It is a cloudy day in August 2008 in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of southern France. Hundreds of people dressed in their best party clothes line both sides of a narrow country road. Most of them hold a khata — a long white scarf, presented as a ceremonial offering to Tibetan dignitaries. A rainbow array of prayer flags flutter, and the breeze catches plumes of fragrant juniper smoke rising from pot-bellied stoves placed at intervals along the route.
A ripple of excitement runs through the crowd as a procession comes into view. As it approaches some people wave, others bow with hands clasped in the prayer gesture, others offer their khatas, holding them at arm’s length towards a small, elderly man wearing maroon monastic robes and a huge smile. Even at a distance he radiates charisma. He has acquired unique status on the world stage as the man who loves everyone — and many people nowadays accept that the joy on his face originates from a genuinely open heart. As he passes, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, reaches out to touch members of his adoring fan club.
The Dalai Lama strides alongside Carla Bruni Sarkozy at the head of a cluster of monks, security men and journalists, towards a multi-coloured, ornate portico. A monastic band strikes up. Monks in their red and yellow robes and ceremonial hats play shawms – oboe-like instruments that wail like the wind in a Himalayan storm. They lead the proceedings that set in motion the inauguration of the largest, most grandiose Tibetan temple in the developed world.
Sheltered by the portico, Carla Sarkozy stands apart from the crowd – tall and elegant in a dark couture dress. She too holds a khata. Another figure sidles up beside her. He is short, balding, obese and clothed in a floor-length mustard yellow robe – a chuba — lay rather than monastic Tibetan attire. His manner is obsequious, he is bowed in deference but his face tells the phalanx of TV cameras, forest of microphones and those present in person that this is his finest hour. Here he is, Sogyal Lakar from a remote region of Tibet, introducing the Dalai Lama to the First Lady of France.
Sogyal is recognised as a tulku (re-incarnate lama) and is known as Rinpoche, which means precious one in Tibetan. He is the second best known lama on the Tibetan landscape and he too is idolised by thousands of followers who belong to Rigpa, his organisation active in France with six centres and six study groups and in 24 countries around the world.
Carla Sarkozy appears somewhat awe-struck. With a shy smile she offers her khata to the Dalai Lama. His big smile broadens even further as, according to Tibetan custom, he accepts the scarf and then returns it to the donor — draping it tastefully around Carla’s neck.
A day of elaborate ritual follows, with the Dalai Lama tasting salt, tossing flower petals and cutting multi coloured ribbons draped across the temple doors, before entering to perform the consecration ceremony.
Once inside, more celebrities step out to meet the world’s A list holy man – French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Rama Yade, Secretary of State for Human Rights and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe. As the Dalai Lama moves inside the enormous building decorated with extreme oriental flamboyance, other public figures are on tenterhooks for their brief moment of eye contact with His Holiness. A famous actress here, an author there, more politicians – and a cluster of clerics, including Claude Azema, the auxilliary Bishop of Montpelier.
The name of the place is Lerab Ling, which means Sanctuary of Enlightened Action. Sogyal Rinpoche chose this name in honour of Lerab Lingpa, a 19th century Tibetan Buddhist master Sogyal claims as his predecessor.
So how did a 63 year old man in poor health, who left his native Tibet when he was only a small child, and had only a basic education in India, come to be the head of a multi-national organisation with tentacles in five continents? How did he manage to raise 10 million Euros to build a huge temple in southern France? And then persuade the wife of the President to provide the media focus for the opening day?