The title Dalai Lama refers to an individual who serves as the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan people. In English, Dalai Lama roughly translates to "Ocean of Wisdom." Throughout history, each Dalai Lama has been recognized as the reincarnation of those before him. This belief is deeply rooted in the Tibetan Buddhist faith that an individual's spirit remains, even after the physical body dies. The 13th Dalai Lama of Tibet died in 1933. At that time, the Tibetan people began the search to identify his reincarnation, their future leader. In 1937, Lhamo Thondup, later named Tenzin Gyatso, was identified as the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Lhamo Thondup (translated to "Wish-Fulfilling Goddess") was born on July 6, 1935, to a poor family in the town of Taktser, situated in the Amdo region of northeastern Tibet. Just 2 years later, in 1937, the high lama Kyestang Rinpoche (a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual master) had a vision at Lhamo Lhatso, an oracle lake in southern Tibet, which directed a group of Tibetan monks to the home of Lhamo Thondup.
The monks arrived in full disguise, yet when Lhamo Dundrup saw one dressed as a servant, he immediately called him "Sera Lama." In fact, the man was a lama (teacher) from the Sera monastery in Tibet. Later, when the young boy was presented with various objects, he selected those that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, stating, "It's mine." The series of difficult tests that followed confirmed that Lhamo Thondup was the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.
The young boy was taken on a 3-month journey to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. In 1940 the 14th Dalai Lama was installed on the Lion Throne at the Potala Palace, a 1,000-chamber winter home of the Dalai Lama, located on a mountainside overlooking the city of Lhasa. A regent governed the country while the 5-year-old Dalai Lama completed his rigorous religious education. In 1950, 84,000 troops of the newly created People's Republic of China launched a major invasion of Tibet. The small Tibetan army was unable to handle such an invasion. As a result, the Dalai Lama was forced to finish his studies and assume full political rule of Tibet. The teenaged ruler struggled with his responsibilities, but he firmly grounded all his decisions and actions in Buddhist philosophy. Finally, on March 31, 1959, the Dalai Lama recognized he was no longer safe and that he could better serve the Tibetan people from outside Tibet. He fled the country and more than 80,000 Tibetans followed him into exile in India.
More than 1.2 million Tibetans (one fifth the population) have died as a result of China's occupation of Tibet. Tens of thousands have been arrested and tortured for their political views. Over 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed, ancient texts burned, and Buddhist followers prevented from becoming monks and nuns. Despite this abuse against his people, country, and religion, the Dalai Lama refuses to feel hatred toward China or its leaders. Continuing to adhere to a code of Buddhist morals, he recognizes that all people have endured suffering at some point in time. He maintains the Chinese, including their leaders, should be treated with compassion.
Now residing in Dharamsala, India, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is one of the most recognized, well-traveled, and beloved leaders. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for numerous nonviolent teachings and peaceful efforts on behalf of Tibet. This honor led to tremendous international notoriety, and the Dalai Lama is now widely considered to be one of the greatest living spiritual exemplars. The Dalai Lama has actively dedicated his life in exile to preserving all aspects of Tibetan culture. For example, he has established more than 50 agricultural settlements for exiled Tibetans and founded hundreds of Tibetan schools and monasteries in India, Nepal, and throughout the world. He has written more than three-dozen books, several of which are international best-sellers. Perhaps most notable are his continuous efforts to peacefully campaign for Tibetan independence and human rights in Tibet.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the first Dalai Lama to live and control a government in exile. Questions remain over the identification of his reincarnation, as China continues to occupy Tibet. The Chinese government may either forbid future recognition of Dalai Lamas or control their selection. The 14th Dalai Lama has stated that the Tibetan people will ultimately decide what the future will hold. He explains that although recognition of Dalai Lamas may eventually cease, Tibetan Buddhist culture will remain as long as the Tibetan people exist.