Dalai Lama, the ascetic superstar

On his 15th trip to the United States, the Dalai Lama has been met by sold-out crowds from coast to coast, and tickets to his events were bid up on eBay. He filled Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, and on Sept. 11 packed Washington National Cathedral, as 3,000 more people listened outside on the lawn. Scalpers did brisk business outside the basketball arena in Boston last Sunday selling tickets to last-minute seekers.

As he began nine days of events in New York, this son of Tibetan peasants finds himself at the high point of his global fame as a religious leader, head of state, pop icon, multimedia phenomenon, and, perhaps strangest of all, ascetic Buddhist superstar.

The Dalai Lama has also always drawn a small subculture of devotees in the United States, but the huge turnouts on this trip are testimony to the growing American fascination with Buddhist practices and the search for genuine spiritual heroes who profess nonviolence in an era of religious strife and disillusionment.

“I think I’m looking for something; I don’t know quite what,” said Vivian de Mello, a Roman Catholic from Providence, Rhode Island, who paid $60 for a ticket in Boston on Sunday in what she called her quest to find a new religion.

Michelle Caron, a financial controller from Medford, Massachusetts, said as she descended the stadium stairs after the event: “He makes me feel good, and I need that right now. Just his aura, and the simplicity.”

The Dalai Lama’s popularity also owes something to the branding of his beatific visage on hundreds of books and videos, some of which have recently crossed over from religious and New Age audiences to the mainstream market. One, “The Art of Happiness,” sold more than 1.2 million copies and lasted nearly two years on The New York Times best-seller list.

There are more than 300 listings for Dalai Lama books on Amazon.com, said Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly, though some are different editions of the same book.

“He is regarded as a religious voice, but he definitely crosses over into self-help,” she said.

As Tibet’s leader in exile the Dalai Lama is primarily concerned with pressing for Tibetan autonomy from Chinese rule. Some supporters say they worry that mass marketing of the Dalai Lama’s image has diluted his message, but others say his celebrity status has only broadened the appeal of Buddhism and the cause of Tibetan freedom.

Among Tibetans and their supporters, the Dalai Lama’s high visibility is prompting some controversy, said Matthew Wiener, director of programming at the Interfaith Center of New York and its Buddhism analyst.

“That is a consistent internal debate and question about the more trendy the Dalai Lama gets, how does that affect cause of Tibetan freedom, and how does it affect the Buddhist message of compassion,” he said.

The Dalai Lama has lent his name to so many books and projects, said Yodon Thonden, executive director of the Isdell Foundation, which supports Tibetan causes, “In some ways it dilutes the impact of his presence.”

Nevertheless, she said, his high profile is ultimately a good thing for the Tibetan cause.

The reason for the proliferation of Dalai Lama products is that he gives permission to almost every proposal, many who know him say.

“He’ll give a talk and someone will ask him if they can put it in a book, and he almost always says yes,” said Amy Hertz, executive editor of Riverhead Books, which has published three recent Dalai Lama books.

Wiener said the Dalai Lama has made a conscious decision to be highly public, motivated partly by a sense among Tibetans that their history of isolation left them vulnerable to the Chinese takeover.

“The reverse of that is to say, ‘Hey, we have to get publicity, we have to get the word out about our problems,'” Wiener said. “The Dalai Lama’s extroverted response is in large part the result of thinking they got it wrong.”

Advances and any profits from the books are usually divided between the co-authors and the Tibetan government-in-exile, Hertz said.

The Dalai Lama was born Lhamo Thondup, the son of peasants in northeastern Tibet. At age 2, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama and taken to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, to be educated by Buddhist scholars and monks. He was enthroned in 1940, at the age of 5. Ten years later, China began its invasion of Tibet, and when China suppressed an attempted uprising of Tibetans in 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped to India. He has lived ever since in Dharamsala, and has never been allowed by the Chinese to return to his native country.

Those who have visited him in Dharamsala say the Dalai Lama lives in the ascetic style of a “simple Buddhist monk.”

“He lives very, very simply, his quarters and everything about him, there’s not even a hint of luxury,” said Dr. Bobbi Nassar, a social work professor at Yeshiva University who has worked on Tibetan resettlement projects at the United Nations.

Yet his travels across the globe have helped him develop a mastery of the media event. At a news conference on Tuesday to kick off his visit in New York, he walked out onto the stage at an auditorium at the Guggenheim Museum and after a tempest of camera flashes, he asked the photographers to stop taking pictures. He leisurely peered into the audience and greeted familiar faces one by one. Then, with a broad smile, he bid the photographers return to work. “Well, yes, flash!”

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