The Dalai Lama's Elite, if Eclectic, Entourage

Nancy Pelosi, left, and the Dalai Lama's interpreter, Thupten Jinpa, with the Dalai Lama at a Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice event.
Nancy Pelosi, left, and the Dalai Lama's interpreter, Thupten Jinpa, with the Dalai Lama at a Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice event. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo

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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, 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.

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