Dalai Lama Gains Popularity as Interest in Buddhism Rises

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hands folded, he sits in lotus position on a silk-brocaded throne, flanked by 200 monks in orange robes. Behind him, 136 tapestries cover the wall. Flowers and candles punctuate the huge stage.

As the monks halt a droning chant that has echoed through the cavernous basketball arena, the lone figure recites aloud in Tibetan. "I am a simple monk," says Tenzin Gyatso, also known as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, "spiritual and temporal leader" of the Himalayan kingdom of Tibet. "I am here to tell you that you can conquer anger and hatred in your heart."

The man who fled his country in 1959 is riding high in the world spotlight. After 37 years of globe-trotting activism, touting nonviolence as the way to end China's repressive occupation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama is hot.

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"The sharp rise in public concern and awareness about human rights worldwide and the massive growth of Buddhism in Western countries have dovetailed to give the Dalai Lama a higher profile than he has ever had," says Mark Muesse, professor of religion at Rhodes College in Memphis. "Because of his stance on nonviolence amid his own repression, he represents to people of all faiths the embodiment of humaneness that he teaches we are all capable of."

"Generally, I want to promote human behavior that is a sense of caring responsibility and respect for others' rights. That is my main message," said the Dalai Lama in an interview in Santa Barbara, where he is speaking at a conference on peace.

Tenzin Gyatso was recognized at the age of 2, in accord with Tibetan tradition, as the reincarnation of his predecessor. He is seen by Tibetans as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The Dalai Lama is spiritual and political leader to 6 million Tibetans living within the Himalayan kingdom and about 115,000 in diaspora around the globe. This year, with the passing of longtime Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping, shifting power in Russia, and the recognition of human rights as evidenced in South Africa and a destroyed Berlin Wall, Tenzin Gyatso says the time is ripe for a change in Sino-Tibetan relations.

"Definitely, definitely, I feel a tide is turning," he said. The gradual replacement of older-aged, hard-line military/political leaders is increasingly laying the groundwork to replace repressive, totalitarian policies that are not working, he says. Worldwide pressure for more democratic policies coupled with nascent forms of similar activism in the country is nibbling at Chinese resolve.

The man who won the Nobel Peace Prize is drawing crowds in Western Europe and the United States as no time in his exile and in levels not seen since the counter-culture '60s. The growing number of monasteries, meditation groups, and publications all attest to Buddhism being on the rise in the West. But experts say this time around the flowering might have a different cast.

"Tibetan Buddhism is the form that is now most on the ascendancy," Mr. Muesse says. "People like the florid sense of ceremony and ritual that come with [it]."

In keeping with a trend that is cutting across all religions, Tibetan Buddhism is attracting seekers who desire the more affective side of religion, such as chanting, dancing, and ceremony. But the Dalai Lama thinks a mere sense of mystery or desire for the exotic is insufficient reasons to pursue Buddhism.

"You know," he continues, "there is a stirring in Europe, America, Australia to try something new, exotic. I tell them it is better to follow their own religious traditions. It is human nature for people to tire of the normal in their lives. They have a tendency to want new things.... That level of attraction does not come from a deep sense of existential quest but rather has more to do with a surface-level attraction."

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