WASHINGTON — BANTERING amiably with reporters more accustomed to Gingriches than god-kings, the spiritual and political leader of 6 million Tibetans demonstrates the grace and stoicism that have made him one of the world's most admired figures.
For 45 years, the Dalai Lama has been pleading the cause of his beleaguered central Asian nation, which was conquered and brutally occupied by Chinese troops in 1950. For 45 years he has earned sympathy, appreciation - and in 1987, a Nobel Peace Prize - but little of the solid diplomatic support needed to lift the heavy hand of Chinese rule.
On a 10-day visit to the United States, he is seeking to convince policymakers and public audiences that an imminent political transition in Beijing provides an opportune moment to press the cause of Tibetan self-rule.
''A major new initiative may not take place'' in China now, says the purple-robed Buddhist prelate at a Monitor breakfast. ''But at the same time, this is a very crucial period to give a signal consistently so that after some time, new thinking [will take place in China]. Then new thinking will definitely produce a good result.''
The Tibetan exiled leader's visit comes at a moment when relations between US and China have reached a recent low point over another issue that impinges on the sensitive matter of Chinese sovereignty: Taiwan.
When the Clinton administration granted a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to make an unofficial visit to the US last June, it provoked anxiety in Beijing, where the island nation is considered part of mainland China.
Even as the US seeks to soothe China's concerns over Taiwan, the Dalai Lama is pressing for a firmer US position on Tibet, which Beijing also considers as part of China.
Although the US provides humanitarian assistance to Tibetan refugees in India and regularly chastises China for human rights abuses in Tibet - considered among the worst in the world - it has been unwilling to sacrifice relations with Beijing to the cause of Tibetan autonomy.
Some members of the US Congress contest the administration's position, insisting that Tibet is an occupied country whose legitimate representatives are the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government-in-exile.
The Senate passed a resolution on Sept. 8 urging President Clinton to meet with the Dalai Lama, as he has twice before. Wary of Chinese reactions, Mr. Clinton is expected only to drop in on an informal meeting scheduled between the exiled Tibetan leader and Vice President Al Gore.
The Dalai Lama waves off what other world leaders would take as a diplomatic slight. ''Many governments ultimately can't freely express their feelings but deep down they have a genuine concern,'' he says.
The Dalai Lama gained his title at the age of 2, when a search party sent out by the Tibetan government determined that he was the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama.
The 14th Tibetan to hold the position since the 15th century, he and nearly a million followers have lived in exile in India since Chinese troops crushed a popular uprising in Tibet in 1959.
One million Tibetans died in the wake of China's invasion of Tibet in 1949. Since then the country's Buddhist culture, including thousands of monasteries and temples, has been largely destroyed. Tensions have been exacerbated by the influx of millions of Chinese into Tibet, leading to what the Dalai Lama calls ''cultural genocide'' in Tibet.
'Zone of Peace'
A five-point peace plan advanced by the Dalai Lama in 1987 calls for the transformation of Tibet into a ''zone of peace'' - a democratic Tibet associated with China but not fully independent.
''It is very important to make clear that Tibet is occupied land,'' he explains. ''But there is a possibility that two separate communities may live together.... My approach is essentially genuine self-rule within the People's Republic of China.''
''In order to influence China more effectively, you need better understanding, closer relations,'' he adds. ''So the confrontation attitude with China will lead to nowhere. Through common sense it is very clear the only way is to make close friends and to influence them.''