Dalai Lama (1935-), Spiritual Leader, Head of State

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Dalai Lama
(1935-), spiritual leader, head of state.

Born Lhamo Dhondrub on July 6, 1935, in the small Tibetan village of Taktser, Tenzin Gyatso (as he was later renamed) was formally enthroned as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, on February 22, 1940. In the ensuing years, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has clearly emerged as the world's foremost Buddhist, both within and without the traditionally Buddhist world. He has traveled to all the continents except Antarctica and has spoken to millions of people in numerous cultures. He has authored several dozen books—nearly a hundred, if one includes edited transcripts of his talks and teachings, which have been translated into over thirty languages, with bestsellers on record in Germany, France, Italy, England, and recently the United States. He is present in published audio and video tapes and has appeared on television in most countries of North and South America, Australia, Southern and Southeast Asia, and Europe, including Russia, Japan, Taiwan, and even mainland China.

He received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1989, in recognition of his tireless application of the spiritual principles of nonviolence and reasoned dialogue to the tragic situation the Tibetan people have suffered since 1949 under China's genocidal invasion, occupation, and colonization of Tibet. He has been more and more universally recognized as the living successor to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in spiritually directed, nonviolent, political activism. In an increasingly complex postcolonial, postindustrial, postmodern world of economic injustice, environmental degradation, and ethnic violence, he is the main Buddhist spokesperson holding out hope for a positive future for all humanity, for the restoration of a healthy environment, and for the reconciliation of conflicts, both ancient and modern.

In the United States, the Dalai Lama has very few detractors, other than Maoist sympathizers, who wrongly consider the old Tibet to have been a "medieval, feudal, theocratic" society of horrors that deserved the Maoist destruction, or corporate or political advocates of "engagement" with China, who consider it any industrial power's right to do whatever it wants with its own "indigenous minorities" and thus regard the Dalai Lama as an irritating embarrassment.

In religious circles, the Dalai Lama has a special aura, due to his resolute refusal to proselytize or convert anyone to Buddhism. When approached by enthusiastic followers, his constant refrain is that it is better for people to retain the religion with which they grow up and, if they so desire, intensify their practice with philosophical, meditational, or ethical methods borrowed from other religions or from secular humanist psychologies. Of course, he applauds the freedom of a modern, pluralistic society that allows people to choose their own religious path (he often jokes that he approves of the usually derogatory concept of a "spiritual supermarket"). He does not hide the fact that he likes the Tibetan Buddhism with which he was raised, and he makes himself available to American Buddhists to give whatever teachings they request, provided he can fit them into his busy schedule. His priority when traveling is always clearly his representation of the plight of the Tibetan people, seeking help from politicians and diplomats in getting the Chinese to moderate their hard-line policies and overtly destructive practices.

Among American Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is consistent in applying his pluralistic principles: He makes a point of not criticizing the practices of Theravada, Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren, or any other national forms of Buddhism, and within the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism he does not uphold the Gelukpa order in which he was primarily educated as if its teachings were superior to those of the other orders. In the 1970s before he was able to visit the United States (he was officially blocked until 1979 by the Kissinger policy of alliance with the Communist Chinese against the Soviet Union), there was a strong strain of sectarian competition between the various forms of Buddhism in America, especially between the various orders of Tibetan Buddhism. He calmed these waters enormously during his early teaching tours in 1979 and 1981, when he visited all the new centers and demonstrated his in-depth knowledge of all the traditions and his appreciation of their various strengths and advantages. Further, in line with his basic policy of discouraging hasty conversion to Buddhism, he was always clear that those who felt they had to convert should realize this to be their personal choice, not to criticize their original religion as having been defective in general, and to respect family and friends who are better able to find satisfaction within their original faiths. In these ways, the Dalai Lama has had an immensely positive impact on Buddhism and on interreligious relations in the United States.

See alsoBuddha; Buddhism; Ecumenical Movement; Tibetan Buddhism.


Dalai Lama. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiographyof theDalai Lama. 1991.

Piburn, Sidney, and Claiborne Pell, eds. TheDalaiLama, A Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writingsby and About the Dalai Lama. 1999.

Robert A. F. Thurman