Stars get high on spiritual picnic: Westerners attracted by Tibetan Buddhism are flocking to the Dalai Lama's lair. Tim McGirk joined them at the Indo-Tibetan border

A PACK of Westerners sat to the left of the Dalai Lama, red blindfolds over their eyes, the better to contemplate Emptiness. It had been a long session, full of mantras, clashing cymbals and monks chanting in deep, ominous rumbles that sounded like the rockslides here in this steep Himalayan valley.

When the Tibetan holy man signalled for a tea-break in this Buddhist rite, an audible sigh rose among the Westerners as they removed their blindfolds. Then she stood up. She was Cindy Crawford. A young American super- model with a sassy smile, a distinctive mole above her upper lip, and lithe body, she has appeared on countless magazine covers and in rock videos. Crawford is one of the many celebrities drawn, improbably it may seem, to the mysteries of Tibetan mysticism.

She was attending this arcane Buddhist ceremony with her husband, the actor Richard Gere, who is also a serious devotee of the Dalai Lama. For many male Westerners present at this Kalachakra rite, given a choice between further meditation on Emptiness and seeing Crawford, there was no contest.

'Cindy]' bayed four or five Italian males as they grabbed cameras from their rucksacks and stampeded forward, hurdling monks and other Western Buddhists still scrunched into the Lotus Position. 'Per favore, Cindy] One picture weeth us.' Crawford was wearing a long cotton dress that revealed just the slightest decolletage. Her plainness seemed out of place among the surreal burgundy and gold silks of the high lamas, some of whom wore outlandish hats with wings and balls that could have been the work of a fashion prankster like Jean-Paul Gaultier. She smiled gamely, and an Italian who looked like some kerbside flasher in his rain mac snuggled in, daring, nearly, to rest his head on Crawford's perfect breasts.

Then Gere rounded the corner of the Buddhist temple, and attention was immediately deflected to him. The actor's hair, having turned grey several years ago, has now miraculously gone blond. Two hippies, with stupendous solemnity, debated whether this was the result of hair dye or a rejuvenating Tibetan tantra. It was pointed out, though, that there were few natural blonds among the Tibetans, and the tantra theory lost out.

It is difficult to know what the Dalai Lama thought of all this earthly commotion. He chuckled. But then he often chuckles, which is surprising for a man who was chased into exile 33 years ago by the Chinese army. But it is not surprising for the Dalai Lama. He laughs at his own predicament, even though he has every legitimate reason not to.

The Dalai Lama is also disarmingly good at communicating with people on their level, not his. After all, he has appeared on Terry Wogan's show and played golf with rich southern Californians to raise funds for Tibet. He may also accept an invitation from Vogue magazine to guest-edit the Christmas issue. It is a safe assumption that nothing in His Holiness's 14 previous lifetimes had prepared him for Wogan and these other ordeals.

His critics warn that the Dalai Lama may be in danger of trivialising himself, of becoming everyone's smiling and cuddly pet monk. But many admirers contend that he is simply using every method possible, even the most banal, to spread the Buddha's teachings and attract international support for the Tibetan cause. Tibet had remained aloof and forbidden for centuries, until the Chinese invaders crossed the Upper Yangtse river in 1950 and eventually seized the country, destroying thousands of monasteries and, according to exiles, killing more than a million Tibetans.

One result of the Dalai Lama's flight into exile in 1959 has been the extraordinary rise in the West's interest in Tibetan Buddhism. There are hundreds of centres in Europe, the US and Japan teaching Tibetan forms of Buddhist meditation. Stripped of its mystical wrappings, Buddhism's simple philosophy - kindness, the non- existence of self and emptiness as the ultimate reality - has attracted many in the West.

Among the personalities who have fallen under the spell of the Dalai Lama's laughter are Danielle Mitterrand, the wife of the French President, and the actors Harrison Ford and John Cleese. The actors' faith is rewarded by the Tibetans in the Dalai Lama's hilly abode of Dharamsala. There, the grubby tea-shops show videos starring Gere, Ford and Cleese. On Cleese's last visit, he gave His Holiness a few videos of Fawlty Towers, though some Tibetans find Cleese's tense, twittering British humour a trifle alien.

The Dalai Lama recognises that for most Westerners Tibetan Buddhism is a temporary 'spiritual picnic' and their interest will soon pass. Of all the celebrities, few have embraced Tibetan Buddhism more seriously than Gere. His previous roles (as a gigolo, an officer and a businessman with a weakness for a goofy call-girl) give little indication of a man searching for higher truths. Yet he has donated a huge chunk of his million-dollar film earnings to the Tibetan cause. Two weeks ago, Gere dragged Crawford away from her glamorous modelling assignments over to India, up roads often buried by landslides, just to be initiated in the Dalai Lama's Kalachakra ceremony. This involved sitting cross-legged eight hours a day for over a week, sometimes in the rain, and having to use a gut- turning camp-site latrine. He and Crawford shied away from reporters. Gere would prefer not to talk much about his interest in Buddhism or about his teacher, a reclusive Tibetan monk who lives in a stone hut that is a six-mile clamber up the mountainside from Dharamsala.

Gere's lama descends from his retreat only once a year, and that is to visit Italy. His many Italian followers say he has developed a fondness for pasta.

(Photograph omitted)

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