The Story of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet

CULTURE | July 29, 2019

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.

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.

Four-armed Tibetan form of Chenrezi. Source: (Wikipedia)

Spiritual and Political

It is believed that the Dalai Lamas are the incarnations of previous Dalai Lamas. In fact, the Dalai Lama is traditionally thought to be the incarnation of Chenrezi (or Avalokiteśvara or Padmapani), the Bodhisattva of compassion. A Bodhisattva is a person who has reached enlightenment, but does not go to Nirvana, but rather decides to return to the world to help others.

At the same time, the position of the Dalai Lama was a political one. The fourth Dalai Lama, for example, was a Mongolian descendant of Altan Khan, which shows the influence of the Mongols at that time upon Tibet. It was through such ties that Tibetan Buddhism came to heavily influence the Mongolian peoples. The position of the Dalai Lama developed into something unique. He represented divine authority and by it, Tibet became a sort of theocracy, an amalgam of the political and the religious.

Potala Palace. Source: (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The Great Fifth

The most notable of these early Dalai Lamas was the fifth. Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682), was a master spiritualist but also a politician. He managed to unify or at least subdue the various religious rivalries in the country. This was cemented after a Mongol intervention which recognized the Dalai Lama as the highest authority in Tibet.

He became known as the Great Fifth and built the Potala Palace, now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage site. A scholar and writer, the Great Fifth wrote more works than all the other Dalai Lamas combined. The Dalai Lama had an enormous influence not only in Tibet but on the neighboring Mongol tribes as well which recognized him as their spiritual leader. Tibet saw a flowering of culture during his time. 

Tibetan Buddhist Monks of the Gelug or Yellow Hat school, walk in procession. Source: (Gettyimages.com)

A Game of Lamas?

The relatively new Qing Dynasty, considered Tibet to be a part of its empire and while it did not have direct control of the country, sought to expand its influence there. In fact, when the Great Fifth died in 1682, it was kept secret for fifteen years. This allowed his regent time to select a new Dalai Lama. But this sixth Dalai Lama was discredited and a new Dalai Lama was installed under the auspices of the Qing Dynasty. In fact, over the course of the office’s history, four Dalai Lamas have died under suspicious circumstances. Most fingers point at Tibetan elites. When a Dalai Lama died a so-called “regent” had a vested power in maintaining control. Since Dalai Lamas are installed as children, it is logical that It is much easier to control an infant Dalai Lama than an adult Dalai Lama.

China also was more than interested in having a say in who the Dalai Lama was because they realized the influence he had in that region. Subsequent Dalai Lama’s saw greater interventions by the Chinese.  

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama as a boy. Source: (Wikipedia)

Selecting a Dalai Lama

Dalai Lamas are said to be found not selected. According to tradition, a Dalai Lama does not just die but goes through a process called phowa in which the dying Dalai Lama transfers his consciousness to a child. Then High Lamas and the Tibetan government are to locate the successor. This is done through meditation by a sacred lake called Lhamo Latso where they await a sign of how to search. They also might, for example, look at the way smoke drifts when a Dalai Lama is cremated and examine other signs to find potential candidates. Then, after finding a candidate, they may interview children and giving them a selection of objects, some of which were owned by the deceased Dalai Lama. If the child selects the prior Dalai Lama’s belongings, it is seen as a sign. The whole process can take years. The current Dalai Lama (the 14th) -- took four years to locate. The process can be fraught with conflict and confusion.

In 1792, in order to reduce Tibetan influence in the choice of the Dalai Lama, China introduced the Golden Urn. The names of candidates were written on slips of paper and deposited into an urn. Then after following a ritual proscribed by the 8th Dalai Lama, a name would be pulled from the urn and that child would be declared the incarnation of the Dalai Lama. This process was often manipulated, especially by the Qing Dynasty to install appropriate candidates into the position.

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama in 2012. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Current Dalai Lama

Chinese influence in Tibet waned throughout the 1800s as the Qing Dynasty declined. After the collapse of the dynasty in 1911, Tibet enjoyed unofficial independence. It was during this period that the current and fourteenth Dalai Lama was enthroned in the city of Lhasa at age four in 1940. During this time period, the Communist Party took power in China in 1949 and the next year invaded Tibet, asserting its traditional power.

After a failed Tibetan uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India as a political refugee and actively worked for Tibetan freedom. In 1989 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent philosophies and actions. Still, there seems to be no free Tibet on the horizon. Recently, China has asserted its traditional right in the selection of the next Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama has responded that he will be reincarnated in a free country outside the influence of China. He also said he may even be reincarnated as a woman although he received much criticism for stating that she should be “attractive.”

It may be that in the near future, we may see two Dalai Lamas. But based on the history of this office, it would not be that unusual.

Tags: dalai lamas | tibet

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