Opinion: ‘A truly exceptional man’


Elie Wiesel, Barbara Walters, Bono, William F. Buckley, Jr., David Suzuki, Jesse Helms, Piers Morgan, Alice Waters and others remember first meetings with the Dalai Lama.

(Compiled by Dana Cook)

American College Boy
– A.J. Ayer, Philosopher

…[a meeting] of the Chinese People’s Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries…


The Dalai Lama looked like an American college boy with a row of pens in his breast pocket for signing autographs…. (Peking, 1954)

From More of My Life, by A.J. Ayer (Collins, 1984)

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Escaping Chinese Communists
– Bettina Aptheker, Academic and Feminist    

…one clear memory of the Dalai Lama. It was 1959. I was fourteen, and my parents had just moved us to the house on Ludlam Place [in Brooklyn, N.Y.]. I was watching the evening news on television. There was a film clip of the Dalai Lama. He looked to be barely more than a boy, walking briskly, wearing robes. I couldn’t see the bright colors of his robes because we didn’t yet have color television. The newscaster said something like, “The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, crossed over into India today, in a harrowing escape from the Chinese Communists who are occupying his country.” My father [historian and Communist Party activist Herbert] happened to walk into the living room at that moment. He saw the screen and hissed, “The bastard.”

…China’s socialist revolution was revered in our home in 1959. This was before China’s split with the Soviet Union, when the U.S. Communist Party’s allegiance shifted. I figured that the Dalai Lama, whoever he was, must not only be a religious leader (which would have been bad enough), but some kind of anti-Communist to deserve the vehemence of my father’s condemnation. Still, I never forgot that clear image of him in his robes, a little fuzz of hair, wearing dark, large-framed glasses, walking purposefully into India.

From Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel, by Bettina F. Aptheker (Seal Press, 2006) 

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– Roloff  Beny, Photographer 

I photographed the Dalai Lama in the fake Shangri-la of Simla, where the rhododendrons were in blood-red full bloom. When I asked His Holiness why he stayed in India, he said, ‘I prefer to deal with the wolves I know rather than be exploited by those I don’t know.’

I found him an inspiring person; the light of his smile filled the room and seemed to fill all nature. He said goodbye with a bear-hug embrace and I felt an aura flow through me, as if I were a harp being strummed. (early 1960s)

From Legends in Life and Art, by Roloff Beny (Douglas & McIntyre, 1995)

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In a Transparent Golden Shell
– Hannah Tillich, Poet and Wife of Theologian Paul Tillich

… I hired a car for the drive to the foothills of the Himalayas to see the Dalai Lama…

When the interpreter brought me to the Dalai Lama’s residence, the Dalai Lama was standing on the terrace in his brownish-red monk’s garb, one arm exposed, wrists together, hands opened toward me like an opening flower. I forgot everything in the way of etiquette. I fell into those open hands with mine. He took my arm and guided me into a room. He sat on the center sofa with me on his right.

He was slender; his bare arm had a vaccination mark. He used his hands often and he bent his head forward. He touched his strong dark eyebrows with his fingers. His intelligent face, eyes sparkling with life—he was altogether present. He was His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Our eyes joined. To be in his emanation was to be in a transparent golden shell. We all smiled. Even the cat coming toward us had laughter in her eyes, jumping, adoring the Dalai Lama, not because he was exalted but because of the radiance of his being. (Dalhousie, India, 1966)

From Place To Place, by Hannah Tillich (Stein and Day, 1976)

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Wonderful and Unique Man
– Jesse Helms, U.S. Senator (1973-2003)

In August 1973…I traveled to London where I spoke at a Peace Through Freedom rally and met with leaders from countries on every continent who shared my concerns about the threat of Communism…


Following my London trip, I made it a point to meet as often as possible with leaders in the anti-Communist movement, both here in the United States and at gatherings in other parts of the world…

I met famous people, like…the Dalai Lama…

My door was always open to those who were in the news, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who knows well what the cost of standing up for freedom may be. I met this distinguished and beloved spiritual leader not too long after I had arrived in Washington [in 1973]. I was captivated first by his warm and generous smile, and after I had visited with him at various official Senate meetings I realized that this was a wonderful and unique man. We have been friends now for many years…

From Here’s Where I Stand: A Memoir, by Jesse Helms (Random House, 2005)

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Aura of Calmness
– Tom Harpur, Journalist and Author

Writing for the [Toronto] Star [as religion columnist], one had the rare privilege of meeting and speaking with all the great spiritual leaders of our times…The most striking thing about the Dalai Lama was the great aura of calmness that radiated from him, as well as his constant smile and deep humility… (1970s)

From Born Again: My Journey from Fundamentalism to Freedom (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2011)

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Enfolded in Goodness
– Fleur Cowles, Magazine Editor

…I lunched with the Dalai Lama. The way he takes one’s hand in his on meeting is a good omen. He took mine gently to welcome me and then covered his and mine with his other hand, lightly pressing them down; ‘enfolding’ is a better word. If you believe in his aims, as I do, you feel enfolded in goodness, or should one say godliness?…

The smile he wore when we met was wide and genuine….(Washington, D.C., early 1980s)

From She Made Friends and Kept Them: An Anecdotal Memoir, by Fleur Cowles (HarperCollins, 1996)

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English not so Good
– William F. Buckley, Jr., Conservative Commentator and TV Show Host

Firing Line is a nuanced program, and a thorough knowledge of English is required to do justice to subtle thought. For that reason I have tried to have foreign guests only if they speak excellent English. (My most conspicuous failure was the Dalai Lama. I was assured that he spoke excellent English. After a few minutes I was driven to speaking to him in child-talk—“Me-too-likee-peace.”) … (1984)

From On the Firing Line: The Public Life of Our Public Figures, by William F. Buckley, Jr. (Random House, 1989)

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Peaceful Man
– Holly Near, Folksinger

…the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration being held in the hills of Malibu, California. As we stood in a graceful column to receive him, the Dalai Lama moved slowly from person to person, genuinely greeting each of us. I was touched by the power of humility, the strength of wisdom, the contagion of joy, and the exquisite beauty of a soul that is dedicated to humanity. This man had been trained from the time he was three to be a peaceful man, to carry on the wisdom of the ages…. (mid-1980s)

From Fire in the Rain…Singer in the Storm: An Autobiography, by Holly Near with Derek Richardson (William Morrow, 1990)

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Serenity and Graciousness
– Marvin Hamlisch, Composer

Early in our marriage, I said to Terre: “I want to take you to places you’ve never been.”…she said, “I’ve always wanted to meet the Dalai Lama.”…So I dutifully call Tibet House in New York and ask if it’s possible to meet the Dalai Lama….the only way you can meet the Dalai Lama is to go to the town of Dharamsala in Indian, where he lives….


…we were summoned to an audience with the Dalai Lama. His serenity and graciousness were remarkable, and in many ways he filled us with inspiration. It was an experience I would never forget, and it’s made me continually aware of the monumental tragedy of the Tibetans. (late 1980s)

From The Way I Was, by Marvin Hamlisch with Gerald Gardner (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992)

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Not ‘one’ for us
– Bono, Rock Musician

…We had a request from the Dalai Lama to participate in a festival called Oneness. I love and respect the Dalai Lama but there was something a little bit ‘let’s hold hands’ hippie to me about this particular event. I am in awe of the Tibetan position on non-violence but this event didn’t strike a chord. I sent him a note back saying, ‘One-but not the same.’ (c. 1990)

From U2 by U2 (Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.) with Neil McCormick (HarperCollins, undated)

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Sense of Humor
– Garry Marshall, Film Director 

Some stars introduce you to their agents, but Richard [Gere] introduced me to the Dalai Lama [while making Pretty Woman in 1990]. I went to an event where His Holiness was speaking, and Richard and I stood in a receiving line to meet him. When we finally got to where the Dalai Lama was standing, Richard introduced me by saying, “Your Holiness, this is one of the funniest men you will ever meet.” I was embarrassed, because that is an uncomfortable way to be introduced to the most famous living Buddhist. However, I quickly covered and said, “Your Holiness, I read that we are the same age.” Showing  his sense of humor, the Dalai Lama said, “And we have both done well.” It was not like the Dalai Lama had met so many funny people in his life either. I couldn’t imagine he had spent much time at the Improv in Mumbai or the Comedy Club in Delhi.

From Happy Days in Hollywood: A Memoir, by Garry Marshall with Lori Marshall (Crown Archtype, 2012)

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Learning from the Jews
– Elie Wiesel, Writer on the Holocaust

…when I was asked to introduce him at a gathering in his honor in Washington, he questioned me about the secret of Jewish survival, wondering how it could be applied to his own people, also exiled, its religion also threatened: “Despite the persecution and hatred that surrounded you, you managed to keep your culture and memory alive. Show us how.” In his meetings with Jewish intellectuals he would often repeat:“We Tibetans have much to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters.”(1992)

From All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs, by Elie Wiesel (Knopf, 1995)

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Divine comedy in his head?
– Shirley MacLaine, Actor   

I so admire the behavior of the Dalai Lama in his relations with China. He has pointed out to the Tibetan people that in past incarnations they were cruel to the Chinese people for various geopolitical reasons and are now suffering some of that return energy.

I spent two weeks with the Dalai Lama in Brazil during the eco-conference in 1992. I learned a great deal about kindness, patience (not enough, some would say), and humor. It was fascinating to me that so many world leaders were unconsciously afraid of him. They seemed to innately understand that his system of cosmic justice was observing them. The absence of judgment on his part bothered them more than anything. I marveled at how the Dalai Lama stood in front of twenty thousand people and spoke without notes for hours. It was as though he was channeling some divine information (which I believe he was) to people who longed to understand but were not prepared to integrate it into their belief systems.

Sometimes, seemingly for no reason, he would stop talking and just laugh. He would laugh for minutes at a time as though watching a divine comedy in his head. He seemed to be a simple man, as we ate together, sat together, and traveled together. I have pictures of him that smile down on me from my Wall of Light. He lights up the room as though the pictures are alive.

From I’m Over All That and Other Confessions, by Shirley MacLaine (Atria Books, 2011)

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Why he doesn’t Cook (1)
– Alice Waters, Chef and Restaurateur 

I was told I should stand in front of the restaurant [Chez Panisse] and greet the Dalai Lama with flowers. Carrie [Wright] was trying to find a rare Himalayan variety of I can’t remember what flower, and she was late, so I was on the sidewalk without flowers in my hand when the Berekely [Ca.] police rode up on bicycles to cordon off the street. At the last minute Carrie ran in the back door with flowers and got them to me in the nick of time. I asked the Dalai Lama if he cooked. He said that when he was young his German guardian had tried to show him how to deep fry dumplings, but when a droplet of hot oil hit his arm he was never allowed to cook again. (1992)

From 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering, by Alice Waters and friends (Clarkson Potter, 2011)

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Why he doesn’t Cook (2)
– Orville Shell, Journalist and Academic

Lunch with the Dalai Lama at the restaurant [Chez Panisse] was just one moment in this long-running feast of good ideas and good food that over time created exactly the kind of collegium universities promise, but on which they often find it difficult to deliver. But this one involved the campus [University of California at Berkeley, where OS was head of the Graduate School of Journalism], the community of Berkeley, and the larger world outside. The idea was to bring the world to Berkeley and Berkeley to the world.

Of all the memorable moments during these wonderful events and meals, eating with the Dalai Lama was certainly high on the periodic table. For days, the Tibetans on the restaurant’s staff were in a state of almost delirious alert, working hard to make sure that nothing would be amiss for their revered patriarch. from standing on ceremony or evincing an overly exuberant Buddhist sensitivity. His Holiness sat right down and in a very businesslike manner ordered the lamb shanks. He ate them without apology…hardly surprising given the fact that Tibetan nomads have almost nothing to eat that does not come from their yaks and sheep.

As he enjoyed this high protein fix, he regaled us with stories of his own efforts at cooking as a child in Lhasa, recounting memories of having attempted to make some sort of Tibetan baked goods that he gleefully explained had ended up exploding in the oven! (1992)

From 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering, by Alice Waters and friends (Clarkson Potter, 2011)

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Truly Exceptional Man
– Howard Cutler, Psychiatrist

…we first met while I was visiting Dharamsala, India, on a small research grant to study traditional Tibetan medicine. …

…I had gotten to know several members of the Dalai Lama’s family, and it was through them that my first meeting with him was arranged.

In his 1993 public address [at Arizona State University], the Dalai Lama spoke of the importance of relating as one human being to another, and it was this very same quality that had been the most striking feature of our first conversation at his home in 1982. He seemed to have an uncommon ability to put one completely at ease, to quickly create a simple and direct connection with a fellow human being. Our first meeting had lasted around forty-five minutes, and like so many other people, I came away from that meeting in great spirits, with the impression that I had just met a truly exceptional man.

As my contact with the Dalai Lama grew over the next several years, I gradually came to appreciate his many unique qualities. He has a penetrating intelligence, but without artifice; a kindness, but without excessive sentimentality; great humor, but without frivolousness; and, as many have discovered, the ability to inspire rather than awe.

From the introduction to The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, by His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. (Riverhead Books/Penguin Putnam, 1998)

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‘Practice compassion, not Buddhism’
– John Perkins, Author and Activist  

On our last morning in Tibet, as we waited to board our flight to northern India, we were surprised to see the Dalai Lama and his entourage sweep into the tiny airport…Before I realized what had happened, I found myself being hustled up the steps of the plane, prepped by our Indian guide that protocol dictated kissing one of the Dalai Lama’s shoes, and led to the front row of the Boeing 737.The Dalai Lama smiled up at me and patted the seat beside him. The idea of kissing a shoe seemed rather odd, but having learned long ago the importance of respecting local traditions, I awkwardly started to lean over the seat toward the foot.

The Dalai Lama gave a little laugh and, placing a hand beneath my chin, gently lifted my head. “Not necessary,” he said in that softly chuckling voice that the world has come to love. He patted the seat again. “Please sit.” He tapped the edge of a book he was holding on his lap. “Wonderful,” he said, turning the front cover of my book toward me. “I’d like to learn more.”

We talked extensively about indigenous people and their commitment to balance. …


… the Dalai Lama invited our group to his home in Dharmasala, India. Following a cordial greeting, he said something that seemed most unusual, given his position as the leader of a spiritual movement. “Don’t become a Buddhist. The world doesn’t need more Buddhists. Do practice compassion. The world needs more compassion.” (1999)

From The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and the Truth About Global Corruption, by John Perkins (Dutton, 2007)

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In the Conversation
– Margaret Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister’s wife

Some twenty-five years later [after meeting Pope Paul VI in 1976, during which she was shut out of the conversation], Sacha [son] and I had an hour-long audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and it was completely the opposite. He included me in the discussion. The Dalai Lama held my hand to his face and said mothers were the strength and the power.

Both holy men were talking of the grace of the mother, but the Dalai Lama saw me as a person—and not one woman among many. The pope put me in my place; the Dalai Lama put me in the conversation.

From Changing My Mind, by Margaret Trudeau (HarperCollins, 2010)

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Full of Humor and Mischief
David Suzuki, Geneticist, Environmentalist and broadcaster

…In 2002 I received a letter from a leading Tibetan Buddhist from Dharamsala in northern India, the Dalai Lama’s home in exile, asking me to talk about the environment to a select group of Tibetan monks living in India, in a program organized annually by their leader. …


A meeting with the Dalai Lama was arranged in a grand hotel…

…we were told to go down the hall to meet him. As we walked along the dimly lit corridor, the Dalai Lama himself suddenly popped out of a doorway, looked down the hall, and giggled, “I know you! I watch you on the Discovery Channel!” His is a world-recognized face, and he was acting as if I were the famous one.

We sat with him, and he talked warmly with almost a childlike openness and innocence. I had read a book about his early life and knew the ordeal of exile from his people. Yet here he was, so full of humor and mischief. We told him about our environmental interests and concerns, and he agreed with the thrust of our comments. We talked about how it seemed that money had become more important to people than other things. …

From The Autobiography, by David Suzuki (Douglas & McIntyre, 2006)

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Warm Hands, Eyes
Barbara Walters, Broadcast Journalist

…I met and interviewed the Dalai Lama in 2005 for an unusual two-hour [NBC television] Special we called Heaven: Where Is It? And How Do We Get There?…

I had briefly met the Dalai Lama some years before [c. 1990] in the most improbable place—the boardwalk at Venice Beach, California. I was married to Merv [Adelson]. We decided we weren’t getting enough exercise so we went at 6:30 a.m. to bicycle. The only person we saw was a man walking his dog until a car drew up and six monks in saffron robes emerged to look at the ocean. One of them was the Dalai Lama. I went up to him, said something inconsequential like, “Good morning, Your Holiness,” to which he responded in kind (well, without the “Your Holiness” part). Then the monks got back in their car, and Merv and I went off on our bikes. …

It was harder getting to the Dalai Lama this time…I flew to New Delhi…then on to a small airport an hour or so outside Dharamsala, the little mountain sanctuary given to the Dalai Lama for his government-in-exile in 1960 by Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru…The air got colder and colder as we drove up into the mountains…

The Dalai Lama didn’t seem chilled at all as he sat outside in the rain, wearing his one-shoulder red robe, chanting for hours to his young monks. There were a few headphones for translations into different languages, but they were hard to come by. Evidently he occasionally said something funny because his students would laugh and he would giggle. It really was a giggle, not a laugh, and quite infectious.

We did our interview after he was through with his teachings. It was still damp and cold, but everything about the Dalai Lama was warm. Including his hands. When I extended my hand to shake his, he took it in both hands and just held it. His eyes were warm, too, and merry.

From Audition: A Memoir, by Barbara Walters (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

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Bush II Admirer
– Piers Morgan, Talk Show Host  

The Dalai Lama, who became ruler of Tibet in 1950, is the longest serving leader of any kind—religious, political, or royal. [King Rama IX of Thailand was crowned in 1946].

I flew to the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota [in 2012] to interview him. He was there for his annual health checkup, and unsurprisingly, given his abstemious lifestyle, he’d been given a very positive report.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation came when I asked him to name the most impressive world leader he’s ever met.

“I like President Bush.”

“Which one?”

“The younger one. His policies were not very successful. But as a person, I found him a very nice person. I love him.”

from Shooting Straight: Guns, Gays, God, and George Clooney, by Piers Morgan (Gallery Books, 2013)

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[Dana Cook’s collections of encounters with the well-known have appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and journals. Contactcooks.encounters(at)gmail.com]


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