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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Letter from China: Lama and Cougar

September 30, 2010

Evan Osnos
New Yorker
September 28, 2010

Because the Dalai Lama’s popularity in Hollywood
became a familiar phenomenon some years ago, it
didn’t require much space in the profile I
published in the magazine this week. (“The Next
Incarnation” is available to subscribers.) As a
cliché, it is usually invoked in service of one
skeptical view or the other: either to point out
how far the Tibet issue has drifted from the
people and places at the center of it, or to
suggest that the Dalai Lama is too eager or
willing to associate with big names simply for
the sake of it. (For the record, neither is quite
right: As described in the piece, the Dalai Lama
has a more subtle understanding of the role of
the press and power than either his fans or critics usually expect.)

Regardless of whether you adore or resent him,
the Dalai Lama’s sheer portability and
adaptability is one of the most important facts
of his life. The Chinese government blames him
for courting supporters in the West, and yet, by
any political calculation, he has no alternative.
After centuries in which previous Dalai Lamas
never set foot beyond their own kingdom, this
Dalai Lama spends his life ambling from one subculture to another.

For instance, one day in Bloomington, Indiana,
last spring, the Dalai Lama was expected for
lunch in the Hoosier student union with a few
dozen guests hosted by the royal family of
southern Indiana: rock star John Mellencamp and
his wife Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp, a tall blonde
with the luminous look of a skin-care model.
(That’s because she is a skin-care model; she met
the artist-formerly-known-as-John-Cougar on an
album-cover shoot.) John grew up about fifty
miles away, in Seymour, and after the couple
moved back to Indiana, Elaine joined the board of
the local Tibetan-Mongolian cultural center. The
Dalai Lama, as usual, was running late, and
Elaine calmed the guests with an update: “As soon
as His Holiness is done speaking then I think
we’ll be able to hit the buffet.” When the Dalai
Lama arrived, John Mellencamp, a bantam of a man
with a black pompadour, picked up an acoustic
guitar and welcomed him with a hoarse folky tune
from his latest album: “Save some time for
sorrow/Cause it will surely come your way.”

Everyone applauded, including the Dalai Lama.
Then he clasped Mellencamp’s cheeks like a
toddler’s, and leaned in so close that his
forehead grazed the prow of Mellencamp’s hairdo.
It was not at all clear how much he knew -- or
needed to know -- about the singer before him. He
was on the move, leaving deep impressions in his
wake. By the time people hit the buffet, he was
out the door enroute to the next gig.
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