Morning has broken on the cedar-strewn foothills of the Himalayas. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama sits in meditation in his private chapel in Dharamsala, a ramshackle town perched on the upper reaches of North India’s Kangra Valley. Rousing slowly, he unfolds his legs with remarkable agility for a man of 83, finds the red felt slippers placed neatly beneath his seat and heads outside to where a crowd has already gathered.
Around 300 people brave the February chill to offer white khata scarves and receive the Dalai Lama’s blessing. There’s a group from Bhutan in traditional checkered dress. A man from Thailand has brought his Liverpool F.C. scarf, seeking divine benediction for the U.K. soccer team’s title bid. Two women lose all control as they approach the Dalai Lama’s throne and are carried away shaking in rapture, clutching prayer beads and muttering incantations.
The Dalai Lama engages each visitor like a big kid: slapping bald pates, grabbing onto one devotee’s single braid, waggling another’s nose. Every conversation is peppered with giggles and guffaws. “We 7 billion human beings — emotionally, mentally, physically — are the same,” he tells TIME in a 90-minute interview. “Everyone wants a joyful life.”
His own has reached a critical point. The Dalai Lama is considered a living Buddha of compassion, a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Chenrezig, who renounced Nirvana in order to help mankind. The title originally only signified the preeminent Buddhist monk in Tibet, a remote land about twice the size of Texas that sits veiled behind the Himalayas. But starting in the 17th century, the Dalai Lama also wielded full political authority over the secretive kingdom. That changed with Mao Zedong’s conquest of Tibet, which brought the rule of the current Dalai Lama to an end. On March 17, 1959, he was forced to escape to India.
In the six decades since, the leader of the world’s most secluded people has become the most recognizable face of a religion practiced by nearly 500 million people worldwide. But his prominence extends beyond the borders of his own faith, with many practices endorsed by Buddhists, like mindfulness and meditation, permeating the lives of millions more around the world. What’s more, the lowly farmer’s son named as a “God-King” in his childhood has been embraced by the West since his exile.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and was heralded in Martin Scorcese’s 1997 biopic. The cause of Tibetan self-rule remains alive in Western minds thanks to admirers ranging from Richard Gere to the Beastie Boys to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who calls him a “messenger of hope for millions of people around the world.”
Yet as old age makes travel more difficult, and as China’s political clout has grown, the Dalai Lama’s influence has waned. Today the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that drove him out of Tibet is working to co-opt Buddhist principles — as well as the succession process itself. Officially atheist, the party has proved as adaptive to religion as it is to capitalism, claiming a home for faith in the nationalism Beijing has activated under Xi Jinping. In January, the CCP announced it would “Sinicize” Buddhism over the next five years, completing a multimillion-dollar rebranding of the faith as an ancient Chinese religion.
<div class=”inner-container”> <img src=”https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/dalai-lama-60-years-in-exile-1.jpg” alt=”The Dalai Lama delivers a lecture from his throne on Feb. 18 to mark Losar, the Tibetan new year.” title=”The Dalai Lama delivers a lecture from his throne on Feb. 18 to mark Losar, the Tibetan new year.”> </div>
The Dalai Lama delivers a lecture from his throne on Feb. 18 to mark Losar, the Tibetan new year.