The Story of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet

By | July 17, 2019

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Buddhist monks gather to attend the Dalai Lama's visit to the historical Mahabodhi Temple. Source: (DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)

While many have heard of the Dalai Lama, few realize that he is the fourteenth in a string of spiritual and political leaders that have led the Tibetan people for six centuries. The story of the Dalai Lamas’ history is surprising since it is so fraught with politics and conflict.

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Monks of the Gelug sect. Source: (Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Who is the Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama is the chief monk of the “Yellow,” or Gelug, school of Tibetan Buddhism, which became the most dominant form of Buddhism in that country; so named because of the color of their hats.

Broken down, the Mongolic word Dalai (Gyatso in Tibetan) means “big” or “ocean” and Lama means “master” or “guru” from the Tibetan word bla-ma. A more apt description could be “universal sage.”

Even in its beginning, the office of Dalai Lama was political. Altan Khan, chief of Tumed Mongol tribe and backer of the Yellow School conferred the title of Dalai Lama in 1578 to Gyalwa Sonam Gyatso. He was the fifth head of the large Drepung monastery, and the title was posthumously given to his predecessors, but also as heads of the Gelug tradition. Thus even though Sonam Gyatso was the first person to hold the Dalai Lama title, he is considered to be the third Dalai Lama.