Everyone talks about the magical presence that accompanies His Holiness the Dalai Lama wherever he walks. They are right.
On Wednesday morning, I met the Tibetan spiritual leader in Washington, DC. He had recently arrived in the United States for a two-week speaking tour, and he kicked off his visit by sitting down with me for a wide-ranging interview. For the 40 minutes that his Holiness and I sat together in the Park Hyatt, everyone—including the dozen men in his entourage and nearly as many State Department security professionals—was still and listened to a conversation that danced between interview and spiritual lesson. His Holiness offered his thoughts on everything from Tibetan freedom and relations between India and China to social media and His Holiness Pope Francis.
I had imagined meeting one of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders many times, but the dearest moments are almost always the ones you can’t envision in advance. About eleven minutes into the interview, just after I had asked about his views of Facebook and Twitter, His Holiness stopped, reached over and grabbed my hand. I was wearing two cocktail rings, one with a large stone, and the other with a sharp pyramid-like gold bead. He drew his face close to examine them and twirled them in his fingers. I asked him if he liked them. His response? “I think those look very uncomfortable!” I assured him that I would not accidentally stab him with their sharp edges. We had a good laugh. And then I took the opportunity to ask him if he had ever smoked pot. No, he quickly assured me, because “the ability to judge reality is something very unique.”
TIME contract photographer Marco Grob captured the essence of His Holiness in the beautiful way that only he can. The Dalai Lama’s team seemed more interested in having him talk than in having his portrait shot, but Grob squeezed every possible spark out of the precious few minutes His Holiness was before his lens.
Wednesday also happened to be Grob’s birthday. His Holiness, upon hearing the news, turned to Grob and looked him straight in the eye: “Happy Birthday!” It is a birthday present he is likely to remember for quite some time.
Marco Grob is a contract photographer for TIME. He recently photographed French President François Hollande for TIME International, and major figures from the civil rights movement for One Dream, TIME’s multimedia commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington. View more of his work for TIME here or on his website
Elizabeth Dias is a reporter in TIME’s Washington bureau. Find her on Twitter @elizabethjdias.