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.