On a wet Sunday in June at the Glastonbury Festival, more than 100,000 people spontaneously burst into a rendition of ‘‘Happy Birthday.’’ Onstage, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, blew out the solitary candle on a large birthday cake while clasping the hand of Patti Smith, who stood beside him. The world’s most famous monk then poked a thick finger at Smith’s silvery mane. ‘‘Musicians,’’ he said, ‘‘white hair.’’ But ‘‘the voice and physical action,’’ he added in his booming baritone, ‘‘forceful.’’ As Smith giggled, he went on: ‘‘So, that gives me encouragement. Myself, now 80 years old, but I should be like you — more active!’’
The crowd, accustomed to titanic vanity from its icons — Kanye West declared himself the ‘‘greatest living rock star on the planet’’ the previous night — looked uncertain before erupting with cheers and claps. The Dalai Lama then walked into the throng of celebrities wandering about backstage, limping slightly; he has a bad knee. He looked as amused and quizzical as ever in his tinted glasses when Lionel Richie approached and, bowing, said, ‘‘How are you?’’ ‘‘Good, good,’’ he replied, clasping Richie’s hands.
When the Dalai Lama entered his dressing room, I stood up hurriedly, as did the Tibetan monk who was sitting beside me. ‘‘Sit, sit,’’ he said and then noticed a black-and-white photo of naked young men and women dancing during Glastonbury’s earliest days. He turned to me with a mischievous smile, and said, ‘‘Please sit and enjoy the photo.’’ He then spoke in rapid-fire Tibetan to the monk, cackling with delight: ‘‘These pleasures,’’ he said, ‘‘are not for us.’’
And yet here he was in his crimson robes — ‘‘just a simple Buddhist monk,’’ as he describes himself — among Britain’s extravagantly costumed young revelers in a 900-acre bacchanal in the muddy heart of the English countryside, inconceivably remote from the mountain passes, high plateau and rolling grasslands of his Tibetan homeland. For much of his 80 years, the Dalai Lama has been present at these strange intersections of religion, entertainment and geopolitics. In old photos, you can see the 9-year-old who’d received the gift of a Patek Phillipe watch from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Another twist of the kaleidoscope reveals him tugging at Russell Brand’s shaggy beard, heartily laughing with George W. Bush in the White House or exhorting you to ‘‘Think Different’’ in
Among the elite, accusations of corruption and nepotism have further roiled the close-knit Tibetan exile community. In the latest scandal, Gyalo Thondup accused his sister-in-law’s father of siphoning off the Tibetan government in exile’s gold and silver. His sister-in-law denied the accusations in a widely circulated Facebook post.
Tenzing Jigme did not blame the Dalai Lama for these setbacks. In fact, he credited him with ‘‘the democratic shift in the community,’’ the advent of elected leaders. ‘‘He keeps preparing us for the future,’’ he said. But there was no doubt, he added, that the Tibetans faced a political impasse. The possibility that many would lapse into violence after the Dalai Lama dies had only grown.