggy blonde drinking Sky Vodka. At the top the billboards have lost their appeal, exaggerations are not so apparent from below.

The doors open on the 35th floor. The hallway is filled with monks and a handful of event organizers, including Dead drummer Micky Hart.

Tashi tells us not to remove our shoes—again His Holiness wants to minimize personal ceremony. When in doubt, come from the heart. Nevertheless, as we cross the threshold, there is a pile-up of shoes just inside the door.

The Dalai Lama greets us at the door as if it’s his home. “Thank you, thank you,” he says, holding his hands. Donyo has filled the room with brilliant thangkas, painted or embroidered wall tapestries. The hotel discounted this stunning, panoramic room 90%.

We get photos all around, His Holiness never bored, taking our hands in the photo and squeezing them warmly. The photographer we’ve hired, 27-year-old Vance Jacobs, has been alone in the room with HH off and on, and they’ve become friendly. “How’d you sleep last night?” Vance asks him. Some of the monks have tears in their eyes.

Later that day during the afternoon public talk, a man throws an apple at His Holiness. Security tackles him, the apple shooting into the air like a pop fly. The man is taken away, presumably to jail. The Dalai Lama tells security that he wants to meet that man. “I’m sorry, Your Holiness,” a guard tells him, “He’s unavailable.”

Outside the hotel, the motorcade is ready to whisk His Holiness away. A crowd has gathered across the street and the Dalai Lama squints in the bright light. “I want to meet those people,” he tells DSS. I have heard stories about His Holiness breaking away from security to go speak to some forlorn-looking person.

DSS is powerless as the Dalai Lama crosses the street.

In Chicago, the next stop on his tour, the Dalai Lama is still asking about the man who threw the apple. His people have set out to track him down. I assume that His Holiness wants to understand his trouble and that will lead to compassion. He is the leader of thousands of Buddhists, a bodhisattva of compassion, and has the healthiest mind on the planet, but he still strives to meet everyone he can. It seems that the hardest thing to get is understanding.