Guidelines for meeting the Dalai Lama

Guidelines for meeting the Dalai Lama

A photograph of a February meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama sparked some interest:

The subtext of the single photograph of the meeting, released by the White House, was clear to anyone familiar with Buddhist, Asian or Chinese iconography, literate or not: it showed the President speaking to the Dalai Lama with his right hand raised, much as in the teaching mudra used to show the Buddha preaching to his disciples; while the Dalai Lama, like an attentive pupil, has turned to listen, so that his eyes cannot be seen.

You see:

The most famous visual record of any encounter between the Tibetan pontiff and a worldly ruler is the mural in the Potala Palace that depicts the 5th Dalai Lama meeting the Qing Emperor Shunzhi in 1653. The Chinese authorities misread that powerful image in the past: they reproduced it in the 1980s in innumerable postcards and propaganda books because it shows the Emperor sitting on a slightly higher throne than his Tibetan visitor—until they discovered that all Tibetans and any Buddhist could see that the mural shows that the Dalai Lama has his right hand raised and is clearly teaching his imperial disciple.

But, unthinkable:

[E]ven for the most secular Tibetans, the White House photograph is puzzling: it shows the President with his legs crossed, unthinkable casualness for a Chinese or Tibetan leader. And then there’s the tea: the photograph shows a tea-cup and a cookie in front of the Dalai Lama, while the President has neither, an unmistakable sign that the President did not deign to drink with his visitor.

Etiquette: endlessly fascinating; boundless in its ability to baffle.