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The Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso


2007 photo of the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

Photo of the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet.

Jeff Brass / Getty Images
Mao Zedong meets with the leaders of Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama

The Dalai Lama and rival Panchen Lama meet with Mao Zedong in 1955

via Wikipedia

The Dalai Lama at his palace in Tibet, 1958

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, serves as both the religious and secular leader of the Tibetan people. Since the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) crushed the so-called "Tibetan Uprising" of 1959, the Dalai Lama has been forced to lead his people from exile in northern India. Despite these circumstances, His Holiness inspires people around the world with his messages of peace and non-violence.

Early Life:

On July 6, 1935, an ethnically-Tibetan horse farming family had a new baby son named Lhamo Dondrub. The family lived in the Amdo region, formerly part of Tibet, but at that time absorbed into China's Qinghai Province.

When the child was two years old, a party came from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in search of the fourteenth incarnation of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and temporal leader. When they presented a mixture of items, some belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama and some not, the toddler recognized the objects that the 13th Dalai Lama had owned. "That's mine!" he said, pointing at each one.

Although the local Muslim warlord wanted to block the Dondrub child from being recognized as the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama, he was unable to prevent it. Lhamo Dondrub was taken to Lhasa at the age of four to receive an education. He was renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, which translates as "Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, the Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom."

Training in Buddhism:

The child Dalai Lama began his monastic training when he was six years old, dividing his time between Norbulingka (the summer palace) and Potala Palace. There, his tutors taught him the prayers and tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes called Yellow Hat Buddhism. He soon learned to debate ably on points of theology and cosmology.

The young lama's senior tutor was Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche, and his junior tutor was Yongdzin Trijang Rinpoche. In 1946, Tenzin Gyatso met the Austrian mountain-climber Heinrich Harrer, who exerted a strong influence on the young monk that would last a lifetime. The Dalai Lama learned much about the world outside of Tibet from Harrer.

Taking Political Power:

On November 17, 1950, Tenzin Gyatso formally took political power as the 14th Dalai Lama, becoming both the head of state and head of government for Tibet. He was fifteen years old.

The Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong was consolidating its power within China at that time, after its 1949 victory over Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. Soon, the People's Republic of China would turn its attention to conquering Tibet. It was a precarious situation indeed for the mountain country and its new teenaged leader.

With Chinese soldiers massed at the border with Tibet, representatives of the Dalai Lama's government were forced to sign a 1951 agreement with China called the "Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet." According to Tenzin Gyatso, however, those representatives were not authorized to sign any agreements - only to negotiate and report back to him. It was the beginning of the end for Tibet's independence.

In 1954, the Dalai Lama and the 10th Panchen Lama traveled to Beijing to meet with Mao. They participated in discussions on the new Chinese constitution. However, tensions were rising quickly between China and Tibet, as the Dalai Lama repudiated the 17 Points Agreement.

By the time he traveled to India in 1956, the Dalai Lama was so concerned about the situation that he asked Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru if he would grant political asylum to himself and some of his followers, if necessary. Nehru was reluctant to extend such an invitation, though, for fear of damaging India's own shaky relationship with China.

Flight into Exile:

In 1959, the Dalai Lama's fear were recognized when the Peoples Liberation Army of China launched an invasion of Tibet. This move came in response to fierce fighting by tens of thousands of ethnic Tibetans in Kham and Amdo, which had already been incorporated into China. Mao was determined to crush all Tibetan resistance, both in Tibetan enclaves in western China and in the mountain kingdom itself.

With Chinese artillery shells pounding the Summer Palace at Norbulingka, on March 17, 1959, the young Dalai Lama and his retinue began a harrowing two-week journey through the snow-bound Himalayas into India. In the bloody fighting they left behind, some 87,000 Tibetans lost their lives, while 80,000 more fled into exile.

Government from Dharamsala:

The Dalai Lama established a government in exile for Tibet in the city of Dharamshala, India. The Tibetan Government in Exile has an elected parliament, a democratic constitution, and supports more than 200 monasteries and nunneries to promote and preserve Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practices.

The government provides schooling in the Tibetan language for the children of the 80,000 refugees living in the area, as well. The Dalai Lama has established a Library of Tibetan Works in his capital-in-exile, which currently houses almost 100,000 books and manuscripts covering Tibetan history, culture, religion and politics.

International Work and Recognition:

Throughout his long decades in exile, the 14th Dalai Lama has continued to appeal for international help against Chinese aggression. He has addressed the United Nations General Assembly, which promulgated three separate resolutions in 1959, 1961 and 1965, calling for China to uphold the human rights of Tibetans. However, the UN has done very little to support Tibetan freedom since 1971, when the Peoples Republic of China was admitted to the UN and given a permanent seat on the Security Council in place of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

In the years since 1971, the Dalai Lama has put forward several plans for Tibet to become truly autonomous, even if in some way still associated with China. The Chinese government has rejected those proposals, and labeled the Dalai Lama a "radical splittist." Beijing frequently refers to the Tibetan government in exile as the "Dalai clique."

In 1989, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize, ostensibly simply in recognition of his "struggle of the liberation of Tibet and the efforts for a peaceful resolution" to the problem, and also as a tribute to Mohandas Gandhi. Of course, the award also came as a slap from the Norwegian Nobel Committee at Beijing, after the Chinese government crushed the Tiananmen Square Protests earlier that same year.

In the years since 1989, the Dalai Lama has published a number of best-selling books, including Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama (1990), The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (1999), and Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (2012). He has taught courses and given speeches around the world, building a large international following. In addition, he has received numerous awards and recognitions, including a Congressional Gold Medal from the United States in 2007 and the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2012.


No sitting Dalai Lama had ever retired before, but following the bloody 2008 Chinese crackdown on Tibetan pro-democracy protests, the 14th Dalai Lama threatened to do just that. He has since relinquished his political role as the leader of Tibet, handing power instead to the elected Central Tibetan Authority as of May 29, 2011. However, he remains the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

Future Incarnations:

The Dalai Lama has not yet decided whether he will come back again in a new incarnation, after he dies. Many Tibetans fear that China would try to impose its own candidate for the office upon Tibetan Buddhism, if a 15th Dalai Lama needed to be discovered. Tenzin Gyatso stated in a 2011 interview with a Canadian television news program that "My next life is up to me. No one else."

For a longer biography, please see "Who Is the Dalai Lama?" by About.com's Guide to Buddhism, Barbara O'Brien.

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