Humility is not a quality readily ascribed to Hollywood's major players. But when the director of `Mean Streets' and `Raging Bull' arrived in Tibet to cast 400 extras for a new film, he exhibited a firm grasp of the politics of compassion. By Claire Scobie
"Are we indulging in idle gossip?" I overhear a Californian woman with pot-noodle hair say anxiously to her new Dharma friend (Dharma is the Buddha's teachings). "Naagh," she replies, "We're just talking about people objectively."

It's a mountain-view cafe on day five of the Dalai Lama's annual teachings in Dharamasala, at the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. We have been warned of the consequences of transgressing from the spiritual path - countless realms of hell, described as hot, extremely hot or blistering. Every year His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, gives a 10-day treatise on a profound Buddhist text from his Dharamasala temple. It is serious stuff, but during the afternoons the atmosphere among the Western crowd - Buddhist beatniks seeking happiness - feels like something halfway between a summer picnic and a Grateful Dead concert. As Tibetan Buddhism becomes more popular, the numbers of Western "seekers" arriving in this two-road village, dubbed Little Lhasa, grows. The cafes become a haven for cyclical conversations about emptiness, compassion and the nature of mind.

Welcome to Dharma-world. Is it for real, I wonder, or a passing fad promoted by Hollywood? Tibetans inured to impatient Westerners take the cynical view that too many are looking for a quick fix to enlightenment. "You go on a retreat. You read some books about meditation and you think that's it," says one Tibetan student of Buddhism. "Dharma takes lifetimes to understand."

Richard Gere is one of a growing number of Buddhist celebrities, which includes Sharon Stone and Stephen Seagal. Unlike Seagal - who now wears the robes of a Rinpoche (a high lama) without acting the part - Gere prefers to meld into the Dharma crowd in a tracksuit and base-ball cap. The star of Pretty Woman and American Gigolo is humble with monks and serious about his Buddhist practice (although contrary to rumour, he has no plans to become a monk). He undertakes the pilgrimage to his root guru - the Dalai Lama himself - every year.

In 1996, screen-writer Melissa Mathison, Harrison's Ford's wife, came to Dharamasala with director Martin Scorsese for the casting of the film Kundun: the amazing story of the 14th Dalai Lama (released tomorrow).

Mathison wrote the script in collusion with His Holiness (as he is known) who insisted that in the film there should be no China-bashing. The Dalai Lama is wary of being schmoozed by Hollywood at the expense of his non- violent principles. China exerted pressure on Kundun's financiers during production, but Walt Disney studios showed rare corporate spine and called China's bluff.

Kundun chronicles the early years of the Dalai Lama, from his recognition as Tibet's living Buddha of compassion, to his escape to India as a refugee in 1959 following the Chinese invasion. It is an extraordinary film because for the cast of Tibetan refugees - numbering 400 non-professional actors from Tibetan settlements in India, Switzerland and America - they are not acting in a Hollywood movie, but enacting their own life story.

"It felt more like remembering," says Tencho Gyalpo, the Dalai Lama's niece, who plays her real grandmother in the film. "Martin [Scorsese] was always saying this is your movie. Do it the way the Tibetans do it."

The film leaves audiences immobilised in its rendition of the tragic life-story of the young Dalai Lama. "I was in tears within three minutes of the film," says Richard Gere, who I met at his Dharamasala hotel. "It works on so many deeply unconscious poetic levels."

But can Hollywood films make a lasting difference? "Yes," says Gere, "I keep telling His Holiness how astonishing the change is with people who I've been talking to for 20 years about the Tibetan situation. They have gotten it intellectually in terms of knowledge, but when they saw the movies [Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun], they got it in terms of a story. Which means emotion."

Unfortunately emotional support won't help the Tibetans as much as political muscle. Gere is optimistic that the current influx of money and information into China may help ease the hard-line policy in Tibet. He has faith in the next Chinese generation, "who will start to trust the Tibetans and His Holiness and see that he is not really a monster, but is the solution to the problem. Rather than the problem".

For years Gere has been actively campaigning for Tibet. He made an impassioned appeal for the freedom cause at the 1993 Oscar's and last year, when Chinese President Jiang Zemin was dining in pomp with Bill Clinton, Gere organised a stateless dinner for Tibetan sympathisers. The day after our meeting Gere was making the 12-hour journey to New Delhi to give support for six Tibetans on a hunger strike to death.

Gere started serious soul searching during his twenties when he was "in a lot of pain". In Tibetan Buddhism he found the mystery of esoteric teachings combined with a rational world view. He believes he has a karmic connection with Tibet, one which has positively transformed his life. "It is the most revolutionary philosophy," says Gere, "In the exploration of the mind nothing is given, so that you even challenge the fact that you exist and if you do, what is the mode of that existence. There is nothing to hold on to."

Gere is eloquent when talking about the nature of suffering; sad when he describes the `river of tears' he witnessed on his one visit to Tibet and enthusiastic about Dharamasala's dharma scene with its heady fusion of meditators, chanting monks and mountain air. "You just feel good

being around Tibetans. They have this incredible heart and are constantly encouraging you to open your heart more and more."

It appears Martin Scorsese also fell under this Tibetan spell during the four-month filming of Kundun. "There seemed to be a personal change," says Gyatso Lukhang, 43, who by profession is an advertiser but in the film plays the Lord Chamberlain.

Education director at the local Tibetan school, Ngawang Dorjee, cast as a nobleman, describes the Tibetan's collective fear before the shooting began. "We had been told that Martin Scorsese was an angry director who broke four phones in his previous film, Casino. But he was very pleasant. He said that the filming was very special as normally he deals with big egos, and us Tibetans are more humble."

Perhaps too humble. The American producers took advantage of those Tibetans from India, who were paid less than their US peers. "We all had to sign an incomprehensible contract and then suffered the consequences later," says 32-year-old Sonam Phuntsok, who plays Reting Ringpoche, the Dalai Lama's regent. "I learned from American people, they are so clever."

Casting for the film had one criteria - the actors could speak proficient English. The casting team were still short of a young Tibetan to play the Dalai Lama when they heard about Kunga, then aged six, who a month previously had been recognised in real life as a reincarnation of a lama (teacher). It is Kunga - literally "joy giver" - whose cherubic face shines from the posters and brought light relief during some of the more emotional shoot-days. Now studying in a monastery, Kunga says he misses the filming and his director: "I love Martin. We play together. He gives me toys."

For all those who took part in the filming of Kundun, it was a very moving experience. Many Tibetans broke down when they first stepped inside the reconstructed Potala Palace built on set. "For a momentary illusion, it felt real," says Lukhang who left Tibet aged five. "A couple of the older ladies fainted. During one crowd scene, half the crew and half the cast were in tears. One woman, who had an extra part in the streets of Lhasa when the Chinese troops were coming, begged the crew and the director to take her back to the hotel, she couldn't endure the experience for a second time."

Once the filming was complete, the Tibetans returned to their regular lives. None have become Hollywood heroes in their community - quite the reverse. Sonam Phuntsok was one of the few actors with professional training and returned to the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts (TIPA), Dharamasala, where he is an opera director. He plays in a modern band but this is frowned upon. "If you do something different, you are called a `white crow' - Tibetan society doesn't allow you to shine," says Phuntsok. "It is very difficult to become famous here."

Tibetans have lived with their image as immortalised beings ever since Frank Capra's version of Lost Horizons in 1937, which immortalised Tibet on screen as a Shangri la. In its authentic depiction of costume and historical fact, Tibetans hope Kundun will do more than demystify their image in the West, but give Tibetans themselves a greater sense of cultural identity. "At the beginning, the scenes look exotic and fun with a bit of humour. You wouldn't know which century it was - fifteenth or twentieth - it could even be a fairy tale." says Lukhang. "Then it dawns on you that this is now. That this is true."

When it goes to Tibet, Kundun may help rejuvenate the cause. Meanwhile in Dharamasala, the Dalai Lama - as the only world's statesman who practices the politics of compassion - will continue to draw the Dharma crowd.

He offers answers because, as he says: "Everyone wants happiness. Same for the Tibetans and our Western friends and our Chinese brothers and sisters."