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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Dalai Lama attains icon status

October 11, 2007

Sunday, October 7, 2007

By EVELYN SHIH, STAFF WRITER
The Record, www.northjersey.com

He has published a steady stream of books on his life and thoughts 
beginning in the late 1990s. He has photo ops with Richard Gere. He's 
drawn a crowd of up to 36,000 at the Rutgers University football 
stadium. Friday through next Sunday, he takes over Radio City Music 
Hall for five appearances.

He is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, born Lhamo Thondup, the exiled 
religious and political leader of Tibet and face of Buddhism in the 
West. The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner has become one of the world's 
most recognizable icons, with his red and yellow robes, shaved head 
and wizened eyes twinkling behind a pair of glasses.

Not only is he known as an inspirational figure and a leader in 
behalf of world peace, but, in recent years, he has also become 
credibly -- or incredibly -- cool. The Dalai Lama's famous face is 
encroaching on space normally reserved for the iconic likes of Che 
Guevara and Albert Einstein - and popping up on everything from tote 
bags to notebooks to boxer shorts.

"I feel like it's a tribute to him as a person," said Kevin McCormick 
of Princeton, who has designed a Dalai Lama T-shirt available on the 
Internet. His design riffs off the black and white sharp relief style 
of the ubiquitous Che shirts by having His Holiness holding two 
fingers up in the peace sign. "Instead of showing a leader of revolt, 
I wanted to show someone who I see as a leader of peace. ... With a 
Che shirt, you can offend a lot of people."

In the media spotlight

McCormick, who is not a Buddhist, created the T-shirt after reading 
"The Universe in a Single Atom," a book by the Dalai Lama. The 30-
year-old may seem an unlikely fanboy for the 72-year-old Tibetan 
leader, but he's not alone. The 14th Dalai Lama dominated the New 
York Times bestseller list for several weeks with "The Art of 
Happiness" (1998), which ended up selling 730,000 copies. The success 
of books like 2006's "How to See Yourself as You Really Are" 
continues to prove his popularity, and DVDs like "Ten Questions for 
the Dalai Lama," coming out Oct. 23, also keep him in the media 
spotlight.

Although the Dalai Lama is a religious and spiritual beacon, his 
image seems to cut across the lines of faith and nationality. Where 
figures like mega-church pastor Joel Osteen might divide the public 
into believers and non-believers, the Dalai Lama's message is 
inclusive, said Mara Einstein, author of the new book "The Branding 
of Faith," which examines the marketing of different religions.

"He is a consistent face of peace in the world," she said. The New 
Age movement of the '60s and '70s championed Buddhism and Hinduism as 
alternative world views, and though that movement may have become 
outdated, said Einstein, the Dalai Lama still carries on his mission 
of spreading tolerance and non-violence. His reach extends far beyond 
Tibet, just as the influence of popular Pope John Paul II (an icon 
who graced T-shirts himself) traveled far beyond the Vatican.

She said that when people wear the Dalai Lama's face across their 
chests, it's an act of identity creation. "Whether you're wearing a 
Yankees baseball cap or a Dalai Lama T-shirt, you are communicating 
to people, 'This is who I am,' " she said.

Inspired individuals like McCormick, who is a freelance Web and T-
shirt designer, create their own Dalai Lama merchandise, as do Web 
sites like "The Zen Shop" at e-sangha.com. The proceeds may not go 
directly to the Tibetan cause, but the spontaneous proliferation of 
His Holiness' image indicates its currency.

"Talk about branding," said Einstein. "He's probably got the best 
brand of any faith. It would be across-the-board positive" to have 
his image associated with products, people and events, she added.

While there are many people who have done good things in the world 
and received Nobel Peace Prizes, they "may be less appropriate to put 
on a T-shirt because they haven't achieved that iconic status that 
people can relate to just by seeing an image of them," McCormick said.

A further plus: Identifying with the Dalai Lama is something almost 
completely non-controversial. How could anyone disagree with peace? 
And unlike most religions, Buddhism has a reputation for being non-
proselytizing and open to other faiths, said Einstein. There is less 
pressure than there may be in other faiths to convert and commit to a 
whole set of beliefs.

'Ah ha!' moment

But perhaps the real reason the Dalai Lama has such reach in the West 
is his charisma.

Diane Hatz, a follower of His Holiness for almost 10 years, felt his 
"unconditional love" from the nosebleed seats of an auditorium where 
she heard him speak for the first time. It was 1998, and she was on a 
trip to Washington, D.C. She decided on a whim to see him speak 
because he is a "historical figure, like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela."

At first she was irritated because she couldn't understand his words 
through his accent. But her "Ah ha!" moment came when he prostrated 
himself at the end of the talk in a ceremonial bow.

"He touched his forehead to the floor, and when it hit the floor, it 
was like this light pierced me in the heart," she said. As soon as 
she got back home to New York, she began looking for a Tibetan 
Buddhist spiritual teacher. She eventually ended up with Lama Pema 
Wangdak at the Palden Sakya Center in New York, where North Jersey 
Tibetan Buddhists like executive secretary Michele Sakow also practice.

And she will most definitely be at Radio City Music Hall, hanging on 
his words. Like die-hard sports fans and rock band groupies, Hatz 
travels to as many of the Dalai Lama's events as she can. She will be 
going to Indiana and India this year, and Bethlehem, Pa., next July.

"This is what I do," said Hatz. Buddhism informs every part of her life.

Never underestimate the power of an image, she added. "I know people 
who have only seen his photo and become totally interested in 
Buddhism," she said.

While most merchandise carrying his image is all in good fun, who 
knows: Maybe sporting "Dalai Lama Is My Om Boy" on a spaghetti-strap 
tank top will inspire some epiphanies -- or even enlightenment.

E-mail: shih@northjersey.com
* * *

A Dalai Lama primer

• Ancient lineage: The man known as the Dalai Lama is believed to be 
the 14th in a line of reincarnations. Tibetans believe that his soul 
is that of a bodhisattva, or enlightened being. The Dalai Lama has 
been both the spiritual and political leader of Tibet since the 17th 
century.

• What's in a name? The Dalai Lama was born Lhamo Thondup in 1935 in 
Amdo, Tibet. He was recognized as the next Dalai Lama at the age of 
2, given the name Tenzin Gyatso and crowned the leader of Tibet at 15.

• Exiled: In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India 
because of increasingly dangerous pressures from the People's 
Republic of China. He set up a government in exile in Dharamsala, India.

• Recognition: For his efforts to bridge gaps with other religious 
and state leaders and his continued dedication to peace, the 14th 
Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

• Continued oppression: Last month, laws went into effect in the 
People's Republic of China mandating that the next reincarnation of 
the Dalai Lama be chosen by the Chinese government. Observers say 
this is a transparent attempt to limit the Tibetan leader's influence 
over his nation. The current Dalai Lama has vowed not to reincarnate 
in a China-controlled Tibet.

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