Who is the Dalai Lama?

In Tibetan Buddhism, a ‘Lama’ is a spiritual teacher and ritual expert who fulfils many types of roles for his community, and ‘Dalai’ generally refers to big or mighty. So, the Dalai Lama is a title conferred to the spiritual and political leaders of the Tibetan People. The Dalai Lamas are believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of compassion and the patron saints of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are realized beings, inspired by the wish to attain complete enlightenment, and who have vowed to be reborn in the world to help all living beings. Throughout much of history, the Dalai Lamas were just as much political leaders as they were spiritual leaders. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama reincarnates as a child when he dies, and thereby establish a line of successors based on who they identify as the reincarnations of the previous Dalai Lama.

The Current Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th and current Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism. He was born on July 6, 1935, to a farming family located in Taktser, Amdo, north-eastern Tibet. He was recognized as the incarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1937, and was thereafter enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama in 1940. After China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, His Holiness was vested with full political powers as head of state in Tibet. Using his political power, In 1954 he went to Beijing and met with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders to negotiate over China’s invasion of Tibet. Eventually, in 1959, following the brutal suppression of the Tibetan national uprising in Lhasa by Chinese troops, His Holiness was forced to escape into exile for fear of being kidnapped by the Chinese government. Since then, he has been living in Dharamshala, northern India.

The Dalai Lama set up a government-in-exile in Dharamshala, in the Himalayan Mountains. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent struggle for the liberation of Tibet. He has consistently advocated policies of non-violence, even in the face of extreme aggression. He also became the first Nobel Laureate to be recognized for his concern for global environmental problems. Despite his past as a political leader, in 2011 he gave up his political powers and focused more on religious and ethical teaching.

The succession of the current Dalai Lama is under threat, due to his history of anti-Chinese resistance in Tibet, and the Chinese government has long worked to undermine the Dalai Lama’s authority. They have banned displaying a photo of the Dalai Lama and have launched re-education campaigns that force Tibetan dissenters to disown the Dalai Lama and embrace Chinese authority. In the first decade of the 21st century, the Dalai Lama suggested that his successor could be appointed by him rather than selected as his reincarnation, but this idea was rejected by the Chinese government. The Chinese government declared that the tradition of appointing a new Dalai Lama had to be upheld, as the title of ‘Dalai Lama’ itself is granted by China’s central government. Since 2011, after he stepped down as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, he has written a number of books on Tibetan Buddhism and an autobiography.

The Future

The current Dalai Lama has gone on record to say that he may be the last Dalai Lama. He stated that the Dalai Lama institution will cease one day, and that there is no guarantee that some incompetent Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. So, it is much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease to exist at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama.

Even if the institution continues, the Dalai Lama has stated that no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China. In other worlds, the Dalai Lama cannot be chosen as political puppet by anyone, especially China who would benefit from having a candidate that is submissive to their interest. Therefore, on 24 September 2011, clear guidelines for the recognition of the next Dalai Lama were published, leaving no room for doubt or deception.

As of today, the Dalai Lama has still not made his intentions clear, but has said that he will consult leading Lamas of Tibet’s Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people with an interest in Tibetan Buddhism to assess whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue after him. However, the Chinese government probably has their own plans too. This is an example of politics and religion being intertwined. As a historically political figure, the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is not just a matter of theology and doctrine, it also has major implications on the future of the Tibetan people and the future of religious freedom rights in China.