As political theater goes -- political theater of the absurd, that is -- you could not make this up.

Sharing a Manhattan stage are Buddhism's most venerated holy man, the Dalai Lama, and presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton, the noisy civil rights provocateur not usually associated with ancient prescriptions of meditative calm.

The strange celebrity vibe of this New York gathering is nudged further into The Land of Odd by the presence on stage of an authority on Tibet and Buddhism, Columbia University professor Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma.

And if your cup of surreality doesn't already runneth over, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons is in the house, waiting his turn on the $70-a-ticket lecture program.

Based on his reputation for bullying and bombast, you might imagine Sharpton, big chest heaving, rousing the crowd with his rafter-rattling mantra: "No justice. No peace."

In a quarter century of the reverend's racial agitation, civil disobedience and artful media manipulation, this is the Sharpton we have come to know, to expect and, in many circles, to detest.

But it is a different and less familiar Rev. Al Sharpton on stage with the Dalai Lama.

It turns out, for better and for worse, we hardly know him at all.

It has been 16 years since Sharpton's high-decibel burst into the national consciousness in the Tawana Brawley case.

For many people, that racially divisive fiasco is all they know -- all they need to know -- about Sharpton. But in the post-Brawley years, beginning in the early '90s, Sharpton gradually has been lowering his volume, broadening his message, moving closer to the mainstream.

He's even worked on his appearance as he tries to reinvent himself as the nation's preeminent civil rights leader.

The result is that Rev. Sharpton no longer can be dismissed as merely a loudmouth New York pariah. Today, his home state politicians seek his endorsement, an often-public courtship that strokes Sharpton's considerable ego.

Since he's gone national, traveling the country in his presidential bid, Sharpton works hard to curb his excesses, although recent examples show that the old Sharpton lurks just beneath the surface.

With no chance of winning the nomination, a well-executed Sharpton campaign could secure his place in the civil rights pantheon and the national Democratic Party. Not to mention gaining the respect and positive attention he has been looking for all his life.

Conjure up, for a moment, the image of Al Sharpton. Peace and love don't exactly spring to mind. Yet here he is, a portrait of introspective repose.

With one hammy thigh crossed over the other, hands in his lap like a choirboy, Sharpton listens raptly to the world's most famous living Buddhist, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

And when it is the reverend's turn to speak, there is no bellow. No flapping arms. Instead, he's talking about -- say what? -- "The love ethic."

Just a few days shy of his 49th birthday, Sharpton addresses this mellow crowd:

"As I got older [I] . . . began to understand that Dr. King, using the love ethic, using the power of forgiveness, using the power of sacrificing one's self for a greater cause, did more to change America for people like me than anybody that had money or military power."