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(RNS) If there were a guide book for globe-trotting gurus, its rules might run something like this:
1. Don’t get too involved in politics.
2. Never criticize your host country.
3. Welcome converts to your faith.
4. Act as sage-like as possible.
5. Be wary of science.
On his trip to Washington this week, the Dalai Lama broke nearly every one of those rules. And yet, he remains as popular as ever.
“He is a very unique spiritual leader,” said Arjia Rinpoche, a prominent Tibetan Buddhist who lives in Bloomington, Ind.
It didn’t take long for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate to break Rule No. 1 this week. On Monday (Oct. 5) and Tuesday, he delved into politics, huddling with a State Department official and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to discuss the U.S. policy towards Tibet. Perhaps he can be forgiven, since the Dalai Lama is both spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
While the idea of a monk-king may seem odd to Westerners, Dalai Lamas have been leading Tibet for centuries, according to scholars. In recent years, the current Dalai Lama (the 14th in Tibetan history) has been working to separate the two roles by outfitting his government-in-exile with an elected prime minister and parliament. And as he ages, he has hinted that he would like to retire from his political responsibilities.
The Dalai Lama broke rule No. 2 on Tuesday, while receiving a humanitarian award recognizing his nonviolent struggle for a degree of autonomy for Tibetans under China’s rule. But rather than talk about Tibet, he chastised the U.S. for the gap between rich and poor.
“Even here in America, richest country, but still, huge gap — rich to poor,” the Dalai Lama said in his halting English at a ceremony on Capitol Hill. “This is unhealthy. You have to think seriously about those less-privileged people. They are also human beings.”
Rule No. 3 remains unbroken on this leg of the Dalai Lama’s North American tour, but he’s here until Saturday, and he’s shown a penchant for discouraging converts to Buddhism. In fact, he tells the millions who flock to his lectures or buy his books to remain with their native faith.
“He has abstained from using his personal charisma to make himself a big guru,” said Robert Thurman, a friend of the Dalai Lama’s and a professor of Tibetan Buddhism at Columbia University in New York. “He doesn’t want to only be a religious figure.”
He often even sidelines his most pressing political cause — Tibetan autonomy — when speaking before general audiences. More often, he encourages people to take up what he calls “secular ethics” like wisdom and compassion to make small changes in the world around them.
“While you are alive, utilize your life for the well-being of others, not just pursuing money or power,” the Dalai Lama said Wednesday at the International Campaign for Tibet’s Light of Truth Award.
“World peace is the No. 1 issue for him,” Rinpoche said. “Sometimes that upsets the Tibetans a little bit. They say, `You are Tibetan leader, why do you put the Tibet issue last?”‘
Robert Barnett, an expert on modern Tibet at Columbia University, said the Dalai Lama has devoted a huge amount of time promoting global ethics. “When he dies, I think people are going to say, rightly or wrongly, that he was worn out by all those trips to give talks to people about their lives and happiness, time that could have been spent on his role as national leader instead.”
Still, only the Dalai Lama has the moral authority to unite Tibetans behind nonviolent resistance and draw the world’s spotlight to their cause, said Barnett.
The Dalai Lama wears his religious and moral authority lightly, at least in public, readily mocking his broken English and meandering speeches. After a five minute off-topic lecture on feminism on Wednesday, he let out a bellowing laugh. “Whatever I speak, is what I want to express,” he said. “I am just speaking human being to human being, so I don’t care.”
Finally, the Dalai Lama breaks rule No. 5 on mixing science and faith on Thursday and Friday by meeting with educators and scientists at the “Mind and Life Conference” here. On this rule, the Dalai Lama is simply incorrigible. For decades, he has often seemed as interested in discussing the latest scientific discoveries as in ancient religious truths. He has even said that if science proves a Buddhist belief wrong, that belief will have to change.
It seems that for the Dalai Lama, some beliefs, like rules, are made to be broken.
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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