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The Dalai Lama

We’re all familiar with the Dalai Lama - but have you ever been curious about who he is, how he was chosen and what the role of the Dalai Lama is in society? If so, you’re in luck - this week we’re going deep on the DL.

The first Dalai Lama was born in 1391 but was known as an abbot - the title of Dalai Lama wasn’t introduced until 1590 when it was bestowed upon the 3rd DL by the Mongolian King, Altan Khan. The title translates to “Ocean of Wisdom” and Tibetans often refer to the Dalai Lama as Rgyal-ba Rin-po-che or “Precious Conqueror”.

The Dalai Lama leads the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhists, which was founded in the late 14th century. Donning maroon robes and, you guessed it, yellow hats - these monks restored discipline to monastic life. The Dalai Lama is recognized as the manifestation of Avalokiteshvara - the patron saint of Tibet and the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It is believed that Bodhisattvas are beings who are consciously chosen to be reborn in order to help others achieve enlightenment.

Tibetan Buddhism is unique in this belief of incarnate lamas -  the idea that the incumbent Dalai Lama chooses the place (and person) for their next rebirth. The current Dalai Lama’s birth name is Lhamo Thondup and he was born in 1935 to a farming family in a small village in northeastern Tibet. He was recognized as the reincarnation of the previous Lama at two years old. But how? Well, the search certainly isn’t instantaneous - finding the incumbent Dalai Lama took over four years! When the 13th Dalai Lama passed away his head rotated from the south to the northeast as he lay in state. The council took this as a sign, among other visions, that the next incarnation would be found in this region of Tibet and set off on their quest. After passing a series of tests to prove he was in fact the next Dalai Lama, his training began at the Kumbum monastery. He then made the journey to Lhasa with his parents where his journey as the next spiritual and political leader of Tibet officially commenced. 

The 14th Dalai Lama’s time in Tibet was short-lived. By the late 1940’s China’s position of “liberating Tibet from imperialists” was becoming increasingly aggressive. When he assumed political power in Tibet at age 16, the Dalai Lama sent delegations to the U.S., U.K. and Nepal in an effort to persuade them to intervene. A fourth delegation was sent to China in an attempt to quell the aggression, but ended in the signing (under extreme pressure) of a Seventeen-Point Agreement - effectively giving China permission to follow through on their intention of “liberating” Tibet.

In 1959, as China's presence in Tibet was bordering on full-scale military takeover, the Dalai Lama - after consulting the Nechung Oracle and his own divinations - made the difficult decision to flee his country. He disguised himself as a soldier and headed to Dharamsala, India where he set up the Tibetan government in exile. 

Since his daring escape, the Dalai Lama has continued to fight for the liberation of Tibet and has been lauded for doing so in a peaceful and non-violent manner. In 2011, the Dalai Lama recused himself from his political authority and transferred power to the democratically elected leadership he helped to establish. This move ended the custom of the Dalai Lamas holding both spiritual and political power and he made clear his intention to focus solely on spiritual affairs, much like the first four Dalai Lamas. 

On the topic of the next Dalai Lama, his Holiness has made clear that the recognition of the next reincarnation should be up to the Tibetan people to decide - not meaning that he won't reincarnate, but that his people should hold the power to decide if they continue the tradition. As political tensions remain high between China and Tibet, the Dalai Lama has also stated that his next incarnation may take place outside of Tibet and that he will leave behind clear written instructions for search and recognition.  

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Image by the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama


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