It was 11.30am this morning, and the Dalai Lama had just finished telling journalists in a tightly packed Palace of Westminster hall that he appreciated the Prime Minister’s "genuine concern" for Tibet, when a loud and insistent chiming began
"Is it a fire?" he asked the Labour MP, Chris Mullin, sitting next to him. The exiled Tibetan leader was sitting under two screens which had earlier carried the message: "threat levels remain at severe."
In fact, it was the call to prayer, a fitting interruption for His Holiness who was explaining to the press that the purpose of his long-planned 10-day visit to Britain was "non-political".
The Dalai Lama is an inconvenient guest for Gordon Brown. He is a physical reminder of the Olympics row triggered by the violent Chinese crackdown on the Tibetan protests last March, who has arrived in London at a time when global sympathy now lies with the Chinese and their government in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake that may have killed 70,000 people.
Mr Brown came in for criticism earlier over his handling of the Olympics boycott calls - he is skipping the opening ceremony and sending the Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell - and has faced renewed attacks over his decision to meet the Dalai Lama at Lambeth Palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than Downing Street.
Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, the president of the Tibet Society, accused the prime minister of "kowtowing" to the Chinese by refusing to meet him in Downing Street tomorrow, where the Tibetan leader had previously been invited by Tony Blair and John Major. Would the Dalai Lama have gone to Downing Street? "I’ve no reason to refuse," he said.
The Dalai Lama is also due to meet Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. But "basically my visit is non-political. The media politicises," he said, giving one of his characteristic chuckles.
When he meets the Prime Minister, he would express appreciation "that the prime minister is showing genuine concern for Tibet - so I want to express my thanks." However the Dalai Lama repeated that he had been opposed to isolating China over the violence in Tibet, estimated to have killed 203 people.
Mr Brown's spokesman said yesterday: "As far as we are concerned, the issue here is the substance of the meeting and the fact that the meeting is taking place at all.
"On the previous two occasions the Dalai Lama came to the UK, he didn't meet the then-prime minister at all."
The Dalai Lama urged Tibetans not to disrupt the Olympics torch relay which was marked by human rights protests in London and Paris.
"I made clear right from the beginning we fully support Olympic Games. The Olympic Torch is part of that. We must respect, we must protect that."
He said he would judge how serious the Chinese are about finding a political solution for Tibet - for which he wants regional autonomy - after the next round of talks between the two sides which are to take place in the second week of June. But it would only be after the Beijing Olympics, he said, that it would become clear whether the Chinese willingness to open a dialogue had been "only for the Olympics".
Asked whether he would attend the Games beginning on 8 August, he responded that he was "happy to go there" if invited, but that "it entirely depends on our meeting - if it becomes constructive and if the situation inside Tibet improves and some kind of long-term solution happens."
Aside from his meetings with political leaders, the Dalai Lama stressed that his main purpose was to promote religious harmony. Today he will address the public at the Albert Hall and will be holding teaching sessions in Nottingham. Like any other 73-year-old, he says he is looking forward to retirement, and as a Buddhist "to prepare for my next life".Reuse content