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

By Karen Harris

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.

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.

The 14th Dalai Lama as a child in Amdo, Tibet, c. 1940s. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Who Is The Current Dalai Lama?

The current Dalai Lama, the 14th in the succession, is a man who was born Lhamo Dhondup on July 6, 1935 to a peasant family in a small village in northeastern Tibet. According to the high lamas, he was identified after the embalmed face of the 13th Dalai Lama mysteriously turned to face northeast and one of the high lamas had a premonition at Lhamo Lhatso that the child would be found near a monastery with a gold and turquoise roof in a humble house with funny-looking gutters.

They discovered the Kumbum monastery in Amdo, which fit the description, and started looking around the surrounding villages for a house with weird gutters until they found the home of the then-three-year-old Lhamo, who they determined was born shortly after the 13th Dalai Lama's death. When the high lamas visited his home to give Lhamo the final test, they were quickly validated: When presented with the various items, the child picked up two items that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and shouted, "It's mine! It's mine!"

Lhasa's Potala Palace, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, pictured in 2006. (Ondřej Žváček/Wikimedia Commons)

It's Hard Out Here For The Dalai Lama

Lhamo Dhondup, soon rechristened Tenzin Gyatso, remained with his family until he was five years old, then he was sent to a nearby monastery to begin his training. Later, he was sent to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where he continued his education under the tutelage of the highest-ranking monks, and in 1950, he was officially enthroned at the age of 15 years old.

Until 1959, the Dalai Lama was not just the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism but also the political leader of Tibet. His official residence was Lhasa's ornate Potala Palace. That year, however, Tibetans revolted against the Chinese control of their land. Chinese troops crushed the rebellion, killing thousands, and the Dalai Lama left Tibet to seek asylum in India, along with about 10,000 other Tibetans who followed him.

He was welcomed with open arms by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who even gave him permission to establish the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala, which has since become a global center of Tibetan culture and religion. The Dalai Lama, who has remained in India for the last 60 years, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent approach to the conflict with the Chinese government. 

The Dalai Lama receiving a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. (White House/Wikimedia Commons)

The Next Dalai Lama?

At age 85, the Dalai Lama isn't exactly the picture of health, but last year, he assured his followers that he plans to live to be 110 years old. If he succeeds, the high lamas will be on the lookout for a male infant born around 2045 to find the reincarnation of their leader. In most cases, the Dalai Lama has been located in Tibet, but the third Dalai Lama was from Mongolia, so they might be in for a bit of a trek. One thing we know for certain—because the current Dalai Lama has told us so—is that he won't be found in any country that is controlled by the People's Republic of China or otherwise isn't free, so at least that narrows it down a bit.

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.