As a player on the world stage, the Dalai Lama has had a banner year. People in high places are now officially taking his calls like never before. I'm wondering, though, if I'm friends with the Dalai Lama and he's friends with George Bush and Stephen Harper, does that make me friends with Harper and Bush?
I'm glad the Dalai Lama came to Toronto last week, because I need help to sort this out.
In the last six months, the Tibetan leader has scored a U.S. Congressional Medal and unprecedented official state meetings with major neo-con world leaders. In addition to Bush and Harper, add Australian Prime Minister John Howard and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It's been a real step up the agenda ladder for the Tibetan cause. That's a good thing, I tell myself. But there's an upsetting side, too. Not just for China, but let's start there.
Until now, A-list leaders have tiptoed around hurting China's sensitive "feelings" about Tibet. Now they've thrown caution to the wind. What's going on?
I smell a larger political agenda. Naturally, it's got very little to do with human rights. My money says that Bush was craftily delivering an important political message to an emerging superpower. As your customer, the U.S. is saying, we have more power than we had as your enemy.
Old-school Chinese officials can mouth the politburo doublespeak all they want, but as a global exporter, China can't really win with the same old political hand it's been playing without trumping its own economic strength. That's why Bush, with his war-wounded dollar that's drowning in trade deficit, was smiling on October 17. He got to rein in a new world-class competitor and wrangle himself some human rights cred at the same time.
This is the deep and treacherous water of superpower politics that the Dalai Lama has been treading for more than 50 years.
"Many of the world's problems are ultimately rooted in inequality and injustice, whether economic, political or social," he told Congress on October 17. "I would like to appeal to you to take a leadership role in an effective international action in addressing this huge economic imbalance."
Having the moral authority to say these words to the world's most powerful is impressive. Being the one leader out of probably hundreds of oppressed minority cultures on this colonized and embattled planet who almost everyone the world over knows and admires - that's actually astounding. But maybe not so much when you think he's had 13 previous lifetimes to prepare for the job.
China was miffed, of course. But in the long term, who's to say what impact its new global relationships will have on human rights? For now, though, by a familial twist of fate, I got to see an official Sino hissy fit up close and personal.
My American cousin Charley happened to be in Hong Kong trying to enter China on the very day of Bush's interview and photo op with the Dalai Lama. Apparently, when all else fails, there's always the option of a petty gesture against stray civilians. The Chinese government stopped processing U.S. passports at the frontier, and my cousin was herded from office to office, his passport confiscated as he waited in line - stateless - until officials finally sold him a costly return visa back into Hong Kong.
Back in Toronto at the Rogers Centre, the Dalai Lama is trying to explain that the bond of affection humans are born into, hard-wired between mother and child, is the biological seed of the unbiased compassion he suggests we cultivate, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.
To bring the point home, he wants to evoke the nursing infant, but he can't find the word for nipple. So unselfconsciously, he points to his own monk's breast, his finger circling and circling the spot, and then he puckers up as he puts the same finger to his mouth. It's pretty funny, but maybe you had to be there.
I get the impression that the Dalai Lama really enjoys lingering on this affection-and-motherhood topic. As I listen, I'm reminded that, in addition to losing his liberty at 16 and his country at 24, he was only four when he was separated from own mother to begin his training at the monastery for the life and teaching he is giving today. Who in the room isn't touched in some way?
But there's a lot more bite to his simple message of compassion than meets the sentimental eye. Listen up if you are a lama-lover like me who has had mixed feelings about seeing the Dalai sharing his love with the likes of Bush and Harper.
Here's a success story His Holiness tells with pride to an earlier press gathering at the Royal York Hotel:
"An American who came to one of my talks in Dharmasala (his hometown in India) told me that before my talk he had very negative feelings toward President Bush. But after my talk he told me he was still against his policies but no longer had negative feelings personally against Bush.
"That's very important. If he keeps negative feelings toward Bush as a human being, that's wrong. As far as actions, he is very right to oppose. But we must keep respect and compassion. That reduces the agitation of the mind."
The same day the Dalai Lama got his Congressional Medal and my cousin got his butt kicked at the Chinese border, the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario (CTAO) got the keys to its soon-to-open new community centre in Etobicoke. The process had begun with a $150,000 donation from the Dalai Lama himself during his last visit.
By "soon-to-open" I mean really soon. In less than two weeks, the CTAO plans to have this 50,000-square-foot window-manufacturing warehouse decked out and ready to host the Dalai Lama and 3,000 of his closest Tibetan friends.
When I get there just four days in, the gigantic space is a riot of debris and demolition. What has to be done by volunteer work crews in the time frame available is almost inconceivable. But the giant space swallows hundreds of family members, all working away, and frankly, they do seem to be practising the art of happiness. Despite the challenge, the lack of tension is palpable.
Amidst everything, troupes of kids and teenage dancers find a spot clear of rubble to practise the traditional Tibetan song and dance numbers they'll perform. There's just one weekend before the big show.
CTAO president Norbu Tsering Baro, who's in charge of pulling off the whole plan, is too young to have ever seen Tibet. He was born in India and benefited from the first program the Dalai Lama got going in exile: free education for Tibetan kids all the way through high school.
"That's why I speak Tibetan and know everything about my own culture," he says. Baro feels it's time for his generation to give back.
By the time His Holiness arrives at the new centre to offer his blessings and share the salty Tibetan tea and sweet rice of celebration, the place is totally transformed.
In my own last moments up close with Tibet's great teacher, I ask how he feels about how the Tibetan way has been embraced by people all over the world. He is far less enthusiastic than I expect.
"Where is the Tibetan experience?" he asks. "Even if you open my brain you won't find it." This man who spends so much of his life sharing himself with others extends his hand and gently cups my cheek.
"Don't worry," he says, with his sweet gaze full on me. "My experience will always be my experience."
When it comes to the Dalai Lama, there's always more to think about.