God-king embraces the West: Tim McGirk spoke to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, and found the man known as the living deity was good-humoured and optimistic

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THE Dalai Lama was as close to Tibet as he had been for many years. He sat, rocking slightly, on an orange throne placed among the pines on a steep mountainside in northern India. Tibet was less than 60 miles away, across peaks and glaciers swirled with clouds.

Gathered around him were thousands of Tibetan monks, stout Buddhist tribesmen wearing chunks of coral and turquoise, and a few hundred Westerners, including the couple actor Richard Gere and cover girl Cindy Crawford. The two sat beside a Tibetan yogi whose long hair was coiled upon his head like old rope. The yogi was unimpressed by the fame and beauty of his companions; a hermit, he had spent 30 years meditating in a cave, apart from a spell when he immersed himself for six days in an icy mountain stream up to his neck.

This odd crowd gathered for an esoteric Tibetan ceremony known as the Kalachakra Tantra. For centuries, this was a secret rite which previous Dalai Lamas performed only eight times in their lifetimes. A four-day ceremony of chants and meditations in which a labyrinthine Wheel of Time is created with grains of coloured sand and then rubbed out, the Kalachakra initiation is supposed to be like the express lift in a skyscraper, blasting towards enlightenment. Now, the Dalai Lama has opened this rite to the West. He has done the Kalachakra before crowds of 300,000 and in venues as improbable as New York's Madison Square Garden.

During a pause in the initiation rite, the Dalai Lama spoke to the Independent. Arrayed next to him on a table were sacred objects, a tiny drum, a conch shell and a bell - and a box of tissues. His Holiness, the man Tibetans consider a living god, had a nasty cold. It is not his godliness that is immediately apparent as much as his good humour. He pulls a visitor's beard, laughs at himself for having skipped a few pages in his long Tantric chant, and confesses to a Western devotee that, despite Buddhism's ban on killing, he once tried to swat two mosquitoes buzzing him in bed.

In a wide-ranging interview, he revealed that an emissary of his goverment-in-exile had met Chinese officials two months earlier to deliver a proposal that Tibet be given the same status as Hong Kong under the 'one country, two-systems' approach, when the colony reverts to China. In an important shift, China recently declared Tibet to be a 'special enterprise zone'.

'If the Chinese are willing to give the Hong Kong people more freedom and democracy, then why not in Tibet? The new way of life that the Chinese tried to teach us is simply unsuitable. It doesn't work. So why not let the Tibetans have their own way and - as long as the Chinese treat us as equals - remain as one country,' he said.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner expressed his fears that after 30 years of Chinese rule, Tibetans were growing impatient with his Buddhist messages of non-violence. 'There's a feeling of desperation building up inside Tibet. On the moral side, I tell them that violence is essentially against human nature.

'But sometimes people don't much care for the moral side,' he laughed. 'Doesn't matter. All right. On the practical side, if Tibetans were to follow the path of violence, it wouldn't be easy. Where would the weapons come from? How would we get them into Tibet? A few guns would be no use - just a provocation against the Chinese. I try to explain this thoroughly to these hot- brained . . . no, you say hot- minded? Ah, yes, hot-blooded Tibetans. Emotionally, it's hard for them to accept, but there's no alternative.'

He talked candidly about the difficulties of convincing Tibetans that after centuries of putting their faith in the Dalai Lama - whom they believe to be a holy reincarnation of infallible judgment extending back 14 lifetimes - they must now prepare to govern themselves. This is as alien to Tibetans as it would be for Britons to select a prime minister by omens and dreams.

'Our general belief is that instead of choosing someone whose qualities are developed within this one life, it is better to choose someone whose qualities come from many lives. But I prefer that our leadership should be elected for their obvious qualities rather than through a mysterious sort of belief,' he said. The Dalai Lama set up a parliament-in-exile in Dharamshala, India, which is fractured by regionalism and the dilemma over whether Tibetans should pursue total independence or compromise with China.

The Dalai Lama, 58, foresees that Tibet will regain its independence within five to 10 years. 'My life is limited. As Churchill said, democracy has the least faults of any political system. At the initial stages of Tibet's democracy, there's bound to be some crisis. If that happens within my own lifetime, I think I can help. But if the practice of democracy gets fully rooted while I'm still alive, that's better.'

Asked why he believed Tibet would regain its freedom within the decade, the Dalai Lama cited the collapse of Communism in Europe and the burgeoning pro- democracy movement within China. 'All our past prophecies definitely indicated that there would be damage to the Buddha's teachings (by the Chinese invasion), but this destruction is not final. That is very clear.'

The thunderous roar of a river could be heard in the Kinnaur Valley far below where the Dalai Lama sat on his orange chair, sneezing occasionally. It was the Sutlej river which springs near Tibet's most sacred mountain, Kailash, and threads through the Himalayas to join the mighty Indus. When asked what would happen if he were to follow the Sutlej river back to Tibet and fight for freedom inside the country, he replied: 'Many Tibetan people would be very happy, but if I were to step into the Chinese hands, they would give me all these fancy names, and at the same time they would put a big seal over my mouth.'

He gestured broadly, sweeping in the Kalachakra mandala of sand, the red-robed monks, the pines, the mountains and the thousands of Tibetans who had journeyed for days. 'Here, at least I can speak freely,' he smiled.

(Photograph omitted)