Painter and writer Pierre Delattre was raised in southern France and lives in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. A graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, he opened a coffeehouse called the Bread and Wine Mission in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood during the 1950s. The establishment became a gathering place for poets, actors, and musicians, a home base for Delattre’s street ministry and traveling theater, and a center for the Beat literary scene. The New York Times christened Delattre “the beatnik priest.” He has published three works of fiction, a book of essays, and a memoir. “Ten Conversations at Once” is from his book Tales of a Dalai Lama, a collection of fictional accounts of the Dalai Lama’s education in Tibetan Buddhism. Copyright © 1971 by Pierre Delattre. Used by permission of the author.


Except when he was very much into the holy hum of things so that nothing could knock him off course, the Dalai Lama disliked meeting with foreigners. They obviously thought that he regarded himself as a holy man, and they insisted on treating him as such. Trying to compensate for this misapprehension on their parts, he would lean over backward to be casual, to make small talk, to show that he could be as common, superficial, and even vulgar as the next fellow. Since he was none of these any more than he was a holy man, he would chastise himself for putting on a phony hail-fellow-well-met act during visits, especially from Europeans.

After a visit with Europeans, the inner soliloquy . . . would start up again, generated by the nagging question, Why do I always look for postures with these people?

Because when I start just being myself they start treating me with some kind of phony reverence. When I start being real, they start being phony, so I try to get phony to make them real. It’s a lost cause. Why do I bother? They don’t think I’m holy any more than I do. In fact, . . . they pretend to think me holier than they, confident that I’ll go along with the game, since I undoubtedly have the same opinion of myself. In fact, I couldn’t possibly have this opinion of myself, could I, since no holy man ever consciously thinks of himself as such. . . .

Troubled by such ruminations and by the fact that even a number of people in his own country suffered under the delusion that he was the holiest among them, he went to the roof of the Potala and up the ladder to the highest golden-domed cell, where lived the lama whom he considered holiest of all. This lama, who was called Great Hum, was no mere official incarnation of God. . . . He was much more than a sacred symbol trying diligently to become its own reality. The Great Hum was his own reality. He was neither more nor less than himself, neither happier nor sadder than himself, wiser nor more foolish than himself. He was exactly what he was.

There was no need for the Great Hum to change expressions on his face since a single expression could allow all moods to flow from it. Seriousness and humor, light and darkness, soul and spirit were all united in the evenness of his gaze. He could smile without moving his lips. Just when you thought his eyes were full of amusement, you would realize how utterly sad they were; and when you thought the sadness was on the verge of moving him to tears, you would perceive that he was feeling no deep emotions whatsoever but was only watching you with calm, purely intellectual curiosity; and when you had this perception well in mind so that you felt prepared to provide him with some detached answers to whatever questions he might wish to ask, it would dawn on you that he could not possibly be curious since he was all-knowing and there was nothing left for him to be curious about. Whether such omniscience made him supremely indifferent or passionately concerned was impossible to tell.

Finally you gave up trying to decipher the Great Hum’s expression, and you began to project your own feelings upon him. He absorbed these in a comforting way, letting his face appear as the image not of what you were but of what you would become if you continued on your present course — a realization that made you change your course with haste until you had given up desiring every stance in life that you could imagine as being desirable. You were left with no feelings for him to reflect, at which time his face would begin to withdraw from you into a kind of shadow until you could see only the vague slit where his mouth had been. The face would stay hidden, causing you to fear that it might disappear altogether without satisfying the absolute necessity you now felt for conversation with it. When you were entirely possessed by this sense of necessity, you would start to hear him hum and you would realize that he had been humming all along. Then he would emerge from his shadow. The hum would break down into words, and he would be speaking to you without ever opening his mouth.

This most holy of the teaching lamas was noted more sensationally for being able to carry on ten conversations at once. In his golden tower, he held audience for an hour every evening. He would sit facing the ten visitors, looking at none of them yet looking at them all by looking inward and finding them there within himself. . . . It was said of him that just as the ocean can dissolve into a drop of water so all men can dissolve into the Great Hum.

The Dalai Lama climbed the ladder and entered the dome of this same Great Hum. Already five others had seated themselves. One of these was a highly developed lama who could sing three notes at once, each note carrying a different conversation. Another could carry on two conversations, and the other three could carry on only one. This meant that eight conversations were already taking place. Since the Dalai Lama could carry on two, his arrival completed the number of visitors allowed, and he closed the door after him.

The golden dome was like a beehive, for all the conversations consisted of humming. Words were superfluous.

The humming of the Dalai Lama sounded more like a groan. . . . “I accuse myself of being a fakir who tricks people into seeing God with faces that are nothing but grotesque masks. I’m afraid that my father might get drunk one night and give away the trick. Then all the people of Tibet will know that I’m not God, and the country will fall into despair. I try to let them know that I’m only a boy from the country with a certain amount of religious education and a lucky streak. . . . But they insist on treating my act as a reality. The more I try to act like I’m not holy, the holier everybody thinks I am.”

“The magicians and the storytellers,” answered the Great Hum, “open us up to wonder with their tricks. We are lured into the eternal reality by well-timed illusion, for illusions appear as enticing emanations from around that oval into which all faces vanish when ego surrenders to the mystifying Self. . . . You accuse yourself of being two-faced. Look at me.”

The Great Hum was transforming himself into an old woman, a beautiful girl, a fierce warrior, a child . . . yet the voice remained the same as it went on to say, “Once you’re free from bondage to your face, you’ll be able to take on as many faces as you like. . . . The more faces you assume, the more your expression will remain the same. Eventually, when you try to resemble me, as you are doing now, you will find that I have come to resemble you instead. But you have much to learn before then. You are faced with contradictory feelings about your role and will remain so until you can assume any mask the world places upon you and wear it with ease. Only then will your own divine countenance shine through. . . .”

While one of the Dalai Lama’s voices was talking to the Great Hum about faces, the other was talking about voices. “My top voice,” said the boy king, “is very cultured and polite. It serves to hide the sensitivities that I need to protect. This voice keeps the silence secret, screens my meditating self from the petty and persistent interruptions of curiosity seekers. My lower voice has to do with the powerful bottom desires and the private urges to become a bodhisattva.”

“Quite right,” said the Great Hum. “Religious ceremonials should be surrounded by clowns. The mask must do parodies of the face beneath it, lest the sacred be profaned and the immortal confound itself with mortality. There’s an old saying about the public domain: ‘If you’re going to do anything serious, make sure you’ve got the tourists laughing; and when they stop laughing let the humor begin.’ Have you heard any good stories lately? The old monk on your left has been telling me two funny stories at once while his middle voice whispers about God.”

The Dalai Lama was embarrassed. He could not think of a single funny story to tell the Great Hum. “Wisest of Us All,” he murmured, “forgive me, for I can think of nothing that would make you laugh.”

“I’m laughing already,” said the Great Hum, “so relax. I’ve been laughing ever since you came in. So much of what you talk about is pure clowning. I know that one of your voices is down in the chapel talking to God, but the louder one is up here on the roof playing games with virtuoso religious ideas and amusing itself with psychological analyses of its ambiguous self. I know that your voice of voices . . . cares nothing for how many faces or voices it has but only for the continuing beauty of the cosmos. Unless you perfect your style, few people will hear this voice. Try on all the masks you like, speak in as many voices as you can. Someday you’ll be able to carry on ten conversations at once just as I do. Then you can come up here all alone, and we can talk face to face, voice to voice, one to one, a single presence with nothing to hide.”