The Dalai Lama laughs

It is September 11, 2002. The National Cathedral in Washington, DC, United States is packed to capacity with Sisters of Charity in white and blue stripe, Buddhist monks in saffron robes, Catholic priests, and hordes of laypeople on folding chairs. Fans oscillate weakly across the audience, and programs are flapped in vain at sweating necks and faces. Outside, additional hordes bake on the lawn while squinting at giant video screens relaying indoor goings-on. There has been some singing, some praying, some talk of interfaith dialogue and tolerance, some mention of the tragedy one year before. It is all Important. The Dalai Lama is the featured speaker and so speaks, in English but mostly in Tibetan with his translator. After he has concluded his remarks, a fat bishop approaches with something red in his hands. He informs the Dalai Lama that he, as a representative of his diocese and of the Catholic faith in general, is presenting his Holiness with a small gift. And here is the ground zero of this August gathering, the moment from which all others spring forward and back. The Dalai Lama looks at the bishop as his translator echoes the words. And he laughs. He laughs the purest laugh this generation will hear. It is not joy at receiving the gift; it is joy that such a thing exists, that it has surprised him. The laugh flies at the speed of sound, free of the weight of mockery, bitterness or greed, from a soul fallible yet somehow perfect. It ripples from his throat, tickling first the rows of dignitaries and clergy, then on back to sisters, monks, general seating and lawn squatters. It cuts like a gamma ray through humidity, moods, dinner plans, note taking, and cathedral walls. The entire congregation laughs with the Dalai Lama, delighted and surprised at their involuntary but purifying laughter. In a few seconds it has faded and the ceremony and the sweating recommence until dispersal. Perhaps only a few notice that their lives have been bisected by this languageless round performed en masse, or that a mushroom cloud of joy rising from the nation’s capitol has left an invisible pinprick of light at its epicenter.

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