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Dalai Lama

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Tibet | Dalai Lama | Panchen Lama | Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala | Lost Lhasa | Friends of Tibet
Ngawang Sangdrol | Tibetan Diaspora | Tibet on Film | The Monks of Drepung | Tibet's Warrior Nuns
Tibetan Children's Villages | Why the Chinese are There

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He was also the head of the government of Tibet, until the Chinese invasion and occupation forced Him and some 80,000 Tibetans into exile in 1959. The present Dalai Lama is the 14th in the lineage, all of whom are considered to be the embodiment of Chenrezig (Sanskrit - Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva1 of Compassion.

The Dalai Lama is often referred to as a 'living Buddha' or as Tibet's 'god-king'. His Holiness maintains that these terms are meaningless. He is well known for his humility, and has often said,

I am a simple Buddhist monk...
no more, nor less.

Dalai is a Mongol word which means 'ocean', and Lama is the Tibetan title of a teacher, especially a spiritual teacher. Together, the title Dalai Lama is translated as 'Ocean of Wisdom'. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama is known simply as Kundun, 'The Presence', or as Yeshe Norbu, 'Wishfulfilling Gem', in appreciation of the concept that he is the living embodiment of compassion.

The Search

The 13th Dalai Lama of Tibet died in 1933; and the search was begun to find the boy who would be the next incarnation of the great leader. The State Oracles were consulted for clues which would lead to the young Dalai Lama. The Regent, Reting Rinpoche, went to the sacred lake, Lhamoi Lhatso, where he had a vision of the Tibetan letters, Ah, Ka and Ma. He also saw a monastery with a green roof and a house with strange turquoise roof tiles. This suggested to him that the next Dalai Lama would be found in the eastern province of Amdo (Ah) near Kumbum (Ka) monastery. The Ma, it was believed, was representative of the 'm' sound which dominates both words2. The next clue was provided when the late Dalai Lama himself, whose embalmed body had been seated on a throne facing south, turned his head as if to look towards the East.

A party of monks, led by Lama Kewtsang Rinpoche from Sera Monastery, set off towards Amdo, where they eventually discovered a precocious two-year-old named Lhamo Dhondrub.

The family of Lhamo Dhondrub lived in a modest house in the village of Taktser. They were farmers who lived a comfortable, if not prosperous, life. They were noteworthy for living in a house with unusual tiles and for already having produced a reincarnation of a high lama, a Tulku. This, it was felt, made it unlikely that a second Tulku would take rebirth in the same home. In fact, Dekyi Tsering would give birth to no less than three Tulkus:

  • The first was her eldest son, Taktser Rinpoche, better known in the West as Thubten Jigme Norbu, who would become a professor at Indiana University in the USA.

  • The second was His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

  • The third would be her youngest child, Tendzin Choegyal, who would be recognized as Ngari Rinpoche.

This remarkable lady would raise seven children (five sons and two daughters), win the love and respect of all Tibetans, and earn the title, Gyayum Chenmo, 'Great mother'.

The Lamas entered the family home disguised as ordinary travellers. Kewtsang Rinpoche was dressed as a servant, the better to study the child unobserved... or so he thought. Lhamo Dhondrub immediately gained the upper hand by recognizing Kewtsang Rinpoche as a Lama from Sera, and by identifying members of the party by name and demanding to be taken to Lhasa in Lhasa dialect, which he had not been taught. With no need to maintain the charade, the Lamas began to test the boy by asking him to identify objects which had belonged to him in his previous life. This he was able to do without hesitation; and all were utterly convinced that they had found their leader again.

Unfortunately, the situation was complicated by the fact that Takster lay close to the Chinese border, in a region controlled by the Muslim warlord, Ma Pu-fang. This has been used by historical revisionists to justify the absorption of Amdo by the neighbouring Chinese provinces, on the grounds that the warlord ruled in the name of China. This is false. In fact, Ma Pu-fang and other warlords were answerable to no one, and ruled with absolute authority, until they were replaced by Mao's Communists at the conclusion of their war with the Nationalist government. This meant that the search team had to hide their enthusiasm over discovering the new Dalai Lama in Takster, and pay a ransom when this stratagem failed.

Nevertheless, Lhamo Dhondrub eventually reached the Tibetan capital, was renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, and was enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama on 22 February, 1940, at the age of four.

He is now known to the world as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso.


The previous Dalai Lama, The Great Thirteenth, had clearly seen the impending crisis with China, whose concerns were described by his friend, the British representative Sir Charles Bell, in his biography Portrait of a Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth3. And it was in this climate of extreme anxiety that the young Dalai Lama began his new life. The weight of responsibility he had to bear is hard to imagine: in the best of circumstances he would have had to shoulder the burden of becoming a head of state, in addition to the formidable demands of studying for his Geshe degree (Doctorate of Metaphysics), which in itself is often expected to take as much as 20 years of single-minded dedication. Add to this the threat of invasion by an overwhelmingly powerful neighbour and the scenario is truly daunting. Nevertheless, this is the role he was expected to play.

The Dalai Lama proved himself to be a remarkably gifted young man, gaining knowledge and understanding of the Buddhist texts at a phenomenal pace. He also proved to be a very 'modern' personality, just as his predecessor had been, and showed a keen interest in the politics and technology of the outside world, a world embroiled in war. The war in Europe led in a strange and convoluted way to his celebrated friendship with Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer and photographer who had escaped into Tibet from prisoner of war camps in British India, and whose story is told in the Jean-Jacques Annaud film, Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt as Harrer.

In 1949, the Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong had defeated the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kaishek, and were beginning to infiltrate eastern Tibet. In October of the following year, the coercion, bullying, and trickery of the cadres turned to open invasion by 80,000 People's Liberation Army troops, and the 'peaceful liberation of Tibet' had begun. Under increasing pressure, the Dalai Lama was forced to take on the responsibility of secular head of state, in addition to being the spiritual leader of his country, at the tender age of 15.

Hopelessly outweighed by the Chinese army, Tibetan resistance to the onslaught soon collapsed, except for gallant though isolated pockets of men and women who continued to fight. The only hope was to negotiate for a new relationship with China. In 1951, the Chinese imposed an agreement on Tibet, which they called the '17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet'4. Although it robbed Tibet of its existence as a nation, it did at least seem to guarantee the preservation of Tibet's cultural identity, government, and religion.

The Dalai Lama was determined to make the best of a bad situation, and went to Beijing to meet Mao and the Chinese Communist leadership. A modernist at heart, the young Dalai Lama held out some hope that the Buddhist culture of Tibet and Marxist Materialist China might form a peaceful co-existence, and that each might benefit from the other. He was shocked back to the brutal reality of his country's fate when Mao, who had until then been playing the part of generous host and benefactor, announced flatly '... but, of course, religion is poison'.

Tibetan Uprising

In Tibet conditions continued to deteriorate, as Chinese troops dealt harshly with those they suspected of collaborating with the resistance. The situation finally became untenable for the Dalai Lama and his government in 1959, when the revolt against Chinese brutality in the eastern province of Kham spread to the capital, Lhasa.

The crisis was brought to a head when General Tang, commanding the Chinese garrison outside the city, sent an unexpected invitation to the Dalai Lama to attend a play. The timing of the invitation was problematic, as it came on the eve of the Dalai Lama's Geshe examination. Even more troubling, however, was the stipulation that His Holiness should attend the performance without his customary escort, which was not only suspicious but an uprecedented breach of protocol. At the same time, rumours began to circulate that the Dalai Lama would attend the National People's Congress, soon to take place in Beijing, which was as much a shock to the Dalai Lama as anyone else.

The city was full of refugees and Khampa warriors, forced by sheer weight of numbers to withdraw from the bitter fighting in the east. As the tension continued to rise, the people of Lhasa took to the streets, fearing that the Dalai Lama was about to be kidnapped and taken to China. The first to react to the danger were the women of Lhasa, but soon the alarm was general. And, in a short time, thousands had congregated around the Dalai Lama's Summer residence, the Norbulingka ('Jewel Garden'), to prevent His removal.

It was apparent to everyone that events were about to spiral out of control. The Chinese pressed for the crowds to disperse. Tibetan troops, conscripted into the PLA under the terms of the 17 Point Agreement, stripped off their olive drab uniforms and passed out small arms amongst the Dalai Lama's would-be protectors. Chinese artillery was deployed to encircle the ancient city in a ring of steel.

When mortar shells began to crash into the Norbulingka compound, it became obvious that, unless the Dalai Lama left immediately, the crowd outside would be slaughtered. Reluctantly, the Dalai Lama agreed to leave the city, and take his government into exile in India.

That night, the Dalai Lama, His cabinet, and members of His family disguised themselves and slipped out of the city, beneath the gaze of the surrounding army. At times, they passed so close to the bivouacs of Chinese soldiers that it seemed impossible they would not be detected. Fortunately, a thick, swirling mist cloaked the ground, and hid them from their would-be captors.

The worst fears of the Dalai Lama and his advisors were confirmed when the Chinese army began to shell the Norbulingka in earnest; then they turned their guns on the people in the city streets of Lhasa and its ancient temples. When the dust finally settled, thousands lay dead. Thousands more were led into slavery in labour camps, where they died a gradual death resulting from starvation and physical abuse.

In the years which followed, 1.2 million Tibetans, one fifth of the total population, are said to have died from causes directly attributed to the Chinese occupation. The Tibetan Uprising of 1959, is still commemorated each year on 10 March.


The trek out of Tibet into the sanctuary of India crosses some of the harshest and most inhospitable mountains on earth. Add to this the ever present danger of being caught by the Chinese troops, who were sent in pursuit, or attacked from above by Chinese aircraft, and the chance of reaching safety must have seemed desperately remote.

Nevertheless, after a perilous journey, the Dalai Lama and His escort arrived at the Indian border. And on 31 March, 1959, weary, sick, and deeply depressed, His Holiness the young Dalai Lama was helped across the line which marked the difference between tyranny and exile.

With a heavy heart I said goodbye to the group of people who had acted as my escort... They were staying behind to face the Chinese forces. In other words, they were returning to face almost certain death... That was an inexpressibly sad moment.5

The Dalai Lama is the most celebrated refugee of the 1959 exodus, but he was by no means alone in his flight into India. It is estimated that as many as 80,000 people also risked their lives, suffering hunger and frostbite, to escape the onslaught. And it is to the credit of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the people of India that so many were made welcome.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile were now in India, but it was clear that some sort of arrangement would have to be made to find them all somewhere to live. This was a formidable problem. Thousands of refugee Tibetans were put to work building roads. But what about their children, many of whom were in desperately poor health as a result of their ordeal in the mountain passes?

Nauzer Nowrojee (1917-2000), a shopkeeper, visionary, and humanitarian, came forward with a solution. He was responsible for transforming a half forgotten hill station in India, a relic of the British Raj, into the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, a cultural lifeboat floating in the foothills of the Himalayas. Mr Nowrojee suggested the use of his hill station as a sanctuary. And in 1960, the Tibetan Government in Exile was established in Dharamsala, along with the Tibetan Children's Village and other hospices, and work began to save what could be saved of the culture of Tibet.

Nobel Peace Prize

For as long as space endures,
and for as long as living beings remain,
until then may I, too, abide to dispell the misery of the world.

It would not be true to say that the opposition to the Chinese occupation of Tibet has been invariably peaceful; there was an organized armed resistance movement - in part, trained and funded by the USA. And there have been incidents of violent clashes between Tibetan protesters and the Chinese army and security forces. But, taken in the context of a nation invaded by a foreign power and subjected to ruthless and demeaning change, the extent to which non-violence and passive resistance has so far been characteristic of the Tibetan struggle is nothing short of amazing. Where oppressed people in other parts of the world have resorted to bombs and bullets, the Tibetan resistance is led by young people, many of them monks and nuns, who have opposed their oppressors with ideas and the strength of their convictions... And many of them have paid, and continue to pay, a terrible price.

Much of the credit for this should be given to the Tibetan adherence to Buddhist principles regarding ethical conduct. But credit in a very large measure should be given to the Dalai Lama and His insistence on following a course of non-violence and openness to dialogue, his 'Middle Way'.

In recognition of the Dalai Lama's untiring efforts towards achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Tibet and to a more peaceful world in general, His Holiness was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

The Nobel Committee described their decision to award the Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama as follows,

The Committee wants to emphasize the fact that the Dalai Lama in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people.

The Dalai Lama has developed his philosophy of peace from a great reverence for all things living and upon the concept of universal responsibility embracing all mankind as well as nature. In the opinion of the Committee the Dalai Lama has come forward with constructive and forward-looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts, human rights issues, and global environmental problems.

The Dalai Lama began his acceptance speach by addressing the assembled dignitaries as brothers and sisters,

... We all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity. We are dependent on each other in so many ways, that we can no longer live in isolated communities and ignore what is happening outside those communities, and we must share the good fortune that we enjoy.

He went on to add,

I also wish to share with you today my feelings concerning the plight and aspirations of the people of Tibet. The Nobel Prize is a prize they well deserve for their courage and unfailing determination during the past forty years of foreign occupation. As a free spokesman for my captive countrymen and women, I feel it is my duty to speak out on their behalf. I speak not with a feeling of anger or hatred towards those who are responsible for the immense suffering of our people and the destruction of our land, homes and culture. They too are human beings who struggle to find happiness and deserve our compassion. I speak to inform you of the sad situation in my country today and of the aspirations of my people, because in our struggle for freedom, truth is the only weapon we possess.

Recommended Reading

There are a lot of wonderful books about the Dalai Lama and about Tibet. Here are just a few:

  • My Land My People: The Original Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet, written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Warner Books, 1997)

  • Kundun, written by Mary Craig (HarperCollins, 1997)

  • The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation, written by Glen H Millen (Clear Light Publishers, 2001)

  • Portrait of a Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth, written by Sir Charles Bell (Wisdom Publications, 1987)

For those who haven't the time to enjoy a good book, the film, Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a wonderful experience which provides a good introduction to the life of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

O leader of the Land of Snows,
Which these days is steeped in darkness,
Remain with us unwaveringly,
Even until the end of the world.
Let blaze the light of your compassion
And fill this world with peace and joy.
1Bodhisattvas are 'enlightened beings'.2It was later thought that the Ma signified the monastery of Karma Rolpai Dorje, situated near the village of Taktser.3Wisdom Publications, 19874The Tibetan delegation did not have the authority to negotiate, let alone sign, such an agreement, which was sealed with a Chinese forgery of the Tibetan Great Seal.5Kundun by Mary Craig, HarperCollins, 1997.6This verse is taken from the poem composed by the Regent, Reting Rinpoche, for the enthronement of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. It is quoted from The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation by Glen H Mullin (Clear Light Publishers, 2001).

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