Eighteen years ago, I interviewed the Dalai Lama on the very morning that every news outlet on the planet ran the story of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. It made headlines from the New York Times to the Hindustan Times, where I was camped out in Dharamsala, India at what felt like an upscale hotel to me at the time, hovering as I was between the backpacker I’d been in my 20s and the 30-year-old who had recently taken a liking to private hot showers.
The night before my interview I did not yet know about Clinton and Lewinsky – nor, presumably, did His Holiness. I had been on a journey of all things Tibetan for two months, going from the refugee center outside of Kathmandu where newly arrived refugees stay until they are healthy enough to move to Dharamsala (many suffer frostbite so severe during their month-long walk that they lose limbs or skin. Many, in fact, lose their lives). From Kathmandu we flew to Lhasa. One afternoon, we saw a Tibetan man beaten on his calves with a white stick by a police officer, as several other officers watched. When they spied us gaping, they dragged him out of sight around a corner.
We’d planned to drive from Lhasa back to Nepal – a five-day journey on a single road by four wheel drive at the time – but three days into the drive we learned heavy rains had washed out huge chunks of the road when we nearly drove directly into a mountain of mud with chunks of road the size of boulders. We sat there for several hours as if some well-stocked construction crew might happen by out there in the middle of the stark, uninhabited mountains of western Tibet. Finally, our driver put the car in reverse and went backwards down the curvy mountain road for a good twenty or thirty minutes while we white-knuckled the dashboard and held our breath; after a while he was able to turn the car around properly and head back toward Lhasa, where we managed to fly back to Kathmandu, and then on to Dharamsala. By the time we arrived– weeks behind schedule – the Dalai Lama had just returned from a Portugal trip, which was a stroke of pure dumb luck on our part.
So I wrote him a note. Like a high school kid. A harried scribble on notebook paper in green pen, asking for an interview. This detail stays with me because of its informality, its utter lack of pretension, yes, but also its blatant amateurism. I was a freelancer and had done very few notable stories yet. This trip would mark a turning point in my career, not only because a call at my hotel later that afternoon granted me the interview, but also because I managed to report on my most difficult story to date: the forced sterilizations of Tibetan women.
The day of the interview, I woke early. The cleanest clothes I had in my olive green backpack included a black and white fish sarong, trekker sandals, and an orange “Life is Good” t-shirt. Slid under the hotel door was that day’s Hindustan Times, where a bold headline declared “Clinton Admits to Improper Relationship.” My heart dropped. Please don’t let the Dalai Lama read this headline, I prayed. (I feared he’d cancel the interview for some reason, put all Americans in some sort of immoral zone of no conduct). We arrived an hour early to go through security, which involved two sets of metal detectors, a bag check, and a pat down behind a curtained off corner of the room, where a Tibetan woman asked us a series of security questions. Where had we traveled and why, where had we stayed and for how long? Already, the afternoon before, I’d been summoned to the monastery where I had to submit my questions in advance to his secretaries, who then said to limit myself to two questions given their boss’s penchant for verbosity (his answers were “very thorough” is how it was put to me. Ever the vigilant journalist, I came prepared with three).
By the time I was led to the where the Dalai Lama stood flanked by his two secretaries, my body shook from nerves. What had I gotten myself into? I wasn’t Connie Chung, arriving with her gear, her entourage. I was a nobody, walking up in trekkers beside a photographer, who also happened to be my best friend, Ann — equally underdressed for the occasion in hiking pants, a gray t-shirt, and boots. My prepared questions covered Pakistan and India’s nuclear testing, and President Clinton’s visit to Beijing, both of which had happened earlier that summer. And both things, if I’m honest, I couldn’t have cared less about (except in a purely existential sense – as in, please let’s not nuke each other). What I really wondered – what Ann and I had stayed up late discussing, and what I later wrote about for Salon – was whether the Dalai Lama was a great man because he embodied greatness organically, or whether he was a great man because so many people elevated him to this.
Much of what surprised me about Dalai Lama I’ve long since written. How he was taller than I expected – maybe 5’9. How he was gruff initially, and yanked me by the hand so hard into the interviewing room that there were indentations from my own knuckles. How I’d mumbled through my first question about nuclear testing, and he’d given some rehearsed this or that answer which totally escapes me today. And how, by the time I got to my second question, ten minutes in, I was shaking so visibly I could hear my paper rattling, and my voice tremor. “Clinton,” I began, “I have to ask you…”
“Oh,” he leaned forward suddenly, gave me a half nod, and whispered, “you mean L-E-W-I-N-S-K-Y?”
It stopped me cold. By that time of the morning, I’d forgotten entirely about the foibles of my president. The Dalai Lama brought me back so abruptly that I yelped – unfortunately, I know this because I have it on tape. A clear unequivocal yelp. The irony was immediate: I’m interviewing the world’s most famously celibate man while discussing the world’s most famously unfaithful. The cigar. The blue dress. It all came to me in a rush, and I immediately diverted the question of Clinton’s visit to China entirely. “Now that you mention it,” I began, and we began to howl with laughter. We laughed even harder when I offered up a lame apology “on behalf of my president and of the American people.” Really. I said this. My president and the American people. As if I was some sort of moral ambassador.
The Clinton/Lewinsky affair feels almost quaint, now, given today’s political vitriol. In an age of terrorism, of ISIS, of toxic divisiveness, of severe economic disparity, of failing unions and wars on women, of police shootings of young Black men, of Boko Haram and floods of refugees, what in the hell does anyone care about a blow job?
The Lewinsky/Clinton affair broke the ice with the Dalai Lama. Suddenly, we were laughing, talking like old pals. I wrote about how he thought Americans were both smart and spoiled, about how he’d looked at me, after a time, and asked me about Tibet and how it was only then, nearly an hour into our talk, that I realized why I’d been granted this interview at all. I was one of the few journalists who met him having just days earlier come from the place he yearned to return. I hadn’t been given an interview with the Dalai Lama; the Dalai Lama had wanted an interview with me.
I told him what I’d seen. That the monks carry thumb-sized pictures of him tucked in their robes. That the Chinese military do maneuvers at dawn outside his old winter palace, the Potala. That the mountains still look like giant cloth napkins, draped from the sky. That the lakes and rivers glittered like sequins in a way I’d never seen. How yak butter tea was the most vile thing I’d ever tasted. he gave me a coin when we finished, from a trunk of Tibetan money he’d escaped with in 1959 and which hadn’t been in circulation since. Much of this I’ve told and retold, written and rewritten.
He asked me about my religion, and I told him my mother had been Jewish, but died when I was eight, and my father had been an Evangelical Christian who raised us in a house so severe, so rigid in its rules and its admonitions – no secular music, no secular television, no secular books, church three times a week, private Christian school – that it had turned me off to any kind of formal religion, a fact which still holds true today. I cannot enter a church without physically recoiling, without feeling it as a clench in my abdomen, a shortening of my breath. I spent a month in Italy with Ann some years ago, and she wanted to visit the soaring cathedrals, to take a meditative moment in their quiet afternoon sanctuaries. To San Ciriaco in Ancona, San Lorenzo and San Pietro in Perugia, to tiny San Settimio in Jesi. And I tried. I tried to separate exploration from upbringing, experience from association. Tried to find the peace inside them, to remember how they were – along with everything else – a symbol of human ingenuity and imagination. But I could not, and I’d go and wait for her on the sidewalks outside.
So I told him this brief bit of my childhood and then I said to him, “I’m sorry, but I could never be Buddhist.” Even then. Even him. The minute I said this, I felt an instant shame that I could not rise above the treachery of my own past for this moment, not even in the presence of this man.
And he said to me: “It is as important to know what you are not, as what you are.”
I went on from that day and built my career covering more and more stories of terrible violence, of what we are capable of doing to one another, but also of what we can endure and survive. The forced sterilization story was the first in what would become a career covering horrific stories. I wrote about natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and the Asian Tsunami in Indonesia. Stood atop mounds of dried dirt that contained the remnants of lives: broken furniture and schoolbooks and sometimes bodies. I covered gang rape and homicide and violent trauma, a woman whose husband threw a blanket over her head and duct-taped her around the neck, a father who’d slit the throats of his children’s family pets, kids who lived in the Bucharest sewers deep underground. I spent an entire summer interviewing a man who’d killed his family with a barbell. I do not look at these stories as simply dark, but as possibilities for light to penetrate. Why do you cover what you cover, I am so often asked. My father has asked me. Other relatives. Friends. Audiences. Why, why, why.
Because I believe in the power and possibility of change, is what I say most often. Which is true. But what I don’t say and what is equally true is this: because I understand despair.
There is not a victim or perpetrator of any crime anywhere on this planet who does not understand despair. It travels beyond cultures, beyond languages and geographies, beyond class and economics.
I understood despair from losing my mother. I understood despair from living inside a proscribed doctrine that barred me from most of the world. I understood despair from raging and fighting, trying to eradicate my teenage self with drugs and alcohol so completely that I was booted first from high school, and then from my father’s house when I was sixteen. I lived in my car. I lived on friend’s couches. I slept with anyone who even bothered to glance at me. When James Baldwin wrote, “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose,” I thought he was channeling a future me.
And then, one day, I was given a second chance, accepted to a college even though I only had a GED, and I built a life in which despair was not the overriding emotion, a life in which I did in fact have something to lose.
In 2003, I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and stayed there for six years. And in those years, I’d listen as the monks wandered by asking for alms, or as they’d blare prayers into their tinny speakers for the deceased, or the married, or the ancestors. I’d watch as my neighbor, Ieng Sary, one of the architects of the Cambodian genocide who would later be put on trial, would back his Toyota Camry out of his gated house and go off into the city, and his neighbors – the former victims of his terrible crimes – would go about their tasks without even so much as a glance in his direction. How such dichotomies can exist side by side is something I would ponder for years – the victims and the criminals, the innocents and the executioners, how love and violence can coexist so easily. (“How could they forgive him?” I am always asked. My answer is, “Who says they did?”). I would come to understand that the pagoda wasn’t like the churches of my youth, where the world was kept at bay, but instead was like the heartbeat of the world, the fulcrum from which everything else emanated. I’d watch as my landlord’s family went to the pagoda on Pchum Ben to honor the dead with offerings, and Ieng Sary would go, too. I’d watch the pagoda come to my street and set up enormous tents for days on end, blocking traffic, in order to pay homage to the newly deceased with early morning prayers, and meals throughout the day. The pagoda would march down streets in ceremonies. The pagoda would bless marriages, children, families, new years. The pagoda was not something to believe in or not believe in the same way that evil and good exist without demanding our belief in them; instead the pagoda was like the tide, always there minute by minute, second by second, sometimes taking up your entire view, and sometimes simply, quietly in the background.
Several months after I gave birth to my daughter, I took her to a pagoda across the Sap River in Phnom Penh on the anniversary of my mother’s death. The pagoda was shaped like a golden boat. My Khmer was not fluent enough for me to talk about why I was there, on that October 7th, but I took three incense sticks from the woman sitting near the altar, and I folded some riel notes into her hand as payment, and I lit the incense and I bowed, pressing my hands to my forehead. I was not bowing to Buddha, or to God, or to any sentient being. I was bowing to the memory of a woman I barely knew and yet yearned for every day of my life, in the same way that the Dalai Lama had learned to live without his home country, but yearned for it all the same. I breathed in the incense while my husband held our infant daughter. The quiet in the afternoon heat felt like a shield. In the distance I could hear giggling children splashing in the river, the deep thunk of water buffalo bells, distant chattering in Khmer. I kneeled there, my forehead pressed to the cool tiles, for a long while, and when I righted myself, the woman nodded at me and I could see that she understood something.
Since that day, I have sometimes sought out pagodas. Once, in Korea, I had a writing conundrum I could not figure my way out of, and I went to a pagoda and I kneeled there trying to empty my mind, focus my frenetic thoughts, and my father – who happened to be with me (we were in Korea for my brother’s wedding) said, “What? Are you a Buddhist now?”
“No,” I told him. But I also could not say what I was. I am a believer. I believe in quiet. I believe in stillness. I believe in my own kind of messy, individual, disorganized religion. I do not like people by day – I am hermetic to an extreme – but I am the most connected socializer I know by night. “No,” I might have said to my father. “I am not a Buddhist. I am not a Christian. I am not a Jew. I am not a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Zoroastrian. I am nothing. I am everything.”
At the Korean pagoda, there was a monk who’d studied for some years in Michigan and I spoke with him, told him I was wrestling with a problem. I recounted some of my time in Cambodia, and how I loved the quiet of an afternoon in a pagoda. I asked him if he had any advice. “I do not know the specifics of your problem,” he said, “but I can say that it is best to never put yourself in a position where you have only two possible outcomes.”
It was, in fact, perhaps the greatest piece of advice I have ever gotten.
Another way to say, there is always a third path.
What might I say to the Dalai Lama today? I am still not Buddhist. But I believe in Buddhism, and I do not find this paradoxical. I have thought often of the violence he has endured as a human, and a leader, and the violence I have covered as a journalist. Thought of what we’ve survived, all of us, the great chaotic mass of us, how I think he would understand if I told him the criminals, the perpetrators of violence need to be heard as much as the victims, maybe more since so few people are interested in what they have to say. And how this very attitude, I believe, was planted in me that afternoon in 1998, when the Dalai Lama answered my question on what exactly he thought of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair.
“You Americans,” he said. “Always concerned over such minor matters.”
Because after that day, I have tried very hard to not concern myself with minor matters. Have tried to take risks, to listen to the stories of those who often don’t get a chance to speak, to create a life in which I have something – quite a lot, in fact – to lose.
I am not Buddhist, I would say to him again, even now, 18 years later.
I am not Buddhist. I’d say it without shame.
I am not Buddhist.
I am not —
I am –
And he would understand.
Rachel Louise Snyder’s work has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times magazine. Her books include Fugitive Denim and the novel What We’ve Lost is Nothing and she teaches journalism and creative writing at American University in Washington, DC.