For years I’ve had a wall hanging in my home, a present from my mother years ago, with the Chinese symbol for peace at the top and bottom framing a quote from the Dalai Lama – my religion is very simple, my religion is kindness.
On Tuesday morning I shook the Dalai Lama’s hand. It was unexpected.
The opportunity came up because I had been asked to take some photographs by Greens NSW MP John Kaye, who was hosting His Holiness at an event in the NSW Parliamentary Theatrette – the Dalai Lama in conversation with the ABC’s Andrew West, presented by Stuart Rees and the Sydney Peace Foundation.
The event was occurring due to some political brinkmanship between John Kaye, the Sydney Peace Foundation and Sydney University – the university having initially balked at the prospect of hosting the Dalai Lama, apparently due to some pressure from the Chinese government.
Sydney Uni eventually relented, deciding you’d think that the publicity from refusing to host the Dalai Lama was worse than the pressure they were getting from Beijing (or thereabouts). The event in NSW Parliament House went ahead anyway, and John’s staff asked me if I’d take the photos.
Having a decent camera gets you invited to all sorts of interesting things.
The night before I had the thought how wonderful it would be if I got to shake his hand? But I figured that I’d just be stuck behind the camera and he’d just talk to the “important people” and so I was primed and excited just about the experience of being within a couple of metres of the man.
But then he was down the stairs and into the theatrette foyer and shaking people’s hands – John first, then Stuart Rees from the Sydney Peace foundation. I took a couple of shots. I noticed the Dalai Lama had kept moving down the line towards me, shaking hands and saying hello to people.
My first instinct was to step back and away – who am I that the Dalai Lama would want to shake my hand? But then I thought fuck it and stayed in line and before I knew it he was in front of me and he reached his hand out and I took it. His hand was soft but his grip was sure. I said hi, my name is Mark, and I think he said something but by that point I was in a bit of a daze.
That daze continued. Everyone started shuffling around, getting into position for a photo. I’d spent the previous half hour checking out the lighting conditions in the Parliamentary Theatrette foyer (not ideal) and so got a decent shot reasonably quickly. Everyone then followed the Dalai Lama into the Theatrette. I followed, still dazed, taking more shots as he took the stage, greeted the crowd and the event began.
On the outside, I was operating mechanically – moving around the room, framing a shot, changing my camera’s settings to adjust to the light, taking a few shots, moving to another spot – while inside it felt like a flower was blooming, petals brushing against everything as they welcomed the sun.
The rest of my week was intensely surreal – the state budget being delivered and late-night parliamentary sessions, a wonderful new Greens MP being sworn into NSW parliament, fabulous policy and media outcomes coming from our office, networking drinks, being targeted by malicious trolling while a couple of long-term projects began to bear fruit – overriding everything feeling grateful, strengthened and close to overwhelmed by the kindness of my friends.
So much has been going on that on Saturday when I looked at what I’d scrawled on my to-do list during the week, I was surprised to see Dalai Lama written there.
I remembered I’d met him, I remembered starting writing this, and I remembered that feeling, so strongly that it’s not a memory it’s a feeling again.