The Dalai Lama is an important figure in Tibet and beloved by Buddhists around the world.
What is a Dalai Lama?
Dalai Lama is both a title and a position. Whoever the current Dalai Lama is (we are currently with the 14th) is the spiritual leader of the people of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
The First Dalai Lama
This tradition dates back to 1578. One of the Mongols, Altan Khan, granted the title of Dalai Lama to Sonam Gyatso, a leader of the Geluk school (better known as the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism). While Sonam Gyatso was the first to be named the Dalai Lama, the same title was bestowed retroactively on his two predecessors, making him the third Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama as a Leader
Today, the Dalai Lama is known as the highly regarded spiritual leader of Tibet. But for a long time, the Dalai Lama was also the head of the government.
Starting in the 17th century and until 1959, the Dalai Lama oversaw much of the country from Lhasa, the capital. It wasn’t until the Chinese invaded in 1959 and exiled the current Dalai Lama that the role became strictly spiritual.
A Brief History of the Dalai Lamas
While the title was first used with Sonam Gyatso, it was posthumously bestowed on Gendun Drup. He lived from 1391 to 1474 and was the first of his lineage. He was born Pema Dorje to a tribe of nomads and raised as a shepherd until he joined the Nartang monastery. There, he became highly revered as a scholar-saint.
The title was also posthumously bestowed on Gendun Gyatso Palzangpo, the first reincarnation of Gendun Drup and the second Dalai Lama. He lived from 1475 to 1541. Gendun reportedly told his parents his name was Pema Dorje, or the name the first Dalai Lama had at birth. He eventually went to the Tashilhumpo monastery and became a mystical poetry composer and scholar.
Sonam Gyatso was the first to officially hold the title but is technically the third Dalai Lama. He lived from 1543 to 1588 and was a prominent monk of the Yellow Hat Buddhism school. He helped establish an alliance with the Mongols, who started following Buddhism.
The fourth, Yonten Gyatso, was unusual, in that he was the only non-Tibetan to ever hold the title. He was a Mongol, the grandson of Altan Khan (who granted the title to the third Dalai Lama). He lived from 1589 to 1616.
Lobsang Gyatso signaled a new direction for the Dalai Lama, in that he was the first to wield both political and spiritual power. He lived from 1617 to 1682 and successfully unified Tibet under the Geluk Buddhism school. This unification happened after a lengthy civil war and was won thanks to help from Gushi Khan, a Mongol ruler.
Lobsang Gyatso started construction of Potala Palace, in the capital Lhasa. It was during his reign that Europeans first visited the country. His death was kept secret for 15 years.
Tsangyang Gyatso, 1683 to 1706, was short-lived and had a lifestyle that many deemed unworthy of a monk. He spent much of his time writing love songs, drinking, and in the company of women. Mongol leader Lha-bzang Khan invaded Tibet and Tsangyang Gyatso died shortly after (there is speculation he was murdered). There was a great deal of unrest after his death until the Chinese intervened and installed the seventh Dalai Lama.
Kelzang Gyatso, 1708 to 1757, was recognized as the next Dalai Lama thanks to a line of poetry written by the sixth, which mentioned the place of Kelzang’s birth. Even as a boy, he was very wise and often composed verses. He first took the throne in Lhasa in 1720 and became an avid scholar and author.
Jamphel Gyatso, 1758 to 1804, is known for displaying numerous signs of his reincarnation, including sitting in a meditative position as a baby. At just two years old, he was brought to the Tashilhumpo Monastery and then to the palace at Lhasa. He was named the ruler at five years old. However, the country was largely ruled by regents until 1784. Jamphel built the Summer Palace as well as Norbulingka Park.
Lungtok Gyatso, 1806 to 1815, took the throne in 1810. Even as a young boy, he was regarded for his serene face and polite manners. Tibet was devasted by his death at the age of nine.
After the sudden death of the ninth Dalai Lama, the Chinese emperor decided the next should be chosen by a lottery. However, the tenth and twelfth Lamas were recognized before this method was put into practice, so only the 11th was chosen by lottery.
The thirteenth and fourteenth (the current) Dalai Lamas were both chosen by the labrang, or the entourage of the previous incarnation.
The Chinese Take Over
The Chinese sent in the military in 1910 and deposed the current Dalai Lama, wanting to rule the country directly. However, the Dalai Lama returned in 1913 and condemned the actions of the Chinese.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
Born in 1935, Tenzin was recognized as the latest reincarnation when he was two years old. In 1950, he was named the Head of State of Tibet, continuing the tradition of his predecessors. He also faced difficulties with the Chinese, eventually leaving Tibet in 1959. In India, he established the Central Tibetan Administration to help preserve the culture of Tibet among refugees.
Today, he is well-known as a public speaker and is the first Dalai Lama to travel to the West. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 in recognition of his nonviolent commitment to liberate Tibet, a fight which he continues today.