The Tibetan spiritual leader’s status as a peace visionary was underscored by the rock-star reception he received during a recent visit to France, writes John Kohut.

The Palais Omnisports in the Bercy district is where big-name rock stars perform when they come to Paris. Eminem filled the house there last June, as did Madonna during her 2001 world tour.

But earlier this month, this pyramid-shaped glass concert hall on the Seine opened its doors to a different sort of luminary, one who has none of the razzmatazz normally found at Bercy, but a fame, allure and a quiet message that nonetheless packs in the crowds: the Dalai Lama.

The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who also runs a Tibetan government in exile from the Himalayan village of Dharamsala in India, found Bercy a fitting venue for conveying his message.

For one, only a place like Palais Omnisports could accommodate the thousands who snapped up the tickets well in advance, paying as much as 260 euros (HK$2,350) for a full week of the Dalai Lama’s teachings – seminars which were the first events of their kind in Paris. In all, the Dalai Lama taught in Paris for about a week, leaving last Tuesday for other European cities.

Even if unintended, the choice of Bercy symbolised what an international icon Dalai Lama has become since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Born in 1935 in a small village in northeast Tibet as Tenzin Gyatso, and recognised at age three as the reincarnation of his 13 predecessors, he is now politician, sage, best-selling author (his Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living has sold 1.2 million copies) and saint, all paradoxically wrapped in an aura not entirely unlike that of a rock star.

‘He filled all of Bercy. That’s amazing!’ said Dominique Cogne, a retired Parisian automobile distributor, speaking of the Dalai Lama’s weekend introduction to Buddhism, with a sell-out audience of about 12,000 people. ‘If anyone had an extra ticket that they needed to sell, they got rid of it right away. There were people looking for tickets and there weren’t any left.’

On the weekdays during his Parisian tour, an estimated 8,000 people showed up for each morning and afternoon session to hear the Dalai Lama give his commentaries on two treatises by Nagarjuna, a second century Buddhist philosopher and dialectician: ‘Homage to emptiness’ and ‘Commentaries on bodhicitta’. Given the rarefied nature of these texts, which dwell on Buddhist concepts of awareness (bodhicitta), reincarnation (samsara), passage from non-existence to existence, emptiness and the like, the turnout has been nothing short of remarkable.

It was much the same when the Dalai Lama gave four days of talks last month in New York City. Tickets at US$400 were snapped up well before he arrived. Tens of thousands of people turned up for the Dalai Lama’s free public talk in Central Park.

With the adoration and status has come a fair amount of glamour. During his stay in Paris, his hosts, an association of six Buddhist centres in Paris, put the Dalai Lama up at the exclusive Hotel Crillon, a neo-classical palace of marble, mirrors and gilt where royalty, film stars and heads of state are apt to stay – because it was deemed to have the best security. The Dalai Lama’s press conference on Monday took place at the George V Four Seasons, the newest and arguably coolest among Paris’ trendy deluxe hotels, where, thanks to it being French fashion week, the guests milling around the lobby were looking particularly hip.

For German diva Nina Hagen, the camp, cult figure who headed the line-up for a concert at the Cabaret Sauvage in benefit of Tibetan children, the Dalai Lama is both a spiritual mentor and a star. ‘John Lennon isn’t here anymore, and many others have left the planet,’ Ms Hagen – dressed in shiny black boots, striped knee socks, a black jacket, and in her hair lime-green daisies with tiny skulls in the centre – told her audience. ‘The Dalai Lama is here. He’s our teacher!’ she screamed to loud applause in between renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Madonna’s Fever.

But make no mistake about it, the punks, fashion victims and professionals who turned up at the Cabaret Sauvage and the array of people of all ages at Bercy were far from Dalai Lama groupies. They came either because they supported his Tibetan political cause and advocacy of non-violence as the solution to world conflicts, or wanted to find out more about Buddhism. All of which enables the Dalai Lama to rise above the trappings of stardom.

‘We’re here for the music but at the same time for Tibet. It’s a good cause,’ said Kevin, a French student of Mongolian ancestry who refused to give his last name, while waiting to get into the Cabaret Sauvage.

‘Buddhism is a religion but at the same time a philosophy that speaks of non-violence,’ said Pierre-Yves Casteleyn, a 45-year-old jewellery artisan from Brittany who is not a Buddhist but has been studying its philosophy from age 14. ‘In our world today, people want to consume. They want more material things. The Dalai Lama tries to teach that wealth isn’t on the exterior but the interior of the self. When one understands that, one lives for others.’

In France there are 600,000 ‘practising’ Buddhists, of which 450,000 are people of Asian origin. This makes Buddhism France’s fourth largest religion, while an estimated 80 per cent of Buddhists in France follow one of the Tibetan schools. But more remarkable is the rapidly increasing attraction Buddhism holds for people of other religions and for atheists. A 1999 Sofres poll showed five million French people considered Buddhism to be ‘the religion to which they feel closest’, compared with two million people in 1994.

‘Buddhism is evidently a spirituality that is a bit trendy,’ Frederic Lenoir, religious philosopher and sociologist, and author of a book on Buddhism and the west, told Liberation newspaper this week. ‘But it’s not just that … Buddhism attracts because it is perceived as non-violent, a bearer of a humanist wisdom.’

In comments to Le Monde, Mr Lenoir added that Buddhism was considered as ‘the most tolerant [of religions] and the closest to modernity … It is the model of anti-fundamentalism’.

The turnout at Bercy indicates ‘the sympathy France has for the Tibetan cause and a more general attraction for the values of Buddhism, which appear more positive than monotheistic religions, identified rightly or wrongly with extremism and violence,’ Le Monde commented.

One of the other reasons for the growth of Buddhism in France seems to be that the Dalai Lama doesn’t try to convert people away from their own religions. Indeed the Dalai Lama, while hoping people will incorporate his teachings on non-violence and compassion into their lives, at the same time advises them to stick with the religions they grew up with.

Otherwise, ‘at the time of death, [there is] some confusion in their own minds,’ the spiritual leader said during the press conference, sitting at a table laid out with pompom-shaped hortensia flowers in transparent glass vases, pink petals and candles strewn before him.

But much of the increasing popularity of Buddhism here seems to be tied to the self-effacing simplicity of the Dalai Lama, his hearty laugh, the fact that he sees himself as no better than any other person, his sense of humour and the philosophy he outlined at the Palais Omnisport, transformed for the occasion into a space of near ethereal tranquility. At the back of the stage was a huge saffron-coloured screen with a large mandala, the image of the Buddha in the centre. Below was placed a Tibetan-style altar. In the centre of the stage, sitting in lotus position on an elaborately carved throne, was the Dalai Lama wearing his simple maroon-coloured robes and a visor, to protect him from the overhead lighting. On either side of him were scores of monks along with a Dominican priest dressed in white vestments – invited to show how Buddhism tries to reach out to rather than compete with other religions.

The audience was hushed. Many people scribbled notes as they listened to audio units for simultaneous translation into a variety of languages from Tibetan. Though some of the Dalai Lama’s commentaries were on concepts difficult to grasp, he at times broke them down into metaphors that most anyone could comprehend.

‘Why don’t we see this nature of the spirit?’ he said in a soft voice. ‘It’s because sometimes there’s confusion. Clouds are formed by attachment to things … Step back, eliminate all the fog and chase away the clouds. Then light will pass through naturally.’

‘He’s so charismatic at a time when every other political cause in the world seems to be false,’ said Martin Voss, a sociologist at the University of Hamburg, who came to Paris for the full week of teachings. ‘This is the one person who is so charismatic you can believe every word he says. Just because of the person.’

‘He said that the Christians can learn from Buddhism and the Buddhists can learn from Christians,’ said Cordula Ditemer, also a sociologist at the University of Hamburg. ‘That’s very different. And every time, he says he doesn’t hate the Chinese people even though they made a lot of oppression of the Tibetans.’

‘He’s like a living example of his teachings,’ said Dorje, a 32-year-old South African who as of last March gave up a retailing career to become a Buddhist monk at the Nandala Monastery near Toulouse in southern France and now goes by one name only. ‘He’s not someone reading words. He’ssomeone who is the end result of the teachings.’

No one seems to begrudge the Dalai Lama the grand manner in which he has been received in France. ‘Fortunately he rides in armoured cars, because without him no one would represent the Tibetans,’ said Lydia Dym, also a jewellery maker from Brittany. ‘The Dalai Lama doesn’t care if he’s in a four-star hotel or a tent. France is a rich country so it has to receive him in a way that shows he’s welcomed.’

Nor do people mind paying to hear him speak, given that proceeds cover rental of the venue. Any remaining funds are funnelled into projects earmarked by the Dalai Lama.

Lama Denys said of the Dalai Lama: ‘Yes he’s been mediatised. But today communication is very important and communicating and dialoguing is the non-violent way for solving problems and conflict.’

He added: ‘But I wouldn’t say the Dalai Lama is a star. He is the sun.’