JUDY WOODRUFF: As Pope Francis visited the East Coast a few weeks back, another world religious figure, the Dalai Lama, was in Minnesota, where doctors at the Mayo Clinic advised him to cut short his own tour of the U.S.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro recently sat down with the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism at his exile home in India.

A version of this story aired on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Until doctors recently told him to slow down, the 80-year-old Dalai Lama had kept a breathless pace. In just a few weeks last summer, he was at a music festival in England, a presidential library in Houston, and a sold-out stadium near Los Angeles.

There is perhaps no world figure today with a more diverse face of fans.

Why are you so popular globally? Why are you a rock star?

DALAI LAMA: I don’t know. I never pay attention about that, why people praise me, why, why.

CROWD (singing): Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And he said he’s not concerned about another matter that is many minds, who will succeed him, or, as he’s increasingly said in recent years, whether anyone will.

DALAI LAMA: Many people showing interest about the institution of Dalai Lama. For me, not much interest.


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That’s significant. Like the familiar laugh, his role as Dalai Lama — the world’s best known Buddhist leader — has been central to who he is, the reincarnation of Dalai Lamas going back six centuries, leader of a fabled once-upon-a-time country high in the Himalayas.

He fled with U.S. help to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Tibet’s annexation by Mao Zedong’s revolutionary People’s Republic of China.

Today, at his home base in Dharamsala, India, he still keeps a full schedule. It begins early each morning as a diverse crowd lines up for a chance to meet him.

Many are from the tens of thousands of Tibetans who followed him and settled in India, where the Dalai Lama set up a secular Tibetan government in exile and later took on a mostly ceremonial role.

DALAI LAMA: You see, in 2011, I totally retired, now no connection with political responsibility.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says he’s now focused on his moral responsibility as an advocate for world peace, one that’s won him numerous awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize.

A prolific lecturer, he says that peace must start with the individual, with compassion for one’s fellow human beings. It’s a message that he says isn’t uniquely Buddhist.

DALAI LAMA: All major religions teach the practice of compassion, love, forgiveness, tolerance.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He wants to see ethics common to all religions taught in schools, because he says religious leaders have too often focused on excludes and division, leading to both conflict and growing inequality, between and within societies.

DALAI LAMA: Like America, a very rich country, but many people poor, and then India and China now developing great potential, like Africa also, a lot of potential.

But I think this lack of moral principle, in that respect, I think, you see, we need some sort of lesson, education about socialism.


DALAI LAMA: I am socialist. And then, furthermore, as far as social economy theory concerned, I am Marxist. I am Buddhist Marxist.


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says materialism and consumerism have prevailed, even in places where political leaders pledge themselves to Marxist or socialist ideals.

The most prominent example is China, he said, now trying to regain its moral compass. Its leader, Xi Jinping, recently acknowledged a role for its religious traditions, including Buddhism.

DALAI LAMA: It’s unthinkable, a communist, atheist, you see, leader of that express publicly importance of Buddhism, is something quite unique. So this, I think the reality now shows just the material development alone will not get satisfaction to the public, to the people.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: While the Chinese government and Communist Party have called for more tolerance and religious freedom, they have condemned the Dalai Lama as a separatist and a puppet of the West.

With China’s prominence in global trade as the world’s second largest economy, many Western nations have become more muted in their support of the Dalai Lama. For his part, the exiled leader, while alleging human rights abuses and the destruction of Tibetan culture in his homeland, has moderated his demands.

DALAI LAMA: We are seeking genuine autonomy, not seeking independence.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But he’s drawn a line in the sand on one issue, China’s insistence that the government approve the next Dalai Lama.

The anointing can take years after the Dalai Lama’s death, in which monks look for supernatural signs to lead them to the young boy who is the reincarnation. The current Dalai Lama, born of simple peasant stock as Tenzin Gyatso, was identified at age 3 and installed at 15 after years of rigorous study.

DALAI LAMA: As far as 1969 I publicly stated this institution, whether should continue or not, entirely up to Tibetan people.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In the modern age, when democratic governance and Buddhist scholarship are much more accessible, he says he’s not sure there’s a need for a new Dalai Lama. When he turns 90, he says, he will consult on the question with religious elders and the Tibetan people, before deciding whether to be reincarnated, like his predecessors, or to end the tradition.

For now, it’s a decision that this very public figure says is very private.

DALAI LAMA: These inner values and world peace and a happy world, this is our common responsibility. About next life is individual business. Our concept of God, concept of nirvana, concept of next life is private business.


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For the PBS NewsHour, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Dharamsala, India.