Lama, Dalai

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Dalai Lama

BORN: July 6, 1935 • Chinghai Province, China

Tibetan spiritual leader

Tenzin Gyatso was the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the spiritual and former political leader of Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama lived in exile (banished from one's own country) in India in the early twenty-first century following the invasion of Tibet by the People's Republic of China in 1959. For over four decades he set up educational, cultural, and religious institutions to promote peace and preserve the Tibetan identity. His Holiness the Dalai Lama held the Geshe Lharampa Degree (Doctorate of Buddhist Philosophy). He lectured around the world and authored more than fifty books.

"The suppression of the rights and freedoms of any people by … governments is against human nature, and the recent movements for democracy in various parts of the world are a clear indication of this."

The Dalai Lama traveled internationally and met with all the religious and political leaders of the major nations to promote negotiations between the Tibetan and Chinese people. In 1973, the Dalai Lama and Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) held an historic press conference when the leaders of two faith traditions met at the Vatican in Rome. In 1981, the Dalai Lama spoke at an interfaith service organized by the World Congress of Faiths and called for inter-religious understanding and universal responsibility. His message of freedom and peace was recognized by numerous awards, including the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

The boy from Taktster

Lhamo Thondup, later renamed Tenzin Gyatso, was born in 1935 to a farming family in northeastern Tibet, which later became the Chinghai province of China. Like most Tibetans his parents, Choekyong and Dekyi Tsering, were faithful Buddhists (see box). His mother gave birth to sixteen children, but only seven survived through infancy in the isolated and harsh climate of Tibet. Lhamo had two sisters and four brothers. When he was a baby his mother carried him on her back when she went out to work in the fields. She often placed him in a corner of the field under an umbrella that was staked to the ground while she took care of the crops. The family's main livelihood was agriculture, but they also kept cattle and chickens, and his father had a special fondness for horses. They lived a simple life in the tiny, solitary hamlet of Taktser among about twenty other families, unaware of much that happened in the world beyond their own horizon.

The eastern district of Tibet was under the secular (nonreligious leaders) rule of China at the time Lhamo was born, but the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso (1876–1933), was the spiritual leader of the people. He lived in exile in British India from 1913 until his death in 1933. With the passing of the Dalai Lama, an immediate search began in order to choose his successor. Choosing the Dalai Lama (see box) is done in accordance with time-honored customs and traditions. Initially a Regent, or trustee, is appointed by the Tibetan National Assembly to govern the country until the reincarnation (rebirth in a new body or other form of life) of the Dalai Lama can be found and grow to maturity.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama

State oracles (sources of wise or god-like counsel) and learned lamas were consulted in order to find out where the reincarnation would appear. Searchers recalled that the Dalai Lama's body had been placed facing south, but after a few days the face had turned towards the northeast. Combined with other evidence, it indicated the direction where the new Dalai Lama should be sought. Senior lamas (priests) and high dignitaries were sent out to all parts of Tibet. They arrived in Taktser when Lhamo was about two years old. He passed the required tests for a Dalai Lama. The search party was fully convinced they had discovered the reincarnation. They needed to take him to the great monastery in Lhasa, the "home of the divine" in Tibet. Lhasa was known to the rest of the world as The Forbidden City because of its mystery and isolation.


Buddhism is an East Indian religious tradition that began around the sixth century bce by Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha (the Enlightened One). Buddha was regarded by his followers as a great man and a master teacher. He saw himself as one who had "arrived," or transcended the imperfections of life. Buddha taught many followers and was revered as the Exalted One. He lived a long, full life and died at the age of eighty. Buddhism grew out of a reform movement in reaction to the Hindu religion. It advocated tolerance for everyone and offered direction toward the realization of freedom in perfect existence for individuals or societies.

Although begun in Asia, Buddhism spread throughout the world by the twentieth century. European colonialism (extending a nation's control beyond its existing borders) introduced westernized values and technology during Buddhism's historical development. A variety of cultural and educational influences brought significant changes in traditional Buddhist beliefs and institutions by the beginning of the twenty-first century. While there was still considerable unity among practitioners, there were different approaches by which one could realize the Buddhist way of life and attain Enlightenment (a final blessed state marked by the absence of desire or suffering), Nirvana (a state of oblivion to external reality), and liberation from the bonds of Phenomenal Existence (existence in the moment).

The Three Valued Components of Buddhism (also called the Three Jewels) are the Buddha (Teacher and Ideal), the Dhamma/Dharma (Buddhist Principles), and the Sangha (Buddhist Community). Buddhism teaches that three kinds of individuals exist. The lowest being cares solely for worldly matters and at best can only pursue a blissful existence in a future life. Buddhist doctrine teaches that the human soul is reincarnated, or reborn in a new body or form of life. A person's actions in each life generate karma, a force which brings ethical consequences to determine one's destiny in the next existence (what a person puts out into the world will return to him.)

For individuals of the intermediate and highest kinds, the Phenomenal World represents sorrow. They strive to attain a position where they are no longer disturbed by worldly turmoil. The highest aim of any individual is to leave the ego behind and attain Buddhahood in order to bring deliverance to other living beings. One's deliverance from Phenomenal Existence is secured through constant meditation on the true aspect of existence or being. For those with the highest aims, there are five pathways, or degrees, in the pursuit of "the way to Final Deliverance." The first is the Path of Accumulating Merit. The second is the Path of Training. The first two are considered lower paths. The last three represent "the Path of the Saint." They are the Path of Illumination, the Path of Concentrated Contemplation, and the "Final Path," where one is no longer subjected to training.

Choosing the Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama is a Mongolian title meaning Ocean of Wisdom. It is a combination of the Mongolian word dalai (ocean), which signifies profound knowledge, and the Tibetan word blama (religious teacher). The title dates from 1578 and has been given to each reincarnation in the lineage up to the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The men who have held the title are manifestations of the previous Dalai Lama as well as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the traditional patron of Tibet.

Within a year of the death of the reigning Dalai Lama, people begin to expect reports of an exceptional male child to replace him. Those assigned the task of choosing the reincarnation follow traditional procedures to discover the rebirth of the Dalai Lama. These procedures include studying statements made by the previous Dalai Lama during his lifetime as well as studying significant omens surrounding his death. Meditative visions by special lamas are also interpreted as guides to finding his rebirth.

When possible male candidates are discovered, they are subjected to tests to determine physical fitness, intelligence, and memory of events and objects from their previous existence. The boys are usually between two and three years old when chosen. If several children are likely candidates, the final selection is made by drawing a name from a golden urn.

Once the true reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is determined, he is enthroned in the Potala palace in the mountains near Lhasa in Dbus province, Tibet. Here he receives a monastic education until he reaches the age of maturity, about eighteen years old, and assumes the religious and political power of the office of Dalai Lama. In the West he is called His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Tibetans refer to His Holiness as Yeshin Norbu, the Wish-fulfilling Gem, or Kundun, which simply means The Presence.

The Tibetan government in Lhasa was advised of the discovery, and in mid-summer of 1938, the search party was told to bring the boy to Lhasa for further testing. Although they were sure he was the Dalai Lama, they did not declare him found because they feared what the Chinese governor might do. At first, the governor would not give permission for the boy to leave unless he was declared the Dalai Lama and provided a large escort of Chinese soldiers to Lhasa. The Tibetan government feared once the soldiers arrived at Lhasa, there was a danger the Chinese government would demand authority in Tibet. However, the Chinese government withdrew its demand for control of Tibet in exchange for a payment of one hundred thousand Chinese dollars. When the money was paid, the governor demanded an additional three hundred thousand dollars, Negotiations began between the two governments for the release of Lhamo Thondup.

When the final payments were finally arranged the party left the Chinghai province, and Lhamo Thondup was ordained a monk. He was renamed Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso. The name means The Holy One, The Gentle Glory, Powerful in Speech, Pure in Mind, of Divine Wisdom, Holding the Faith, Ocean-Wide. Recognized as the genuine Reincarnation, Tenzin Gyatso was duly enthroned as the fourteenth Dalai Lama in the Potala (palace) at Lhasa in 1940, at the age of four and a half.

A forced exile

When the young Dalai Lama began his education at the age of six the world was at war. His education at a religious monastery was interrupted late in 1950, when forces of the People's Republic of China invaded Tibet. At the age of fifteen, the Dalai Lama received early empowerment for his office in order to assume his religious and political duties because of the invasion. To avoid capture by the Chinese, he was escorted by horse caravan to a village near the Indian border. Negotiations between India and China allowed the Dalai Lama to return to Lhasa the following year. He made an effort to rule over his people under the agreement worked out with China.

Tibet is called the Roof of the World because of its vast mountain system, which contains the world's highest ranges. Its rugged geography kept the nation isolated for centuries, and Tibet's social structure operated as a feudal system (an ancient economic system in which landowning lords provide land to peasants to farm in return for their faithfulness and payments). This meant there was little chance of moving upward from the poor peasant class to the wealth of the landowning aristocracy outside of the monasteries in Tibet. Promotion within the monasteries was democratic (voted by majority of members) for male citizens, however, and they received the finest education. Many lamas had chosen to be reborn in humble families, much like that of the Dalai Lama. Most Tibetan citizens accepted the Dalai Lama system without question because they regarded spiritual matters of equal importance with material (worldly) matters. There was no doubt that their position in life had been determined by karma (a person's conduct determines his destiny in this life or when reincarnated in the future).

The Dalai Lama believed the current distribution of wealth in Tibet was not in accordance with Buddhist teaching. He set out to change the conditions of ordinary people by proposing fundamental reforms in land laws. It was necessary for the Chinese government to approve all such changes, and they had arrived in Tibet with their own ideas of land reform based on the Communist model. Communism is a political and economic system where a single political party controls all aspects of citizens' lives and private ownership of property is banned. The two sides could not reach agreement, so the Dalai Lama traveled to Peking, China, in 1954 to talk with Chinese leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) and other Chinese leaders about the reforms and Tibet's future.

Tibet existed historically as an independent, sovereign (free from the rule of other nations) nation prior to the Chinese occupation. However, the Chinese viewed Tibetans as backward, ignorant, and barbaric, because their beliefs and lifestyles were different from the Chinese. To educate the people in Communist ideology required changes in religious, cultural, and political viewpoints. Tibetans were resistant to these changes and used nonviolent means to demonstrate against China. The situation in Tibet continued to deteriorate until March 1959, when a national uprising against the Chinese regime in Lhasa was suppressed by Chinese troops. The Dalai Lama fled to India and established the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, north India. The Chinese government abolished the Tibetan government and the ruling authority of the Dalai Lama. It set about establishing a socialist (government or whole community controls industry and distribution of goods) society in Tibet.

Peace of mind

The Dalai Lama's appeal to the United Nations (UN; an international organization founded in 1945 composed of most of the countries in the world) on the question of Tibet's status as a nation had little effect. The General Assembly of the UN passed three resolutions on Tibet in 1959, 1961, and 1965, calling for China to respect the human rights of Tibetans and their desire for self-determination. In 1963, the Dalai Lama presented a draft of a democratic constitution for Tibet. It was later published as "The Charter of Tibetans in Exile."

In 1966, Mao mobilized Chinese youth into battalions of Red Guards in order to speed up the spread of Communism. The resulting Cultural Revolution (1966–76) soon spread to Lhasa with a campaign to eliminate the "four olds" and replace them with the "four news" (ideology, customs, culture, and habits). Street names were changed to reflect revolutionary themes. Portraits of Mao began to appear all across Lhasa. Mandatory study groups were organized to read Mao's writings. People were detained if they did not carry Mao's Red Book at all times. Tibetan songs and dances were banned, and people wearing Tibetan dress were physically attacked. Before the situation calmed down in 1969, the Red Guard had torn down Buddhist prayer flags and burned ancient scriptures and paintings. China's desire to destroy religion in Tibet resulted in the loss of over six thousand monasteries and countless religious artifacts during the Cultural Revolution.

The People's Republic of China (PRC)'s admission to membership in the UN in the early 1970s brought a more moderate policy in China. It also ended any further UN resolutions concerning Tibet, but it brought about some dramatic changes within all of China's minority areas. Attacks on religion suddenly ended, and the media in Tibet experienced greater freedom. Tibetans were permitted again to wear their traditional clothing, travel within the country, and celebrate the birthdays of the Dalai Lama and Siddhartha Gautama (563 bce–483 bce), the founder of Buddhism. Secret negotiations were opened between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. However, efforts for a compromise ended without resolution, and the Chinese media renewed its attacks on him. It remained illegal to possess an image of the Dalai Lama in Tibet into the twenty-first century.

In 1987, the Dalai Lama addressed the U.S. Congress and proposed a Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet. Among other things, the plan called for fundamental rights and freedoms for the Tibetan people and their land, an end to China's population relocation to Tibet, and negotiations between the Tibetan and Chinese people on the future status of Tibet. The Dalai Lama expanded his Five Point Plan in a presentation at Strasbourg, France, in June 1988. His plan included a self-governing, democratic Tibet in association with the PRC, but his proposal was rejected by the Tibetan government-in-exile in 1991. In the early twenty-first century, the Dalai Lama was still held in high regard by Tibetan Buddhists and many people around the world, but he was seen as a threat by the PRC. China refused his request to return to Tibet on his eightieth birthday on July 6, 2005.

For More Information


Bstan-d̀zin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990.

Bstan-d̀zin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV. My Land and My People: The Original Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet. New York: Warner Books, 1997.

Gard, Richard A., ed. Buddhism. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1961.

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

Grunfeld, A. Tom. The Making of Modern Tibet. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1987.

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 Books, 1990.


"The 14th Dalai Lama-Biography." (accessed on December 11, 2006).

"His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet." Central Tibetan Administration. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

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