Biography of Dalai Lama

Name: Dalai Lama
Bith Date: July 6, 1935
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Taktser, Tibet
Nationality: Tibet
Gender: Male
Occupations: religious leader
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 1935, 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 (1875-1935), 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.

What many in the West fail to realize is that, historically, Tibet was never the Shangri-La that pastoral photographs and legend would lead one to believe. The government of Tibet under the Dalia Lamas was as feudal as anything in the Middle Ages of Europe. The social order was divided sharply between serfs and nobles, and the state owned all the land. Monasteries and individual landowners were given large land parcels, which were worked by peasants. And lamaistic theocracy could be brutal; serious crimes were punished by dismemberment or having the perpetrator's eyes put out. Alexandra David-Neel, who visited Tibet in the 1920's, commented that many of those she met living there under the Dalai Lama regretted the recent loss of Chinese rule in the early years of that century as "taxes, statute labor, and the arrogant plundering of the national soldiery [then] greatly exceed[ed] the extortions of the [Chinese]." But then Chinese rule under the Manchu dynasty had been both distant and relaxed, very much unlike what the communists brought to Tibet in the 1950s.

Also lost on many in the West is that Tibetan Buddhism is neither monolithic nor apolitical. Religious differences in old Tibet frequently led to bitter disputes and to power plays among spiritual leaders. In 1996, the West was granted a rare view of one such dispute when a group of maroon-robed Tibetan exiles protested an appearance of the Dalai Lama in England with placards suggesting that the Dalai Lama was an "oppressor" and a "ruthless dictator."

The dissident Buddhists in fact were members of a faction of Tibetan Buddhism whose split with the Dalai Lama's lineage can be traced back centuries. They were worshippers of a shamanistic deity by the name of Shugden, believed to protect followers from their enemies. The Dalai Lama had himself for many years been a worshipper of Shugden, but in the mid-1970s he began to speak out against the deity. Then in 1996, the Dalai Lama announced that worship of Shugden threatened the health and cause of Tibet. Following the Dalai Lama's edict, some of his followers began to destroy images of the deity, rough up Shugden followers, and put up "wanted" posters for those who continue to worship the deity.

Shugden followers have suggested that the Dalai Lama's real reasons for suppressing the sect are political, not surprising given the difficulties many have had in separating political from religious concerns in Tibetan Buddhism. "He's blaming Shugden as a scapegoat for not being able to free Tibet," said one. Others accused the Dalai Lama of having plans to return to Tibet as a Chinese puppet.

The official Chinese position on Tibet is that communism liberated the Tibetans from a feudal theocracy led by the Dalai Lamas and that Tibet has benefited considerably under Chinese rule. The view, however, ignores human rights abuses, as well as cultural and ecological annihilation. In 2001, President George W. Bush met with the Dalai Lama, over objections from the Chinese government. Following the meeting the White House announced that "The president reiterated the strong commitment of the United States to support the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of the human rights of all Tibetans."

The Dalai Lama spoke out against China in 2002, making a statement that China should embrace democracy if the country is to be a major world power in the coming years. He also criticized the United States-led war on terrorism, saying that the use of force to override terrorists overlooks the underlying problems that lead to terrorism. Despite incidents such as being barred from visiting Russia and banned from attending the World Buddhist Summit in Cambodia, the Dalai Lama has made important strides in 2002. In September of that year, a representative of the Dalai Lama met with Chinese officials, which signalled an important moment in the history of communications between the two parties.

The Dalai Lama is widely regarded for his humanitarian efforts 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 received an extensive education in Buddhist thought and practice as part of his monastic training. His contacts with Westerners broadened his interest beyond Buddhism. In 1987 he was the recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award and in 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 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) and Gill Farrer Halls, The World of the Dalai Lama: An Inside Look at His Life, His People, and His Vision (1998). A very readable brief history of Tibetan Buddhism appears in Jeremy Bernstein's In the Himalayas (1989). An article describing the Shugden dispute appeared in Jinn Magazine (May 5, 1998); available from The Dalai Lama's meeting with President Bush was covered by the Asian edition of (May 24, 2001); available from For insight into the Dalai Lama's personal philosophy see Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (1998).

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