The Dalai Lama is not a teddy bear, but I noticed people who met him seemed predisposed to cuddle.

Exiled, middle-aged, long cut off from ordinary hopes and ordinary pleasures, the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha is at best a tragic figure and -- for he seems to refuse to give himself airs -- pathetic.

A good bit of merry amusement surrounded the party for him in the capital -- he is cheerful and likes to laugh -- and the films of Ladakh (which he asked to see) were glorious enough, but I saw him as a man estranged from his past and from all those around him.

He said he missed the yaks, Tibetan oxen.

As a Southerner misses mules.

People say yaks smell terrible, but they don't. Once I rode in a movingvan type truck from New York to Washington alone in the back with two yaks and some other animals. I found them grave, goddess-eyed, and sufficiently charming that I often spoke to them on the long ride. So it's not hard to believe His Holiness misses them.

Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) asked him what America should be doing for Tibet that it's not doing, and the only thing the Dalai Lama mentioned was 4,000 refugees in Bhutan. Pell said he didn't see why they couldn't come to America, from their country of first asylum, and Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.) said he, too, would see what could be done to admit them.

Afterwards Pell said the Dalai Lama was a marvelous man, with a system of values that transcends all boundaries.

But nobody knows quite how to talk with him.

He asked me what color our Lhasa apsos are (those Tibetan mop-dogs that used to serve as violent burglar alarms at monasteries) and seemed pleased old Sabot is golden with black tips. The best color, needless to say.

But he was here large as a ceremonial figure. People respected his religious role, and the veneration in which his person is held by so many Buddhists.

I never saw such tiny feet on a man.From the time he was very small boy, growing up in the thousand-room palace of Lhasa, he was separated from the herdsman's boy who crossed the fields with the yaks; and from much else.

And now his country -- its national culture -- is virtually in ruins. To the extent that Richard Sorenson, a humanist anthropologist, felt every week counted in his task of recording as much Tibetan culture on film as possible. Even next year may be too late, as the old ways crumble.

It's not surprising the National Anthropological Film Center of the Smithsonian was the only thing he specifically asked to see. Two years ago he had a talk with Sorenson about recording Tibetan culture, and last spring asked Sorenson to see him at Dharmsala. Under the Dalai Lama's aegis, doors were opened to the most closed ceremonies. The most learned and sophisticated lamas explained the significance of the things Sorenson saw, and provided commentary to illuminate the films. Without the Dalai Lama's blessing, none of these priceless films could have been made.

After he saw them, he said he was very grateful. Throughout Tibet, now under Chinese control, the old rituals have vanished, and only film supported by authoritative and learned commentary can really record the gestures, the rhythms and intonations of the chants, the handling of the 5-year-old novices by the old lamas, the colors of the walls and so on.

I remember reading years ago Hortense Powdermaker's anthropological study of a town in northern Mississippi, a greatly novelty in which an American WASP culture was the topic, not the Easter Islanders. And I thought it was sociology, only not so squinched up as sociology usually is -- it was a portrait of a town and the powers in it. Italian Renaissance figures would have understood it at least as well as Americans of the 1930s. Her study was humanist, and I don't think she measured a single skull or thighbone, at least not for the record.

It could be argued, and probably has been, that the study of Tibet should consist of careful measurements of the superb steelwork, the economy of the yak and so on, and there is a place for that.

When S. Dillon Ripley, the Smithsonian secretary, led the Dali Lama through the Freer Gallery after the films, the party passed some beautiful old Persian silver plates.

They tell plenty, those Sassanian treasures. The prince hunting on his horse. The technical supremacy of the metalwork. But how much more wonderful if films across all those centuries existed. Things we do not even have the imagination to ask might be shown.

Margaret Mead, shortly before her death, observed in a letter that the Smithsonian's film center is just the kind of question that often comes up when a new kind of academic enterprise comes into being, and said the film center is one of these new directions in scholarship and therefore needs nurturing.

Surely it means something that the titular and real head of a dying civilization blessed the work of the center and made available to it an entree without which the record could never have been made.

Some of the center's advisory council and friends turned out for a party at Roma Crocker's house in Georgetown for the Dalai Lama, just 20 or so, where the man could relax.

Before he showed up with his retinue at dusk, and while it was, therefore, just a Washington party, even then it had the sparkle and glow, the laughter and tangents and quirkiness that one notices more in this capital than in other towns.

"You believe in reincarnation then?" someone asked a psychoanalyst, Jimmy Doyle of Baltimore.

Indeed he does, though he is not a Buddhist. It all started when a transvestite in the Army was referred to him for treatment.

"You know how the Army is. They wanted me to get this fag off their hands," he said, barely pausing for the objection that most transvestites are not homosexual.

"Exactly," he said. "And this man was not. I began by finding out he believed that in a former life he was a woman, and had this 'memory' of being in her wedding dress and run over by a railroad train.

"I treated that as a fantasy, of course. It was only later I concluded it was in fact a memory. By the way, he overcame the desire to dress in women's clothes in public, and became a noted Washington businessman, and hardly anybody knows about this.

"I have thousands of incidents I could tell you, and I have myself dictated much about my own former lives while under deep hypnosis."

A retired colonel passed by and someone hollered thieves had swiped all his hair.

"False," he shot back. "It's just that I always had crewcuts. And now the crew is gone."

Down the narrow walk around the pool, bordered in cut stone, Marion Stirling Pugh (now a fanatical football fan but formerly an archeologist in Mexico) discussed that enormous stone head at the National Geographic Explorer's Hall -- one of her digs.

Dusk approached and people expected the Dalai Lama any minute. Some (who believe in prior oiling) were at the bar, knowing there was only going to be tea in the dining room, while others were out for the air and the view of the small garden planted as a bamboo grove with Himalayan cedars at the back. So dense that even in this congested quarter of town you could see no building but only the green on green.

Philip Amram, lawyer and general wiseman, recalled the great Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's in 1907. Few who were present had been there, and he expanded handsomely (for he does not underplay stories) on his view from one of the vast piers that holds up the dome of the basilica, and did justice to the gold crowns and the peacock fans and the drama of the scene spread out beneath him, with just a hint that of course nowadays the splendor is pretty much shot.

A few feet on, Caryl Haskins (a regent of the Smithsonian and a near-ultimate authority on the world of nature) said yak tails used to be an important Tibetan export. Used to make beards for Santa Clauses.

Inside Molly Thayer was basking in praise and violet silk (from Sikkim) for arranging the loan of a car for the Dalai Lama's use. A special-order black cadillac with a white top.

Emilie Amram was in the middle of a Class I joke (you can remember Class I for three weeks) about a CIA defector to Moscow, involving 27 puns and SHHHHSH, SHHHH, growled Rep. Rose at her, because the Dalai Lama was about to speak.

People insisted she finish, and she did, of course. Unfortunately none too printably. Rose never did know what the laughter was about, and nobody's going to tell him if he keeps trying to hush up E. Amram.

Hell-bent to go to Tibet is the painter, Lunda Hoyle Gill, who is celebrated for her penetrating portraits of Alaskans, Africans and others often thought of as primitive. She pays $900 a roll for her canvas (from Belgium) and cuts it to size before she leaves home. In the field, or the jungle, she tacks it to a tree and starts in. Turpentine is a nightmare (she paints only in oils) since airlines won't let you take cans of it aboard. She sneaks it on in pocket flasks. God help anybody who picks one up and takes a swig. But in art all's fair, possibly.

Thayer invited everybody to go with her to Sikkim in December, to a wedding in the palace. Done and done. Nobody declined.

After His Holiness departed, the guests refused to. "I don't see that we have to," said Thayer.

Richard Howland, special assistant to the Smithsonian's secretary, said he would not see the pope, since everybody would be cleared out of the Smithsonian Castle that day.

"The Dalai Lama's my pope," he went on. "My only chance to say 'Your Holiness.' " You could hardly say it to your boss.

Constance Mellon, who gave the party (a great friend of the film center) did not have it at her house, after all, because all her furniture got moved out (she is moving to New York) and then she got a dismal tooth to cope with and couldn't even attend. Crocker, meanwhile, realizing nobody was going to go home, went up and put kids to bed and people wandered in and out for a spell, casing the joint thoroughly and noting such ingenuities as wisteria coaxed to grow through little holes cut in wood below the deck off the garden room. In time the last dog was hung and everybody got up at dawn again to go to the filming at the gallery.

Past the Sassanian silver. Past the Whistlers. Into the room with the stone Bodhisattvas, men far gone in enlightenment. The Dalai Lama paused. Probably never can forget that beauty.