When the Dalai Lama enters a room, bald head bowed, hands pressed together in front of his chest in his trademark gesture of humility, some people see a spiritual leader who preaches world peace through compassion to others.
To Tibetan Buddhists, he is a living Buddha and champion of the Tibetan call for independence from Chinese occupation.
"His significance is incalculable in bringing a healing and united presence in the world," said the Rev. Annette Jones, who has a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and is pastor of St. John's on the Lake First United Methodist Church in Miami Beach. "He's pure compassion."
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was born in 1935 in the Lhamo Dhondrop region of Tibet. He was thrust onto the world stage at age 25 after fleeing to India to escape Chinese-occupied Tibet. From exile, the monk has preached, prayed and negotiated with the Chinese about their governance of 6-million Tibetans, who have lived under Chinese rule for more than 50 years.
His efforts won him a Nobel Peace prize in 1989.
Now 69, the Dalai Lama has increasingly branched out to the world stage, addressing thousands in Europe, Latin America and the United States. He recently gave a talk on world peace through inner peace in Miami, his second visit to South Florida in five years.
His message of nonviolence, coupled with his humility, has cast a spotlight on Buddhism, the world's fifth-largest religion with 360-million followers. Among the 5-million Buddhists in the United States, 1-million are Western converts.
Tibetan Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana or Great Vehicle tradition, which arose in India about the first century B.C., and stressed the principles of wisdom and compassion as the two keys to overcoming human suffering. It combines the Prajna or wisdom teachings of the Buddha with the esoteric Tantric practices of the Vajrayana or Lightening path.
Jeffrey Hopkins, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar and longtime friend of the Dalai Lama, said part of his appeal lies in his ability to put Buddhist teachings into universal terms.
"His Holiness has worked very hard to formulate a message appropriate to all people," said Hopkins, a professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at the University of Virginia who has coauthored several books with the Dalai Lama. "There are many techniques within Buddhism for the generation of kindness toward others, and those techniques appeal to people of any religion."
In addressing Western audiences, however, the Dalai Lama has often been pressed on issues such as homosexuality and the lack of female spiritual leadership in Buddhism. He has said that although homosexuality is condemned as "sexual misconduct" in certain Buddhist texts, such teachings shouldn't be applied to modern societies.
"As far as homosexuality is concerned, he's saying that the Buddhist scripture says this is something people should not practice, but he qualifies that by saying that because of today's culture, today's values, he does not object to it," said Victor Chan, author of The Wisdom of Forgiveness, (Riverhead Books, $24.95) which he cowrote with the Dalai Lama.
When pressed about discrimination against women in the Buddhist monastic tradition, the Dalai Lama has admitted that elements of monastic culture should perhaps be revised to ensure equal opportunity for nuns.
The Dalai Lama has also reached out to scientists to spur dialogue between the scientific and religious communities. The Dalai Lama, who believes that Buddhism is more a philosophy than a dogma, has told scientists he would be willing to relinquish any belief that science contradicts.
Last year, the Dalai Lama met with cognitive scientists in Cambridge, Mass., to discuss parallels between Buddhist psychology, which views negative emotions as the primary cause of suffering, and Western neuroscience.
"His Holiness says there are certain things we can learn from science and things science can learn from Buddhism," said Nawang Rabgyal, the chief envoy of the Dalai Lama to the Americas through the Office of Tibet in New York.
Rabgyal and other Tibetans living in exile look to the Dalai Lama's leadership in dealing with the Chinese government, which Tibet advocates say has launched a war against Tibetan religion and culture during more than 50 years of occupation.
"Under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, we are not demanding independence, but are looking for autonomy," Rabgyal said.
Still, there are some who say too little has been achieved under the Dalai Lama's leadership toward improving the lives of Tibetans living in the Tibet Autonomous Region, now part of China.
Dalai Lama followers, however, say that without him, the plight of the Tibetans would never receive the media attention or popular support that it has generated.
"The plight of the Tibetans in general has become something that people are more aware of," said Alejandra Fernandez, the manager of DQ, a spiritual bookstore in Coconut Grove, and a convert to Tibetan Buddhism. "With everything that's happening in the world today, people need a philosophy that teaches tolerance and compassion."