He was just a small boy living among the grave monks and the splendors of his palace, but he uas the Dalai Lama, the Wish-Fulfilling gem, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. Custom and ceremony ruled his life. And then he was given a telescope.

Dalai Lama means "Ocean of Wisdom" in Mongolian, but when he was very young he did not train his telescope on the moon, which shone like the silver in his palace, or on the stars, which glittered like the gold in his storehouse. The Dalai Lama looked instead at the people passing by, listened for songs and sorrow. The mundane looks wonderful when the wonderful seems mundane.

Now the Dalai Lama is 45, a political exile, and he sits at polite attention in the plush sitting room of his suite at the Waldorf Astoria until he is asked about the telescope.

"Oh, I looked so long and hard, I ruined my eyes from looking," he says, and points to his glasses and laughs.

The Dalai Lama has a wonderful laugh. It surprises itself in the act of delight and rings out around the room, as if all his past 13 incarnations were joining in with him. It stops as suddenly as it begins and his shaved head is cocked gravely to one side and it is impossible to tell whether the glittering eyes are still gay.

He has been in this country a week now, traveling -- at the request of the State Department, skittish over any adverse reaction from the Chinese -- as a religious leader rather than an exiled head of state. In New York, there have been sermons, lectures, a press conference and an interfaith service at St. Patrick's Cathedral with Cardinal Terence Cook and Mayor Ed Koch. He moved through New York in a black limousine, waving out the window, splashing the city with odd juxtapositions.

"Get out a the way of His Majesty," yelled a burly Irish cop as a cordon of monks ushered the Dalai Lama into the car. "Hey, you know who that guy is? That's the king of Tibet."

"Far out," said a man in a three-piece suit holding a bean-sprout sandwich.

The Dalai Lama arrived in Washington last night with an agenda that calls for a congressional reception, a meeting with the Senate Foreign Committee and a lecture tonight at Constitution Hall -- the temporal demands of this Manifestation of the One Thousand-Armed Avaloleiteshvara, the Lord Who Looks Down Compassionately on the World.

He uas chosen in the usual manner. When the 13th Dalai Lama died in the year of the Water Bird, 1933, the state oracles and learned lamas of Tibet set about to discover the place his reincarnation has appeared. "Curious cloud formations were seen in the northeast from Lhasa," the current Dalai Lama wrote in his memoirs. "It was recalled that after the (13th) Dalai Lama died, his body was placed seated on a throne . . . facing towards the south; but after a few days it was seen that the face had turned towards the east. And on a wooden pillar, on the north-eastern side of the shrine where the body sat, a great star-shaped fungus suddenly appeared. All this and other evidence indicated the direction where the new Dalai Lama should be sought."

There were visions in a sacred lake; a monastery with a roof of jade green and gold appeared, and a house with turquoise tiles. Eventually the lamas were led to the 2-year-old son of a farming family. They performed their tests. They offered the child two rosaries, two drums and two walking sticks, and each time he settled on the one belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama. There were other tests as well, but in the end they carried him off in custom and in creemony and brought him to Lhasa, the Forbidden City, in a great procession. "Music and dancing," he wrote, "followed me everywhere."

He grew up in the thousand rooms of the Potala Palace, 1,300 years old, the size of a city. He surrendered his childhood to long hours of formal study in dialectical discussion and the philosophy of religion -- The Perfection of Wisdom, the Middle Path, the Canon of Monastic Discipline, Metaphysics. There were 7,000 volumes in the palace and illuminated manuscripts of the scriptures, their texts written in inks made from powdered gold and silver, conch, turquoise and coral. Each line was written in a different ink.

But the Dalai Lama would look up from his text to stare out the window, much as he stares out the window of the Waldorf, at the steel and concrete of New York, gleaming in the gathering store of the horns of rush hour.

Did he ever wish for a moment that he was not the Dalai Lama, that he walked among ordinary men as an ordinary man? "Yes," says The Wish-Fulfilling Gem, and begins to speak rapidly in Tibetan. His translator, a soft-voiced monk, replies, "Yes, when His Holiness was young, this kind of thought did occur to him. When the Holiness saw some of the Tibetan children tending cows, taking them to graze in the daytime and returning in the evening, singing, while His Holiness had to study the scriptures, he used to envy them." There is another quick stream of Tibetan in a quiet tone, and the monk continues. "But then of course His Holiness realized it was stupid, or a fantasy, to think about such things, and also he recognized the role he was playing and the benefit he could contribute to us."

There is an ancient prophecy concerning the Dalai Lama. It says that the Dalai Lama will have to leave Tibet, and that he will return. It warns as well that there will only be 14 Dalai Lamas.

The 14th Dalai Lama says he isn't bothered by the prediction. "It may or may not be true," he says with a shrug. "In the future, in Tibet, the institution of the Dalai Lama may or may not be. At president moment the institution of Dalai Lama is something important for Tibet but this does not necessarily mean that the institution of Dalai Lama is something that is important to Tibet forever."

He lives now in Dharmsala, in northern India, at the foothills of the Himalayas. He fled into exile over those mountains 20 years ago, when the People's Republic of China came crashing down on a popular uprising protesting its rule there. By then he had tried for nine years to find a middle path between the sound of one hand clapping and two countries clashing.

But he was only 16 when the government looked to him for guidance, and the weathervane he was accustomed to using to gauge the wind was not suitable for this sort of tempest.

He recalls, in his memoirs, his first meeting with the man who was to be China's representative in Lhasa, after the signing of what he calls "a forced, one-sided bargain" between China and Tibet. "I was not looking forward to it. I had never seen a Chinese general, and it was a rather forbidding prospect." He had arranged to meet him in "a beautiful pavilion," and "When the time came I was peering out of a window to see what he looked like."

The Dalai Lama was a trifle disappointed. "I do not know exactly what I expected, but what I saw was three men in gray suits and peaked caps who looked extremely drab and insignificant among the splendid figures of my officials in their red and golden robes." The idea of beauty as power had little place in the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the Dalai Lama is confident he will return one day, and will only offer his own version of no comment when asked about his negotiations with the Chinese government.

In exile, he spends his days tending to the needs of the 65,000 Tibetans who lived in Dharmsala. The day begins at 4 a.m. with meditation and ends at 10 with prayer. In between, he meets with the ministers who have followed him into exile, teaches scripture and tends his garden. Across the mountains, in what is called by the Chinese the Tibet Autonomous Region, there are 1.74 million people-- true believers longing for his return, or reconstructed happy communists, depending on who is rendering the account. But now that Peking is easing its restrictive policies toward its ethnic minorities, visiting journalists report that the monasteries that remain are crowded again.

The Dalai Lama likes to talk about compassion and the need for human kindness, about what Buddhism can teach the world of the workings of the mind and the varying states of consciousness. "Without human kindness," he says, "the world will not survive."

An old Tibetan prophecy is mentioned, one that calls for troublesome times ahead in the '80s. "I am not a prophet" he says, "I am merely a Buddhist monk. But according to the scriptures, we are passing through a period of decadence, a time of decline." We are not to worry; for the next 1,000 years, says the Dalai Lama, "it should be very gradual."

But whatever there is to teach, there is so much he wants to learn. The Dalai Lama is fascinated by technology. As a boy he took apart his wristwatch, the three cars to be found in Tibet and anything else mechanical that might come the way of the boy god-king. In Dharmsala, he maintains a small electronics workshop. When things break down and the center does not hold, he is delighted-- the Dalai Lama will fix it.

In Moscow, he was entranced by the spacecraft on exhibit at a museum there. He was looking forward to a private tour of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The visit was canceled suddenly, a week before the Dalai Lama arrived, after approval was already granted, his aides say. They speak darkly of political reasons for the cancellation, the Dalai Lama merely shrugs when he is told the visit is off. He is fond, it seems, of any thing to do with machines, with the possible exception of computers. "I am always very poor in math," he says.

There is something wonderful about this love of technology, the formalism of ritual finding a counterpart in the elegance of gears: the motor married to the mantra. The Dalai Lama grows flowers, mends machines; perhaps he is the perfect referee for the modern wrestling match between men and moving things.

The Dalai Lama also plans to learn a thing or two about microbiology while he is traveling, "and the present state of the science of conception. Where everything isn't entirely explained physically, where questions remain, exactly where that science is nowadays.

"I am very much interested in the relation between the mind and the physical senses, how the mind depends on the body and how the body depends on the mind." Not to mention, His Holiness adds rather off-handedly, how a scientific explanation of conception might affect the theory of rebirth.

One might think that such a subject might be approached by the 14th incarnation of the great Gedundrub, foremost disciple of the Incomparable Tsongkhapa, with about as much enthusiasm as the Baptists brought to Darwin, but such is not the case. "It is all very interesting, you know," says His Holiness.

This is the Dalai Lama's first visit to this country, but he has already been woven into the cultural tapestry in the bright colors of the exotic. In the '50s, he conjured the image of Shangri-La, a lost paradise of innocence and agelessness, magic and mysticism, unbounded by time and the limits of the possible. In the '60's, he became the symbol for a different sort of imaginative exercise, one that began in the white light of the early psychedelic experiences and continued to Dharmsala, where pilgrims who having once managed to get their egos doing cartwheels on acid, went to ask the Dalai Lama how to go the distance.

There is a story, of long-standing authority in the ozone of the apocryphal, about a hippie who went to see the Dalai Lama and offered him some acid, explaining that here was a short-cut to transcendental bliss. His Holiness, so the story goes, gave the drug to one of his monks, who was told to take it and bring back to report. The next day the monk came back. "It takes you to the seventh of the nine stages of meditation," he said. "But it's only temporary."

And so was the flirtation with Tibetan Buddhist teaching, for all but the most earnest of the American pilgrims. "It is ironic that it was magic and mystery and the whole anti-rationalism trip that first brought people around to the East," says Alexander Thurman, an Amherst professor who was ordained by the Dalai Lama and lived as a Buddhist monk until he decided in 1967 that "the monk trip was really self-indulgent on my part and I should try to hack it in the world."

Thurman and his wife, Ninna, a former model, are both practicing Buddhists. "The whole approach is very rational," he says. "It doesn't offer an ultimate truth, which is what a lot of those people were looking for."

Thurman has his own hopes for the Dalai Lama's visit, ones that involve talking about the planet in as kindly and casual and committed a fashion as most people use in talking about their neighborhood. "He could have a unique access to corporate and political leaders, the Marie Antoinette types who threaten our future. He could simply talk sense to them, bring hope and optimism."

After all, Thurman notes, the Dalai Lama in previous incarnations "has kept rulers off each other's throats before -- his gig now, you know, might be to continue functioning in that role on a planetary scale."

The Dalai Lama merely looks quizzical when this is suggested to him, so he is asked what he misses most about Tibet.

"Perhaps the yak," he says, and his interpreter goes on to translate that it is not just "the rarity of the animal that is meaningful" to the exiled spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, the 14th and perhaps last Dalai Lama. "It is the fact that the yak is so important to Tibetan life. Through the centuries, the Tibetan people have gained their livelihood through the yak, and much of what is important to living comes from that animal."

Yaks are hard to find now, the Dalai Lama says. But recently he was in Zurich, and "in Zurich there is a zoo. There are four yaks in the zoo," and His Holiness went to see them, and it is easy to imagine them gazing gravely at one another, each of them so integral to a life and a homeland they are so far away from: exotic and exiled.

"They were not as big or as strong as the yaks in Tibet," says the Dalai Lama. "But somehow, it was very good to see a yak."

He makes a small and tired gesture, weariness darkens his eyes for a minute and a shaft of sunlight seems to pin him to his velvet chair. He says something quickly in Tibetan. "His Holiness says that yaks just came into his mind suddenly," the translater says gently, "so he just thought he'd mention it."