It’s my Tibetan friend on the phone. “Hey, Papa Bush. Can you go to India?” He sometimes calls me “Papa Bush” or “Mr. President” because cab drivers, trick-or-treaters, and Tibetan monks alike seem to think I resemble the court-appointed leader of the Free World.

“Why? Do they need a little preemptive diplomacy?”

He tells me that Bodh Gaya—the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment—has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which selects sites of outstanding cultural value and ensures their protection through various kinds of aid, planning, and technical assistance. The Indian government’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture is hosting an International Buddhist conference in New Delhi, with the Dalai Lama and the president of India as featured guests. Rimpoche wants me to hop on a plane and check it out—right away.

Four days and a $95 emergency visa later, I am seated aboard an Air India jumbo jet on the fourteen-hour flight to Delhi. As a practicing Buddhist, I had long felt compelled to visit India. As a former plumber, I had hoped to avoid the shortcomings of third-world septic systems. However, upon my arrival I am promptly installed in a five-star hotel in New Delhi, reclining on a plush bed, TV remote in hand. In between CNN, a Yul Brynner cowboy movie, and Hindi soaps, I catch a glimpse of some guys doing a fire puja (a purification ritual), a shirtless fellow sitting in full lotus addressing a crowd of thousands, and rapt devotees pouring milk over a lingam (the phallic holy symbol of Shiva seen throughout India). As far as I can discern, there is no 900 number.

In the morning, I arrive at the First International Conclave on Buddhism and Spiritual Tourism, in the Plenary Hall of Vigyan Bhawan, a conference center complete with translation headsets at every seat. My fellow guests include monks and nuns representing most Asian Buddhist countries, and I wish I had a bhikkhu field guide to help identify all the colorful robes.

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