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

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.