TIME

TEST OF FAITH

Sixty years in exile made the Dalai Lama the world’s most famous Buddhist. But China wants to name his successor
At 83, the Buddhist leader reflects on a life spent away from his native Tibet

MORNING HAS BROKEN ON THE CEDARSTREWN foothills of the Himalayas. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama sits in meditation in his private chapel in Dharamsala, a ramshackle town perched on the upper reaches of North India’s Kangra Valley. Rousing slowly, he unfolds his legs with remarkable agility for a man of 83, finds the red felt slippers placed neatly beneath his seat and heads outside to where a crowd has already gathered.

Around 300 people brave the February chill to offer white khata scarves and receive the Dalai Lama’s blessing. There’s a group from Bhutan in traditional checkered dress. A man from Thailand has brought his Liverpool F.C. scarf, seeking divine benediction for the U.K. soccer team’s title bid. Two women lose all control as they approach the Dalai Lama’s throne and are carried away shaking in rapture, clutching prayer beads and muttering incantations.

The Dalai Lama engages each visitor like a big kid: slapping bald pates, grabbing onto one devotee’s single braid, waggling another’s nose. Every conversation is peppered with giggles and guffaws. “We 7 billion human beings—emotionally, mentally, physically—are the same,” he tells TIME in a 90-minute interview. “Everyone wants a joyful life.”

His own has reached a critical point. The Dalai Lama is considered a living Buddha of compassion, a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Chenrezig, who renounced Nirvana in order to help mankind. The title originally only signified the preeminent Buddhist monk in Tibet, a remote land about twice the size of Texas that sits veiled behind the Himalayas. But starting in the 17th century, the Dalai Lama also wielded full political authority over the secretive kingdom. That changed with Mao Zedong’s conquest of Tibet, which brought the rule of the current Dalai Lama to an end. On March 17, 1959, he was forced to escape to India.

In the six decades since, the leader of the world’s most secluded people has become the most recognizable face of a religion practiced by nearly 500 million people worldwide. But his prominence extends beyond the borders of his own faith, with many practices endorsed by Buddhists,

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