Dalai Lama, The Fourteenth (1935-)

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Dalai Lama, The Fourteenth (1935-)

The Dalai Lama is the traditional head of the Tibetan people and the spiritual leader of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The Office of the Dalai Lama was instituted by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the reformist leader who had established the Gelugpa tradition and went to Lhasa to confront the traditional Nyingpa leadership. Tsongkhapa's goal was to tighten monastic discipline, reduce the emphasis on magic, and enforce rules on celibacy. He established a monastery at Panchen, and he led in the founding of several other monastic centers at key locations. Gedun Drub (1391-1474), the first Dalai Lama, was a disciple of Tsongkhapa. He established Tshilhunpo monastery, the Gelugpa center in Tsang province. The Gelugpa reforms gradually gained the upper hand, and the Great Fifth Dalai Lama seized temporal power in Tibet and moved to Llasa, where he turned the Potala, an old meditation pavilion, into a large palace.

The person of the Dalai Lama is as an emanation of Chenresi, the Buddha of Compassion, and it is believed that incarnations of the original Dalai Lama have continued to hold the office through the centuries. Traditionally, following the death of the Dalai Lama, leaders of the Gelugpa sect search among the children of the land for his reincarnation. Candidates will be tested with a set of objects, some of which were owned by the late Dalai Lama. The child recognized as the returned Dalai Lama will choose the object owned by the former Dalai Lama and has been known spontaneously to recite Buddhist scriptures he had not been taught or to recognize associates of the former Dalai Lama. The new Dalai Lama is then taken to a monastery to be raised.

The present Dalai Lama, Jampel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, was born on July 6, 1935, in Taktser, Amdo, Tibet, into a peasant family. His father was a farmer. He was brought to Lhasa in 1939 and enthroned the following year. Throughout World War II (1939-45), he was educated by some of the eminent scholars of the land, and as a youth also had what became his famous encounters with Austrian war refugee Heinrich Herrar, recounted in the book and movie, Seven Years in Tibet. Due to the postwar pressures created by an expansive communist China, he assumed formal powers at the age of 16. At the age of 24 he finished his education with the degree of Lharampa Geshe.

The Dalai Lama had little time to enjoy his position. Unable to hold the Chinese back, on March 17, 1959, he was forced to flee Tibet and to establish his government in exile in Dharmasala, India. More than 100,000 Tibetans fled at the same time. A mirror of the traditional Tibetan community, complete with monasteries and headquarters of all of the Tibetan Buddhist sects, have been created in India and Nepal. He set about the task of regaining independence for Tibet, which has been incorporated into China. As Tibetan Buddhism spread from India into the world, especially the West, he opened offices of the Tibetan government-in-exile in many countries sympathetic to his cause. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, though his efforts to liberate Tibet show no signs of bearing fruit.

Through the 1990s, the maturing Dalai Lama, who travels widely, has also arisen as a world spiritual leader. He studied with teachers in all of the major schools of Tibetan lineages whose leaders recognize his accomplished scholarship. He has lectured widely both as the Gelugpa spiritual leader and Tibet's titular leader. He has also authored two autobiographies and a number of books expounding meditation and Tibetan Buddhist teachings.


Coleman, Graham, ed. A Handbook of Tibetan Culture. Boston: Shambhala, 1993.

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

. The Meaning of Life from a Buddhist Perspective. Translated by Jeffrey Hopkins. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1992.

. My Land and My People: Memoirs of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. 1962. Reprint, New York: Potala Corp., 1983.

. Transcendent Wisdom. Translated by B. Alan Wallace. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 1988.