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The Dalai Lama had just answered the last question on my list. We were coming to the end of my fourth interview with him for a magazine story. Like most who talk to him, I felt I’d met an exceptional human being and was inspired as much as awed. It was hard to pinpoint why. He answered my questions in a businesslike manner, but he did so in a way that made me wonder at the untapped possibility inside each of us.

Outside in the sunshine, a loud flock of mynah birds swooped through the forest that surrounds his small bungalow on a hilltop above the plains of India. He has purposely not re-created the pomp and splendor of the Potala in Lhasa since he fled his homeland in 1959 after the Chinese invasion. He calls himself a simple Buddhist monk, and there is a Zen-like sparseness to the rooms he inhabits in exile.

He adjusted his wine-red robe, and his rich brown eyes calmly stared at me, waiting for my next question. I brushed my sweaty palms across my jacket and looked at the blank half of the page, below my prepared questions. I summoned my courage and explained that although I am not a historian, I wanted to write a history of Tibet.

He looked at me quizzically. “There are excellent academic histories of Tibet,” I explained, “but what is lacking is a popular history of Tibet—aimed at modern Westerners and Chinese—that is accurate, concise, and easy to read. You told me two years ago, in our first meeting, that Tibetan history is complex. You sounded despondent, as if it was impossible to explain Tibet’s history to the average person. The way you said that haunted me, and since then I found myself reading everything available about Tibetan history. It is not impossible. I want to strip away the complexity and reveal the heart of the matter. I think that by focusing on your viewpoint of Tibetan history, this could be achieved. Most people will not read an academic history about Tibet, and they don’t care what I think about Tibetan history, but they do want to know what you think about this history.”

He continued to look at me, waiting.

“Would you work with me so I can write a popular history of Tibet?” I asked. “You know that no Dalai Lama has written a history of Tibet since the 1600s.”

I had interviewed him four times previously over several years, so he knew that I was passionate and often frank enough to be rude. He seemed to find my impertinence refreshing or amusing, if only because so many others are formal and reverential with him. He also knew that I was an American writer and photographer who had lived in Nepal for the past twenty-seven years. What else did he see as he looked at me in silence for the next ten seconds? Whatever summation he made, it was made quickly. “Yes, that would be a very important work. I will do that with you. Though I do not have the time to write such a history myself.” “I could interview you, as you have time,” I replied eagerly, “and then write a book that presented your viewpoint. I would also present summaries from the historic consensus and the viewpoints of others who may agree with you or contradict what you say. It would require many hours of interviews.”

A secretary was sitting in on the interview. He made a sudden disapproving noise—sucking his breath in through his nearly closed lips—and interjected, “Your Holiness, your schedule is so full I do not see how we could find the time for . . .”

Still looking directly at me, the Dalai Lama said, “It is important work. We will find the time. He is living in Nepal. It is close. He can come here as we have time. Yes?”

“Yes sir. I am happy to come here as you have time,” I said.

“It should be easy to read, but it must also be true,” he replied.

“Yes, that is my goal,” I said.

“It is easy to talk about, but it will be hard work for you,” the Dalai Lama said.

Over the course of the next seventeen months, I traveled to Dharamsala whenever the Dalai Lama had time to see me. He is a monk and has spent his life studying Buddhism, not history.

“Actually, I am not very interested in history,” the Dalai Lama told me initially, “mainly because I don’t know too much. When I was young, my teachers did not make any special effort to teach me about Tibetan history. I was trained as any ordinary monk at that time; my curriculum was devoted to Buddhist philosophy. As a boy, I learned about history from paintings and people talking, from world events. But it was not a subject I studied. After the Chinese invasion, after I left Tibet in 1959, I grew more interested in history. But I want to make it clear I am not a historian. In some cases I don’t even know the details.”

He laughs at the absurdity of the situation. The Dalai Lama’s laughter is infectious, one of the first things I learned from working with him. It rumbles up from deep in his belly, beginning as a low note that shakes his whole body. By the time it reaches his face—and he takes off his glasses to wipe the tears away—high-pitched laughter, mine included, fills the room.

When we are both composed again, he continues.

“My teachers did not spend the time to teach me about history. But if someone asks my interpretation, then of course I have my own opinion. Sometimes I think my opinion could be sharper than others’.” The frustration that crossed my face at his apparent contradiction amused him and he laughed again.

It was impossible not to join in, but even as I did so, I began to realize there would be obstacles to overcome in trying to bridge the gap between his beliefs as a Tibetan monk and my own beliefs as a Western journalist.