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Who Is the Dalai Lama?

The Long Exile of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso


Dalai Lama Thangka

Tibetans gather to pray on March 10, 2009 in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Sebastian Meyer/Getty Images

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has one of the most famous faces in the world, so familiar he seems to be everyone's genial great-uncle. Yet journalists call him a "god" (he says he isn't) or a "living Buddha" (he says he isn't that, either). In some circles he is respected for his scholarship. In other circles he is ridiculed as a dim bulb. He is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who inspires millions, yet he is also demonized as a tyrant who incites violence.

Just who is the Dalai Lama, anyway?

In his book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters (Atria Books, 2008), scholar and former Tibetan monk Robert Thurman devotes 32 pages to answering the question, "Who is the Dalai Lama?" Thurman explains that the role of Dalai Lama embodies many layers that can be understood psychologically, physically, mythologically, historically, culturally, doctrinally and spiritually. In short, it is not a simple question to answer.

In brief, the Dalai Lama is the highest-ranking lama (spiritual master) of Tibetan Buddhism. Since the 17th century, the Dalai Lama has been the political and spiritual leader of Tibet. He also is considered an emanation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, an iconic figure who represents boundless compassion. Avalokiteshvara, Robert Thurman writes, turns up time and time again in Tibet's creation and history myths as a father and savior of the Tibetan people.

Each Dalai Lama is recognized as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. This does not mean, however, that a Dalai Lama soul has transmigrated from one body to another through the centuries. Buddhists, including Tibetan Buddhists, understand that an individual has no intrinsic self, or soul, to transmigrate. It's a bit closer to a Buddhist understanding to say that the great compassion and dedicated vows of each Dalai Lama causes the next one to be born. The new Dalai Lama is not the same person as the previous one, but neither is he a different person.

For more on the role of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, see "What's a 'God-King'?"

Tenzin Gyatso

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th. He was born in 1935, two years after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. When he was three years old, signs and visions led senior monks to find the little boy, living with his farming family in northeastern Tibet, and declare him to be the 14th Dalai Lama. He began his monastic training at the age of six. He was called upon to assume the full responsibilities of the Dalai Lama in 1950, when he was only 15, after the Chinese had invaded Tibet.

The Exile Begins

For nine years, the young Dalai Lama tried to prevent a total Chinese takeover of Tibet, negotiating with the Chinese and urging Tibetans to avoid violent retaliation against Chinese troops. His tenuous position unraveled quickly in March 1959.

The Chinese military commander in Lhasa, General Chiang Chin-wu, invited the Dalai Lama to view some entertainment in the Chinese military barracks. But there was a condition -- His Holiness could bring no soldiers or armed bodyguards with him. Fearing an assassination, on March 10, 1959, an estimated 300,000 Tibetans formed a human shield around the Dalai Lama's summer residence, Norbulingka Palace. By March 12 Tibetans also were barricading the streets of Lhasa. Chinese and Tibetan troops squared off, preparing to do battle. By March 15, the Chinese had positioned artillery in range of Norbulingka, and His Holiness agreed to evacuate the palace.

Two days later, artillery shells struck the palace. Heeding the advice of the Nechung Oracle, His Holiness the Dalai Lama began his journey into exile. Dressed as a common soldier and accompanied by a few ministers, the Dalai Lama left Lhasa and began a three-week trek toward India and freedom.

See also "The Tibetan Uprising of 1959" by Kallie Szczepanski, the About.com Guide to Asian History.

Challenges of Exile

The Tibetan people for centuries had lived in relative isolation from the rest of the world, developing a unique culture and distinctive schools of Buddhism. Suddenly the isolation was ruptured, and exiled Tibetans, Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism tumbled out and quickly scattered around the world.

His Holiness, still in his 20s when his exile began, faced several crises at once.

As the deposed Tibetan head of state, it was his responsibility to speak for the people of Tibet and do what he could to lessen their oppression. He also had to consider the welfare of the tens of thousands of Tibetans who followed him into exile, often with nothing but what they wore.

Reports came from Tibet that Tibetan culture was being stifled. Over the next several years millions of ethnic Chinese would immigrate to Tibet, making the Tibetans an ethnic minority in their own country. Tibetan language, culture and identity were marginalized.

Tibetan Buddhism also was exiled; high lamas of the four major schools left Tibet, also, and established new monasteries in Nepal and India. Before long Tibetan monasteries, schools and dharma centers spread into Europe and the Americas as well. Tibetan Buddhism for centuries had been geographically confined and functioned with a hierarchy that had developed over centuries. Could it maintain its integrity after being dispersed so quickly?

Dealing With China

Early in his exile, His Holiness appealed to the United Nations for help for Tibet. The General Assembly adopted three resolutions, in 1959, 1961, and 1965, that called on China to respect the human rights of Tibetans. These were no solution.

His Holiness has made countless attempts to gain some autonomy for Tibet while avoiding all-out warfare with China. He has tried to steer a middle way in which Tibet would remain a territory of China but with a status similar to that of Hong Kong -- largely self-governing, with its own legal and political systems. More recently he has said he is willing to allow Tibet to have a Communist government, but he still calls for "meaningful" autonomy. China simply demonizes him and will not negotiate in good faith.

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