A visitor to Australia who always attracts considerable media attention and some controversy, the Dalai Lama arrived recently to attend the world's largest inter-religious gathering, the Parliament of the World's Religions, opening in Melbourne.
Honoured in some quarters, seen by others as more politician than monk, he soon took the opportunity to comment on the climate change summit in Copenhagen, saying governments were often too concerned with national economic interests instead of global issues.
"Global issues should be number one," he was quoted as saying. "In some cases, in order to protect global issues some sacrifice for national interest is worth it in the long run. Global warming, these things, they suffer everybody." (ABC News November 30, 2009)
An acknowledged world citizen and a celebrity in a respected sense, he remains an exile from the country of his birth - was once an asylum seeker - and was speaking in a secular nation where Buddhist thinking is not particularly dominant. He is a constant traveller and speaker. So who is the Dalai Lama and why is his voice listened to by so many people - including world leaders, except those too nervous of China?
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso is the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists. In 1989 he was awarded a Nobel Prize for peace. He has written more than 70 books on Tibet, the principles of Tibetan Buddhism and world environmental problems.
When as Lhamo Dhondrub he was chosen as a two-year-old to be the next Dalai Lama, he was renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso: which means Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith and Ocean of Wisdom. It was a lot to live up to.
His official biography refers to him as “His Holiness” as both the head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibet. Internationally he is often addressed in those terms. He describes himself as “a simple Buddhist monk”. Tall and impressive in voluminous mostly dark maroon monk robes, he is disarming and instantly impish in reply to questions. An interviewer can find it extremely hard to pin down a warm, amiable man wobbling with boyish laughter. For all that, he is a shrewd, knowing man and has thought deeply about life and world affairs.
He was born into a farming family in north eastern Tibet, and in those days a new a leader was identified as the Dalai Lama after searchers undertook arduous journeys on behalf of the Tibetan regent. As Lhamo Dhondrub, he was taken from his family home to be educated in a monastery. Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of bodhisattvas, described as enlightened beings that postpone their own nirvana to take rebirth in order to serve humanity.
Tibet, then a sovereign country, was bordered by China, India, Bhutan and Nepal. After the onset of the Chinese invasion in 1959, Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, aged 24, escaped to India where he and his followers settled in Dharamsala, northern India. Eighty thousand Tibetan refugees eventually joined him in exile.
The Dalai Lama appealed to the United Nations to help Tibet and on three occasions the General Assembly called on China to respect the human rights of Tibetans. More recently the Dalai Lama has sought greater autonomy within China rather than seek to regain its lost independence.
In the meantime, exiled Tibetans in India have elected a reformed democratic parliament, based on Buddhist principles, with “The Charter of Tibetans in Exile” enshrining freedom of speech, belief, assembly and movement. A democratic parliament reflects a huge shift in attitude from the feudal Tibet in which the Dalai Lama was raised when Tibetans numbered 700,000 serfs in a population of 1.25 million.
The first Dalai Lama to visit the West, Tenzin Gyatso has since travelled to more than 62 countries spanning six continents and met presidents, prime ministers and crowned rulers of major nations, as well as leaders of different religions and noted scientists.