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Shopping for the Dalai Lama

When a Krispy Kreme franchise opened in Medford earlier this year, few people thought the town could top the pageantry of that event anytime soon. So news that the Dalai Lama would be stopping by a Medford Buddhist temple last Friday generated quite a buzz ó not all of it positive. Hank Peirce, a local clergyman, attended a town meeting a week before the visit, and found himself calming the nerves of a jittery populace, many of whom were haunted by visions of trampled flower beds and mangled bus schedules. Peirce, meanwhile, was harboring some serious misgivings of his own.

A minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, Peirce, 37, had been chosen to greet the Tibetan holy man on behalf of the townís clergy ó a task which involved presenting him with some sort of offering. "We were told youíre not supposed to go to the Dalai Lama empty-handed," Peirce explained the day before the visit. He was speaking on his cell phone from Davis Square, where he was concluding a long, fruitless search for a suitable gift for the Buddha incarnate.

"Iím driving myself nuts," he said. "What do you get the man who has nothing?"

Itís not like Peirce didnít have ideas. For weeks, his friends had bombarded him with suggestions ó from socks to ties to wind chimes. None of them seemed quite right. One person proposed a pair of Birkenstocks. "Iím not gonna get the guy some stupid hippie shoes," the reverend replied. "Besides, I donít know what his shoe size is." Another advised a Red Sox shirt with DALAI LAMA on the back. "What number would I put on it?" Peirce asked. "A zero?"

For Peirce, the most important thing was to get the Dalai Lama something tasteful. For this reason, he rejected the suggestion of a makeover ó "Oh yeah, Queer Eye for the Buddhist Guy." Likewise, the T-shirt that read WHAT WOULD BUDDHA DO? was a non-starter. He thought about gifts that captured the flavor of Medford. But what? "There used to be Medford rum and Medford crackers," he lamented. "But the townís not famous for anything anymore. Do I say, ĎHereís a coupon for a nail saloní? ĎA cheese-steak subí? I think heís a vegetarian."

Peirceís quest was further complicated by the fact that he didnít want to be ostentatious. "You donít want to be like, ĎI present you with this jewel-encrusted clock,í" he said. "You donít want to be too full of yourself. And you donít want to spend too much money." He paused for a moment. "Thereís a watch I found outside my church. I could give it to him and say, ĎHere, I found this.í But then someone might come in looking for it and Iíd have to say, ĎOh, I gave that to the Dalai Lama.í" As he spoke, the shops were closing around him.

The next morning, Peirce had made peace with the fact that he would have nothing to offer the Dalai Lama but a warm smile and a short speech. "If God had meant me to give him something," he thought as he arrived at the rendezvous point, "Iíd have something." Then he saw a friend of his in the crowd. "Here," the friend said, holding out an orange knit cap. Seconds later, Peirce overheard a small boy saying, "Itís colder here than it is in India. The Dalai Lamaís going to get sick!"

When Peirce was eventually presented to His Holiness, he handed him the woolly cap, explaining that it was a gift from the children of Medford, who were concerned for his health. There were a few excruciating moments before the Dalai Lama took the hat, put it on, and, grinning broadly, turned toward a bank of photographers. "Look in the papers tomorrow," Peirce said afterward. "Youíll probably see the Dalai Lama wearing my hat."

Issue Date: September 19 - 25, 2003
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