Dalai Lama

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Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama (däˈlī läˈmə) [Tibetan,=oceanic teacher], title of one of the main leaders of Tibetan Buddhism. Believed like his predecessors to be the incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, 1935–, was installed in 1940. In 1959, following a Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule (see Tibet), he fled into exile. He has traveled widely, pleading the Tibetan cause, and was the recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and the 2012 Templeton Prize. He stepped down as the political leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile in 2011.


See the 14th Dalai Lama's autobiography (1990) and biography by A. Norman (2020); studies by P. Iyer (2008) and T. Johnson (2011).

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The Dalai Lama is the fourteenth incarnation of Avalokitesvara. As such, he is the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, though he now lives in exile in India while his country remains under Chinese rule. Getty Images.

Dalai Lama

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The title Dalai Lama has, since the sixteenth century, designated the person who both headed the reformed or Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism and was the temporal ruler of Tibet. The office can be traced to the fourteenth century and the creation of the Gelugpa school by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419). He founded a new monastery at Ganden that would become the major disseminating point for the new teachings. He was succeeded as abbot at Ganden by Gedun Drub (1391–1474), who went on to create the Tashilhumpo monastery near Shigatse, west of Lhasa, one of the centers that solidified the position of the Gelugpa tradition in Tibet. Gedun Drub was succeeded by Gedun Gyatso (1475–1542) and Sonam Gyatso (1543–1588), the latter destined to change the historical trajectory of Tibet.

Sonam Gyatso was invited by Altyn Khan, the ruler of Mongolia, to teach his form of Buddhism to the Mongolian people as a means of unifying them. Sonam Gyatso proved quite successful in his assigned task. As a first act before returning to Tibet, he proclaimed his patron as both the reincarnation of Kublai Khan and the embodiment of the bodhisattva of wisdom, thus assigning Altyn Khan both political and religious credentials. The khan returned the gesture by naming Sonam Gyatso “Dalai Lama,” or “ocean of wisdom.” He would subsequently be seen as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara (better known in the West as Kuan Yin), the bodhisattva of compassion. Thetitle “Dalai Lama” was then retroactively applied to Sonam Gyatso’s two predecessors.

The future Dalai Lamas would continue their relationship with the khan of the Mongols, and Lozang Gyatso (1617–1682), the fifth Dalai, with the assistance of Mongol troops, secured authority as the political leader of all Tibet. The Dalai Lamas retained power in Tibet until the 1950s.

The current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth. He was born Lhamo Dhondrub on July 6, 1935, in a small village in northeastern Tibet. Following the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, a search began for the child into which he would reincarnate. At two years old, Lhamo Dhondrub was put to the test and succeeded in recognizing the possessions belonging to the late Dalai Lama, and he was officially recognized as the successor. From that point he was seen as both the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and an incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. He was renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (meaning Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom). He was enthroned at the Potala Palace in Llasa on February 22, 1940, when he was four years old.

As he grew, a regency managed the affairs of Tibet. The crisis created by the Chinese Revolution and subsequent invasion of Tibet by the Chinese Army in 1950 led to the teenage Tenzin Gyatso assuming full powers as the Dalai Lama on November 17, 1950. During the next decade, hecompleted his formal education and attempted to negotiate a settlement with the Chinese that would lead to the withdrawal of the army. Through the decade he operated from Llasa, but in 1959 there was a popular uprising against the Chinese that was brutally put down. The Dalai Lama joined the more than 100,000 Tibetans who had moved into exile. In 1960 he settled in Dharmadala, India, and created a government in exile, which he has headed ever since.

In the years since his exile, the Dalai Lama has worked to mobilize international support to reestablish an independent Tibet. That effort has not proved successful, and Tibet has been integrated into the Peoples Republic of China as the Tibet Autonomous Region. The government has been secularized, and, especially during the Cultural Revolution, efforts were made to destroy Tibetan Buddhism. That policy has more recently been replaced by one of accommodating a greatly weakened Tibetan Buddhist leadership.

From India, the Dalai Lama has operated as the political leader of all Tibetans in exile while also being the head of one group of Tibetan Buddhists. As a religious leader, he has promoted the spread of Tibetan Buddhism, including a project to preserve the literature of the faith, much of which was lost in the destruction of the monasteries in Tibet. He has worked to gain friends among influential Westerners to facilitate the movement of Buddhist leaders and the establishment of Buddhist centers globally. One unexpected consequence of his exile has been the dramatic spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the last decades of the twentieth century, the appearance of hundreds of books on Tibetan Buddhism in Western languages, and its acceptance by thousands of non-Tibetans.

In his effort to build support for Tibet, he has traveled widely and received a host of awards from those who support his efforts. Recognition culminated in 1989 when he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.

As the century came to an end, the Dalai Lama recognized that efforts to win the political independence of Tibet were not working, and he has subsequently redirected his efforts to the preservation of Tibetan nationhood and culture. He began to advocate what he termed “genuine self-rule” as part of China rather than independence from China.

In the meantime, in 1995 an issue arose over the designation of the new Panchen Lama, the previous one having died in Tibet. The Panchen Lama is the second-highest Tibetan religious authority. Two different people have been designated to carry on the office, one in China and one outside. Reflecting on the situation, on his sixty-fourth birthday, the Dalai Lama asserted that following his own death, reincarnation would not appear in Tibet or any area under Chinese control. He noted that the next incarnation would come to carry his work forward, not stifle it.


Avedon, John F. In Exile from the Land of Snows. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
Pilburn, Sidney, ed. A Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writings by and about the Dalai Lama. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Press, 1990.
Tenzin Gyatso, H. H. the Dalai Lama. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.
___. My Land and My People: Memoirs of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.
___. Ocean of Wisdom. Guidelines for Living. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publications., 1989.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Dalai Lama


the title of the high priest of Lamaism in Tibet. The institution of the Dalai Lama originated at the beginning of the 15th century, when Lamaism was established and a unique feudal-theocratic form of government was founded. One of the dogmas of Lamaism was the principle of the reincarnation of a soul, according to which the Dalai Lama does not die but is reincarnated in a child born at the moment the Dalai Lama dies. In accordance with this dogma, the Dalai Lama was chosen by an established ritual from among Tibetan boys born immediately after the death of the previous Dalai Lama.

On coming of age, the Dalai Lama became not only the spiritual but also the secular ruler of Tibet. However, he often was in fact only an obedient instrument in the hands of his mentors—representatives of feudal-theocratic forces. Tibetan high priests began to bear the title Dalai Lama in the 16th century. The last (14th) Dalai Lama, Jetsun Jampel Ngawang Lhasang Yishey Tensing Gyatsa (born 1935), cooperated at first with the government of the People’s Republic of China, but after the armed rebellion against Chinese rule in Tibet in 1959 he emigrated to India.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dalai Lama

attains his position at birth by absorbing the spirit of his dying predecessor. [Buddhism: NCE, 2745 (Tibetan Buddhism)]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dalai Lama

1. (until 1959) the chief lama and ruler of Tibet
2. born 1935, the 14th holder of this office (1940), who fled to India (1959): Nobel peace prize 1989
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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