The Day I Shook Hands With the Dalai Lama

Posted on September 29, 2011


Monday, June 14 1999. Jerusalem.  The Dome of the Rock, sacred to three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. First consecrated by the Israelites, the site was where Solomon erected his temple. It was revered by Christians as both an Old Testament site and because of its place in the life and ministries of Jesus Christ. And finally, for Muslims, the rock was sanctified by the story of the Prophet Mohammed’s Miraaj or Night Journey to Jerusalem and back to Mecca. From the top of the rock, Mohammed began his ascent to Heaven.

Me: a member of a small tour group, which includes my three children.  We have just entered the main part of the Dome.  We have been inside for several minutes, just enough time to oogle the lavishly decorated mosaic, faience and marble, which adorns the interior. There are Qur’anic inscriptions that span the centuries.  We are appropriately in awe.

From nowhere, there appear men, dressed in dark suits.  They demand that we leave immediately.  These are serious-looking guys, the Muslim equivalent of the Secret Service.  No one protests.  As we exit, I imagine the headlines: “Massive bomb explodes in Dome of the Rock, Killing Small Group of Innocent Tourists Who Haven’t Even Had Time to Eat Lunch.”

We stand outside, tossing possibilities around.  They all involve bad things.  We want to be gone, and we want to know what’s going on at the same time.  Another group passes by us.  I hear “The Dalai Lama is coming to visit the Dome.”  We all turn.  From across the tiled plaza that surrounds the dome, I see a handful of people coming up one of the stairways.  We run toward the stairway. The handful is actually four men tightly surrounding one person in the middle.

And there he is: A small man, wearing a flourescent yellow baseball cap with the brim turned sideways. The years have dimmed some memories in my life, but not the color nor intensity of this baseball cap.  He is wearing his robes, the easily identifiable clothing I have seen in many photos. He is holding a bottle of water.  It is the baseball cap turned sideways and the water that are mesmerizing to me.  I register two things:  He, like me, can feel the desert sun on this summer day.  He, like me, is fashion-challenged when he travels.  The realization is liberating.

I break away from my group. I am within inches of the men that surround him.  For some reason, they don’t stop me.  I walk right up to the Dalai Lama and extend my hand to him.  His face lights up and he breaks out in a huge smile.  He takes my hand.  My hand vibrates.

He lets go of my hand, passes and disappears into the coolness of the Dome.  The doors close behind him.  I turn back to the people in my group, who stand staring at me.  I walk back to them, and we continue on to our next destination.

It will be at least 15 minutes before my right hand stops vibrating.