Dalai Lama, 14 th (Tenzin Gyatso)

Dalai Lama, 14 th (Tenzin Gyatso)
Dalai Lama, 14 th (Tenzin Gyatso)

The Dalai Lama has been both the temporal and the spiritual leader of Tibet since the 16th century. Tibetans are followers of Vajrayana (Vehicle of the Thunderbolt), or Tantric Buddhism, and believe that the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan, and Guanyin or Kuan-yin in Chinese).

In 1578 Altan Khan, a Mongol ruler (Mongols also follow Vajrayana Buddhism), conferred the title Dalai Lama (meaning ocean of wisdom) on an eminent Tibetan lama, and since he was viewed as the third reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, he became known as the Third Dalai Lama. He resided at the Potala Monastery in Lhasa.

The Fifth Dalai Lama, called the Great Fifth, conferred the title Panchen Lama or Panchen Rimpoche (meaning the Great Gem of Learning) on his teacher, declaring that he was the reincarnation of Amitabha Buddha, or the Buddha of Light.

The Panchen Lama presided at Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. Called Living Buddhas, they headed the Tibetan theocracy. When one died a committee of senior lamas would be appointed to find his reincarnation, directed by omens and signs.

In 1933 the 13th Dalai Lama died and a search began for his reincarnation. They found him in a two-year-old farmer’s son named Tenszin Gyatso in 1939 and enthroned him as the 14th Dalai Lama in Lhasa. In addition to his traditional education, he was taught Western subjects by an Austrian adventurer and Nazi Heinrich Harrar, who had escaped internment by Great Britain in India.

In 1950 the government of the newly founded People’s Republic of China announced its intention of taking control of Tibet, which had enjoyed autonomy, with minimal interference from China, for over half a century. Tibetan efforts to enlist aid from India, Great Britain, the United States, and the United Nations failed because no nation recognized Tibet as an independent state.

As the Chinese army advanced, the Dalai and his court fled to India in December 1950, carrying with them the contents of the treasury. The authorities in Lhasa bowed to the inevitable, traveled to Beijing (Peking) in 1951, and signed a Seventeen Point Agreement that granted Tibet large measures of autonomy. With that the Dalai returned to Lhasa.

In 1954 the Dalai and Panchen Lama traveled to Beijing to attend the meeting of China’s National Assembly representing Tibet. In Beijing he met with Chairman Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) and Premier Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), and found many of their government’s policies commendable.

Relations between the Dalai Lama’s court and the Chinese government began to deteriorate when China pushed for changes and reforms and expanded its control. Tibetan resentment of Chinese repression led to violence that culminated in an armed uprising in Lhasa in 1959. Fearing detention by the Chinese, the Dalai, his family, and his entourage left Lhasa in disguise on March 17, 1959, and crossed into India on March 30.

They were given a cordial welcome by the Indian government, including a visit by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and were granted political asylum, along with about 13,000 other Tibetan refugees. They were allowed to set up a government in exile in Dharmsala, located in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains.

Since 1959 the Dalai Lama has visited many countries worldwide speaking on behalf of his people and their plight. He has been a most effective spokesman for the Tibetan cause because of his charisma, fluency in English, and peaceful approach to conflict resolution. His numerous writings on Tibetan Buddhism and culture and his personal philosophy are known worldwide.

In the process he has demystified the once mysterious Tibet and the theocracy headed by a Living Buddha. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Since 1988 he has also become more flexible on the future of Tibet, abandoning demands for independence in favor of autonomy within China.