Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama gestures as he arrives for a three-day teaching event called 'The way toward Inner Peace' in Milan December 7, 2007. (REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo)
NEW DELHI: At one level, he's just a simple Buddhist monk who's devoted his life to prayer and meditation.
But at another level, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, is much more: he's the head of an unrecognized government in exile, diplomat, Nobel Prize winner and, most importantly, one of the world's most enduring symbols of the struggle for freedom.
"Of course, I pray for my people and for the return of Tibet," the maroon-robed monk once said. "I pray for Tibet every day. But, also, I pray for China. I'm optimistic."
Over the years, the man Chinese authorities dismiss as a "splittist", or separatist, bent on dividing Tibet from China has climbed down and said he only wants greater autonomy, not independence.
He has also expressed his support for the Beijing Olympics, rejecting Chinese allegations he was trying to sabotage the games.
China accused followers of the Dalai Lama of "masterminding" violent protests in Tibet this week, which battered Beijing's carefully cultivated image of national harmony in the build-up to the Olympics, and have already sparked talk of a boycott.
A spokesman for the Dalai Lama said of the Chinese allegation against "the Dalai clique": "This is absolutely baseless and his holiness has made his stand very clear."
It is nearly 50 years since Tibet's god-king fled his homeland on horseback as Chinese shells rained down on his capital but many Tibetans do not expect to see him again, at least not in his current incarnation.
Since that famous journey, the 14th Dalai Lama, or Ocean of Wisdom, has lived as the head of a government-in-exile in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala and has himself hinted he may not choose to be reborn after his death.
He may have angered China last year by hinting he could choose his own successor before his death, that senior lamas may elect one of their number to succeed him like the choice of a new Pope, or that Tibetans might want to do away with the institution altogether.
But many Tibetans still regard him as their spiritual and temporal leader and, although his photographs are banned in China, they privately say they yearn for his return.FUTURE UNCERTAIN
Analysts say the absence of a strong second-rung Tibetan leadership would create a vacuum after the Dalai Lama.
With no figurehead to talk to Beijing, it could spark unrest among young Tibetans who may espouse a more violent resistance than that of the exiled monk who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1989 for his peaceful campaign against Chinese rule.
Born in 1935 into a farming family in Tibet, the Dalai Lama was discovered at the age of two to be the 14th reincarnation of a great spiritual teacher.
A "favorite occupation of mine as an infant was to pack things in a bag as if I was about to go on a long journey. 'I'm going to Lhasa, I'm going to Lhasa', I would say", he wrote in his autobiography, "Freedom in Exile".
"This, coupled with my insistence that I be allowed always to sit at the head of the table, was later said to be an indication that I must have known that I was destined for greater things." Today, he lives a simple life in a heavily guarded mountain home in what is known as "Little Lhasa" overlooking stunning snow-capped Himalayan peaks: he wakes up at 4 a.m. to meditate, finishes administrative meetings, meets people during the day and ends the day with prayers.
A cheerful man with a sense of humor, rarely seen without his prayer beads, he has a strong band of devotees from all over the world and is often visited by dignitaries and celebrities. Hollywood actor Richard Gere is a regular caller.
Though one of the world's most enduring symbols of peace after Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama still thinks of himself as just a simple monk.
"My message is the practice of compassion, love and kindness," he said.
"Compassion can be put into practice if one recognizes the fact that every human being is a member of humanity and the human family, regardless of differences in religion, culture, color and creed. Deep down there is no difference."
(Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jerry Norton)