Last Updated on September 22, 2020
Dalai Lama is a title given by the Tibetan people for the foremost spiritual leader of the Gelug or “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism, the newest of the classical schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The 14th and current Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso, who lives as a refugee in India. The Dalai Lama is also considered to be the successor in a line of tulkus who are believed to be incarnations of Avalokiteśvara, a Bodhisattva of Compassion.
|Residence||McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India|
|First holder||Gendun Drup, 1st Dalai Lama|
Since the time of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century, his personage has always been a symbol of unification of the state of Tibet, where he has represented Buddhist values and traditions. The Dalai Lama was an important figure of the Geluk tradition, which was politically and numerically dominant in Central Tibet, but his religious authority went beyond sectarian boundaries. While he had no formal or institutional role in any of the religious traditions, which were headed by their own high lamas, he was a unifying symbol of the Tibetan state, representing Buddhist values and traditions above any specific school. The traditional function of the Dalai Lama as an ecumenical figure, holding together disparate religious and regional groups, has been taken up by the present fourteenth Dalai Lama. He has worked to overcome sectarian and other divisions in the exiled community and has become a symbol of Tibetan nationhood for Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile.
From 1642 until 1705 and from 1750 to the 1950s, the Dalai Lamas or their regents headed the Tibetan government (or Ganden Phodrang) in Lhasa which governed all or most of the Tibetan Plateau with varying degrees of autonomy under the Qing dynasty of China, in which Tibet had been under non-Tibetan suzerainty, and a period of disputed “de facto independence” between 1913 and 1951. This Tibetan government also enjoyed the patronage and protection of firstly Mongol kings of the Khoshut and Dzungar Khanates (1642–1720) and then of the emperors of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty (1720–1912). In 1913, several Tibetan representatives including Agvan Dorzhiev signed a treaty between Tibet and Mongolia, proclaiming mutual recognition and their independence from China, however the legitimacy of the treaty and declared independence of Tibet was rejected by both the Republic of China and the current People’s Republic of China. The Dalai Lamas headed the Tibetan government afterwards despite that, until 1951.
The name “Dalai Lama” is a combination of the Mongolic word dalai meaning “ocean” or “big” (coming from Mongolian title Dalaiyin qan or Dalaiin khan, translated as Gyatso or rgya-mtsho in Tibetan) and the Tibetan word བླ་མ་ (bla-ma) meaning “master, guru”.
The Dalai Lama is also known in Tibetan as the Rgyal-ba Rin-po-che (“Precious Conqueror”) or simply as the Rgyal-ba.
In Central Asian Buddhist countries, it has been widely believed for the last millennium that Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, has a special relationship with the people of Tibet and intervenes in their fate by incarnating as benevolent rulers and teachers such as the Dalai Lamas. This is according to The Book of Kadam, the main text of the Kadampa school, to which the 1st Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup, first belonged. In fact, this text is said to have laid the foundation for the Tibetans’ later identification of the Dalai Lamas as incarnations of Avalokiteśvara.
It traces the legend of the bodhisattva’s incarnations as early Tibetan kings and emperors such as Songtsen Gampo and later as Dromtönpa (1004–1064).
This lineage has been extrapolated by Tibetans up to and including the Dalai Lamas.
Origins in myth and legend
Thus, according to such sources, an informal line of succession of the present Dalai Lamas as incarnations of Avalokiteśvara stretches back much further than Gendun Drub. The Book of Kadam, the compilation of Kadampa teachings largely composed around discussions between the Indian sage Atiśa (980–1054) and his Tibetan host and chief disciple Dromtönpa and Tales of the Previous Incarnations of Arya Avalokiteśvara, nominate as many as sixty persons prior to Gendun Drub who are enumerated as earlier incarnations of Avalokiteśvara and predecessors in the same lineage leading up to him. In brief, these include a mythology of 36 Indian personalities plus 10 early Tibetan kings and emperors, all said to be previous incarnations of Dromtönpa, and fourteen further Nepalese and Tibetan yogis and sages in between him and the 1st Dalai Lama. In fact, according to the “Birth to Exile” article on the 14th Dalai Lama’s website, he is “the seventy-fourth in a lineage that can be traced back to a Brahmin boy who lived in the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.”
Avalokiteśvara’s “Dalai Lama master plan”
According to the 14th Dalai Lama, long ago Avalokiteśvara had promised the Buddha to guide and protect the Tibetan people and in the late Middle Ages, his master plan to fulfill this promise was the stage-by-stage establishment of the Dalai Lama theocracy in Tibet.
First, Tsongkhapa established three great monasteries around Lhasa in the province of before he died in 1419. The 1st Dalai Lama soon became Abbot of the greatest one, Drepung, and developed a large popular power base in Ü. He later extended this to cover Tsang, where he constructed a fourth great monastery, Tashi Lhunpo, at Shigatse. The 2nd studied there before returning to Lhasa, where he became Abbot of Drepung. Having reactivated the 1st’s large popular followings in Tsang and Ü, the 2nd then moved on to southern Tibet and gathered more followers there who helped him construct a new monastery, Chokorgyel. He also established the method by which later Dalai Lama incarnations would be discovered through visions at the “oracle lake”, Lhamo Lhatso. The 3rd built on his predecessors’ fame by becoming Abbot of the two great monasteries of Drepung and Sera. The stage was set for the great Mongol King Altan Khan, hearing of his reputation, to invite the 3rd to Mongolia where he converted the King and his followers to Buddhism, as well as other Mongol princes and their followers covering a vast tract of central Asia. Thus most of Mongolia was added to the Dalai Lama’s sphere of influence, founding a spiritual empire which largely survives to the modern age. After being given the Mongolian name ‘Dalai’, he returned to Tibet to found the great monasteries of Lithang in Kham, eastern Tibet and Kumbum in Amdo, north-eastern Tibet. The 4th was then born in Mongolia as the great grandson of Altan Khan, thus cementing strong ties between Central Asia, the Dalai Lamas, the Gelugpa and Tibet. Finally, in fulfilment of Avalokiteśvara’s master plan, the 5th in the succession used the vast popular power base of devoted followers built up by his four predecessors. By 1642, a strategy that was planned and carried out by his resourceful chagdzo or manager Sonam Rapten with the military assistance of his devoted disciple Gushri Khan, Chieftain of the Khoshut Mongols, enabled the ‘Great 5th’ to found the Dalai Lamas’ religious and political reign over more or less the whole of Tibet that survived for over 300 years.
Thus the Dalai Lamas became pre-eminent spiritual leaders in Tibet and 25 Himalayan and Central Asian kingdoms and countries bordering Tibet and their prolific literary works have “for centuries acted as major sources of spiritual and philosophical inspiration to more than fifty million people of these lands”. Overall, they have played “a monumental role in Asian literary, philosophical and religious history”.
Establishment of the Dalai Lama lineage
Gendun Drup (1391–1474), a disciple of the founder Je Tsongkapa, was the ordination name of the monk who came to be known as the ‘First Dalai Lama’, but only from 104 years after he died. There had been resistance, since first he was ordained a monk in the Kadampa tradition and for various reasons, for hundreds of years the Kadampa school had eschewed the adoption of the tulku system to which the older schools adhered. Tsongkhapa largely modelled his new, reformed Gelugpa school on the Kadampa tradition and refrained from starting a tulku system. Therefore, although Gendun Drup grew to be a very important Gelugpa lama, after he died in 1474 there was no question of any search being made to identify his incarnation.
Despite this, when the Tashilhunpo monks started hearing what seemed credible accounts that an incarnation of Gendun Drup had appeared nearby and repeatedly announced himself from the age of two, their curiosity was aroused. It was some 55 years after Tsongkhapa’s death when eventually, the monastic authorities saw compelling evidence that convinced them the child in question was indeed the incarnation of their founder. They felt obliged to break with their own tradition and in 1487, the boy was renamed Gendun Gyatso and installed at Tashilhunpo as Gendun Drup’s tulku, albeit informally.
Gendun Gyatso died in 1542 and the lineage of Dalai Lama tulkus finally became firmly established when the third incarnation, Sonam Gyatso (1543–1588), came forth. He made himself known as the tulku of Gendun Gyatso and was formally recognised and enthroned at Drepung in 1546. When Gendun Gyatso was given the titular name “Dalai Lama” by the Tümed Altan Khan in 1578, his two predecessors were accorded the title posthumously and he became known as the third in the lineage.
The 1st Dalai Lama was based at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, which he founded, and the Second to the Fifth Dalai Lamas were mainly based at Drepung Monastery outside Lhasa. In 1645, after the unification of Tibet, the Fifth moved to the ruins of a royal fortress or residence on top of Marpori (‘Red Mountain’) in Lhasa and decided to build a palace on the same site. This ruined palace, called Tritse Marpo, was originally built around 636 AD by the founder of the Tibetan Empire, Songtsen Gampo for his Nepalese wife. Amongst the ruins there was just a small temple left where Tsongkhapa had given a teaching when he arrived in Lhasa in the 1380s. The Fifth Dalai Lama began construction of the Potala Palace on this site in 1645, carefully incorporating what was left of his predecessor’s palace into its structure. From then on and until today, unless on tour or in exile the Dalai Lamas have always spent their winters at the Potala Palace and their summers at the Norbulingka palace and park. Both palaces are in Lhasa and approximately 3 km apart.
Following the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising, the 14th Dalai Lama sought refuge in India. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru allowed in the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government officials. The Dalai Lama has since lived in exile in McLeod Ganj, in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, where the Central Tibetan Administration is also established. His residence on the Temple Road in McLeod Ganj is called the Dalai Lama Temple and is visited by people from across the globe. Tibetan refugees have constructed and opened many schools and Buddhist temples in Dharamshala.
Searching for the reincarnation
The search for the 14th Dalai Lama took the High Lamas to Taktser in AmdoPalden Lhamo, the female guardian spirit of the sacred lake, Lhamo La-tso, who promised Gendun Drup the 1st Dalai Lama in one of his visions that “she would protect the ‘reincarnation’ lineage of the Dalai Lamas”
By the Himalayan tradition, phowa is the discipline that is believed to transfer the mindstream to the intended body. Upon the death of the Dalai Lama and consultation with the Nechung Oracle, a search for the Lama’s yangsi, or reincarnation, is conducted. Traditionally, it has been the responsibility of the High Lamas of the Gelugpa tradition and the Tibetan government to find a person accepted as his reincarnation. The process can take around two or three years to identify the Dalai Lama, and for the 14th, Tenzin Gyatso, it was four years before he was found. Historically, the search for the Dalai Lama has usually been limited to Tibet, though the third tulku was born in Mongolia. Tenzin Gyatso, however, has stated that he will not be reborn in the People’s Republic of China, though he has also suggested he may not be reborn at all, suggesting the function of the Dalai Lama may be outdated The government of the People’s Republic of China has stated its intention to be the ultimate authority on the selection of the next Dalai Lama.
The High Lamas used several ways in which they can increase the chances of finding a person they claim to be the reincarnation. High Lamas often visit Lhamo La-tso, a lake in central Tibet, and watch for a sign from the lake itself. This may be either a claimed ‘vision’ or some ‘indication’ of the direction in which to search, and this was how Tenzin Gyatso was determined to be the next Dalai Lama. It is said that Palden Lhamo, the female guardian spirit of the sacred lake Lhamo La-tso promised Gendun Drup, the 1st Dalai Lama, in one of his visions “that she would protect the reincarnation lineage of the Dalai Lamas.” Ever since the time of Gendun Gyatso, the 2nd Dalai Lama, who formalised the system, the Regents and other monks have gone to the lake to seek guidance on choosing the next reincarnation through visions while meditating there.
The particular form of Palden Lhamo at Lhamo La-tso is Gyelmo Maksorma, “The Victorious One who Turns Back Enemies”. The lake is sometimes referred to as “Pelden Lhamo Kalideva”, which has been taken as a reason to claim that Palden Lhamo is an emanation of the goddess Kali, the shakti of the Hindu God Shiva.
It was here that in 1935, the Regent Reting Rinpoche claimed to have received a clear vision of three Tibetan letters and of a monastery with a jade-green and gold roof, and a house with turquoise roof tiles, which led to the indication of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
High Lamas may also claim to have a vision by a dream or if the Dalai Lama was cremated, they will often monitor the direction of the smoke as an ‘indication’ of the direction of the expected rebirth.
Once the High Lamas have found the home and the boy they believe to be the reincarnation, the boy undergoes tests to ceremoniously legitimize the rebirth. They present a number of artifacts, only some of which belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, and if the boy chooses the items which belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, this is seen as a sign, in conjunction with all of the other claimed indications, that the boy is the reincarnation.
If there is only one boy found, the High Lamas will invite Living Buddhas of the three great monasteries, together with secular clergy and monk officials, to ‘confirm their findings’ and then report to the Central Government through the Minister of Tibet. Later, a group consisting of the three major servants of Dalai Lama, eminent officials and troops will collect the boy and his family and travel to Lhasa, where the boy would be taken, usually to Drepung Monastery, to study the Buddhist sutra in preparation for assuming the role of spiritual leader of Tibet.
List of Dalai Lamas
There have been 14 recognised incarnations of the Dalai Lama:
There has also been one non-recognised Dalai Lama, Ngawang Yeshe Gyatso, declared 28 June 1707, when he was 25 years old, by Lha-bzang Khan as the “true” 6th Dalai Lama – however, he was never accepted as such by the majority of the population.
Future of the position
In the mid-1970s, Tenzin Gyatso told a Polish newspaper that he thought he would be the last Dalai Lama. In a later interview published in the English language press he stated, “The Dalai Lama office was an institution created to benefit others. It is possible that it will soon have outlived its usefulness.” These statements caused a furore amongst Tibetans in India. Many could not believe that such an option could even be considered. It was further felt that it was not the Dalai Lama’s decision to reincarnate. Rather, they felt that since the Dalai Lama is a national institution it was up to the people of Tibet to decide whether the Dalai Lama should reincarnate.
The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has claimed the power to approve the naming of “high” reincarnations in Tibet, based on a precedent set by the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty. The Qianlong Emperor instituted a system of selecting the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama by a lottery that used a Golden Urn with names wrapped in clumps of barley. This method was used a few times for both positions during the 19th century, but eventually fell into disuse. In 1995, the Dalai Lama chose to proceed with the selection of the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama without the use of the Golden Urn, while the Chinese government insisted that it must be used. This has led to two rival Panchen Lamas: Gyaincain Norbu as chosen by the Chinese government’s process, and Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as chosen by the Dalai Lama. However, Nyima was abducted by the Chinese government shortly after being chosen as the Panchen Lama and has not been seen in public since 1995.
In September 2007, the Chinese government said all high monks must be approved by the government, which would include the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama after the death of Tenzin Gyatso. Since by tradition, the Panchen Lama must approve the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, that is another possible method of control. Consequently, the Dalai Lama has alluded to the possibility of a referendum to determine the 15th Dalai Lama.
In response to this scenario, Tashi Wangdi, the representative of the 14th Dalai Lama, replied that the Chinese government’s selection would be meaningless. “You can’t impose an Imam, an Archbishop, saints, any religion…you can’t politically impose these things on people”, said Wangdi. “It has to be a decision of the followers of that tradition. The Chinese can use their political power: force. Again, it’s meaningless. Like their Panchen Lama. And they can’t keep their Panchen Lama in Tibet. They tried to bring him to his monastery many times but people would not see him. How can you have a religious leader like that?”
The 14th Dalai Lama said as early as 1969 that it was for the Tibetans to decide whether the institution of the Dalai Lama “should continue or not”. He has given reference to a possible vote occurring in the future for all Tibetan Buddhists to decide whether they wish to recognize his rebirth. In response to the possibility that the PRC might attempt to choose his successor, the Dalai Lama said he would not be reborn in a country controlled by the People’s Republic of China or any other country which is not free. According to Robert D. Kaplan, this could mean that “the next Dalai Lama might come from the Tibetan cultural belt that stretches across northern India, Nepal, and Bhutan, presumably making him even more pro-Indian and anti-Chinese”.
The 14th Dalai Lama supported the possibility that his next incarnation could be a woman. As an “engaged Buddhist” the Dalai Lama has an appeal straddling cultures and political systems making him one of the most recognized and respected moral voices today. “Despite the complex historical, religious and political factors surrounding the selection of incarnate masters in the exiled Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama is open to change”, author Michaela Haas writes.