There are not many doctors of metaphysics whose simple precepts are followed by millions across the globe. There are still fewer political leaders who are practicing monks held by their colleagues to be incarnations of their gods of compassion. And there can be only one human being alive today who was born in a cowshed, has ruled his people since the age of 5 and has worked to advance their cause by guest-editing the French edition of Vogue: the achievement of the XIVth Dalai Lama is to have made of his predicament a hopeful global precedent.
When Tenzin Gyatso was born, in 1935, fewer than 2,000 Westerners had ever set foot in his remote and inhospitable country. No Dalai Lama had ever ventured outside Asia. Now, largely thanks to him, Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism are a cherished part of many a neighborhood. Since being driven into exile by Chinese troops in 1959, the Dalai Lama has set up more than 50 flourishing Tibetan communities in exile, overseen the transmission of his culture and its religion around the world and ensured that his homeland will have a life in many countries even as it is losing that life in Tibet itself.
This process has not been easy. The Dalai Lama has made little headway in protecting the 6 million Tibetans who live in Tibet. And he has not been able to visit his own country in 45 years. Yet amid all he has lost, he has given something indelible to the world. He has shown that justice and nonviolence have a power of their own and converted the extremely rigorous precepts of his philosophy into lucid truths that people of any faith can learn from. And he has shown that globalism can be a way of taking seriously the idea that all of us are one another's neighbors and that Tibet--and China--are part of our responsibility, as we are of theirs. Long after his instant charisma is forgotten, he will be remembered as one who ensured a safe future for his culture outside Tibet and gave the rest of us an alternative home in what was once a very distant set of beliefs. --By PICO IYER, author of Sun After Dark