When a boy and the Dalai Lama met


In 1999, FIU welcomed the Dalai Lama as all of South Florida buzzed with excitement over the spiritual leader’s first-ever visit to the region. (He would return to campus in 2004 and 2010.) An inspiration to people the world over, the exiled Buddhist leader came to share a message of peace, compassion and hope.

The catalyst for His Holiness’ stop was Nathan Katz, then a professor of religious studies and now a distinguished professor emeritus, Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. As a young man in the early 1970s, Katz studied in India, where the Dalai Lama had established a training center and personal base after the 1950 Chinese invasion of his Tibetan homeland. There began a lifelong friendship with a man that, as Katz puts it, “was just the Dalai Lama, not a rock star yet.” (His celebrity would grow in later years, first with the very public devotion of actor and activist Richard Gere and, in 1989, his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.)

In 1995, Katz got a call at home from someone asking him to meet, almost immediately, with the Dalai Lama during a layover at Miami International Airport. Katz grabbed his wife and toddler son and headed out the door. An hour-long discussion about science and religion in a hotel room ended with Katz suggesting that his former teacher plan a trip to campus to receive an honorary degree. The Dalai Lama said yes.

As Katz recalls, the next morning he sheepishly phoned President Modesto A. Maidique to apologize for having broken protocol by extending an invitation that was not his to make. The news was greeted with delight, and four years later the vaunted and beloved guru captivated the commencement crowd as he accepted a Doctor of Divinity and delivered words of wisdom in a packed FIU arena.

In the midst of much pomp, circumstance and a luncheon gathering with FIU donors, trustees, administrators and faculty, attention turned briefly to Katz’s seven-year-old son, Rafael “Rafi” Katz, as he sweetly greeted one of the world’s most famous men.

“I remember everything,” about that special day, says Rafi Katz, currently an FIU senior majoring in parks management. From dressing in the little Nehru suit to presenting a traditional white scarf to the Tibetan leader—the item was returned, over the neck, with a blessing—he says the experience had a profound impact.

And his study of Tibetan Buddhism in subsequent years “made a huge impression on how I think and my belief system,” says Rafi Katz, who follows his family’s Jewish faith but feels “a big connection” to the other religion. Attracted to the emphasis on meditation and ideals such as compassion and patience, which his upbringing reinforced, he has incorporated those aspects into his own life.

Today a framed copy of the above photo hangs in the Katz family dining room, having been signed years later by the DL himself, who also inscribed a short prayer.

Adds Nathan Katz, of his friend, with whom he maintains ties, “I have never in my life met anyone that comes close to him, his presence. When he looks at you, he sees the depth of your soul. He is loving, kind and curious.”  


Pictured above: Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, is greeted by Rafael “Rafi” Katz in 1999 at FIU. The boy’s father, Nathan Katz, stands to the far left with then-Provost Mark B. Rosenberg and security personnel looking on. Photo courtesy of FIU Special Collections & University Archives