After Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham, he is probably the most recognized religious figure on our planet. He is the voice of Buddhism to the nations and is often called the "god-king" of Tibet. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. His recent books, Ethics for a New Millennium and The Art of Happiness became best-sellers. He is treated with immense respect by secular media and draws crowds up to 300,000 at his public talks.
These titles and accolades belong to Buddhism's leading apostle, the Dalai Lama. Born as Lhamo Thondup in 1935 in northeast Tibet, he was chosen as the 14th Dalai Lama (Tibet's highest religious figure) at age 2. He was enthroned in 1940 and became political leader of Tibet at age 15, just after Mao's armies began their takeover of Tibet. In exile since 1959, the Dalai Lama has become a world leader in ethics, politics, and religion.
He has also become the de facto leader of millions of spiritual seekers in the West. Christians who want to evangelize our culture do well to understand the extent of his influence, especially in pop culture, as well as the nature of his beliefs. To this end Christianity Today sent me to the Dalai Lama's home-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, to ask him about the popularity of Buddhism, his faith's relation to other faiths, and, most of all, what he thinks about Jesus.
Veteran journalist and Asia scholar Orville Schell explored the Dalai Lama's influence, and the romance of Tibet, in Hollywood and pop culture in his 2000 book Virtual Tibet. Schell notes that by the mid-1990s, Hollywood's "unparalleled engine of invention had alighted on Tibet as one of its chosen subjects." The Dalai Lama became the unseen star of two large-budget films, Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese's Kundun.
Scorsese told one interviewer about his meeting with the Dalai Lama: "Something happened. I became totally aware of existing in the moment. It was like you could feel your heartbeat; and as I left, he looked at me. I don't know, but there was something about the look, something sweet. … I just knew I had to make the movie."
Hollywood actor Richard Gere is probably his most famous devotee. After an initial foray into Zen, Gere was drawn to the Dalai Lama. He told Shambhala Sun magazine, "It completely changed my life the first time I was in the presence of His Holiness. No question about it." Gere introduced the Dalai Lama to New Yorkers two years ago when the Buddhist leader spoke in Central Park. Gere also led a protest rally for a free Tibet when the Dalai Lama visited Washington last summer.
The Dalai Lama is also a major spiritual influence on actress Sharon Stone, composer Philip Glass, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, and martial-arts star Steven Seagal. "The Dalai Lama's been a great friend to me, and I don't want to use that for anything but my personal spiritual sustenance," Seagal told Schell. "He is the great mother of everything nurturing and loving. He accepts all who come without judgment. He has a very serious impact on the degenerate times in which we live and on bringing us back to a more pure realm."
The Dalai Lama's international image, in fact, is virtually shatterproof. There was a minor ripple about his credibility when explorer Heinrich Harrer's Nazi past was exposed just before the movie Seven Years in Tibet was released. On that, the Dalai Lama does not claim omniscience, and he says his friend Harrer simply kept the truth from him. Likewise, the Dalai Lama had endorsed Shoko Asahara, the guru of the Aum Shinryko movement in Japan, but withdrew his support after that movement's poison-gas attacks on Tokyo subways. Again, his sympathetic comment about Saddam Hussein in a New York Times interview drew only passing criticism. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a famous Tibetan guru who now lives in England, led a brief international campaign against the Dalai Lama, accusing him of dictatorship and hypocrisy, but nothing has come of it.