To one-quarter of the world's population, he is reviled as a renegade separatist, lampooned in cartoons as a satanic figure with tail and forked tongue and as an instigator of violent rebellion who masquerades as a gentle monk.
In the West, he is a revered, if still somewhat remote, religious figure, loved by thousands but shunned by some politicians as a spoiler to the world's largest marketing bonanza: China's 1.2 billion people.
He is Tenzin Gyatso, the exiled religious and political leader of Tibet, a mountainous land the size of Western Europe, which demilitarized to pursue spiritual aims in 1650, only to be swallowed whole by the Chinese Communists three centuries later.
Known as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate is - during the extended, eight-day visit of Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to the United States - a man and a cause hovering in the wings.
"Why do I continue to preach nonviolence, even to those who threaten extinction to my country, religion, and way of life?" responds the Dalai Lama in an hour interview that is equal parts heavy- and lighthearted. "I am concerned not only about what Chinese violence inflicts on others, but what it does, in the long run, to themselves," he says.
Because he is still smiling in the face of adversity, preaching compassion, love, and universal tolerance - even toward the Chinese troops that have occupied his homeland for 48 years - Tibet's spiritual and temporal leader has steadily gained in world attention and popularity.
"The Dalai Lama represents a popular sentiment about China that is growing in this country," says Orville Schell, of the University of California at Berkeley, a leading Sinologist in the West. "Ordinary people, educated people who aren't experts, are increasingly looking at China and the desecration of Tibet and saying to themselves, 'Something is wrong here.' "
That sentiment, says Professor Schell, is being agitated by the confluence of Mr. Jiang's visit and two major films about the Dalai Lama's life.
The Dalai Lama is a man without pomp, no matter what the circumstance. Greeting some well-wishers on the street, flanked by hundreds of monks in a standing-room-only college arena, or speaking quietly one-on-one in a posh hotel suite, he is disarmingly easygoing.
First there is the gentle greeting of a humble bow. Next a clasp from both his hands, a beneficent look from deep brown eyes that appear on the threshold of laughter. Then laughter itself, with or without provocation: an engaging guttural rumble that echoes from the back of his throat and can, on occasion, turn into a high-pitched squeal that convulses anyone within earshot.
Exiled in 1959 amid a brutal crackdown of Communist Chinese troops, the Dalai Lama has spent the intervening years trotting the globe to speak out on the highest ideals of human behavior. His constant themes are both collective: global responsibility, open dialogue, conflict resolution - and individual: how to heal anger, fear, anxiety in the human heart.
"It is my belief that the lack of understanding of the true cause of happiness is the principal reason why people inflict suffering on others," he says. "But whatever immediate advantage is gained at the expense of someone else is shortlived. In the long run, causing others misery and infringing upon their peace and happiness creates anxiety, fear, and suspicion for oneself."
For 38 years, the Dalai Lama has also overseen a government-in-exile from Dharmsala, India, for the 115,000 Tibetans spread into several refugee communities around the globe. Some fear his long-term tactic of nonviolence is useless in the face of Chinese aggression.
"One of those he admired was Gandhi, who freed India from the British by such means," says film producer Martin Wassell. "But unlike the British, the Chinese Communist mentality includes no sense of fair play. Nonviolence is seen as weakness from the Chinese point of view, though it will ultimately prove more powerful."
His most remarkable contribution, say the Tibetans who revere him, is that he exemplifies the very truths he extols to others.
"Buddhism says that you must live your life for the sake of others, that how you become selfless is to sacrifice your own interests and live your life in purity and compassion," says Tseten Phanucharas, a Tibetan who fled her homeland two months before the Dalai Lama, and this year heads Los Angeles Friends of Tibet. "For us, he is the living example of these concepts."
In accord with Tibetan tradition, Tenzin Gyatso was chosen at age 2 as the reincarnation of 13 predecessors who have ruled the Himalayan kingdom since the 14th century.
In the current Hollywood movie "Seven Years in Tibet," it becomes clear that the then 14-year-old ruler is quite taken by the Western protagonist, Austrian Heinrich Harrer, partly because Mr. Harrer is the only one to treat him without the elaborate rules of royal protocol.
"He knows who he is on the deepest level of 'I'm the spiritual leader of Tibet,' " says "Seven Years" screenwriter Becky Johnston. "And at the same time he knows he's just this kid from [the village of] Amdo who got picked, you know, to be the Big Guy."
Sinking into a soft easy chair between scheduled events, the Dalai Lama says, "As soon as we return to Tibet with a peaceful solution, I'd be just as happy to have no title, no authority - but of course to be able to teach and lecture in peace."
He thinks the time is ripe for a change in policy by his people's Chinese captors. The recent passing of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping signals an eventual rise to power of younger, more liberal rulers, he adds. The international resolve that has accompanied the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, and apartheid in South Africa is another harbinger of hope.
He is asked why he does not attempt more overt tactics to mobilize public opinion in the West against China - perhaps by publicizing videos of Tibetan monks being tortured or monasteries being leveled. Similar images of riots in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were used to galvanize world condemnation, he is reminded.
"I do not wish to incite anger in the human heart," he says. "I do not want the populations of two superpowers battling each other with Tibet in the middle. Behavior suppressed is not behavior healed," he says. "It would just pop up later in another place, another form."