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Dalai Lama and his unusual posse descend on Washington

WASHINGTON — 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 Ph.D. 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.

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, Ethiopia.

Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama is not accompanied by a press corps and usually has only about 10 to 20 staff members with him on trips. Many of them whisper in his presence to preserve the serenity around him.

Former entourage members tell of sneaking through restaurant kitchens and parking garages to avoid anyone recognizing the Dalai Lama and such Hollywood celebs as Gere, left, Harrison Ford and Martin Scorsese.

One of the Dalai Lama's advisers and translators is also famous in his own right. Matthieu Ricard, the son of a famous French philosopher, left a career in genetics to become a monk. Ricard is now a best-selling author on the subject of happiness and is well known for scoring off the charts as a subject in a series of neurological studies about happiness, meditation and the brain.

Absent from this week's visit was Thupten Ngodup, a monk in his 50s who is referred to as the "official oracle" of Tibet. Followers believe he was picked by a centuries-old oracle to be its medium, and offer advice to the Dalai Lama and other important figures by going into a dramatic, chilling trance. Buddhists who have seen him — or videos of him — say when he's in a trance his body shakes, his face doubles in size, and he speaks in a high-pitched hiss.

But even an oracle needs time off.

Dalai Lama and his unusual posse descend on Washington 10/09/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 9, 2009 11:23pm]
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