How I Treated The Dalai Lama
Back in those days Cleveland was a steel town. It was before the
mills shut down. I was just starting out in private practice and
I still had an office at University Hospitals. It was down in the
basement in what used to be a broom closet twenty years earlier.
Even today, hospitals are busy converting broom closets into
I went there every Thursday for chest clinic. I saw all kinds of
strange cases. People with the fixed delusion that they had lung
cancer. “It’s a way out, doc, ain’t it? Good as any,” said one
fellow who’d been working at Jones and Laughlin for forty years.
People who wouldn’t stop smoking even when they were already on
oxygen. One lady actually did manage to blow herself up.
A young woman who had asthma and would put herself to sleep by
wrapping the belt of her bathrobe around her neck and then pulling
until she passed out. She told this story to one of the pulmonary
guys. He took her by the hand and led her to my office. I don’t
think I’ve ever seen a more delighted look on a patient’s face.
But all this is really beside the point, just background. It was
one of those cold days in November a week or so before Thanksgiving
when the year is beginning to wind down and the clouds off the lake
looked like they were freighted with lead. Pete McCorkle said he
had an interesting case for me to see.
Pete had a reputation as a pretty good diagnostician. He didn’t exactly
think like the rest of the guys. He was a big fellow, about six feet four
inches, with a blank distracted look on his face, as if he were always thinking
about something else, not the matter at hand.
“Stay on the soft mushy ground,” Pete used to advise the residents,
who had no idea, for the most part, what the hell he was talking
about. “When you retreat to hard ground, that’s when you get into
trouble. That’s when you start killing people.”
Pete had even, if not a certain affinity for psychiatry, then at
least a tolerance for it, which, given the mind set of his medical
colleagues, already represented a real measure of social deviance.
Around this time he was going through a divorce, something no one
ever expected of him, behaving just like a teen-ager and romancing
three different women at once, including one who had been born in
Patagonia. So he was particularly open to the world around him.
Pete came slouching into my door. It was an impressive slouch, by
any standards, particularly when it was framed in the doorway of a
room whose true vocation was to be a broom closet. He didn’t look
much different than usual, except maybe he was a tad more soft
“Bernie,” he said, “I’ve got one that’s beyond me. It’s probably
very simple. But I think it’s too subtle for me. I can’t even
tell you what it is that bothers me. He says he’s got trouble with
his breathing. Then he told me, quite unprompted, that he has
trouble both with inspiration and with expiration, but that the
troubles are quite different. I couldn’t find a damn thing. Not
even a hint of a god damn problem. I sat and listened to him
breath for twenty minutes.
“I listened all over the lung fields and I listened to his heart
and I felt his pulse. There’s something odd about him. I can’t
put my finger on it. You see, the damnedest thing is that I
believe him. Everything checks out and yet I think there really is
a trouble, some sort of a trouble that’s beyond me.”
“How old is he?” I asked Pete.
“A young man. I would say in his twenties. Really, it’s pretty
hard to tell. He might be older. Maybe in his thirties. You
don’t see too many Orientals here in Cleveland.”
“What is his name?” I asked.
“Ted, or something like that. Ted Ing or something like that,”
Pete replied, as if the name had next to nothing to do with
He was about to slouch out of my doorway, when he stopped, still
chewing on a problem he could not adequately define. “It’s the damnedest thing. I enjoyed listening to this guy’s lungs. I really did. They sounded…well…different. I remember old Leon Stokoloski told me that the reason to become a pulmonary doctor was that there was a music to the lungs. Even in disease, he said, the music was still there.
“I thought of old Leon when I was listening to this guy’s lungs. It was the most beautiful sound I think I’ve ever heard in a pair of lungs. It sounded too good, too clean, too clear. I thought of a mountain landscape, high, severe, serene, savage, wrathful but in a tranquil way. And I agreed with him that there was something wrong, but maybe something
that doesn’t make it onto our lists of differential diagnoses.
This guy made me wonder what it was all about.”
Pete stood in the doorway and shrugged. Only it wasn’t exactly a
shrug. It was a spasm that had met torpor and gotten slowed down.
“I decided I was nuts. So, Bernie, when I decide I’m nuts I refer
the case to you, because I know you’re nuts. It’s your job to be
nuts and I think you’re pretty good at it.”
With that last rather fond slur, utterly in character, Pete
McCorkle was gone from my doorway, as if he had been only a vision
in the first place, so able to disperse as abruptly as he had
I don’t know how to describe the patient. As I seek for words, the
same peculiarly pleasant discomfiture I felt on first meeting comes
back over me and renders me more or less speechless, just as I was
then. What I first noticed was something about myself.
I became acutely aware of my own posture, how I was not only
constricted but twisted in the big tweed armchair I was sitting in.
I tried to straighten up, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I
squirmed a couple times and got myself into a position that was, if
possible, even more awkward and uncomfortable than the one I had
started out in. So I gave it up.
He was sitting on a small metal chair with a black vinyl cushion.
He sat very lightly. He looked like even a small wind could have
blown him off the chair.
“How can I help you?” I asked him.
There was no reply, no change in his facial expression, which
remained at once kindly and detached, as if he had not heard me.
I thought perhaps he was deaf and had the impulse to repeat the
question in a louder tone of voice.
I looked at him. There was no discourtesy in his silence. I could
not tell if he was thinking or not. Time was passing. The seconds
had expanded, exploding each one into a world unto itself. I felt
very small, but not unpleasantly so.
I smiled at him, not for any reason. It simply happened to me that
I smiled. As it did, I felt my face in a different way, rather as
if it were most of the time a stiff iron mask in which I was
trapped not only by my will but against my will.
I began to have some sense of what Pete McCorkle was talking about.
In the initial silence, I got an inkling not only of the fascination but of the exhilarating distress that went with it. I also realized, with a detached rationality of which I have trouble being shed, that, if all this had to do with lungs and breathing, it was
in the broadest sense of that process of exchange.
Nothing is easier than to get lost in silence, in the midst of a
moment, in a place where a thousand thousand pathways branch off
each in the direction of a different nowhere which is also a
different somewhere. I knew this before that November afternoon,
but it was only on that Novemeber afternoon that I found where in
myself I knew it. I learned a new interior address.
“I am a deity,” he said, very quietly, with nothing so simple as
either self-assurance or self-assertion.
“Oh, no,” I thought to myself, “it is the quiet ones who are both
the loopiest and the most dangerous. You just never know what they
have stored up inside them and what they’re going to do next.”
I tensed. I said nothing. He said nothing. It went on this way
for five or ten or even fifteen minutes. Finally, the edge went
out of the room.
“I came here just to know people, to be among them and feel them
and their ways. It is a pilgrimage. I find that it is hard to
breath here. Especially on Carnegie Avenue. I saw a sign that
said there was a chest clinic here, so I came.”
“Can you tell me,” I asked, “more about this trouble you have
He did not bother to reply, but retreated into a silence I found
profoundly uncomfortable. Something seethed in that silence.
Only I could not tell what it was. Imagine my surprise when a
vision of a great white cloud-shrouded snow-capped peak surged
before my mind’s eye. I had never had such an experience before.
Along its lower slopes, I saw a tiny black speck, the barest
outline of the shape of a man.
My heart rate picked up and I began to sweat. I was not used to
this sort of experience in the waking state. I could not say a
thing. For his part, he did not venture a word. We sat still
Time was growing short. I had to be on my way to my private office
to see my next patient, a young lady named Judith Rosenthal who
never got either any better or enough worse to cause herself seriously
to reassess her own situation. She paid full fee.
“What’s your name,” I asked.
“Ted Zing,” he replied, softly and sweetly, with just a slight
“Ted Zing,” I repeated, reaching for my prescription pad.
My eyes happened to fall on his gabardine trousers which were
frayed and on his scuffed shoes whose soles and uppers were just
beginning to detach, so that I could see a hint of white socks
through them. I realized it was absurd of me to write a prescription,
for he surely did not have the money to have it filled.
It was just around the time when thorazine was coming into wide use
for the treatment of psychosis. I rummaged around in the drawer of
my desk and found some samples. I poured the orange pills into a
plastic bottle which I thrust on him.
“Here,” I said, “take one of these each night. I think they might
really help you with your breathing. Come and see me next week,
too, at the same time.”
He took the pills and looked at them very appreciatively. He
seemed intrigued with them and with their near saffron color. Then
his eyes wandered to a Swiss musical clock that I kept on the top
of a bookshelf. My great-grandfather had given it to my father
when he was a boy. It no longer worked. In my lifetime, it had
“Does it work?” he asked, looking at the clock.
“No,” I said, “it never has.”
This, of course, was not strictly accurate.
“I will fix it,” he said. “Please. You will let me.”
As he said this, he was already rising from his chair and making
his way towards the bookshelf. I don’t know to this day why I did
not interfere with him. Far from having any urge to stop him, I
was quite pleased with the idea of getting rid of the clock, as if
it were an unwelcome presence that cast its infirm pall over me.
So, in custody of my Swiss clock, he disappeared. I was convinced
that I would never see him again. In the busy round of practice
and family responsibilities, not to mention subsidiary pleasures, I mentally quite lost track of him during the ensuing week.
I was taken by surprise when he appeared at my doorway the very
next Thursday, with the clock in hand. I ushered him in. He
placed the clock on the bookshelf. Quite evidently it now worked.
In the midst of our session it sonorously struck four. I was
impressed not only with the beauty of its sound, but also with the
steadiness of the ticking with which it now seemed to regulate the
atmosphere around us.
He pulled the bottle of pills from his pocket, demonstrated to me
that there were still just as many as before, as if to make it
clear that he had no intention of squandering my gift to him, but
rather meant to keep it whole and intact. He gazed on them with
benevolent pleasure for a long moment. Unconsumed, they seemed to
me to take on a livelier glow, to become not tranquilizers but
something more like vivifiers.
“How is your breathing?” I asked.
He nodded very softly and receded into silence. We sat there
together, until exactly at the same time that I had terminated the
interview a week earlier, he got up to go. That was the last I
ever saw of him.
In the intervening years, I have told this story to no one. I
misheard his name. It was not Ted Zing but Tenzin. I also know
from reading biographies of the Dalai Lama that as a child he had
a passion for mechanical devices and fixed a number of Swiss
watches and musical boxes which had been presented to previous
Dalai Lamas by foreign potentates.
I do not know what leads me now to write this story and expose
myself to the melancholy mockery of my colleagues and other
strangers. Perhaps, over the years, I have become ever so slightly
more brave, possibly even a bit more empty. I have, fortunately,
never wholly recovered from the shame of how I treated the Dalai
Lama. As I write this, the clock my great-grandfather gave my
father ticks steadily on. It has needed no subsequent repairs.