Mystic, martyr, ethicist, political leader, rights crusader: To followers and admirers, the Dalai Lama is all that and more. Few people are the center of more fascination and yearnings than the man who will speak at several South Florida venues starting today. Yet he wraps it all in a self-effacing manner as warm as his saffron and dark red robe.
Small wonder that the leader of Tibetan Buddhism is expected to draw a variety of listeners in Broward and Miami-Dade counties for five days.
“He is a magnet,” says religion professor Nathan Katz of Florida International University, who has been instrumental in bringing the Dalai Lama to Florida twice. “He can be in an auditorium with 5,000 people, and 4,900 will feel a close, intimate connection. You can be in the upper balcony and feel like you’re sitting next to him. I can’t explain it.
“It’s superficial as can be, but people are now star struck with him. The Dalai Lama is now a celebrity.”
And a celebrity to other celebrities, including Richard Gere and Uma Thurman.
He has an epic life story: recognized as a reincarnated lama, or Tibetan guru, as a child, he became king and supreme religious leader as a young man. Yet he saw his country invaded by an army of persecutors and fled to India, where he set up a government in exile and became a peaceful crusader for human rights.
He is the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, and his books The Art of Happiness and Ethics for a New Millennium are best sellers. Hosts of other books hold collections of his teachings, such as A Simple Monk and A Lifetime of Wisdom.
The Tibetan leader, 69, has been the subject of at least two recent movies: Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese, and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet. He is also one of several subjects in Refuge, a documentary that had its U.S. premiere on Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.
Buddhist activist Risha Linda Mateos of Boynton Beach admits to being “a little star struck” with the Dalai Lama. “He has something like an aura of just being friendly. A very comfortable type of person.”
Her meeting with His Holiness was in 1999 in Bloomington, Ind., where she was part of a stage crew for a Dalai Lama appearance. Afterward, he granted a personal audience for the workers.
“He was like Uncle Holiness,” recalls Mateos, who will take part in a peace march for Tibet from Monday through Wednesday, from Delray Beach to Miami Beach. “Monks prostrated before him and he said, `Get up! Get up! I’m just a simple monk! I want to be humble! Don’t make it harder for me!’
“Everyone packed around him, and I hung back. But he reached out for my hand, and pulled me closer. He gave me a big smile and hug, like I’d known him all my life.”
The Dalai Lama is among a very small group of religious leaders who are almost universally recognized. Those would, of course, include evangelist Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II.
Like Graham, the Dalai Lama speaks of another world and a spiritual way of finding peace. Like John Paul, the Dalai Lama is a survivor of atheistic communist aggression — preaching peace and spirituality while keeping the cause of his people in the public eye.
“We admire in them the qualities that we pursue in our own lives,” says Ganden Thurman, special projects director at Tibet House in New York. “Many people feel they don’t perform up to their own values. So when they see someone who has somehow transcended the fear of failure, it gives them real hope that it can be done.”
The Dalai Lama also earns points with listeners by doing a lot of listening himself. He seems to take much time learning and understanding other religions. He also has a skill at speaking in secular terms in secular venues.
His biggest talk in South Florida, at the Office Depot Center in Sunrise, will be a simple “World Peace Through Inner Peace.” Only on the next two days, at a seminar at the University of Miami, will he center on specifically religious teachings.
Unlike Graham and John Paul, though, the Dalai Lama loads few political or social burdens onto his messages. Not even exclusive claims for Buddhism. His main message is for people to accept one another and live ethically.
Religion scholar James Beverley of Tyndale Seminary in Toronto has followed the arc of the Dalai Lama’s popularity: from a weeping, shouting crowd that greeted him in Chicago in 1993 to his address in New York’s Central Park in 2000.
“I was captured by how much he was becoming the main spiritual guide for millions of people in the West,” says Beverley, associate director with the Institute for the Study of American Religion. “Even though most of them didn’t seem to care much about being committed Buddhists.”
“He is very good at religious diplomacy, saying what most people want to hear. Not that he deliberately plays to the crowd. But he doesn’t force them to choose sides.”
Perhaps the ultimate measure of the Dalai Lama’s celebrity status is his appeal to other celebrities.
One of the founders of Tibet House is actor Richard Gere, a Dalai Lama admirer for more than 15 years. Its vice president is composer Philip Glass. The board of directors includes singer Natalie Merchant and actress Uma Thurman, Ganden’s younger sister. Their father, Robert Thurman, is president of the organization and chair of Tibetan studies at Columbia University.
Other celebrities have been drawn into the Dalai Lama’s orbit now and then: actress Sharon Stone, actor Steven Seagal, Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Seagal in 1997 was identified by a Tibetan lama as the reincarnation of a revered 17th century lama.
The adoration echoes that once lavished on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru who captured the fascination of the Beatles a generation ago. Another parallel might be Kabbalah, which has drawn interest from the likes of Madonna and Britney Spears.
They see the Dalai Lama as an emblem for peaceful resolutions, Ganden Thurman says. “Celebrities are in the forefront of helping someone they see as being helpful. And the Dalai Lama embodies an alternative to war. With all the genocide and torture his people have gone through, he is the only visible respectable person who can advocate peace.”
The adulation has its ironies. Many people admire his moral authority, but would be aghast if America ever mixed church and state as it was in Tibet. And they’re charmed by the Dalai Lama’s personality, even though Buddhism calls for the emptying of self.
“He is bulletproof from criticism,” says Beverley, who had a private audience at the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India. “In religion, once you become known as a guru or saint, your words become magical and enlightening. That’s the way fame works.”
By now it may be hard to talk about the Dalai Lama without the glamour factor. But shorn of the glitz, observers say, he preaches a simple Buddhist message. A message, of course, that appeals especially to people born since the 1960s.
“He effectively transmits the message of the Buddha: We create our own misfortune, and we therefore could create our own happiness by uprooting all selfishness,” Katz says. “The message itself is very ennobling and uplifting. Especially when delivered with warmth, humor, savvy and compassion.”
To Mateos, the Dalai Lama’s key idea is “that we’re a brotherhood and should treat each other right. No person is an island. The food you eat, the products you use, everything is because of other people.
“I’m sure others have said the same. But he says it in a way that we understand. He comes from a faraway, isolated country, yet he can deal with people in the modern world. He relates to a part of us that goes beyond our differences.”
Learning to forgive
The Dalai Lama is one of several thinkers being interviewed by Paul Dietrich of Alexandria, Va., for an upcoming PBS special. The special, on forgiveness, will also include Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Dietrich, who spent a day with the Dalai Lama in India in March, was impressed by the man’s philosophy of acceptance — a clear key to his serenity in the face of an occupying force like China.
“He lives compassion not as a tool to use, but a way to look at the world,” recalls Dietrich, who expects PBS to air his special in late 2005 or early 2006. “Most people give up hate from a selfish point of view, to keep from hurting themselves. The next step is to see the enemy with compassion, as a fallible human being like you.
“Every morning, the Dalai Lama said, he tries to take into himself all the hatred of the Chinese for the Tibetans. And when he hears of some Chinese atrocity, he blames himself for not taking in that hatred.” Dietrich laughs. “I don’t know if I could do that.
“He told me that in life, you have only two choices. You can be upset and anxious and resentful, or you can accept what God gives you — which is the perfect prayer.”
As a Catholic with an “affinity” to evangelicalism, Dietrich sees parallels between the Dalai Lama’s teachings and those of Christianity. Techniques like “contemplative prayer” and “living Christianity as a state of being.” He mourns the lack of such teachings from most pulpits.
“It’s there, a deep tradition, but it’s buried by the churches,” he complains. “Many people look for it, going from one church to another. It’s a cry for spirituality.”