The Dalai Lama was accompanied by eBay founder and chairman Pierre Omidyar, who also accompanied him to the welcoming ceremony. Omidyar's foundation also provided a lead grant to fund the visit.
There was a nervous hush in the room as the Tibetan spiritual leader first entered. But the Kamehameha Schools Glee Club and Hula Ensemble quickly caught his attention; instead of walking to the stage, he headed the students to shake hands, and to smell the lei that glee club member Jonah Ho'okano was wearing.
Ho'okano was caught by surprise. "He grabbed my lei, he smelled it, and all I could utter was the word 'plumeria,' because that's the lei, and I didn't know what else to say," said Ho'okano.
The Dalai Lama also interrupted the beginning of the ceremony to put on an orchid lei and a maile lei. "One!," he said as he placed the orchid lei around his own neck, eliciting laughter from the room.
He also told the students to smile. "You show me smile," he said. "I think everybody seems to decide to show me your teeth," he added, drawing another round of laughter. "Some teeth seems not very good." Even louder laughter.
The Dalai Lama last visited Hawaii in 2007. "Although I have been in Hawaii on a few occasions, I think your customs seem so familiar," he said.
After speaking for a few minutes, the Dalai Lama took a group photo with the glee club students, and then did a traditional Hawaiian ha, or exchange of breath, with Kamehameha Schools Trustee Corbett Kalama.
"To share our custom of sharing our breath with one another, the Ha -- to allow someone in your space is very significant," said Kalama. The Dalai Lama then walked back to the students and quickly exchanged another ha with one of them before leaving.
While he brought laughter to the brief meeting, the Dalai Lama is still a controversial figure in the dispute over Tibetan independence or autonomy from China, and security is very tight for his visit. The media was told not to even disclose the location of Friday's welcoming ceremony.
The Dalai Lama is scheduled to make two public talks in Honolulu, one for students on Saturday at 1:30 p.m., and another on Sunday for the general public at 1:45 p.m. Both events are sponsored by the Hawaii Community foundation and will be held at the Stan Sheriff Center. The University of Hawaii has already issued an advisory that traffic and parking will be tight, as the events will happen at the same time with athletic and other activities this weekend.
The students were still in awe after the Dalai Lama left. "Probably the most amazing thing that I've ever had happen to me in the shortest amount of time that I've ever experienced," said Ho'okano. "I'm still kind of -- 'he smelled my lei!'"