Probably the single most memorable experience of my three-decade acquaintance with the Dalai Lama, which I explore in my biography, came when he invited me to attend a ceremony at which he was to consult with the Tibetan government’s advisers on the supernatural. This took the form of a séance where he would seek the counsel of the mighty Dorje Drakden and three other deities. I was surprised that, even as the ceremony to invoke the deities began, even as they recited their rosaries, many of those in attendance (I was the only inji, or European) chatted quietly with one another. It was certainly not the hushed reverence I was expecting.

Shades of calm: the Dalai Lama visits the Taj Mahal, in Agra, India.

As the first of the mediums sank more and more deeply into trance, urged on by the impossible bass of the umze, or cantor, and the sonorous chanting of the choir—itself accompanied by the beat, first steady, then mounting, of the monastic orchestra’s drums—the medium’s improbably large and ornate headdress (weighing, I am told, something like 30 pounds—far less, though, than in days of old) was brought out by two attendants. As they placed it on his head and one of them deftly tied the chin strap while the medium, no longer in full control of his limbs, tried vainly to help, I could not help but think of a Swiss laboratory.

About Time

I had once joked to the Dalai Lama that, on asking my Tibetan-language tutor to give me a cognate term for the South American mañana—I’d gone on to explain its meaning—he’d told me there was no word in the Tibetan language that could convey quite such a degree of urgency. Here, though, was proof that, when it really mattered, Tibetans could be just as efficient as any Teuton. Seeing that the chin strap was not quite perfectly done, one of the attendants re-tied it while the other brought the accoutrements: a sword and a bow. (In olden times, there would have been arrows too.) But in all this, to the accompaniment now of horn—the famed gang ling, fashioned from human thighbone—and oboe, and to the thrill of cymbals trembling, then crashed together, the medium’s attendants worked slickly, unhurriedly, and with attentive precision.

When it really mattered, Tibetans could be just as efficient as any Teuton.

It was only when the spirit had finally taken full possession that there was any sense, either among the audience or the attendants, that here before us was the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the mystery in the face of which the onlooker stands in awe—that I had expected all along. And even now, the Dalai Lama, who had remained sitting quietly, occasionally chanting, occasionally lowering his eyes in prayer, looked on with perfect serenity, as if there were nothing remotely unusual to see.

A portrait of the Dalai Lama as a (very) young man.

It took me many years to understand the meaning of this calm indifference in the face of what was, after all—or was it not?—an irruption of the supernatural into the natural order. It was a totally matter-of-fact continuity of the two. From the Tibetan perspective, what we call supernatural is only what is usually unavailable to the senses, nothing more. There is no sharp divide between natural and supernatural, as we generally suppose.

When we understand this, we can understand what the Dalai Lama means when he says that Dorje Drakden was affectionate and attentive to him when he was a child—“If he noticed I had dressed carelessly or improperly, he would come over and rearrange my shirt, adjust my robe and so on.” And it explains what the Dalai Lama meant when, in response to a question of mine about whether, for example, the U.S. and England have their own protector deities, he replied, emphatically, “Yes. They are there, whether they are acknowledged or not.”

Alexander Norman’s The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life is out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt