04/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE WAY TO THE DALAI Lama's home, like the path to spiritual enlightenment, is long and difficult. The religious and political leader of Tibet lives about 150 miles from the country he leads, in a remote corner of northern India that is reached only after a treacherous journey over twisting roads marked by steep drops on the one side and the threat of landslides on the other. But eventually the snow-capped foothills of the Himalayas loom, and crimson-robed Tibetan monks, as colorful as tropical birds, begin to appear, chanting and fingering their rosaries. By the time the road climbs into the tumbledown village of Dharamsala, the monks' incantatory hum runs like an undercurrent to daily life. For the Dalai Lama to leave his home, he must drive several hours, in an old yellow Mercedes, to the nearest airport.
By now, the Dalai Lama has lived more than half of his 62 years in this exile; the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, and he fled to India nine years later. He leads a comfortable existence in a large, sparsely furnished white stucco house a short walk along a bamboo-lined path from his monastery. Indian security guards bearing rifles patrol the grounds, and on brisk winter days the white Dhauladhar peaks stand against the sky's perfect blue—a landscape intended by his hosts, the Indian government, to remind the Dalai Lama of his native country. It is largely a failed intention. "No," he says with a tinge of sorrow, "this is nothing like Tibet."
Still, most of the time the 14th Dalai Lama—loosely translated, the name means Ocean of Wisdom—is famously cheerful, with an uninhibited, infectious chortle that punctuates virtually every sentence he speaks. With his cropped hair graying at the temples and in his crimson robe, brown leather shoes over dark socks and the thick glasses he has worn since he was a teenager, he looks every bit the "simple monk" he always calls himself. But to some 6 million Tibetans, he is a god-king, the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, the Protector of the Land of Snows, the Holder of the White Lotus, the Mighty of Speech, Tibet's Wish-Fulfilling Gem, and Kundun—the Presence. To the Chinese, he is such a potent figure that people in Tibet are forbidden to carry or even display his likeness.
Since he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama has become increasingly familiar to Westerners. More and more movie stars and rock musicians—and plenty of ordinary Americans—investigate Buddhism and flock to Save Tibet fund-raisers. Richard Gere, long a practitioner of Buddhism, studies with the Dalai Lama, and composer Philip Glass is a good friend, as is Columbia University Indo-Tibetan studies professor Robert Thurman (father of actress Uma). Action star Steven Seagal has been proclaimed by another Tibetan holy man to be a minor reincarnated Buddhist deity, and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch has put together two benefit concerts for Tibetan freedom. Two Hollywood movies about His Holiness, Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, have played around the world recently. Though showbiz celebrities have raised consciousness about China's occupation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama himself has done the most to focus attention on the problem. "He is a genuine person, a really nice fellow, and he remains unspoiled," says Professor Thurman. "He meets people in Hollywood, and they open their ears and hear of this unsung tragedy."
For his part, the Dalai Lama would rather be off meditating than riding the wave of pop culture. "I used to walk about without any disturbances," he says. "But now I hardly have any time." The Dalai Lama's aides, however, eagerly share gossip: Gere is, they say, "never demanding, never arrogant,"—and Kundun screenwriter Melissa Mathison and her husband, Harrison Ford, while not Buddhists, are "such a nice couple." John F. Kennedy Jr., who interviewed His Holiness for George magazine, arrived in Dharamsala last fall in a panic, having lost his passport and his photographer. (A mention of Steven Seagal provokes laughter and the rolling of eyes.) Jetsun Pema, 56, the Dalai Lama's sister, who runs a home and school for Tibetan children in Dharamsala, describes with pleasure how she played her own mother in Seven Years in Tibet and wept while watching Kundun. But the Dalai Lama rests serenely above it all. He was sent a videotape of Seven Years in Tibet, he says, "but I have yet to see it. I have not much concern about it."
Since the Dalai Lama was barely 3, he has been concerned with greater things. Born Lhamo Thondup on July 6, 1935, in a small village in Tibet to farmer parents, he was the fifth of seven children. When the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, Tibetan elders set out to find his successor. The embalmed body of the previous Dalai Lama turned from south to northeast, so the search party headed in that direction; meanwhile a monk had a vision of a monastery much like the one near the Dalai Lama's village. When the search party arrived at Lhamo's mud and stone house in Taktser in 1937, the toddler passed a series of tests: He named the monk leading the search, and he picked out several objects that had belonged to his predecessor.
The young boy was proclaimed the Dalai Lama and installed on the Lion Throne in Lhasa, Tibet's holy city (his family received property and gifts). A regent ruled Tibet until the Dalai Lama was old enough to take over. Though the bright child began a spiritual education that continues to this day, he often found it hard to conduct himself with proper seriousness. He would cadge forbidden foods like eggs and meat from his parents and play games with the palace sweepers. "They'd defeat me, and sometimes I'd cry," His Holiness recalls, laughing uproariously. He saw his family only occasionally. "As a child I remember visiting him," says his sister. "We had to have great respect and be very quiet."
Studying by himself in the 1,000-room palace, he recalls feeling isolated as he watched other children return home with their cows at the end of the day, "the shadow of the mountain growing, growing, growing" with the setting sun. Yet he insists he has no regrets about a lost childhood. "The important thing is that men should have a purpose in life," he says. "It should be something useful, something good."
The Dalai Lama found his life's mission at age 15, when Mao Zedong's Chinese Communists invaded Tibet. Three years ahead of schedule, the Dalai Lama was given political and religious authority under what he describes, with considerable understatement, as "difficult circumstances." The Chinese claimed they came to "liberate" Tibet, which had an army of 8,500, from the "poison" of imperialism and religion.
Because the country was isolated and not a member of the United Nations, the Tibetans' plight went largely unnoticed. As China's People's Liberation Army set up encampments, the Dalai Lama attempted to negotiate with the Chinese. He also faced a philosophical battle within his own community—one that continues today: even as he urged his people to adhere to Buddhist principles of compassion and nonviolence, rebel freedom-fighters, aided by the CIA, were fighting the Chinese. In 1959, Chinese forces drew close to Lhasa, crushing the uprising and threatening the Dalai Lama's life. His Holiness, accompanied by a few close advisers and family members, fled to India.
Behind him, the Chinese continued to slaughter Tibetans. Human rights groups estimate that more than 1 million have died—some 80,000 refugees have fled the country—as a result of the Chinese occupation, and that 6,000 Buddhist monasteries have been destroyed, leaving only a handful in Tibet. All attempts by the Dalai Lama to negotiate with the Chinese have failed, which is why he is grateful for Hollywood's embrace of his cause. "I feel encouraged that people are genuinely showing their sympathy," the Dalai Lama says. But he is concerned about Americans experimenting with Buddhism, believing that people should follow their own traditional practices. "Conversion is not my intention," he says. "Changing religion is not easy. You may develop some kind of confusion or difficulties." Though he acknowledges that converts to Buddhism may find enlightenment after years of study, he cautions against the so-called lamas, or teachers, who may be "quacks," as he puts it. "Be very careful," he says.
Though his public life has begun to overwhelm his daily routine, the Dalai Lama maintains an ascetic and celibate existence. He arises at 3:30 a.m. for hours of prayer, and he sometimes rides his exercise bike. At 5:00 he has a breakfast that includes tsampa, a barley porridge that is a staple of the Tibetan diet, and listens to BBC World Service news on the radio. (He is such a fan that he appears in a TV commercial for the BBC in which he hums the World Service theme song.) Along with stories about China, he takes particular interest in what he calls new phenomena, such as the exploration of Mars. "I saw a newspaper item about how the position of Saturn and Jupiter makes a difference in the shape of the world," he says. "I read this, and usually I don't care about astrology—hahahaha," he laughs, seeming to dismiss one of Tibetan Buddhism's core beliefs, "but I thought, 'Oh, there might be some scientific basis in what astrologists might say.' " (Later he says that though he personally has no interest in astrology, "it is a part of Tibetan tradition—you should care, so study well! Hahahahahaha.")
These days His Holiness travels frequently—he plans two trips to the U.S. this year to lecture and pick up honorary degrees. At home, though, his schedule rarely varies. Before going to bed at 8:30 p.m., he has tea and watches TV—especially wildlife shows. "I'm very interested in the lives of the animals as something completely natural," he says. (Although Buddhists avoid killing animals for food, they do eat animals killed by others; the Dalai Lama has meat several times a week.) Sometimes he indulges in his hobby, fixing watches. "But the computer field—hopeless!" he says, smacking himself in the head. "Computers make me totally blank out."
The Dalai Lama needs no watch to remind him of the passage of time. Jetsun Pema says that her brother recently told her, "I don't have more than 20 years, and I have to make the best use of it" to return his people to Tibet. "At the moment, things are very difficult," he says. "The local authorities are very narrow-minded, very ignorant and ruthless. Very bad, very bad." His saddest moments come when he meets new refugees who describe "unthinkable experiences—often with tears, and I join them in tears." But with "patience and tolerance and compassion," he says, he believes he will again see Tibet. "I describe it like an ocean," the Dalai Lama says of his state of mind. "On the surface waves come and go, come and go, but underneath, I always remain calm."