The world's emblem of Buddhism is in Britain this week. Clare Garner on a reluctant superstar
The most memorable thing about the Dalai Lama is his laugh: a deep, resonant, chuckle which, when he really gets going, makes his whole face crinkle until his eyes almost disappear. The laugh does not of course denote lack of seriousness. Like many religious figures he uses humour - albeit of an unsophisticated kind - to illustrate a moral point. Unlike many religious figures, however, he has a distinctly unorthodox style of wit and wisdom. Talking about the problems of overpopulation, for example, he will say: "More monks, more nuns. That I think is the best way of non- violent birth control." Then he will add: "Or there is always this method" - and, reaching under his maroon robe and laughing uproariously, makes a masturbatory gesture.

His ribaldry is hard to resist. Whether or not he makes ribald gestures when he meets Tony Blair this weekend, we can only guess at, but it seems unlikely. The two men are due to meet in Downing Street, and the normal social decencies will almost certainly be observed.

Geopolitical decencies are another matter. It is thought unlikely that the Prime Minister will discuss the Chinese occupation of Tibet with the exiled spiritual and political leader of six million Tibetans. A "religious mediator" will be present, so that the talks can be presented to the Chinese as a meeting of spiritual minds.

The Foreign Office does not want to upset the Chinese ahead of the state visit to Britain this autumn by President Jiang Zemin. Might there be room for a discussion about Kosovo and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade? Perhaps there is more chance of that. It would be fascinating to witness an exchange of views on the war between one of the world's leading hawks and the world's leading dove.

The Dalai Lama arrived in London on Friday in doveish mood. He is in Britain for six days, and on Tuesday will deliver the 10th Lambeth interfaith lecture, "Towards a Peaceful World - the Role of Religious Communities". Before flying to Italy on Thursday for another interfaith gathering, he will launch a book entitled Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for a New Millennium.

His itinerary in Britain is tight, so many want to see him. He has become a symbol of serenity, a spiritual leader second only to the Pope. He is also, and this embarrasses his serious followers, the darling of Hollywood. To actors like Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn he has become what they want him to be.

What he has become is not what he is, though. The Dalai Lama industry is not of his making. Take, for example, the reaction of Penguin Putnam, the American publisher, on reading the first draft manuscript of his new book. The Dalai Lama mentioned abortion and homosexuality and thus risked alienating the very people who would be most receptive to his perceived liberal message. It would not go down well with the loosy-goosy guys in California; after all, conservative ethics are associated with nuts on the fringe of the Republican Party and not with - in Hollywood terms - the most touchy-feely Tibetan of them all.

There were some who wanted the Dalai Lama to stay in his chocolate box. In the end, the reference to abortion was kept, but no mention was made of homosexuality. Did the Dalai Lama allow himself to be censored? According to his editorial assistant, he took the view that, given the sensitivities, he did not have enough space to explain his views in a way that would not be offensive to gays. So he decided, in the end, to avoid the subject altogether.

The Dalai Lama himself is well aware that he is being marketed as a product. But he is resigned to it. "I am a screen-saver for computers," he has said. "People can use me as they want. My main practice is to serve human beings." Hollywood has already made great capital out of him with the films Kundun, and Seven Years in Tibet. More than 40 books bear his name, but in the majority of cases the copyright is not even his.

He has had a direct hand only in a small number of publications - his best-selling autobiography, Freedom in Exile, for example, along with his latest book on ethics and a short technical commentary on a Buddhist text. So far removed from the real thing are some of these unauthorised publications that one is entitled Death and Eternal Soul in Buddhism. Buddhism does not recognise the existence of the soul.

The fundamental problem for the Dalai Lama is that people want the happiness he has achieved without submitting to the discipline necessary to achieve it. He is, as he often says, "a simple monk", and his message is an austere one: he advocates self-discipline and warns against "luxurious living". It is not his fault if impressionable film stars believe that holiness is nothing more than gaining happiness by feeling rather good about yourself. Yet there is nothing New Age about the man. He is what he is.

The Dalai Lama did not, of course, choose his life; it was chosen for him. He was born Lhamo Thondup ("Wish-Fulfilling Goddess") on 6 July, 1935, in the far north-east of Tibet. His parents were smallholders. They had 16 children, of whom eight survived. Lhamo Thondup was not quite three when the search party sent out by the government arrived at his parents' house and showed the boy a number of the previous Dalai Lama's possessions, along with several items that had not belonged to him. In every case he correctly identified those belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama, saying: "It's mine, it's mine."

Shortly afterwards he was proclaimed the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. He was taken away from his parents and brought up in a monastery in Llasa. When he was seven he was enthroned in the 1,000-room Potala palace as the spiritual leader of a nation the size of western Europe with a population of 6 million.

At 15, the boy became head of state. In the same year, 1950, China seized Tibet. On 31 March, 1959, after nine years of brutal killings and broken promises by Chinese authorities, the Dalai Lama fled his country for Dharamsala, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where he has lived in exile ever since. The Chinese remain in Tibet, but the Dalai Lama remains hopeful that one day he will return to his birthplace.

In the years since going into exile he has devoted himself to the plight of his people, to receiving refugees when they arrive from Tibet, and to travelling the world preaching a way of non-violence. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

He remains persistently optimistic, a cast of mind which frustrates not only the Chinese, but young Tibetans who think it is time for a more aggressive approach with regard to the occupation. This is a significant year for both China and Tibet. On 9 June it is the 10th anniversary of the massacres in Tiananmen Square, Peking, and on 1 October the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China.

It is not a year in which dissent will be tolerated. There has been an increase in arbitrary arrests in Tibet and a concerted campaign to promote atheism. Human-rights abuses continue and the recent clampdown in monasteries has led to a rise in the number of refugees. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Tibetans join the Dalai Lama in exile each year.

Nothing, however, can dent his natural optimism. When asked what the most significant moment in his life has been, he scanned his past as if spoilt for choice and then replied: "I think not yet come." His optimism is accompanied by moderation. He is even moderate in his condemnation. He is, for example, bemused by much Western behaviour, not least the rate, and rapidity, of divorce. "When you see a couple married, a few months they remain very happy, then after some time divorce, then marry, then divorce, marry, divorce - that I think is too much, a little too extreme," he says.

The Dalai Lama is keen to demythologise himself. He is not the god-king that people make him out to be. In many ways he is a man of the world. His recognises his own failings and inconsistencies. He has a passion for wrist-watches and has a collection of them. In his new book he says he thinks he should sell them. Why doesn't he, then? "I think lack of practice," he says, laughing. "Anyway, fact is fact. I love wrist-watch."

There is no affectation here. Alexander Norman, who has worked with the Dalai Lama for 11 years, says: "Occasionally, I think of him as an ingenue, an innocent abroad."

Just as the Dalai Lama didn't have any choice about becoming the Dalai Lama, neither does he seem to have much choice about what being the Dalai Lama means. When you meet him he is so clearly someone to whom the phrase "what you see is what you get" applies. But people see what they want to see.