Alex McKAY

Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935), the fourteenth Dalai Lama, is the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhists.

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhists. The present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the fourteenth in a line of succession. He leads a Tibetan government-in-exile in India and is a spokesman for nonviolence and Buddhist ideals.

The Dalai Lama is the temporal and spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist people, who regard him as the earthly manifestation of Chenrezi, the bodhisattva (incarnating deity) of compassion. Each Dalai Lama is regarded as the reincarnation of his predecessor, and after a Dalai Lama dies, a search is conducted for the young boy in whom the Dalai Lama is considered to have been reborn. The present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935), is the fourteenth in a line of succession that originated in a fourteenth-century disciple of the founder of the Gelugpa sect, the leading school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama, commonly referred to in English by the title “His Holiness,” was born into a peasant family in the village of Takster in northeastern Amdo Province of Tibet (now part of China’s Qinghai Province). His predecessor had “passed to the heavenly fields” in 1933, and in 1937 Tenzin Gyatso was recognized as his reincarnation. Tenzin Gyatso was taken to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in 1939 and in February 1940 was enthroned in the Potala Palace. While a regent ruled Tibet in his name, Tenzin Gyatso began the course of studies that culminated in his being awarded the Lharampa Geshe degree (roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist studies) in 1959.

Because of the crisis caused by Communist China’s invasion of Tibet in October 1950, Tenzin Gyatso, thensixteen years old, assumed temporal power in Tibet on 17 November 1950. He remained there under Chinese authority until the activities of the Communist regime prompted him to flee Lhasa in March 1959. Although he was pursued by Chinese forces, he reached India. There, with about one hundred thousand of his followers, the Dalai Lama established a Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills of northern India. He has since become the primary ambassador of the Tibetan exile movement as well as a spokesman for nonviolence and for the Buddhist ideal of universal compassion. In October 1989 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dalai Lama on Living in Exile

In his autobiography published in 1990, the Dalai Lama relates first hand his feelings on being exiled from his homeland of Tibet, and recalls his former life there.

I fled Tibet on 31 March 1959. Since then I have lived in exile in India. During the period 1949–50, the People’s Republic of China sent an army to invade my country. For almost a decade I remained as political as well as spiritual leader of my people and tried to re-establish peaceful relations between our two nations. But the task proved impossible, I came to the unhappy conclusion that I could serve my people better from outside.

When I look back to the time when Tibet was still a free country, I realize that those were the best years of my life. Today I am definitely happy, but inevitably the existence I now lead is very different from the one I was brought up to. And although there is clearly no use indulging in feelings of nostalgia, still I cannot help feeling sad whenever I think of the past. It reminds me of the terrible suffering of my people. The old Tibet was not perfect. Yet, it is true to say that our way of life was something quite remarkable. Certainly there was much that was worth preserving that is now lost forever.

… Of course, whilst I lived in Tibet, being Dalai Lama meant a great deal. It meant that I lived a life far removed from the toil and discomfort of the vast majority of my people. Everywhere I went, I was accompanied by a retinue of servants. I was surrounded by government ministers and advisors clad in sumptuous silk robes, men drawn from the most exalted and aristocratic families in the land. My daily companions were brilliant scholars and highly realized religious adepts. And every time I left the Potala, the magnificent, 1,000-chambered winter palace of the Dalai Lamas, I was escorted by a procession of hundreds of people…. Invariably almost the entire population of Lhasa, the capital, came to try to catch a glimpse of me whenever I went out. There was an awed silence and often there were tears as people lowered their heads or prostrated themselves on the ground when I passed.

Source: Gyatso, His Holiness Tenzin.. (1990). Freedom in exile. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1–3.

A charming and modest man with a great appeal in the West, the fourteenth Dalai Lama prefers to be known as “a simple Buddhist monk.” He remains the focus of Tibetan identity in the world. His leadership has been characterized by an openness to change, a steadfast belief in the principles of nonviolence, and the promotion of dialogue between religions and science.

Since 1959 the Chinese have argued that the Dalai Lama is a “tool of Western imperialism,” working against the Chinese Communist state. They claim his demands for Tibetan autonomy mask the desire for Tibetan independence—and thus portray him as a threat to the unity of China. Talks between representatives of China and the Dalai Lama have been held on occasions, most recently in 2008, but have always ended without any measurable progress being made. With the present Dalai Lama now seventy-five years old and subject to bouts of ill-health, the question of his next incarnation arises. The Dalai Lama has stated that his next incarnation will not appear in China, but as it has done in the case of other important Tibetan Buddhist incarnations, the Chinesestate will oversee the search for a new Dalai Lama among the Tibetan Buddhist population of China. Thus two candidates will compete for popular acceptance as the next Dalai Lama.

Further Reading

Avendon, J. (1985). In exile from the land of the snows. New York: Wisdom Publications.

Hicks, R., & Chogyam, N. (1984). Great ocean—An authorised biography. Shaftesbury, U.K.: Element Books.

Gyatso, His Holiness Tenzin. (1962). My land and my people. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gyatso, His Holiness Tenzin. (1990). Freedom in exile. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Snellgroves, D., & Richardson, H. (1968). A cultural history of Tibet. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Thurman, R. (2008). Why the Dalai Lama matters: His act of truth as the solution for China, Tibet, and the world. New York: Atria Books/Beyond Words.

The lotus root may be severed, but its fibered threads are still connected.


Ǒu duàn sī lián

Source: Mckay, Alex (2009). Dalai Lama. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 555–557. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Dalai Lama (Dálài Lǎma 达赖喇嘛)|Dálài Lǎma 达赖喇嘛 (Dalai Lama)

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