Dalai Lama, Holy Ruler of the Land of Tibet

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Dalai Lama, Holy Ruler of the Land of Tibet


By: Anonymous

Date: September 28, 1939

Source: © Bettmann/Corbis.

About the Photographer: Otto Bettmann, a librarian and curator in Berlin in the 1930s, began collecting photographs to preserve as a historical archive. After fleeing Germany with several trunks of photographs in his possession, he settled in the United States. By 1995 his collection included over 11 million items; the picture of the Dalai Lama is part of the collection. The Bettmann Archive is owned by the Corbis Corporation.


According to Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is the embodiment of the bodhisattva of compassion, a Buddha figure who chooses not to reach nirvana after death but instead to be reincarnated and remain on earth until all human beings have been freed from suffering. According to this belief, the Dalai Lama never dies; when his body reaches the end of its natural life his spirit passes into another human who is being born, continuing his lineage and presence on earth. Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama their spiritual leader and head of state.

The current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth since 1391. He was born Lhamo Dhondrub on July 6, 1935, to parents who were peasants in the northeastern section of Tibet. At the age of three he was recognized as the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama by a search committee appointed by the government of Tibet. When, following a series of visions, the party came to Lhamo Dhondrub's house, the little boy demanded to be given a rosary that he recognized, worn by one of the religious leaders. He correctly identified persons in the party by name, and after successfully passing other tests was declared the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Because of his young age, the government was led by a regent after the thirteenth Dalai Lama's death. When Lhamo Dhondrub, renamed Tenzin Gyatso, reached the age of eighteen, he was expected to assume his role as head of state. In 1949, however, China came under Communist leadership, and the Chinese government announced its intention to "liberate" Tibet, which it considered a province, not a separate, sovereign nation. Calling the Tibetan government a "feudal regime," China declared the country in need of a return to Chinese—and Communist—leadership.

China invaded Tibet's eastern provinces on October 7, 1950. Forty thousand Chinese soldiers easily defeated a Tibetan force one-fifth its size. Half of those soldiers were killed, and at an emergency meeting of the Tibetan National, the sixteen-year-old Dalai Lama was given full powers as head of state.

International reaction to the Chinese invasion was ineffectual; India had attempted to act as an intermediary between the two nations; the United States and Great Britain had advised the Tibetans to use diplomacy as a way to mitigate Chinese aggression. Tibet appealed to the United Nations in November 1950, but repeated requests for intervention went unheeded.

In April 1951, a five-member delegation from Tibet met with Chinese leaders; under pressure and alleged coercion, the delegates signed the "Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet," a seventeen-point plan acknowledging China's control over Tibet. The Dalai Lama repudiated the plan, which gave China the power to occupy Tibet and control all foreign relations, although it preserved his powers and the existing government structure in Tibet.

For the next eight years tensions between Tibetans and the Chinese occupiers escalated; Tibet experienced famine conditions in some areas, with no assistance from the Chinese government and no recourse through international relations. Tibetans protested and used nonviolent means to resist; some guerillas clashed directly with Chinese troops. In December 1958 the Chinese government threatened to bomb the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama's residence if guerillas refused to stop their attacks.

By March 1959 Lhasa was engulfed in fighting. The Chinese bombed parts of the city, and within a few weeks as many as 86,000 Tibetans—many monks living in religious communities—died. On March 31, 1959 the Dalai Lama and his family were smuggled out of Tibet and into northern India.



See primary source image.


After a fifteen-day trek from Tibet to India, the Dalai Lama's first official act was to repudiate the seventeen-point plan. Creating a government in exile in Dharamsala, India, he advocated for a free Tibet, provided spiritual and political guidance for more than 120,000 fellow Tibetans in exile, published books and gave public lectures on matters of faith as well as political issues.

In 1961, the United Nations General Assembly declared Tibet's right to self-determination; the Chinese government ignored the statement and answered with the claim that the Tibetan people prospered under Chinese control. A 1997 International Commission of Jurist's report echoed the UN and called for freedom for Tibet.

In the intervening years, China has completely cut off Tibet from the rest of the world and poured immigrants into the country. Refugees report that in some areas Chinese immigrants outnumber Tibetans two or three to one, with some conflict reported between the two. Six million Tibetans remain in Tibet under tight Chinese control. The Tibet government in exile estimates that since 1949, approximately 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by Chinese authorities through fighting, famine, or imprisonment.

During the 1980s, the Chinese government tried unsuccessfully to convince the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. He has supported a "Middle Way" in dealing with the Chinese government, asking not for full independence, but for autonomy in all affairs except self-defense and foreign relations. Other officials in the Tibetan government in exile disagree with this stance, and China has repudiated it, willing only to discuss the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet. In 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to free the Tibetan people. In his acceptance speech, the Dalai Lama criticized the Chinese government for their harsh repression of Tibetan nationalists, and their use of violence in the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In 2005 the Dalai Lama turned seventy years of age and asked the Chinese government for permission to return to Tibet with no conditions placed on him. The Chinese government refused. Unless negotiations between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government change, the fourteenth Dalai Lama may never return to his homeland. Questions concerning his reincarnation have prompted the Dalai Lama to declare that his successor will most likely not be found in Tibet. Historical conditions forced him to leave the country, and therefore, in his opinion, his reincarnation may be the first Dalai Lama reborn outside of Tibet.



Avedon, John. In Exile from the Land of Snows. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Tenzin Gyatso, Dalai Lama XIV. My Land and My People: The Original Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet. New York: Warner Books, 1997.

Web sites

The Office of Tibet. "Invasion and Illegal Annexation of Tibet: 1949–1951." February 2, 1996. 〈http://www.tibet.com/WhitePaper/white2.html〉 (accessed April 29, 2006).