While some might disagree, the Dalai Lama's judgment is to be taken seriously. Single-handedly he has recast Tibet from an obscure geopolitical issue into one of the great moral dilemmas of our time: either to side with the Chinese behemoth or to support a tiny group of impoverished people in their struggle to regain independence. Like the U.S., most countries have chosen to avoid publicly interfering while quietly backing the Dalai Lama’s quest to improve China's bleak human rights record in Tibet, which includes banning free speech and arresting Buddhist monks and nuns.
In his pursuit of better conditions for Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, seen here visiting Tashi Lhunpo monastery in southern India, is rarely in one place very long. Celebrated as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, moral arbiter, public speaker, author, and spiritual leader, he's as at home in New York City or Paris as in Geneva or Tokyo. Some younger Tibetan exiles allege that the older generation has lost its fervor for returning to the homeland and has become bogged down in nepotism and other forms of corruption. Before meeting with the Dalai Lama, I asked his personal secretary, Tenzin Geyche Tethong, about these claims. "Yes, we've heard these charges before," Tethong said. "But there's never been a major allegation of corruption. I feel we've been successful in avoiding corruption."
I also asked Tethong about claims by China that Tibetan monks were in the habit of sexually abusing young boys and did so during the present Dalai Lama’s rule. "There may have been some instances, but it was never widespread," he replied. Tethong added that he questioned the practice of admitting children as young as eight into monasteries—banned by China but still going on quietly. "In reality we find that some of the best scholars began as children," he said, "though I acknowledge that children don't really know their own minds at that age."
Moments later the Dalai Lama strode into the sitting room. We exchanged white silk scarves, a formal Tibetan greeting, and took chairs catercorner from each other. Tethong and the Dalai Lama's American-educated nephew, Tenzin N. Taklha, fielded translations when he stumbled over a word or thought, which he does with some frequency.
This was the fourth time in 30 years I'd interviewed the Dalai Lama—whose title means "ocean-wide" and implies vast wisdom—and on each occasion I have found him tranquil and almost tangibly spiritual. This time we spoke mainly of change: in Tibet, in China, among Tibetan exiles, in himself. I told him about the new breed of entrepreneurs I met in Tibet and asked what he thought of their effort to rebuild temples and stupas. I expected him to endorse their efforts. Surprisingly, he did not.