Rolling with Team Lama

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The Independent Online

Joshua Dugdale is the director of The Unwinking Gaze, the first fly-on-the-wall documentary to detail the day-to-day life of the Dalai Lama. Dugdale and his crew have been given unprecedented access to the Tibetan leader and his entourage since 2004

The Dalai Lama gets up at 4am. He'll have tea when he gets up, then breakfast after his meditation, which lasts for two to four hours. Breakfast – usually toast, butter, jam and orange juice – must be on the table at the right time. While he eats he may read The Times of India and the International Herald Tribune.

I don't think the Dalai Lama has many close friends. He may have things in common with other monks, but he's still their boss. He has an enormous capacity for empathy and loves to laugh, but among his own entourage, you see his more serious side.

His offices are based in the palace complex in Dharamsala in India; his own private office is next to the plush ante-room where he receives guests, and is quite old-fashioned: a desk, with no computer, just a blotter and some pens. But his team have computers, faxes, printers, the internet. There are about half a dozen in this inner circle, including Tenzin Namdak Taklha, the Dalai Lama's Lord Chamberlain figure.

The private office does its best to protect the Dalai Lama. But it isn't the slickest operation, and has been accused of naivety.

All the Dalai Lama's attendants are in awe of him. They see to his everyday needs – serving meals, giving and accepting gifts and so on. Tibetans come from across the Himalayas to see him so they can have a better rebirth in their next life.

When the Dalai Lama goes on tour, it's relentless, meeting after meeting, arena after arena. But he is very undemanding. When I was with him on a trip to Liverpool, he stayed in a budget hotel, but never complained. For a long trip, the entourage might be a dozen-strong, plus security; for shorter trips, perhaps only four or five – and his brother Tenzin Choegyal and the Special Envoy, Lodi Gyari, also accompany him.

Gyari has been in the West for a long time, but used to be the head of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which is the independence-seeking organisation that the Chinese accuse of paramilitary activities. He's a controversial figure, but well respected in Washington, where he is based. He acts as a gateway between the Dalai Lama and Tibet's American supporters, and the Dalai Lama takes his advice on most global political issues, such as whether he should go to the Beijing Olympics.

The Prime Minister of the government in exile, Samdhong Rimpoche, is possibly a little more deferential to the Dalai Lama than he should be; it's awkward to have your spiritual mentor as your boss on a political level, too. He's a good administrator, but finds negotiating with the Chinese quite a challenge. It's a big step up from running the education system, his previous job. He has only sporadic contact with the Dalai Lama. They don't meet every day. The Dalai Lama is very hands-off – he wants to leave the politics to others. He just steps in when he's needed, although his word is final.

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