Dalai Lama

views updated Jun 11 2018


DALAI LAMA , title of the spiritual and formerly political leader of the Tibetan people, is a combination of the Mongolian dalai ("ocean"), signifying profound knowledge, and the Tibetan blama ("religious teacher"). The title dates from 1578 ce, when it was conferred by Altan Khan of the Mongols upon Bsod nams rgya mtsho (15431588), third hierarch of the Dge lugs pa school of Tibetan Buddhism, commonly called the Yellow Hat sect. The title was applied posthumously to the two preceding hierarchs, Dge 'dun-grub pa (13911475), founder of Bkra śis lhun po (Tashilhunpo) monastery near Shigatse in Gtsa province, and Dge 'dun rgya mtsho (14751542), founder of the Dalai Lama's residence in 'Bras spung monastery near Lhasa in Dbus province. After 1578 the title was given to each of the successive reincarnations of the Dalai Lama. The present Dalai Lama is fourteenth in the lineage.

Incarnation (Tib., sprul sku ), the manifestation of some aspect of the absolute Buddhahood in human form, is an ancient doctrine and one common to various schools of Mahayana Buddhism, but the concept of the reincarnation (ya srid) of a lama is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. The concept emerged in the fourteenth century in the hierarchic lineage of the Black Hat Karma pa and was soon adopted by the other Tibetan schools.

From the inception of the institution, traditional procedures for discovering the rebirth of a Dalai Lama, similar to those used for other reincarnate lamas, were followed. Indicative statements made by the previous Dalai Lama during his lifetime, significant auguries surrounding his death and afterward, and meditative visions by special lamas were recorded and interpreted as guides to finding his rebirth. In time, but no sooner than nine months after the death of the previous Dalai Lama, the people began to expect reports of an exceptional male child born in accordance with various omens. Such a child, usually two or three years old when discovered, was subjected to tests to determine physical fitness, intelligence, and the ability to remember events and objects from his previous existence. If more than one likely candidate was found, the final selection was made by drawing a name from a golden urn. Once the true reincarnation was determined, he was enthroned in the Potala palace as the Dalai Lama. The monastic education of a Dalai Lama, directed by learned tutors of the Dge lugs pa school, occupied his time for years. When he attained his majority, at about eighteen years of age, he assumed the religio-political power of the office of Dalai Lama.

In the beginning, the religious power of the Dalai Lama was limited to the monastic members and lay patrons of the reformed Yellow Hat school. By the middle of the sixteenth century, religio-political power in Tibet was unevenly divided between the Red Hat Karma pa, supported by the lay king of Gtsa, and the Yellow Hat Dge lugs pa, patronized by lay princes of Dbus. The third hierarch of the Yellow Hat school was subsequently invited to Mongolia by Altan Khan, who gave him the title Dalai Lama. When the Dalai Lama died in Mongolia, his reincarnation was discovered to be none other than the great-grandson of Altan Khan himself. The fourth Dalai Lama, Yon tan rgya mtsho (15891617), is the only one in the lineage ethnically not a Tibetan. Escorted from Mongolia to Lhasa, he was enthroned in the Dalai Lama's residence in 'Bras spung monastery. Recognition of this Mongol prince as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama thereafter bound the Mongols by faith to the Yellow Hat school, and in time they were to protect it militarily from its enemies.

The power struggle in Tibet between the Red Hat Karma pa and the Yellow Hat Dge lugs pa continued to escalate in favor of the Red Hats and the lay king of Gtsa. Finally in 1642, at the invitation of the fifth Dalai Lama, Nag dban rgya mtsho (16171682), Gu śrī Khan of the Mongols led troops into Tibet, defeated the Red Hat opposition, and executed the lay king of Gtsa. In effect Gu śrī Khan had conquered Tibet, but true to his faith, he presented the country to the fifth Dalai Lama as a religious gift. Thus the Dalai Lama became the religious and political head of Tibet. Because he was a monk, a civil administrator was appointed to handle the day-to-day affairs of state.

After the enthronement of this Dalai Lama, a prophetic scripture was discovered. It revealed that the reincarnate Dalai Lama was also an incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteśvara (Tib., Spyan ras gzigs), traditionally regarded as the patron bodhisattva of Tibet. The relationship between the noumenal Avalokiteśvara and the phenomenal Dalai Lama was attested by symbolism. According to Buddhist doctrine, the mystical abode of Avalokiteśvara is a mountain called the Potala; so the fifth Dalai Lama ordered a massive fortress, also called the Potala, to be built on a mountain in the Lhasa area. Begun in 1645, the Potala at Lhasa served as the palace of the Dalai Lama for more than three hundred years.

The most common Tibetan prayer is the six-syllable "O mai padme hū." Printed on prayer flags, contained in prayer wheels, carved repeatedly in wood and stone, and chanted daily by Tibetan Buddhists, this is the vocative mantra in Sanskrit of Avalokiteśvara. In view of his relationship to the Dalai Lama, the six-syllable mantra symbolically serves at once as an invocation to both the noumenal and phenomenal manifestations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Because of the belief that the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara as well as a reincarnation of his predecessor, he is frequently, but incorrectly, called the "God-King" of Tibet in Western writings.

The fifth Dalai Lama was a learned scholar and the author of many texts, including a history of Tibet. During the forty years he was head of state, the Mongols helped to protect his newly established government and to expand its territorial control. In recognition of the important role he played in religio-political history, he is referred to in Tibetan literature as the Great Fifth.

The death of the fifth Dalai Lama was kept secret for fifteen years by the civil administrator for political reasons. His reincarnation, Tshas dbyas rgya mtsho (16831706), was discovered in due course but was not officially acknowledged as the next Dalai Lama until 1697. Unlike the monastic training of his predecessors, who had been publicly enthroned and tutored as children, that of the sixth Dalai Lama was not only kept secret but was apparently less than strict. Already in his teens when enthroned in the Potala, he soon gained notoriety for his addiction to wine, women, and song. Censure caused him to renounce his vows as a monk in 1702, but he remained in the Potala as the Dalai Lama. Finally in 1706, he was deposed by Lha bza Khan, a great-grandson of Gu śrī Khan, and deported to China; he died enroute. The sixth Dalai Lama is perhaps best remembered for sixty-two four-line verses, commonly referred to as his "love songs." A recurring theme in his poetry is the psychophysiological conflict between his monastic obligations as the Dalai Lama and his passion for mundane pleasures.

After the deposition and death of the sixth Dalai Lama, Lha-bza Khan became undisputed ruler of Tibet. He enthroned a puppet in the Potala, but the Tibetan people refused to accept him as the Dalai Lama. Instead, a boy born in eastern Tibet was recognized as the true reincarnation. Owing to the unstable situation in Lhasa, the seventh Dalai Lama, Bskal bza rgya mtsho (17081757), was taken to Kumbum monastery in the Kokonor region for safekeeping. In 1717 Mongols from Dzungaria, in support of the seventh Dalai Lama, invaded Tibet and killed Lha bza Khan. The puppet Dalai Lama was deposed and later deported to China. The seventh Dalai Lama was escorted to Lhasa by a Manchu imperial army and enthroned in the Potala in 1720.

A significant change was made in 1721 in the structure of the Tibetan government. The office of the civil administrator, which had concentrated political power in one pair of hands, was abolished and replaced with a council of four ministers collectively responsible for the secular branch of the dyadic hierocracy.

The death of the seventh Dalai Lama in 1757 led to the creation of a new government position. The office of the Dalai Lama had become institutionalized by then, and there was no question but that his reincarnation would succeed to his position of ruling power. Thus, the death of a Dalai Lama meant an interregnum of some twenty years, during which his reincarnation had to be discovered and educated, and his majority attained before he would resume power. During that period, another reincarnate lama of the Dge lugs pa school was appointed regent to rule Tibet on behalf of the minor Dalai Lama. Reluctance of successive regents and their supporters to hand over power each time a Dalai Lama reached his majority is blamed, perhaps unjustly, for the fact that the eighth Dalai Lama ruled only for a few years, the ninth and tenth died young without assuming power, and the eleventh and twelth Dalai Lamas ruled only for short periods before their death.

The thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubbstan rgya mtsho (18761933), assumed full power in 1895. He survived an attempt on his life by his former regent, who purportedly resorted to witchcraft in hopes of furthering his political ambitions. During his long reign as head of state, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was forced to flee to Mongolia in 1904 to escape British troops invading from India. He spent years traveling in Mongolia and China. Not long after his return to Lhasa, he was again forced to flee early in 1910, this time to India to avoid the invading Chinese forces. The Chinese revolution of 1911 that overthrew the Manchu dynasty and established the Republic of China also marked the end of Manchu domination of Tibetan affairs. The Manchu imperial garrison at Lhasa, which had been set up early in the eighteenth century, was deported to a man by the Tibetan government. From 1913 until his death in 1933, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was the head of an independent government. Living in exile in British India motivated the thirteenth Dalai Lama to implement various reforms in Tibet to improve the welfare of his people. His importance in Tibetan history can be compared with that of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama in the seventeenth century.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama, Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho, was born in 1935 of Tibetan parentage in the Chinghai province of China. Two other likely candidates were also found; but the one from Chinghai successfully passed all the tests, the omens were in mystical agreement, and he was confirmed as the true reincarnation by the State Oracle of Tibet himself. The Chinghai candidate was duly enthroned in the Potala at Lhasa in 1940. During the next decade, half of which was taken up by World War II in Asia, the young Dalai Lama was educated and prepared for the time he would assume his role as religio-political ruler of Tibet.

The invasion of eastern Tibet late in 1950 by forces of the People's Republic of China precipitated the empowerment of the fourteenth Dalai Lama when he was just fifteen years old. He was escorted to a village near the Indian border to avoid capture by the Chinese. In 1951, an agreement was reached between the Tibetan government and the Peking regime, and the Dalai Lama subsequently returned to Lhasa.

In 1956, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, the high-ranking reincarnate lama of the Yellow Hat monastery of Bkra śis lhun po, were invited to India to attend the Buddha Jayanti, a great celebration marking the twenty-five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Buddha. After the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, however, the constrained political situation there continued to deteriorate, and in March 1959 the Tibetan populace revolted against the Chinese regime in Lhasa. The Dalai Lama fled to India. That month the Chinese abolished the traditional Tibetan government, ending over three hundred years of hierocratic rule by the Dalai Lama, incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The present Dalai Lama continues to live in exile in India. He has traveled internationally, visiting various Asian countries as well as continental Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The leaders of two great religious traditions met when the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism was welcomed in the Vatican by Paul VI in 1973 and by John Paul II in 1979.

See Also

Dge lugs pa.


The only book dealing with the first thirteen Dalai Lamas in some detail remains Günther Schulemann's Die Geschichte der Dalailamas, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1959). Charles A. Bell's Portrait of the Dalai Lama (London, 1946) is a biographical sketch based on the author's personal friendship with the thirteenth Dalai Lama, but part 2 of the book explains what a Dalai Lama is and how he is discovered and educated. A scholarly listing, but with basic dates and data only, of all fourteen Dalai Lamas, as well as the regents who successively served them, can be found in Luciano Petech's "The Dalai-Lamas and Regents of Tibet: A Chronological Study," Tuoung bao (Leiden) 47 (1959): 368394.

English translations of three books by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, are recommended. His autobiography, My Land and My People (New York, 1962), is an interesting narrative of his selection, education, and experiences. The Opening of the Wisdom-Eye and the History of the Advancement of Buddhadharma in Tibet (Bangkok, 1968) and The Buddhism of Tibet and the Key to the Middle Way (New York, 1975) provide lucid expositions of the fundamental philosophical teachings of Tibetan Buddhism that must be mastered by a Dalai Lama.

Also recommended are David L. Snellgrove and Hugh E. Richardson's A Cultural History of Tibet (New York, 1968), Rolf A. Stein's Tibetan Civilization (Stanford, Calif., 1972), and Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa's Tibet: A Political History (New Haven, Conn., 1967). Each of these works contains an excellent bibliography.

Turrell V. Wylie (1987)

Dalai Lama

views updated Jun 27 2018

Dalai Lama

BORN: July 6, 1935 • Taktser, Amdo, Tibets

Tibetan religious leader; writer

Tenzin Gyatso is the name that was given to the fourteenth dalai lama, or spiritual and temporal (civil) leader of Tibet. Part of a lineage that stretches back to the fourteenth century, the dalai lama has been referred to as "the Buddhist pope." Unlike the Catholic pope, however, the dalai lama does not speak for all Buddhists. Rather, he is the representative of one distinct branch of Tibetan Buddhism, known as Geluk (also Gelug). Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and his subsequent exile, the Dalai Lama has become an important spokesperson for an independent Tibet. His tireless efforts on behalf of his homeland and his search for a nonviolent end to Tibet's struggle for independence won him the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and made him a well-known figure in the international community.

"I am just a simple Buddhist monk—no more, nor less."

Dalai means "ocean," or "all-embracing," while lama means "teacher," or "wisdom." The title is therefore loosely translated as "ocean of wisdom." In his role as religious leader, the Dalai Lama travels worldwide and speaks extensively on his belief in religious tolerance and the need for dialogue between religions. He has also written nearly eighty books. These include works of autobiography, such as My Land and My People and Freedom in Exile, as well as numerous texts explaining Buddhist principles.

Humble origins

Tenzin Gyatso was born on July 6, 1935, in the village of Taktser in northeastern Tibet. He was the fifth of nine children born to the relatively well-off peasants Sonam Isomo and his wife, Diki Tsering. The future dalai lama was given the birth name of Lhamo Dhondup, which translates as "wish-fulfilling goddess." According to his mother, his birth was preceded by strange happenings, including the death of the family's small herd of horses, years of drought and famine, and the mysterious illness of his father. When Lhamo Dhondup was born, his father was suddenly cured of his sickness and rains once again returned. Lhamo Dhondup's mother knew that he was different from her other children while he was still young. She often found him packing his clothes and his belongings. When she asked where he was going, he would reply that he was going to Lhasa.

Lhasa was the capital of Tibet and home to the religious and political head of the country, the dalai lama. Two years before Lhamo Dhondup's birth, the thirteenth dalai lama had died. Since that time monks had been searching for the child they believed to be his reincarnation, or the body into which his soul had been reborn. Each of Tibet's dalai lamas is believed to be the reincarnation of the previous dalai lama, a line that stretches back to Gedun Drub (1391–1474). The dalai lamas are also believed to be representations of Avalokitesvara, also known as Chenre-zig, Bodhisattva of Compassion, a near-divine bodhisattva, or enlightened one, who is considered by many in Tibet to be the patron god of the country. It would seem by his actions that, from a very early age, the child Lhamo Dhondup thought of himself as the next reincarnated dalai lama.

The family of Sonam Isomo already had one important member. The oldest son, Thupten Jigme Norbu, had been designated a tulku, or reincarnation of a famous lama, or Tibetan monk and teacher. With one tulku in the house, the appearance of another was thought highly unlikely. Nonetheless, when Lhamo Dhondup was barely three years old, an official search party reached the area near his home. Several signs had led them to this location. First, the head of the deceased thirteenth dalai lama had turned to the northeast. Additionally, the lama who was then temporarily acting as ruler of the faith had experienced a vision. While looking into the waters of the sacred lake of Lhamoi Lhatso, he noticed the Tibetan letters "ah," "ka," and "ma" float into view. These in turn were followed by the visions first of a monastery with three floors and a turquoise and gold roof, then of a small house with very distinctive gutters. The regent became convinced that the letter "ah" referred to Amdo, the northeastern province of Tibet, the direction toward which the previous dalai lama's head had turned. A search party was sent to the monastery there, Kumbum, which began with the letter "ka" and had three floors and the properly colored roof. All that remained for the search party to find was the small dwelling with the distinctive gutters, which led them to the home of Lhamo Dhondup. When they arrived, the lamas did not reveal the reason for their visit, instead merely asking for lodging for the night in hopes of observing the child. Lhamo Dhondup, however, recognized the leader of the party and called out the name of his monastery. The lamas were impressed and returned the next day with further tests, bringing some of the previous dalai lama's possessions, which the boy was asked to pick out from among an assortment of objects. Lhamo Dhondup passed all the tests, and the lamas were convinced that he was the new dalai lama.

The training of the Dalai Lama

The boy was taken to the nearby Kumbum monastery, where he began his religious training. In 1939, in the company of his parents, his brother, Lobsang Samten, and the original search party, he set off for Lhasa, a journey that took three months. On February 2, 1940, he was officially installed as the spiritual leader of Tibet and given the name Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso ("holy lord, gentle glory, compassionate, defender of the faith, ocean of wisdom") and the title of fourteenth dalai lama. At this point Gyatso was only confirmed as the spiritual leader of Tibet; political power remained in the hands of elder monks until he reached the proper age. He lived in the Potala and Norbulinka palaces in Lhasa and had as his chief tutors two important high spiritual leaders who were themselves tulku lamas. In addition to his Buddhist studies, Gyatso was given some training in history and literature. He also studied English, and from an early age he demonstrated a love of machines of all sorts. During World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who later wrote the book Seven Years in Tibet, escaped a British prison camp and became friends with the young Dalai Lama, introducing him to events in the rest of the world.

The Tradition of The Dalai Lama

Tibetan Buddhism contains a mixture of many Buddhist traditions and teachings. It developed from one of the two main branches of Buddhism, Mahayana, and combines some of the sorcery of the native religion of Tibet, BÖn, and the mystical beliefs of Tantrism, a system of meditation and chanting used in both Hinduism and Buddhism to bring rapid enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhism, also sometimes referred to as Vajrayana, or "vehicle of the thunderbolt," was introduced into Tibet in the seventh century ce. By about 750 the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery had been built near Lhasa.

Four major sects (religious divisions) of Tibetan Buddhism ultimately formed: Nyingmapa, or "ancient ones"; Kagyupa, or "oral lineage"; Sakyapa, or "grey earth"; and Gelukpa, or "way of virtue." The Dalai Lama is a member of this last sect. The Gelukpa originated in a fourteenth-century reform movement that sought to restore discipline in monastic life. The leader of the Gelukpa is not the dalai lama but the Ganden Tripa, or "holder of the throne of Ganden." The tradition of the dalai lama began in 1391, with the first to hold the office, Gedun Drub (1391–1474). The second, Gendun Gyatso (1475–1541), established a permanent seat for the lineage at the monastery of Drepung, near Lhasa. Each dalai lama is believed to be the reincarnation of the previous one, so upon the death of the dalai lama, monks set out on a search for signs of the new leader. Sometimes, as with Tenzin Gyatso, the search takes several years, leaving gaps in the dalai lama lineage.

By the seventeenth century, Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682), the fifth dalai lama, was able (with the help of a Mongol ruler) to use force to extend his power over most of Tibet and unify the country. It was this dalai lama who built the huge winter palace, Potala, in Lhasa. Also supposedly during the time of Lobsang Gyatso, new texts were discovered showing that the dalai lama was not merely the reincarnation of the previous holder of the office but also the incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Ava-lokitesvara. This discovery helped to give the holder of the title real authority. The dalai lamas maintained rule in Tibet until 1951, when the country came under the direct control of the People's Republic of China. Though still the primary spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the dalai lama does not speak for all Tibetan sects, merely for the dominant Geluk school.

Such events quickly began affecting Tibet. Although it had long been considered a protectorate (a region under the protection and partial control of another) of China, Tibet was invaded by the newly established Chinese communists in 1950. On November 17 of this year, after the invasion began, Gyatso finally assumed political control of Tibet. The communists quickly overran the country, reaching Lhasa in late 1951. The Dalai Lama then played a dangerous diplomatic game with the Chinese for nearly ten years in an attempt to preserve Tibetan traditions. The Chinese demanded that the country be modernized, specifically through the termination of its age-old feudal society. In fact, even into the twentieth century Tibet closely resembled a medieval European land, with a few nobles and the clergy controlling the wealth while the peasants worked the land. Such a system was not always fair to the lower classes. The Chinese advance, however, accompanied as it was by violence and threats of violence against peasants and Buddhist monks and nuns alike, did not present an agreeable alternative. In an effort to work with the Chinese, the Dalai Lama visited Beijing in 1954 to speak personally with Chinese leaders. His efforts failed, and the Chinese continued to employ force in governing Tibet and even tried to enlist the second spiritual leader of the country, the Panchen Lama, to act as an opponent of the Dalai Lama and to reduce his influence with the people. This move by the Chinese was not successful, and war broke out by the late 1950s.

Throughout these difficult years the Dalai Lama continued his studies, and by the age of twenty-five he was ready to take his exams at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, where he earned a Lharampa degree, the highest level degree in Buddhist studies. There was little time for rejoicing, however. In March 1959 the Dalai Lama was invited to a Chinese theatrical performance, a deception that had been used previously to kidnap Tibetan leaders. Accordingly, he stayed in his palace, surrounded by thousands of his followers, while the Chinese sent in troops. On March 17, disguised as a simple soldier, the Dalai Lama escaped from the palace, accompanied by his mother, sister, and a small group of followers, and headed over the Himalaya Mountains on horseback toward India. After two weeks the group reached the mountain village of Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama set up a government in exile.

Life outside of Tibet

Ultimately, more than one hundred thousand Tibetan refugees joined the Dalai Lama in exile, and Dharamsala came to be known as "Little Lhasa." From Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama has continued to put pressure on China, through the international community, to provide Tibet with some form of autonomy, or self-rule. He has also attempted to create a piece of Tibet in a foreign land, thereby preserving his nation's cultural traditions. The Dalai Lama has helped refugees settle on agricultural land in northern India and established an educational system to teach his fellow countrymen Tibetan language, history, and culture. Two institutions have helped further these goals: the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, an Indian university for Tibetan refugees. Also, in order to preserve religious traditions, the Dalai Lama has overseen the construction of about two hundred Tibetan monasteries in India.

The Indian government, fearful of angering their powerful neighbor, China, at first refused to allow the Dalai Lama to travel outside of the country. Nevertheless, he was able to inspire United Nations resolutions in 1959, 1961, and 1965 that called on China to respect human rights in Tibet and to allow for free choice by the people. In response to criticism of Tibet's impractical political system, the Dalai Lama helped draw up a democratic Tibetan constitution in 1963 which provided for a parliament elected directly by the people. He has also declared that if Tibet regains its independence, he will forgo holding public office and act solely as a spiritual leader.

In 1967 the Indian government finally permitted the Dalai Lama to travel, and since then he has visited almost fifty countries, including the United States. On his journeys he speaks of conditions in his homeland under the continued rule of the Chinese and addresses spiritual questions. He discusses the bridges that can be built between different faiths and the emphasis in Tibetan Buddhism on compassion and nonviolence, ideas he feels could be of use to people in Western religions.

As the first dalai lama to travel to the West, Gyatso has become the symbol of Buddhism for many. He has met with numerous world leaders, from U.S. presidents to popes, and has called for a "zone of peace" in his native Tibet. For his efforts, he won the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award in 1987 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. As noted on the Nobelprize.org Web site, the Nobel committee wanted to recognize the fact that the Dalai Lama opposed the use of violence in efforts to liberate Tibet: "He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people." For his part, Gyatso, as reported on the Web site His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is said to have often observed, "I am just a simple Buddhist monk—no more, nor less."

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Dalai Lama continued to press for an independent Tibet, free of Chinese control. In 1995, partly due to his influence, the European parliament issued a statement noting Tibet's unique religious and cultural heritage and reaffirming the illegality of the Chinese occupation. In 2001, after a meeting between the Dalai Lama and President George W. Bush (1946–), the White House announced its support of the preservation of Tibetan culture, language, and religion. Eventually, the Dalai Lama began to lessen his demands for a totally independent Tibet, noting that the state could remain part of China if the Chinese showed due respect for the people's culture and religion.

In addition to addressing the needs of his people, the Dalai Lama has spoken out on a wide range of other issues, including the importance of creating world peace and ending world hunger, and has promoted these goals through the Dalai Lama Foundation. He has also continued to advocate discussions between different faiths. His many books deal with that subject as well as with Buddhist concepts, and many are based on his talks around the world. Particularly notable are such works as Buddha Heart, Buddha Mind: Living the Four Noble Truths and An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. The Dalai Lama has also written on the intersection of faith and science in The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.

Because of his high profile and the fact that he leads his life by the principles of compassion, the Dalai Lama is partly responsible for the spreading popularity of Tibetan Buddhism. Westerners from movie stars to politicians have been embracing Buddhist principles and meditation (deep and concentrated thinking) practices. Speaking with Robert Thurman of Mother Jones, the Dalai Lama explained why he thought his faith was becoming so popular in Western countries, including the United States:

I feel that Americans are interested because they are open-minded. They have an education system that teaches them to find out for themselves why things are the way they are…. Also, your education tends to develop the brain while it neglects the heart, so you have a longing for teachings that develop and strengthen the good heart.

In 2005 the Dalai Lama celebrated his seventieth birthday. More than ten thousand Tibetan refugees, monks, and followers from around the world gathered outside his home in Dharamsala. There, he has continued to live the simple life of a Buddhist monk, rising at four o'clock every morning to say prayers.

For More Information


Friese, Kai. Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama. New York, NY: Chelsea House, 1989.

Goldstein, Melvyn C. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.

Gyatso, Tenzin. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1990.

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

Hicks, Roger, and Ngakpa Chogyma. Great Ocean: An Authorized Biography of the Buddhist Monk Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. New York, NY: Penguin, 1990.

Marcello, Patricia Cronin. The Dalai Lama: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.


Bilski, Andrew. "A God-King in Exile." Maclean's (October 15, 1990): 49.

Clifton, Tony. "A Life in Exile." Newsweek (October 13, 1997): 48.

Gere, Richard. "Dalai Lama: He Belongs to the World." Time (April 18, 2005): 92.

Gyatso, Tenzin. "A Conversation with the Dalai Lama." Interview with Alex Perry. Time International (October 25, 2004): 36.

Gyatso, Tenzin. "Dalai Lama: A Truly 'Far-Sighted' Person." Interview with Sudip Mazumdar. Newsweek International (December 27, 2004): 102.

Iyer, Pico. "The God in Exile." Time (December 22, 1997): 72.

Seaman, Donna. Review of The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, by Tenzin Gyatso. Booklist (September 15, 2005): 9.


"Dalai Lama: A Spiritual Leader in Exile." CNN.com. http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2001/dalai.lama/ (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"The Fourteenth Dalai Lama—Biography." Nobelprize.org. http://nobelprize.org/peace/laureates/1989/lama-bio.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Gyatso, Tenzin. "The Dalai Lama." Interview with Robert Thurman. Mother Jones. http://www.motherjones.com/news/qa/1997/11/thurman.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).

His Holiness the Dalai Lama. http://www.tibet.com/DL/ (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Tibet Overview: HH Dalai Lama." TibetOverland.com". http://www.tibetoverland.com/1_4a_biography1.asp (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Dalai Lama

views updated May 23 2018


The position of Dalai Lama, dating in its present form from the mid-seventeenth century, is a uniquely Tibetan institution, embodying the most important secular and religious presence in Tibet. Dalai is the Mongolian translation of the Tibetan name Rgya mtsho (pronounced "Gyatso"), which means "ocean," and bla ma (pronounced "lama"), a general Tibetan name for a respected religious teacher.

The name Dalai Lama was first used by Altan Khan, a Tumed Mongolian chieftain, for his teacher Bsod nams (Sonam) rgya mtsho (1543–1588). Bsod nams rgya mtsho and his followers then gave the name posthumously to Dge 'dun (Gendun) rgya mtsho (1476–1542) and Dge 'dun grub (Gendun Drup, 1391–1474), a student of the great scholar Tsong kha pa (1357–1419), saying that each later Dalai Lama was the reincarnation of the earlier. The followers of Tsong kha pa, later called the Dge lugs (Geluk) or Yellow Hat sect, probably saw the prestige that was gained through the system of reincarnation by older sects like the Karma Bka' brgyud (Kagyu), and borrowed the idea of reincarnation from them.

The fourth Dalai Lama was the grandson of Altan Khan. He was soon followed by the "Great Fifth" Dalai Lama, Ngag dbang (Ngawang) rgya mtsho (1617–1682). The Great Fifth Dalai Lama and his teacher, Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan (Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, 1567–1662), forged a coalition between the Dge lug, the Rnying ma (Nyingma) sect, parts of the Tibetan aristocracy, and the most powerful of the competing Mongolian factions to overcome the Karma Bka' brgyud and their Gtsang (Tsang) patrons of west central Tibet.

Fifth and sixth Dalai Lamas

The coalition created a new government called the Tusita Palace (Dga' ldan pho brang) based in Lhasa. The Dalai Lamas headed this government and lived, after its completion, in the colossal Potala palace started by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama in 1645 on the ruins of a palace built by the early Tibetan emperor Srong btsan sgam po (Songtsen Gampo). After his death, the Great Fifth's prime minister (some say natural son) Sangs rgyas (Sangyay) rgya mtsho finished the palace that came to symbolize and dominate Tibet in 1695. After the founding of the Dga' ldan pho brang government and the building of the Potala, the Dalai Lamas were not just head lamas of 'Bras spung (Drepung), the largest of the Dge lugs pa monasteries; they were heads of the government of Tibet as well.

For his help in spiritual and political matters, the fifth Dalai Lama gave the name Pan chen bla ma (Panchen Lama) to his teacher Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan, abbot of Bkra shis lhun po (Tashi Lunpo), the largest Dge lugs pa monastery in Gtsang. From this period comes the theory of the Dalai Lamas as emanations of Avalokiteśvara, here conceived as the bodhisattva of compassion, and Panchen Lamas as emanations of AmitĀbha. In tantric Buddhism there are five buddha families, each headed by a buddha. The head of Avalokiteśvara's buddha family is Amitābha, reflecting the esteem the Dalai Lama had for his teacher. The association of Dalai Lamas with Avalokiteśvara reflects the great importance the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara has throughout Tibet and the ubiquitous presence of his mantra, OṂ maṆipadme hŪṂ.

The sixth Dalai Lama (1683–1706) was in many respects a tragic figure. Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho concealed the death of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama until completing the construction of the Potala in order to fore-stall the difficulties inherent in an interregnum period. Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho prevented the new incarnation, Tshe dbyangs (Tseyang) rgya mtsho, from contact with the outside world, and he set up an elaborate subterfuge to make the people think the fifth Dalai Lama was in a long retreat. As he grew up, Tshe dbyangs rgya mtsho rebelled against the life of the celibate monk expected of a Dalai Lama, and he took to frequenting Lhasa taverns disguised as an ordinary layman. He had affairs with young women whom he met there, and expressed his longing to be with them obliquely in his poems, which are widely known and sung even today throughout Tibet.

Though beloved by ordinary Tibetans, Tshe dbyangs rgya mtsho offended the Quoshot Mongol leader Lhasang Khan, who was shocked by what he saw as Tshe dbyangs rgya mtsho's immoral behavior. Lhasang Khan killed the prime minister, captured Tshe dbyangs rgya mtsho, and took him to the 'A mdo region of eastern Tibet, where he died at the age of twenty-four in 1706. Lhasang Khan set up his own relative as an alternative sixth Dalai Lama, a move that alienated Tibetans.

After the death of Tshe dbyangs rgya mtsho, Tibetans opposed to Lhasang Khan's candidate turned to the Dzungars, a powerful western Mongolian tribe with deep devotion to the Dalai Lamas. This alarmed the Manchu-Chinese emperor Kangxi, who saw the Dzungars as a threat to Manchu interests. Manchu troops invaded Tibet and the seventh Dalai Lama, Skal bzang (Kelsang) rgya mtsho (1708–1757), was finally installed in Lhasa, after much negotiation, as Dalai Lama in 1720, with Manchu backing. Apart from replacing the post of prime minister with a council of ministers call the Bka' shag (Kashag), Skal bzang rgya mtsho devoted himself to Buddhist studies and gained some fame as a writer of religious books. The Bka' shag met in Lhasa and was answerable only to the Dalai Lamas or, when the Chinese presence was powerful, to the Chinese representatives (ambans).

For nearly 150 years from the death of Skal bzang rgya mtsho until the twelfth Dalai Lama 'Phrin las (Trinlay) rgya mtsho, effective political power was in the hands of regents appointed from among the powerful Dge lugs pa lamas, monks, and nobility. The eighth Dalai Lama, 'Jam dpal (Jampel) rgya mtsho (1758–1804), remained detached from political affairs. The ninth through the twelfth Dalai Lamas all died young: the ninth—Lung rtogs (Lungtok) rgya mtsho (1805–1815); the tenth—Tshul khrims (Tsultrim) rgya mtsho (1816–1837); the eleventh—Mkhas grub (Khedrub) rgya mtsho (born 1855 and died within a year of birth); and the twelfth—'Phrin las rgya mtsho (1856–1875).

The procedure for choosing Dalai Lamas evolved over time. Dreams of respected religious figures and visions of oracles have always been important. Since the time of the third Dalai Lama, Bsod nams rgya mtsho, in the sixteenth century, visions appearing on the surface of a sacred lake near Chos 'khas rgyal (Chökhar Gyal) in south central Tibet have been considered significant. In the case of the seventh Dalai Lama, lines from Tshe dbyangs rgya mtsho's poem—"I will not fly far. I will come back from Li thang"—were considered an important clue by those charged with locating the place of rebirth. Such seemingly innocuous statements, or in some cases actual letters detailing a birthplace, remain an important part of the selection process, as does the ability of the child candidate to differentiate items belonging to the earlier Dalai Lama when they are placed alongside similar items.

The influence of China on the selection of Dalai Lamas stems from the turbulent years after the death of the sixth Dalai Lama and the Manchu intervention in the early eighteenth century. The Manchu general Fu Kang'an delivered a golden urn from the Manchu emperor to be used for the selections of high lamas. The Manchu representatives (ambans), who remained in Tibet after the Chinese army returned to Tibet, witnessed the procedure of choosing a name from the golden urn. From this period also comes the schism between the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, as the Manchus exploited the traditional rivalry between central Tibet and western Gtsang to counterbalance the power of the Dge lugs pa sect. The Manchus backed the Gtsangbased Panchen Lamas strongly.

Thirteenth and fourteenth Dalai Lamas

The thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thub bstan (Tubten) rgya mtsho (1876–1933), who, like the fifth, is called the "Great," overcame entrenched Dge lugs pa monastic power and reasserted the authority of the Dalai Lama as a political institution. After surviving an attempted assassination, Thub bstan rgya mtsho introduced reforms, first in the large Dge lugs pa monasteries and then in the government ministries led by members of the Bka' shag. According to Melvyn Goldstein in A History of Modern Tibet (1989), the thirteenth Dalai Lama attempted two reforms of Tibetan society in particular that would have better prepared Tibet for the difficulties of the modern world: modernization of the army and introduction of a democratically elected assembly. He failed in both reform efforts because of entrenched conservatism and vested interests.

The thirteenth Dalai Lama skillfully governed Tibet during the time of the "Great Game," the rivalry for control of the Central Asian regions that lay between the empires of czarist Russia and British India. Fearful of Russian influence, the viceroy of British India, Lord Minto, sent out an army under Colonel Francis Edward Younghusband that invaded Tibet in 1904. The Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia and then to China. When the Chinese invaded Tibet five years later the Dalai Lama in turn fled to British India, making his way to Darjeeling. He was hosted there by Sir Charles Bell, a British political officer, whose book A Portrait of the Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth (1946) introduced the Dalai Lama to the English-speaking world.

Before his death in 1933 the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama wrote a letter, now viewed as his political testament, in which he foresaw great change and suffering for the Tibetan people if they did not adapt quickly to the modern world. Unfortunately the leaders of Tibet during the regency period were unable to rise to this difficult task, and the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho (Tenzin Gyatso), was destined to perform the nearly impossible task of leading a people clinging to a country disintegrating before their eyes into an uncertain future.

Born Hla mo don grub (Lhamo Dhundup) to an ordinary farming family in 1935, the fourteenth Dalai Lama was given the name Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho when he became a monk. Bstan 'dzin means "holder of the Buddha's doctrine." Out of respect, Tibetans call him Sku 'dun (pronounced "Kundun"), which means literally "the presence before us." The regent, Rva streng (Reting) rin po che, guided a search party to the northeastern region of Tibet after a sign given after death by the thirteenth Dalai Lama, whose body had miraculously turned to face in that direction. A house like the future fourteenth Dalai Lama's had also appeared on the surface of the sacred lake. When special marks were observed on Hla mo don grub's body and he was able to distinguish items belonging to the thirteenth Dalai Lama from among similar items, Rva streng rin po che declared him the reincarnation. After payment of a large ransom to the local Chinese warlord, Rva streng had the young boy brought to Lhasa, where he was enthroned in 1940 at the age of five.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama divided his early years between the Potala and the Nor bu gling kha summer palace, studying Buddhism under the supervision of learned Dge lugs pa monks. This changed abruptly in 1950 when, at the age of fifteen, a political crisis forced the Tibetan government to ask him to assume both political and spiritual authority.

In China, decades of civil war and instability ended with the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. Mao immediately declared Tibet an integral part of the Chinese motherland and China's Red Army marched in, easily defeating the badly equipped Tibetans in 1950 at Chamdo, on the traditional border between central and eastern Tibet. In desperation, Tibet's political leaders invested the young Dalai Lama with full political authority. In 1951 China forced a totally defeated Tibet to sign the Seventeen Point Agreement in which it was declared that Tibet had always been a part of China.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama finished his traditional studies in 1959. Soon after, when the Chinese army suppressed a Tibetan uprising in Lhasa protesting tightening Chinese control, the Dalai Lama fled as a refugee to India. He was eventually followed by about 100,000 of his people.

In India, as Thubten Samphel says in The Dalai Lamas of Tibet (2000), "the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has managed to transform a medieval Central Asian institution into a positive force recognized globally" (p. 68). He reorganized the Tibetan government in exile along more democratic lines and spearheaded attempts to introduce modern education to Tibetan children. In his

campaign against the Chinese presence in Tibet, the fourteenth Dalai Lama has preached accommodation and nonviolence. In 1987, in an address to the U.S. Congress, he unveiled a five-point peace plan that envisions Tibet as a neutral zone of peace. The next year, in Strasbourg, France, he announced his willingness to accept that Tibet is a part of China if there were a strong devolution of power that would allow Tibet to be self-governing and to retain its distinctive identity. For these efforts he received the Nobel Prize for peace in 1989.

The religious beliefs of the fourteenth Dalai Lama are summed up in a verse of the eighth-century Indian saint ŚĀntideva that he often quotes: "As long as space endures, as long as suffering remains, may I too remain, to dispel the misery of the world." The fourteenth Dalai Lama travels widely, giving explanations of Buddhist teaching and exchanging ideas with scientists and leaders of other faiths.

See also:Communism and Buddhism; Tibet


Bell, Charles. A Portrait of the Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth. London: Collins, 1946.

Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho (Dalai Lama XIV). My Land and My People. New York: McGraw Hill, 1962.

Goldstein, Melvyn. A History of Modern Tibet, 1913–1951: Demise of the Lamaist State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Samphel, Thubten, and Tendar. The Dalai Lamas of Tibet. New Delhi: Lustre Press, 2000.

Gareth Sparham

Dalai Lama

views updated May 29 2018

Dalai Lama

Born: July 6, 1935
Taktser, Tibet

Tibetan religious and political leader

The Dalai Lama is the fourteenth leader in a line of Buddhist spiritual and political leaders of Tibet. Buddhists are followers of Gautama Buddha (c. 563c. 483 b.c.e.), who believed the troubles of this life can be overcome through moral and mental discipline. The Dalai Lama fled his country and took safety in India in 1959 during the revolt against Chinese control of Tibet. Since that time, while still in exile (a forced or a voluntary absence from one's country), he has promoted Tibetan religious and cultural traditions.

Early family life

The name given the Dalai Lama when he was born on July 6, 1935, was Lhamo Thondup. He came from a very small village in northeast Tibet called Taktser. At that time there were only twenty families living in all of Taktser. "Dalai Lama" is a name of honor and respect that was given to him by the Buddhist monks of Tibet. "Lama" means "teacher" or "wise person." "Dalai" means "ocean." When put together Dalai Lama is translated as "Ocean of Wisdom."

The young Dalai Lama's parents were farmers who raised sheep and grew barley, buckwheat, and potatoes. In addition to Lhamo there were six other children in the family, four boys and two girls.

The Dalai Lama

The current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth person to hold that title in straight succession. This means the role is passed from one person to another with no break in order. The people of Tibet believe that when one Dalai Lama dies he is reincarnated (reborn) in a young child. In other words, they believe that the soul of the current Dalai Lama is the same soul that was in the first Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lamas have been the head of the order of Gelugpa Buddhism, which means "Yellow Hat," since the fourteenth century. The Dalai Lama took on the additional role of political leader in the seventeenth century. All Dalai Lamas since that time have had that dual responsibility.

How he was discovered

The thirteenth Dalai Lama died in December of 1933. When he died, the Buddhist monks prayed for guidance to find the new Dalai Lama. They felt signs and oracles (divine answers or prophecies) would lead them to him. They finally received a vision that the new Dalai Lama would be found in the northeast part of Tibet. He would be living in a house that had strange gutters and that was near a monastery (a place where monks live and pray).

Many monks went out on the journey. After much searching, a group of them came to the village of Taktser, which has a monastery nearby. There they found Lhamo at his house, which had strangely shaped gutters. They spoke to him and to his parents and performed a test. The monks had brought several items with them from their home monastery. Some of the items had belonged to the thirteenth Dalai Lama and others were imitations or just common objects. Lhamo correctly identified the objects that had belonged to the thirteenth Dalai Lama. The monks knew they had found the reincarnation of their leader. Lhamo was two years old at the time.

His education

The monks took Lhamo to a monastery in Kumbum, Tibet. For two years he was given the basic education he would need to lead his country both spiritually and politically. After this he was brought to the Potala palace in Lhasa, the capital of the country. The Potala palace is a structure of over one thousand rooms built into a mountain. There he took his place on the Lion Throne, a richly carved, wooden throne covered with jewels. He was only four years old on February 22, 1940, when the monks declared that he was the new Dalai Lama. He took the name Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso in honor of lamas who had served before him. Since then, however, he has only used a shortened version of that name for himselfTenzin Gyasto.

The monks at the Potala palace gave the Dalai Lama private instruction. His only classmate was one of his brothers. According to a long-standing tradition, when the young Dalai Lama misbehaved in class, it was his brother who was punished. Over the years the Dalai Lama learned penmanship, history, religion, philosophy, Tibetan medicine, art, music, and literature, among many other subjects. Throughout all of his study he attended meetings of the government.

The Dalai Lama loved working with mechanical things. He spent a great deal of time with his telescope. He enjoyed taking watches and small machines apart and putting them back together. There were only four cars in all of Tibet at that time and three belonged to the thirteenth Dalai Lama. Tenzin Gyatso loved working with the engines and trying to drive the cars.

The Dalai Lama took over the political leadership of Tibet in November 1950, not long after the Chinese Communist army invaded the country. (Communism is a political system based on the belief that property should not be owned by any individual but should belong to everyone in common. Communists also believe that all business should be under the control of the government.) The Dalai Lama was fifteen years old and leading a country on the brink of crisis.

His exile

Mainland China had become a communist nation in 1949 after World War II (193945; a war in which the Allies, including France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, defeated the Axis forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan). Mao Zedong (18931976) led communist China. Eighty thousand members of the Chinese army invaded Tibet in early 1950. The Chinese said the people of Tibet invited the army to save them from the rule of a cruel government. The Chinese also claimed that Tibet was originally a part of China.

Neither of these statements were true. The Dalai Lama visited with the Chinese to ask them to leave Tibet. They would not. He visited neighboring countries to try to get help to push the invaders out. The other countries, however, were afraid of what might happen to them if they opposed a nation as powerful as China, and they offered little support. After years of trying to negotiate with the Chinese and seeing his people suffer under Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama finally fled to India in April 1959. He has been away from his native Tibet since then.

His life after exile

The Dalai Lama learned Buddhist thought and practice as part of his monastic (done by monks or nuns) training. The people of Tibet still consider him to be their spiritual and political leader. Since his exile he has worked tirelessly to help Tibetans who have managed to flee their country. He has worked with many Westerners for the cause of returning Tibet to its own people.

The Dalai Lama's contact with Westerners has broadened his interest beyond Buddhism. He has given many speeches and written several books. In them he discusses how religions are similar in their development of love and compassion and in their pursuit of goodness and happiness for all beings. He is greatly admired, not just by Buddhists, but by people everywhere. He speaks not only of spiritual matters, but also of global peace and environmental concerns. His thoughts are received as popular and universal messages.

In 1987 the Dalai Lama was the recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, named after the famous Dr. Schweitzer (18751965), who worked in Africa. In 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Dalai Lama remains an active and revered humanitarian (someone who believes in human welfare and social reform) throughout the world, even though an intestinal illness he suffered in January 2002 caused him to cut back on his schedule. He has spent much of his time traveling, speaking against communism, and working for peace. He has a devoted following that includes individuals from all over the world and from all walks of life. His struggles for peace and freedom have made him one of the most recognized and well-regarded political and spiritual leaders in the world.

For More Information

Dalai Lama XIV. The Buddhism of Tibet. London: Allen & Unwin, 1975.

Dalai Lama XIV. The Dalai Lama at Harvard: Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1988.

Dalai Lama XIV. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.

Dalai Lama

views updated May 21 2018

Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama (Lhamo Thondup; born 1935), the 14th in a line of Buddhist spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet, fled to India during the revolt against Chinese control in 1959 and from exile promoted Tibetan religious and cultural traditions.

The 14th Dalai Lama (loosely translated "Ocean of Wisdom") was born Lhamo Thondup on July 6, 1935, in Taktser, a small village in far northeastern Tibet. In 1937 a mission sent out by the Tibetan government to search for the successor to the 13th Dalai Lama, who had died in 1933, felt led to him by signs and oracles. It is reported that when they tested him, Lhamo Thondup correctly identified objects belonging to his predecessor, and a state oracle confirmed that he was the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lamas. On February 22, 1940, he was officially installed as spiritual leader of Tibet, though political rule remained in the hands of the regents. He took the name Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso.

As the 14th Dalai Lama, he followed in the line of Tibetan Buddhist spiritual and temporal leaders with roots in a reform movement led by Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419), who sought to restore Buddhist monastic discipline and founded an order of Buddhist monks known as the Gelugpa or "Yellow Hat" sect. In 1438 the head of the order and the first Dalai Lama established a monastery at Tashilhundpo, but the second Dalai Lama established the monastery of Drepung, near Lhasa, as the permanent seat of the line. The third Dalai Lama (1543-1588) was first given the title "Dalai Lama" (lama is a Tibetan term that translates the Sanskrit guru, or "teacher"; dalai—"ocean, or all-embracing"—is apparently a partial translation of the third Dalai Lama's name) by a Mongol leader, Altan Khan, who led his followers to convert to Tibetan Buddhism. The grandson of Altan Khan was identified as the fourth Dalai Lama, thus solidifying Mongolian-Tibetan ties but threatening the Chinese rulers.

The Dalai Lama gradually gained his temporal power over Tibet through skillful use of Mongol and Manchu support. Finally, with the help of a western Mongol tribe, the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) extended the rule of the Gelugpas over all of Tibet. He built the large winter palace, the Potala, in Lhasa, which has become a symbol of Tibetan nationalism. It was during his reign that the Dalai Lama was confirmed by "newly discovered texts" to be the reincarnation not only of the previous Dalai Lamas but also of the Buddhist Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, a celestial bodhisattva (enlightened being) who comes to the aid of people in need and often functions as do the gods of India and China, and, for some, as a patron deity of Tibet.

Repeated power struggles between western Mongols and Tibetans during the early 18th century, including a violent civil war in 1727-1728, resulted in intervention by the Ch'ing dynasty of China in 1720, 1728, and 1750. Their final solution was to firmly and finally establish the Dalai Lama in the position of full temporal power and Tibet as a protectorate of the Ch'ing Empire under the supervision of residents (ambans) from Peking.

The 13th Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso (1875-1933), took an interest in modern technology, sent Tibetan students abroad for education, and attempted to raise the standard of education of the Tibetan monastic community. The renewed assertion of control over Tibet by the Ch'ing government with broad reforms in 1908 proved so intense that when Chinese troops arrived in Lhasa in 1910 the Dalai Lama fled to India. He returned to Tibet in 1912 when the Chinese withdrew the troops in response to the 1911 revolution in China, and in January 1913 the Dalai Lama declared the independence of Tibet. The declaration was recognized by the British, who were colonizing South Asia, but not by China.

The 14th Dalai Lama, then, inherited his office on the basis of the belief that he was a reincarnation of each of the previous Dalai Lamas as well as the 74th manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the first being an Indian Brahmin boy who lived at the time of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Each Dalai Lama is "discovered" on the basis of omens and signs. Letters from the previous Dalai Lama are often cited in identification. Most important for determination is the Nechung oracle, who is believed to incarnate the god Pehar or Dorje Drakden, one of the protector deities of the Dalai Lama and with whom he consults at least annually. A medium enters a trance in which his face is said to be transformed. A 30-pound helmet is placed on his head; he wields a sword and dances slowly while speaking words of the deity which need interpretation. Consulting this and other oracles remains a regular element of the Dalai Lama's activity.

On October 26, 1951, Chinese troops again entered Lhasa. With the signing of the Sino-Tibetan Treaty, the Dalai Lama attempted to work within the strictures imposed by China, visiting Peking in 1954 and negotiating with Chinese leaders. He was attracted to Marxism but repulsed by Chinese activity in the "liberation" of Tibet. The Chinese attempted to use the Panchen Lama, the second spiritual leader, to counteract his influence, but this failed. With the Tibetan uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he set up his residence in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.

The Dalai Lama received an extensive education in Buddhist thought and practice as part of his monastic training. His contacts with Westerners broadened his interest beyond Buddhism and he often spoke and wrote of the similarities of religions in the development of love and compassion and in the pursuit of goodness and happiness for all beings. Global peace and environmental concerns round out his popular message. In 1987 he was the recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award and in 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Dalai Lama remains an active and revered humanitarian throughout the world. His struggles for peace and freedom have made him one of the most recognized and regarded political/spiritual leaders in the world. He has spent much of his time traveling, speaking against communism and for peace. He has a devout following which includes individuals from all over the world and from all walks of life.

Further Reading

Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama (1990) introduces the life and personality of the 14th Dalai Lama. See also his The Buddhism of Tibet (1975) and The Dalai Lama at Harvard: Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace (1988). Several accounts of recent Tibetan history have been written by Tibetan leaders. See for example Chogyam Trungpa, Born in Tibet (1966), and Rinchaen Dola Taring, Daughter of Tibet (1970). The most accurate survey of Tibetan religion is Helmut Hoffman, The Religions of Tibet (1961). See also "The Dalai Lama" by Claudia Dreifus in the New York Times Magazine (November 28, 1993). □

Dalai Lama

views updated Jun 11 2018

Dalai Lama

tibetan religious leader1935–

The Dalai Lama traditionally is recognized as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. He has lived in exile, however, since 1959, when Chinese occupation forces tightened control over his homeland, which they claimed as part of China. Named Lhamo Thondup at his birth in a small village near Tibet's border with China, as a young child he was recognized as Tibet's greatest "lama," or teacher. Later renamed Tenzin Gyatso, he represents the fourteenth incarnation in a series of distinguished predecessors (the first Dalai Lama was born in 1391). Gyatso was only 15 when the Chinese initially occupied his land, but their entry accelerated his confirmation as Tibet's preeminent religious and political leader.

In 1950, fresh from victory in China, Mao Tse-tung's (1893–1976) communist militias invaded Tibet, which they claimed as their traditional territory. The invaders intended to "liberate" the Tibetan people from an antiquated system of government led by the Dalai Lama, a sizeable monastic sector, and a small aristocracy . Although the Dalai Lama sought common ground rather than conflict with the Chinese, they pressed ahead with efforts to eradicate Tibet's socioeconomic structure and culture; Mao perceived religion as "poison." Residents of Lhasa, Tibet's capital, staged nonviolent protests against their Chinese rulers in 1959, triggering a violent crackdown. Fearing for their leader's safety, the Dalai Lama's supporters encouraged him to plead Tibet's case with India. After an arduous trip on horseback, the disguised sage found refuge in Dharamsala, a dilapidated former British colonial holiday resort in India's Himalayan Mountains, where he established a government in exile. A flood of Tibetan refugees followed, and the Dalai Lama continued to serve as the revered spiritual leader for Tibetan Buddhists.

The Dalai Lama has received significant media attention for his cause, largely because of his emphasis on peaceful reconciliation with China, the preservation of Tibetan culture and religion, and human rights. For his efforts, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Nobel committee chairman Egil Aarvik commended the Dalai Lama on his extraordinarily compassionate attitude toward his oppressors. At the awards ceremony, the Dalai Lama said that more than one million Tibetans had died under Chinese rule and more than six thousand monasteries, which he called the seat of Tibet's peaceful culture, had been destroyed. He noted that Chinese leaders relocated millions of ethnic Chinese settlers to Tibet in

order to establish numerical superiority over the indigenous Tibetan population, thereby practicing what the Dalai Lama called a form of genocide.

See also: Aung San Suu Kyi; China (PRC); Gandhi, Mahatma; King Jr., Martin Luther; Political Protest.


Avedon, John F. In Exile from the Land of Snows: The Definitive Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet Since the Chinese Conquest. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

The Dalai Lama's Biography. Government of Tibet in Exile. September 9, 2004. <http://www.tibet.com/DL/biography.html>.

Frängsmyr, Tore, and Irwin Abrams, eds. "The 14th Dalai Lama—Biography." Nobel Lectures, Peace 1981–1990. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 1997. <http://nobelprize.org/peace/laureates/1989/lama-bio.html>.

Hicks, Roger, and Ngakpa Chogyam. Great Ocean: An Authorized Biography of the Buddhist Monk Tenzin Gyatso His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Norbu, Dawa. Tibet: The Road Ahead. London: Rider Books, 1998.

Holly Sims

Dalai Lama

views updated May 18 2018

Dalai Lama. The office of temporal and spiritual leadership of the Tibetan peoples, of which the present holder, Tenzin Gyatso (Bstan-ʾdzinrgya-mtsho) is the fourteenth. The history of the office begins with Gendun Drub (Dge-ʾdun-grub-pa, 1391–1475), the third successor of Tsong Khapa as head of the Geluk school. Gendun Drub was the first member of the Geluk to adopt the tulku system of reincarnating lamas. His successor was Gendun Gyatso, whose own successor Sonam Gyatso (1543–88) accepted an invitation to renew the Tibetan-Mongolian priest–patron relationship. In a respectful exchange by Lake Kokonor in 1578, Altan Khan gave Sonam Gyatso the Mongolian title ‘Ta le’ (Ocean [of Wisdom]) Lama, which, retrospectively applied to his two predecessors, made Gendun Drub the first ‘Ta le’ Lama (‘Dalai’ being a W. transcription).

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has based himself in Dharamsala, India, from where he has become well-known internationally, and been styled a ‘god-king’ by the Western press. This potentially misleading term stems from the Tibetan consideration of eminent beings as emanations of Buddhas or bodhisattvas, and the Dalai Lama in particular as an emanation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Among Tibetans, he is more commonly called ‘Gyalwa Rinpoche’ (Precious Eminence), or simply ‘Kundun’ (Presence). An active statesman, Tenzin Gyatso continues to negotiate improved conditions for his people and terms for his own return, and has overseen the transformation of the previous theocratic government into a democratically elected autonomous body (albeit in exile). In 1989 he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his adherence to the Buddhist principle of nonviolence in the Tibetan struggle, although in the 1990s a wing of the Tibetan Youth Congress advocating armed resistance has become more vocal.

Dalai Lama

views updated Jun 27 2018

Dalai Lama (Grand Lama) Supreme head of the Yellow Hat Buddhist monastery at Lhasa, Tibet. The title was bestowed upon the third Grand Lama by the Mongol ruler Altan Khan (d.1583). In 1642, the Mongols installed Ngawang Lopsang Gyatso (1617–82), fifth Dalai Lama, as political and spiritual ruler of Tibet. Dalai Lamas thereafter retained political leadership, but spiritual supremacy was later shared with the Panchen Lama. In 1950–51, Tenzin Gyatso (1935– ), 14th Dalai Lama, temporarily fled Tibet after it was annexed by the People's Republic of China. Following a brutally suppressed Tibetan uprising (1959), he went into exile in India. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is revered as the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. When a Dalai Lama dies, his soul is believed to pass into the body of an infant, born 49 days later.


Dalai Lama

views updated May 14 2018

Dalai Lama the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism and, until the establishment of Chinese communist rule, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. Each Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, reappearing in a child when the incumbent Dalai Lama dies. The present Dalai Lama, the fourteenth incarnation, escaped to India in 1959 following the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

The name is from Tibetan, literally ‘ocean monk’, so named because he is regarded as ‘the ocean of compassion’.

Dalai Lama

views updated May 23 2018

Da·lai La·ma / ˈdälī ˈlämə/ • n. the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism and, formerly, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet.

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Dalai Lama

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