He calls himself a “simple Buddhist monk.”
But his biographers and religion experts say the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is way more than that. A monk, yes. But, also an exiled spiritual and temporal leader of 6 million Tibetan Buddhists, a philosopher-scientist, an author, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
And, on Thursday, the Dalai Lama received yet another honor: the 2012 Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.
“I think he has become the best known Buddhist in the world,” says John Berthrong, former academic dean at Boston University’s School of Theology.
He was chosen at age 2 to become the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. By age 6, he was studying Buddhist theology. He was forced into exile at age 24 to try to avoid war in Lhasa, the capital. Since then, the Dalai Lama has traveled the world, meeting political leaders, learning about other religions, absorbing everything he couldn’t learn in the closed society of Tibet, such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
In its announcement of the award, which is worth about $1.7 million this year, the Templeton Award noted how the Dalai Lama has focused on the connections between the investigative traditions of science and Buddhism “as a way to better understand and advance what both disciplines might offer the world.”
A key question the Dalai Lama asks, says the Templeton Foundation in its press release, is “Can compassion be trained or taught?”
Compassion is a major focus for the Dalai Lama.
People who have spent time with him say it is a life-changing experience. Richard Davidson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who has spent extended time with the Dalai Lama, told the Wisconsin State Journal, "These are private meetings where he literally spends five days with us. It is very hard to go back and be the same person you were before the conference. It really is a very precious opportunity."
According to biographer Pico Iyer in his book "The Open Road," the Dalai Lama begins five hours of meditation at 3:30 a.m. “on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the ‘Chinese brothers and sisters’ who are holding his people hostage and the rest of us, while also preparing himself for his death.”
The Dalai Lama's concern over the Tibetans has led him to walk a tightrope. He does not talk about independence but instead autonomy. On his official website, he writes, “Yes, I remain optimistic that I will be able to return to Tibet. China is in the process of changing. Besides, I am not seeking separation from China.”
“He is resolute not to have any violence against the Chinese, who he views as fellow sentient beings,” says Mr. Berthrong. “He tells his people to respond with patience.”
The Chinese themselves seem to be skeptical. Chinese journalists refer to him as a “splittist,” and a government spokesman recently blamed him for self-immolations taking place in Tibetan areas of China, as well as a recent such protest in India.
Last year, the Dalai Lama retired as the temporal head of Tibet, ending 400 years of religious monarchy. “I deliberately, voluntarily, happily, proudly end that,” he said on NBC’s "Today" show last July 18.
Despite his retirement, the Dalai Lama visited 18 countries last year. He is attuned to social media. He has his own Facebook and Twitter accounts. His pithy quotes are easy to find on the Web (example: Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. On Brainyquote.com)
His books deal with a variety of subjects ranging from “The Art of Happiness,” subtitled “A Handbook for Living,” to an examination of modern science and different philosophies ("The Universe in a Single Atom").
As Howard Cutler, co-author with the Dalai Lama, noted, "The Art of Happiness" started showing up on TV sitcoms, game shows, and even "Sex and the City." One NFL quarterback attributed his preseason success to the book.
“Clearly, there was a kind of universal appeal to the Dalai Lama’s basic message: Yes, happiness is possible – in fact we can train in happiness in much the same way we train in any other skill,” wrote Mr. Cutler in the 10th anniversary edition of the book, released in 2009.
Celebrities seem to want to be around him. Berthrong recalls one event in New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with the Dalai Lama, who was accompanied by actor Richard Gere as well as several Buddhist monks.
“In walks Barbara Walters with an entourage of 29 people,” he recalls. “The Dalai Lama says, 'Here I am with only four attendants, she has 29 people, she must be a very enlightened person, I should go meet her.' ”
The Dalai Lama walked over and introduced himself. They have been friends ever since, says Berthrong. “He forms friendships, and people hold on to them.”
Berthrong says the Dalai Lama loves a good laugh. He recalls one time when the Dalai Lama was introduced to a man who had a question about His Holiness’s reincarnation. “What do you remember about your previous lives?” the man asked.
“The Dalai Lama looked at him and replied, ‘No, I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast.’ ”
The man looked startled, and the Dalai Lama explained that according to Buddhism traditions, what gets reincarnated are the predispositions and characteristics. “That is what passes on,” Berthrong recalls the Dalai Lama saying. “If I had been born in some place like Italy in the 15th century, I would have been a priest or a cardinal. My talents are as a religious person.”