The curious case of Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama's scarf

By Mick Brown, The Telegraph, Jan 27, 2009

London, UK -- In an intriguing footnote to the inauguration last week of President Barack Obama, Buddhist web-sites have been buzzing with the story that as he was being sworn in, Obama was carrying in his pocket a kata, or ceremonial scarf, that had come from the Dalai Lama.

<< Then Senator Obama - wearing a 'kata' -  with the Dalai Lama (filepic)

The story seems to have originated from an e-mail allegedly sent by Richard Blum, the financier husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, to the Dalai Lama's envoy Lodi Gyari. Blum is the chairman of the American Himalayan Foundation, which supports environmental, healthcare and education projects inside and outside Tibet.

In the alleged e-mail Blum writes

'Dear Lodi:

...You will be delighted to know that I had a kata at my house that His Holiness had given me. I offered it to President Obama before the ceremony. I said that I could get it delivered to him later. He said, no, that he was going to take it and have it with him; in fact, it was in his pocket when he was sworn-in. Please let His Holiness know. I'll talk to you soon.

Best personal regards,

A kata is a white silk scarf that traditionally signifies respect, goodwill and compassion. It is customary when meeting Tibetan lamas to offer a scarf, and be given one in return. Reactions on the Buddhist sites that Obama had one in his pocket, and from the Dalai Lama no less, range from undiluted joy to a certain peevishness - well, as peevish as Buddhists get, which as a rule is not very - that the President failed to include them in his inauguration speech when he spoke of America as 'a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers'. According to the American Religious Identity Survey Buddhism is the fifth largest belief system in America, although several correspondents raise the point that, strictly speaking, it's not a religion at all, but a non-theistic philosophy.

Obama and the Dalai Lama clearly admire and respect each other. They met in 2005 at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee briefing, and Obama included a photograph taken at that event in the media section of his presidential campaign website.

When the Dalai Lama visited America last July, Obama sent a note apologising that his schedule precluded another meeting, but stressing his support for the Dalai Lama and 'the rights of Tibetans'. For his part, the Dalai Lama sent a warmly congratulatory letter following Obama's election victory commending him on his 'moral courage' and his 'kind heart and steady hand' . (Scrupulously non-partisan, earlier this month the Dalai Lama told a surprised audience that while he did not approve of all his policies 'I love George Bush'. But hey, he's the Dalai Lama. It's his job to love everybody.)

But is the story of the kata true? Oddly, nobody seems to have checked. But at least I tried. When I contacted Richard Blum's office I left a detailed message on the voice-mail of his p.a. When she failed to respond I called again and was told, yes she'd got the message. But she still didn't respond. I'm still waiting. The White House press office were similarly unforthcoming. One telephone enquiry and two follow-up e-mails failed to elicit so much as a simple acknowledgement, let alone an answer.

You could read this one of three ways. Either the story is so fanciful that nobody wants to dignify it with a comment ('The President had a what in his pocket...?'). Or it's not true. Or it's true and nobody wants to confirm it. One can see this might cause some confusion among the more deluded fringes of the evangelical right, who during the election campaign were busy propagating the canard that Obama was an Islamic fifth columnist with a hidden agenda of introducing Sharia law into America. (So he's a Christian, a Muslim and a Buddhist?)

One can also see it would be an interesting topic of conversation when the President meets the Chinese premier. But then again, on the day in which Obama extends an olive branch to the Muslim world, what better thing to have in his pocket than a symbol of goodwill and compassion that transcends the boundaries of race or faith?