Amid reports that two Tibetan youths set themselves on fire Thursday to protest Chinese rule in Tibet, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is meeting with supporters in California. More than 35 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the past year, and at least 20 have died. Some American admirers say the Tibetan spiritual leader's teachings have made them more aware of the problems in his homeland.

The Dalai Lama draws many Tibetan-Americans to his public appearances, and many other Americans. His notable supporters include actor Richard Gere.

The plight of Tibetans adds urgency to the Dalai Lama's message of compassion, says Elizabeth Hull, an admirer from New Hampshire.

"So many Tibetans are refugees, and the ones that are there are facing a lot of difficulty with their civil rights, and his holiness continues to spread the message of peace and dialogue," said Hull.

Chinese authorities blame the Dalai Lama for the self-immolations, mostly by members of the Buddhist clergy. The Dalai Lama blames China's harsh rule for the frustrations of Tibetans that he says have led to the suicides.

The abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India, Geshe Jangchup Choeden, is visiting California. He says the Dalai Lama is important to Tibetans on many levels as a religious, ethical and spiritual leader.

"Tibetan people have a deep sense of devotion and trust an faith in him, and it makes him very special," said Jangchup Choeden. "It is kind of unimaginable for the rest of the world what is the Dalai Lama for the Tibetans."

For American student Jem Jebbia of the University of Southern California, the Dalai Lama is a bridge-builder.

"He might speak from a Buddhist perspective, but he definitely talks a lot about bridging divides between religions and between the religious and the secular," said Jebbia.

The Tibet issue drew protesters and defenders of the Chinese government during a visit to the U.S. in February by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. The focus of this visit by the Dalai Lama is spiritual, but the Tibet issue is not far in the background.

The Dailai Lama's next step in the U.S. is Chicago, where he will participate in a panel of Nobel Peace Prize laureates on April 25.