BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Tuesday, the Dalai Lama, the head of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, turned 75. He was forced to flee Tibet in 1959 in the early years of China’s occupation, and he’s been a thorn in China’s side ever since. There seems to be no end to the struggle, at least while the current Dalai Lama still lives. And on his birthday this week, he noted that he was in good health and could well live another - 30 years. That means another 30 years of disastrous public relations for China. As we noted in the next report, first aired in 2007, the Dalai Lama has evolved as a media manager over the years. The affable spiritual leader always seems to extend an olive branch to China that he must know will always be rejected.
THE DALAI LAMA: Although we prefer direct communication with Chinese government, Chinese leaders, we haven't find proper opportunity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Born in a poor farming village in 1935, he was two when he was identified as the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader and head of state. In 1959 he was on the run, living in India. Robert Thurman, now a professor at Columbia University, studied with him there and became the first American ordained as a Tibetan monk.
To me he was like a really nice young guy, a little nervous and uh, very sweet and friendly. He didn't bowl me over with his sort of superstardom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He launched his perpetual tour in 1967. He's since met with many thousands of ordinary people, presidents, prime ministers, patriarchs and popes. He's been on Time's list of the World's 100 Most Influential People. He's won the Nobel Peace Prize. He's been savaged by Christopher Hitchens. It doesn't get better than that. What's his PR secret?
ROBERT THURMAN: You know, people ask me often like who manages the Dalai Lama's PR and who's his PR firm, and all this. And he's never had one. And, in fact, sometimes they've been offered pro bono by different PR firms, and his people and himself have always declined because they don't want to be packaged without their own long-term understanding; they want to control their own image.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All he really wants is to get a simple message out about compassion and Tibet but public relations isn't simple in such a complicated world.
ROBERT THURMAN: He was on Larry King a bunch of times about five, six years ago, and he turned down some other programs - I won't mention names, not to embarrass them - but, you know, that have a 50 million audience instead of a 1.2 million audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That program was Oprah's.
ROBERT THURMAN: Tibetans, you know, they come from a high altitude, you know, they climb mountains and things, and they herd yaks, and they're very self-reliant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, I mean, how self-reliant can you be in New York if you don't know the difference between Larry King and Oprah Winfrey?
ROBERT THURMAN: [LAUGHING] I don't know. That's what we say sometimes.
Some of the Dalai Lama's public relations problems are far less innocuous. In 1998, he acknowledged that his administration in exile took money from the CIA in the 1960s, that the country he briefly ruled condoned what amounted to serfdom. He was accused of speaking out of both sides of his mouth on the issue of homosexuality, and he's friends with Richard Gere.
ROBERT BARNETT: But somehow, there just seems to be this bounce-back quality to the Dalai Lama, a - a sort of Teflon thing that these things just seem to add to his glow somehow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Barnett is a lecturer in Tibetan Studies at Columbia University.
ROBERT BARNETT: And he doesn't seem to get pulled down by even the slightly more difficult figures like the Steven Seagal, that film star who got declared by one Tibetan lama to be himself the reincarnation of a 17th-century Tibetan Buddhist teacher.
MAN: You and I, we’re the same.
MAN: There's a difference, my man. You have faith.
MAN: [WHISPERS] I don't.
[END OF CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For real?
ROBERT BARNETT: For real, yeah, and this really seemed to be the limit of credibility. I mean, a huge number of Buddhists were shocked and horrified by that. And the Dalai Lama carefully distanced himself from that. He seems to have survived it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's an old and durable aphorism about media that they love to build those heroes up and then take 'em down. How come he hasn't been taken down?
ROBERT BARNETT: I don't know. I, I have to admit that I'm one of the people who said, you know, 20 years ago it wouldn't last, you know. [LAUGHS]
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And I'm wrong, so I, I shouldn't be making guesses here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maybe it's that particular element in Tibetan Buddhism that seems to bestow enlightenment at random, even on – Steven Seagal?
DONALD LOPEZ: So there is a great appeal to that, that you don't know where these great lamas are going to appear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Donald Lopez is a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan.
DONALD LOPEZ: It could be in Tibet, it could be in California. Anybody's child, at least hypothetically, could be the incarnation of a great lama.
THE DALAI LAMA: I'm nothing special. I'm just – just like you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But maybe we just love the way he combines modernity and tradition, the spiritual with the commercial – literally. Robert Barnett:
ROBERT BARNETT: He did a series of advertisements once -- wasn't it for Apple Computers -- which was big, as well, you see, where he places himself in front of the modern and in front of the fashionable - all the things that he would appear not to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or maybe we love that movie stars follow in his wake.
DONALD LOPEZ: Buddhism always caught on first in the Royal Court.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After all, says Donald Lopez, celebrities are our royalty.
DONALD LOPEZ: The aristocracy, the nobility who find Buddhism somehow interesting, uh, and so, when people complain, as they often do, that Buddhism seems to be kind of celebrity religion and that all of the Richard Gere and Sharon Stone and so forth are devotees of the Dalai Lama and somehow take offense at that, I think they're missing a, a larger historical perspective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then there are the movies about him or his native land: Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, with Keanu Reeves, Seven Years in Tibet, with Brad Pitt and especially Martin Scorsese's Kundun, with actual relatives of the Dalai Lama.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MAN: Holiness, the Chinese have moved their camp. The Oracles’ route is safe for us now. We must go.
MAN: Sanctuary has been arranged in India. They are expecting you.
[WHISPERS] Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kundun helped give Tibet an identity distinct from so many other oppressed minorities. Before the current crop of films, there was only 1937's Lost Horizon, by Frank Capra, whose Tibet was Shangri-La, pretty much an Oriental Brigadoon.
ROBERT BARNETT: Tibet always was the empty space on the map.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Barnett.
ROBERT BARNETT: Not just in Western accounts, even in the first millennium in Arabic accounts, Tibet was being described in this way, as the empty space, that really was the space on which people could project fantasies. I think that he's taken that Tibet that's played that role in history and turned it into a, a sort of personal Tibet. He's, he’s now a walking empty space that travels around in which we can place some of those fantasies and actually go listen to him, and he's humorous and immediate and, and very tangible. And it seems to be a sort of Tibet that's come alive, even though Tibet, the country, has uh, disappeared.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Barnett believes it's empty space that forms the basis of the Dalai Lama's appeal, the reason why his constituency can range and change from Indian conservatives to American hippies.
ROBERT BARNETT: What I mean is that the Dalai Lama, in his general talks, is presenting a kind of a philosophy and a kind of approach to life that is really not marked by anything in particular. It's almost featureless. It's just an idea of, of compassion, treating people well.
THE DALAI LAMA:
Compassion is important because more compassionate mental attitude there, you can see everything more better, more clearly.
ROBERT BARNETT: It's classically what media people talk about when they try to find neutral terminology, something that could be open to almost anyone who listens to it. My guess is that that's what's made this happen. And I, and I should add one thing. He has received enormous help constantly from the Chinese authorities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's the capper. That's what makes Dalai Lamania so enduring, aside from his profoundly appealing message of peace and love, of course. You couldn't buy a better foe than the People's Republic of China.
ROBERT BARNETT: They just constantly repeat the, the kind of propaganda dream of attacking him again and again. It's a bit like a Rottweiler savaging a puppy. They make him look more and more docile every time they bare their teeth.
THE DALAI LAMA: I have nothing to offer, just to listen, to learn myself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Dalai Lama is 75. China’s best chance for winning the PR war may just be waiting for him to pass away. But since we're talking about someone who’s forever reborn, it could be a very long wait.