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An Elite, if Eclectic, Entourage

October 14, 2009

Dalai Lama Rolls With Operatives, Actors and World's Happiest Man
By Michelle Boorstein
The Washington Post
October 10, 2009

The official oracle couldn't make it; he's in L.A. But much of the
rest of the Dalai Lama's unusual entourage is with the Tibetan
spiritual leader as he moves around Washington this week.

The monk-molecular geneticist known as the "happiest man in the
world"? Here and apparently quite happy.

Celeb-Buddhist Richard Gere? Of course.

Beefy Tibetan bodyguards? In the front row.

The Dalai Lama often calls himself a "simple monk," but he runs with
a crew that's far from simple. Even his longtime translator, Thupten
Jinpa, is a Cambridge philosophy PhD who left monkhood for marriage
and now researches compassion and something called "neuroeconomics."

The Dalai Lama's small, male and mostly Tibetan inner circle includes
diplomats, political operatives, monk attendants and personal
assistants who do everything from shopping for his shoes to preparing
liturgical items for religious ceremonies.

Then there are the further-out rings of people a Dalai Lama visit
attracts: other monks and lamas from across the country, Tibetan
exiles, science students, human rights activists, hippies, wanna-be
hippies and recovering hippies.

The groupies trail after the man English-speakers call His Holiness
-- or HH in internal communications -- and Tibetans often call
"kundun" or "the presence," or another term meaning "the precious
one." The backstage chitchat at Dalai Lama events can sometimes sound
almost surreal, with statuesque blond relief workers trading notes on
where to get great Italian food in Addis Ababa. The Dalai Lama
himself contributes to the be-in atmosphere. In public, he is very
light-hearted and often informal, holding people's faces, shucking
their chins, kissing their heads and chuckling, Barney Rubble-style.

But his inner circle puts off a far more somber vibe. They are
focused on the most serious aspects of the Dalai Lama's missions,
which include Tibetan freedom and world enlightenment.

Gere, a longtime ally of the Tibetan leader's, can barely contain his
impatience when he's questioned about life within the entourage. "I
can't believe you're asking me that," the Hollywood actor said brusquely.

A slice of the scene has been on display this week at the swank Park
Hyatt near Georgetown, where members of the Dalai Lama's inner circle
hang out in the bar after long days of high-level meetings, awards
ceremonies and conferences. (The Dalai Lama's trip ends Saturday
after a public teaching on the power of the human mind at American
University. )

But even the schmoozing amid the hotel bar's wheatgrass bouquets and
techno music is apparently serious.

"I'm the only social animal," confides Jinpa, the Dalai Lama's
British-accented translator, who wears jeans and a sweet smile.

As for the Dalai Lama, he doesn't step foot in the bar. He barely
eats dinner -- as is typical for super-focused monks -- and goes to
bed extremely early in order to get up between 3 and 4 a.m. to
meditate for several hours.

He doesn't require any elaborate shrine room to help him concentrate,
said Matthew Pistono, a Tibet scholar who has accompanied U.S.
congressional delegations to meet the Dalai Lama. "He just puts his
feet beneath him and that's it. His simplicity shines through."

Unlike Pope Benedict, the Dalai Lama is not accompanied by a press
corps and usually has only about 10 to 20 staff members with him on
trips. Many of them literally whisper in his presence to preserve the
serenity around him.

To the people who work for the Tibetan leader, he remains a revered,
remote figure. "It's not like you're hanging out in his hotel room,"
noted Jeffrey Hopkins, a Tibet expert and author who served as the
Dalai Lama's interpreter from 1979 through 1989.

But how simple can it really be to be an insider with the world's
most famous Buddhist?

Former entourage members tell of sneaking through restaurant kitchens
and parking garages to avoid anyone recognizing the Dalai Lama and
such Hollywood celebs as Gere, Harrison Ford and Martin Scorsese.

One of the Dalai Lama's advisers and translators is famous in his own
right. Matthieu Ricard, son of a famous French philosopher, left a
career in genetics to become a monk. Ricard is now a best-selling
author on the subject of happiness and is well known for scoring off
the charts as a subject in a series of neurological studies about
happiness, meditation and the brain. Ricard's smile was a fixture at
the two-day "mind and life" conference Thursday and Friday at DAR
Constitution Hall.

Absent from this week's visit was Thupten Ngodup, a monk in his 50s
who is referred to as the "official oracle" of Tibet. Followers
believe he was picked by a centuries-old oracle to be its medium and
offer advice to the Dalai Lama and other important figures by going
into a dramatic, chilling trance. Buddhists who have seen him -- or
videos of him -- say that when he's in a trance his body shakes, his
face doubles in size and he speaks in a high-pitched hiss.

Hopkins said the Dalai Lama values the oracle for his conservative
political advice, although he doesn't necessarily feel compelled to
follow his counsel. "It's not like everything is swallowed," he said.

Ngodup, who lives near the Dalai Lama in India, made a stop in
Washington last week but then headed to New York and Los Angeles to
perform rituals, conduct teachings and raise money for a small
foundation he runs.

"He had a couple friends he wanted to see," said Pistono, who saw him
when he breezed through town.

Even an oracle needs some time off.
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