In the early 1980s, I once met the Dalai Lama at a book fair in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. More specifically, I almost literally ran into him.
It was just before the book fair ended and I was hurrying out of Hall 6 to meet some business partners in Hall 8. I energetically tore open the doors and suddenly found myself standing right in front of the Dalai Lama. No, I hadn’t touched him – but I had nearly bumped into him. He had a retinue of people gathered around him, or rather he was leading the group like a mother duck with her ducklings. It seemed to me as if he wanted to go just as energetically into the hall I was hurrying out of. I jumped aside and made room for the group.
Back then, the Dalai Lama was not familiar to every man, woman and child in the world. The first book about him in German had appeared, printed by a relatively small publishing house. And this very publisher had a stand in this very hall.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I changed my plans and went straight to the aforementioned stand. Photographers were waiting there and then he himself was also there, the Dalai Lama: the Leader of Buddhists.
A knot of people quickly clustered around him. He shook their hands (even with the obsequious owner of the publishing house who, ironically, is now, thirty years later, his fiercest opponent and detractor) and, smiling, let his picture be taken. More and more people came up and swarmed around him, condensing into a massive formation of curiosity and audacity. Since I had been quite familiar with the building layout at the Frankfurt fairgrounds for years, I knew what the Dalai Lama would soon have to do if he did not want to fight his way through the growing throng of curiosity seekers.
Before the Leader of the Tibetans made a move to leave, I had broken through the crowd and was making my way to one of the emergency exits in the back. I opened the steel door and found myself standing right in front of a big black limousine in which a uniformed driver was waiting with the engine running for his VIP guest. I took up my position on the other side of the car, between a high wire mesh fence and some sizeable dumpsters, and waited.
Not even five minutes later, the door to the hall opened and the Dalai Lama was once again standing right across from me – this time flanked by only two companions. The distance of a car trunk away from me. Although I did not at all look it in my Italian suit with matching necktie, I was in fact one of the few first-generation Western Buddhists, so to speak. I had practiced Zen at a monastery and become the pupil of a Tibetan lama. I knew who was standing before me:
It was the emanation of Buddha Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion … a living Buddha.
His maroon robes were folded according to age-old directions, leaving the right arm free. On his strong, bare upper arm, the Dalai had a pimple. Not a large pimple – just a perfectly normal one, like everyone has had at some time in their life. A pimple I would have overlooked or ignored on any other person. But here on the Dalai Lama it struck my eye with a vengeance, as if it were unimaginably huge: Buddha Avalokiteshvara had pimples! Incredible!
I could hardly tear my eyes away from the blemish on His Holiness‘ skin, which now seemed to me to have taken on monumental proportions, but then I noticed that his kind eye might have detected my astonishment. His gaze rested softly and alertly on my face, and this time my attention was monopolized by something quite different: His Holiness‘ eyeglasses.
Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion, was nearsighted!
He’s got about 20/200 vision at best, I thought. And then these thick lenses were also housed in incredibly ugly frames. Like the kind Germans used to get for free from public health insurance if they could not afford higher quality. What the British would call „NHS specs“!
By now, my childish gape seemed to be amusing him. When I noticed his gentle smile, I woke up as if from a trance. At a single stroke, I was all there again.
I should bow, I thought. Shake his hand, maybe? No, that would be presumptuous and offensive. But bowing as I’d already done uncountable times in front of the wooden Buddhas at the Zen monastery: the hands folded in gassho – as it’s called in Zen – or in the mudra of anjali … then lower my head in reverence and modesty … pay homage to the Buddha, express my own devotion and humility … in a single deep bow.
But all of a sudden I just couldn’t do that any more. I was frozen. Paralyzed from shock. I didn’t want to be one of these sycophants, one of these submissive believers, a bowing and scraping worshipper of someone who had pimples like me and was nearsighted like so many other people in the world.
The Dalai Lama seemed to see my inner conflict. While we were looking each other firmly and openly in the eye – my gaze courageous, upright, unyielding and proud, and his gaze soft, warm, well-meaning and visibly amused by this silent spectacle – he gave me the most magical Buddha smile you could ever imagine.
I smiled back, still stiff and straight, but with a candid laugh in my eyes, in my heart and on my lips. The Dalai Lama got into the limousine with a smile, the door closed and the car drove off along the dreary street. I was left behind between the fence and the dumpsters, alone in my designer suit.
Young, erect, good looking. A next-generation Buddhist. Smart, clever, uncorrupted. A Bodhisattva warrior, brave, upright , proud.
The car was gone. Everything around me suddenly turned gray. Deep gray. And then tears flooded my eyes. All of a sudden and as if out of the blue. Me, the guy who practically never cried, who had sworn at the age of twelve or fourteen never to allow a moment of weakness and since then had no longer even been able to cry – this guy was abruptly overwhelmed by infinite anguish. Flattened, you would have to say, for my upright posture had collapsed, utterly deflated. Tears were streaming down my cheeks, rivers of phlegm and snot were running out of my nose, and what had started as quiet sobbing became a loud, unrestrained bawl.
Sticky snot, tears and slobber from my mouth were running down my face into my collar; my shirt and jacket were sodden and sticky, slimy, wet. I didn’t care. I just kept crying. Crying and crying. Crying out all the pain. All the thousands of unwept tears.
How painful a puffed-up ego can be. How excruciating arrogance can be. How wrong the pride, how rigid and hardened. How lost a person can be, especially when he thought himself clever and good and right.
I stood there for a long time.
Thrown away between garbage containers.
Turning gray amidst the gray of cold industrial surroundings. It lasted for more than an hour. Until I had no more tears. Until they had all been shed. Until I was completely empty.
Slowly, I straightened back up, proud and erect, turned in the direction the car of the living Buddha had taken, folded my hands before my chest, and bowed deeply and full of gratitude.
Quietly, guardedly, my smile returned.
Karl-Ludwig Leiter | WIE vor WAS | English Translation by Jigme Balasidis | © 2015