Dalai Lama History: Biography, History, And Legacy Of The Dalai Lama

By | January 10, 2021

test article image
The 14th Dalai Lama holding a speach in Vienna, Austria. (Wolfgang H. Wögerer, Vienna, Austria/Wikimedia Commons)

As the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is an influential religious leader and political figure, but most Westerners don't know much about him. Who was he before he became the Dalai Lama? How did he become the Dalai Lama? Who becomes the Dalai Lama after he dies? He's currently 85 years old and in poor health, so these are all rather pressing questions.

What Even Is The Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama is a human man, but the name is also a title that means "ocean of wisdom" which is bestowed upon the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism. It's not the kind of title you get through a political process of backroom dealings or just end up with after a sufficient rise through the ranks, as is common in some Western religions; the Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of every previous lama, who are believed to be one soul caught up in an endless cycle of rebirth, never reaching nirvana, because their work is just too important. Tough break.

The first Dalai Lama was a guy named Gedun Drupa who lived from 1391 to 1474 and is believed to have been reborn the next year as Gedun Gyatso, but neither of them got the title in their lifetimes. Technically, the first person to receive the title of Dalai Lama was Sonam Gyatso, born the year after Gedun Gyatso's 1542 death, but when the title was presented to him, it was also posthumously awarded to the first two.

test article image
House where the 14th Dalai Lama was born in Taktser, Amdo. (A. Gruschke/Wikimedia Commons)

Tibet's Next Top Lama

Since the Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of his predecessor, the high lamas—that is, the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism—can't just pick someone and move on. Neither can they just inspect every boy born around the time the previous Dalai Lama dies, like Prince Charming looking for his Cinderella. That could take ages, and their nebulous process takes long enough as it is, up to several years (it took four years, for example, to locate the current Dalai Lama).

That doesn't mean they're just casting about blindly, though. The high lamas pay special attention to the direction of the smoke emitting from the cremation of the previous Dalai Lama, as it's thought to blow the Dalai Lama's spirit to his new infant body. Sometimes, one of the high lamas dreams about the child they're seeking and learns in the dream how to identify the infant, from features as exact as a specific birthmark to as general as the village where he lives. The high lamas may also travel to Lhamo Lhatso, a holy lake located in central Tibet, to look for a holy sign. It was this method by which the current Dalai Lama was found.

Whatever guidance they're given, once the high lamas have some idea where to look and identify a candidate, they visit the boy's family, but this is no admissions interview. They bring with them a number of items, some of which belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, and watch the child to see which items he selects. If he appears to identify the previous Dalai Lama's possessions, they can all have themselves a nice, enlightened celebration, for they've found their once and future man.