Who Is the Dalai Lama?

The Long Exile of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

Dalai Lama Thangka
Tibetans gather to pray on March 10, 2009 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Sebastian Meyer/Getty Images

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has one of the most famous faces in the world, so familiar he seems to be everyone's genial great-uncle. Yet journalists call him a "god" (he says he isn't) or a "living Buddha" (he says he isn't that, either). In some circles he is respected for his scholarship. In other circles he is ridiculed as a dim bulb. He is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who inspires millions, yet he is also demonized as a tyrant who incites violence.

Just who is the Dalai Lama, anyway?

In his book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters (Atria Books, 2008), scholar and former Tibetan monk Robert Thurman devotes 32 pages to answering the question, "Who is the Dalai Lama?" Thurman explains that the role of Dalai Lama embodies many layers that can be understood psychologically, physically, mythologically, historically, culturally, doctrinally and spiritually. In short, it is not a simple question to answer.

In brief, the Dalai Lama is the highest-ranking lama (spiritual master) of Tibetan Buddhism. Since the 17th century, the Dalai Lama has been the political and spiritual leader of Tibet. He also is considered an emanation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, an iconic figure who represents boundless compassion. Avalokiteshvara, Robert Thurman writes, turns up time and time again in Tibet's creation and history myths as a father and savior of the Tibetan people.

By now, most westerners have sorted out that His Holiness is not the "Buddhist Pope." His authority exists only within Tibetan Buddhism. Although he is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, his authority over Tibetan Buddhist institutions is limited. There are a number of schools of Tibetan Buddhism (six by some counts); and the Dalai Lama is ordained as a monk of one school, Gelugpa. He has no authority over the other schools to tell them what to believe or practice. Strictly speaking, he is not even the head of Gelugpa, an honor that goes to an official called the Ganden Tripa.

Each Dalai Lama is recognized as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. This does not mean, however, that a Dalai Lama soul has transmigrated from one body to another through the centuries. Buddhists, including Tibetan Buddhists, understand that an individual has no intrinsic self, or soul, to transmigrate. It's a bit closer to a Buddhist understanding to say that the great compassion and dedicated vows of each Dalai Lama causes the next one to be born. The new Dalai Lama is not the same person as the previous one, but neither is he a different person.

For more on the role of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, see "What's a 'God-King'?"

Tenzin Gyatso

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th. He was born in 1935, two years after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. When he was three years old, signs and visions led senior monks to find the little boy, living with his farming family in northeastern Tibet, and declare him to be the 14th Dalai Lama. He began his monastic training at the age of six. He was called upon to assume the full responsibilities of the Dalai Lama in 1950, when he was only 15, after the Chinese had invaded Tibet.

The Exile Begins

For nine years, the young Dalai Lama tried to prevent a total Chinese takeover of Tibet, negotiating with the Chinese and urging Tibetans to avoid violent retaliation against Chinese troops. His tenuous position unraveled quickly in March 1959.

The Chinese military commander in Lhasa, General Chiang Chin-wu, invited the Dalai Lama to view some entertainment in the Chinese military barracks. But there was a condition -- His Holiness could bring no soldiers or armed bodyguards with him. Fearing an assassination, on March 10, 1959, an estimated 300,000 Tibetans formed a human shield around the Dalai Lama's summer residence, Norbulingka Palace. By March 12 Tibetans also were barricading the streets of Lhasa. Chinese and Tibetan troops squared off, preparing to do battle. By March 15, the Chinese had positioned artillery in range of Norbulingka, and His Holiness agreed to evacuate the palace.

Two days later, artillery shells struck the palace. Heeding the advice of the Nechung Oracle, His Holiness the Dalai Lama began his journey into exile. Dressed as a common soldier and accompanied by a few ministers, the Dalai Lama left Lhasa and began a three-week trek toward India and freedom.

See also "The Tibetan Uprising of 1959" by Kallie Szczepanski, the About.com Guide to Asian History.

Challenges of Exile

The Tibetan people for centuries had lived in relative isolation from the rest of the world, developing a unique culture and distinctive schools of Buddhism. Suddenly the isolation was ruptured, and exiled Tibetans, Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism tumbled out of the Himalayas and quickly scattered around the world.

His Holiness, still in his 20s when his exile began, faced several crises at once.

As the deposed Tibetan head of state, it was his responsibility to speak for the people of Tibet and do what he could to lessen their oppression. He also had to consider the welfare of the tens of thousands of Tibetans who followed him into exile, often with nothing but what they wore.

Reports came from Tibet that Tibetan culture was being stifled. Over the next several years millions of ethnic Chinese would immigrate to Tibet, making the Tibetans an ethnic minority in their own country. Tibetan language, culture and identity were marginalized.

Tibetan Buddhism also was exiled. High lamas of the major schools left Tibet, also, and established new monasteries in Nepal and India. Before long Tibetan monasteries, schools and dharma centers spread into Europe and the Americas as well. Tibetan Buddhism for centuries had been geographically confined and functioned with a hierarchy that had developed over centuries. Could it maintain its integrity after being dispersed so quickly?

Dealing With China

Early in his exile, His Holiness appealed to the United Nations for help for Tibet. The General Assembly adopted three resolutions, in 1959, 1961, and 1965, that called on China to respect the human rights of Tibetans. These proved to be no solution, however.

His Holiness has made countless attempts to gain some autonomy for Tibet while avoiding all-out warfare with China. He has tried to steer a middle way in which Tibet would remain a territory of China but with a status similar to that of Hong Kong -- largely self-governing, with its own legal and political systems. More recently he has said he is willing to allow Tibet to have a Communist government, but he still calls for "meaningful" autonomy. China, however, simply demonizes him and will not negotiate in good faith.

The Government in Exile

In 1959, Indian Prime Minister Shri Jawaharlal Nehru granted asylum to His Holiness and to Tibetans who accompanied him into exile. In 1960 Nehru permitted His Holiness to establish an administrative center in Upper Dharamsala, also called McLeod Ganj, located on the side of a mountain in the Kangra Valley of the lower Himalayas. Here His Holiness established a democratic government for the Tibetan exiles.

The Tibetan Central Authority (CTA), also called the Tibetan government in exile, functions as a government for the community of Tibetan exiles in India. The CTA provides schools, health services, cultural centers and economic development projects for the 100,000 or so Tibetans in Dharamsala. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not the head of the CTA. At his insistence, the CTA functions as an elected democracy, with a prime minister and parliament. The CTA's written constitution is based on Buddhist principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 2011 His Holiness officially relinquished all political authority; he was "retired," he said. But that was only from governmental duties.

Media Star

His Holiness remains the Dalai Lama, and everything that stands for, and he is still the glue that holds Tibetan identity together. He has also become an ambassador of Buddhism to the world. At the very least, his familiar, affable countenance has helped westerners feel more comfortable with Buddhism, even if they don't quite understand what Buddhism is.

The Dalai Lama's life has been commemorated in feature films, one starring Brad Pitt and another directed by Martin Scorsese. He is the author of several popular books. He was once the guest editor of a French edition of Vogue. He travels the world, speaking of peace and human rights, and his public appearances draw standing-room-only crowds. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New Yorker ("Holy Man: What Does the Dalai Lama Actually Stand For?"), "For someone who claims to be 'a simple Buddhist monk,' the Dalai Lama has a large carbon footprint and often seems as ubiquitous as Britney Spears."

However, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is also an object of contempt. The government of China perpetually vilifies him. Western politicians who want to demonstrate they are no lapdogs of China like to be photographed with His Holiness. Yet world leaders who agree to meet with him do so in informal settings, to placate China.

There is also a fringe group that greets his public appearances with angry protests. See "About the Dalai Lama Protesters: The Dorje Shugden Sect Vs. the Dalai Lama."

Buddhist Monk and Scholar

He rises every day at 3:30 a.m. to meditate, recite mantras, do prostrations, and study Buddhist texts. This is a schedule he has kept since entering monastic orders at the age of six.

His books and public speeches sometimes are laughably simplistic, as if Buddhism is nothing but a program for being happy and playing nice with others. Yet he has spent his life in a demanding study of Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics and mastering Tibetan Buddhism's esoteric mysticism. He is one of the world's leading scholars of Nagarjuna's philosophy of Madhyamika, which is as difficult and enigmatic as human philosophy gets.

Human Being

All compounded things are subject to decay, the historical Buddha said. As a compounded thing, the man Tenzin Gyatso also is impermanent. In July 2015 he celebrated his 80th birthday. Every report of ill health fills his followers with anxiety. What will happen to Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism, when he is gone?

Tibetan Buddhism remains in a tenuous position, spread thinly across the globe, hurtling through centuries of cultural acclimation in only decades. The Tibetan people are deeply unhappy, and without his moderating leadership Tibetan activism quickly could take a violent road.

Thus, many fear that Tibetan Buddhism cannot take the old path of choosing a small child and waiting for him to grow up to lead Tibetan Buddhism. China will no doubt choose a figurehead Dalai Lama and install him in Lhasa. Without a clear succession of leadership there could be power struggles within Tibetan Buddhism, also.

His Holiness has speculated out loud that he might choose his own successor before his death. This isn't as odd as it seems, since in Buddhism linear time is an illusion. He might also appoint a regent; a popular choice for this position would be the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The young Karmapa has been living in Dharamsala and is being mentored by the Dalai Lama.

The 14th Dalai Lama also has hinted there might not be a 15th. Yet His Holiness embodies great compassion and a life of vow. Surely the karma of this life will lead to a beneficent rebirth.