Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

Adapted from Wikipedia and other sources, 2006, 2009, 2016

Pope John Paul II with the Dalai Lama
Pope John Paul II with the Dalai Lama

An assessment of the Dalai Lama: his life, passions and influence

Tenzin Gyatso embodies Peace, Love and Kindness

Nobel Peace Prize Winner, popularizer of Buddhism and (former) head of the Tibetan Government in Exile. The Dalai Lama's life is a unique convergence of religion, politics and an admirable stand on peace in the face of aggression.

Raised to become a leader he took on that role at a younger age than expected, when the Chinese government invaded his country. He fled  in 1959 and has since been the leader of the Tibetan people in exile.

In India he established the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government in exile) and helps preserve Tibetan culture and education among the thousands of refugees who accompanied him.


Tenzin Gyatso (b. July 6, 1935) is the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, and as such, is often referred to in Western media simply as the Dalai Lama, without any qualifiers. The fifth of sixteen children of a farming family in the Tibetan province of Amdo, he was proclaimed the tulku (rebirth) of the thirteenth Dalai Lama at the age of five. 

Early life

Life in Tibet by the Dalai Lama, early responsibility

The current Dalai Lama was born in 1935, in a farmers family in Northern Tibet. As is the Tibetan custum, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the previous (13th) Dalai Lama through a complex ceremony. Born as Lhamo Thondup, he was renamed Tenzin Gyatzo when he was accepted as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. He was trained to be the future leader of Tibet from the early age of 6.

Because the Chinese became such a powerful threat to Tibet, the Tenzin took responsibility of the government of his country at the early age of 15. When the Chinese actually invaded the country, the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India in 1959.

Gyatso was born to a Mongour farming family as Lhamo Thondup (Wylie: Lha-mo Don-'grub; also spelled "Dhondrub") on 6 July 1935 in far north eastern Amdo province in the village of Taktser, a small and poor settlement that stood on a hill overlooking a broad valley. His parents, Choekyong and Diki Tsering, were moderately wealthy farmers among about twenty other families, some ethnic Han Chinese, making a precarious living off the land raising barley, buckwheat, and potatoes. He was the fifth surviving child of nine children, the eldest child being his sister Tsering Dolma, who was sixteen years older than he. His eldest brother, Thupten Jigme Norbu, has been recognised as the rebirth of the high lama, Takser Rinpoche. His other elder brothers are Gyalo Thondup and Lobsang Samten.

When the Dalai Lama was about two years old, a search party was sent out to find the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Among other omens, the head on the embalmed body of thirteenth Dalai Lama (originally facing south) had mysteriously turned to face the north east, indicating the direction in which the next Dalai Lama would be found. Shortly afterwards, the Regent Reting Rinpoche had a vision indicating Amdo (as the place to search) and a one-story house with distinctive guttering and tiling. After extensive searching, they found that Thondup's house resembled that in Reting's vision. They thus presented Thondup with various relics and toys some had belonged to the previous Dalai Lama while others hadn't. Thondup correctly identified all items owned by the previous Dalai Lama, stating "It's mine! It's mine!" 

Thondup was recognised as the rebirth of the Dalai Lama and renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso ("Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom"). Tibetan Buddhists normally refer to him as Yeshe Norbu ("Wish-Fulfilling Gem") or just Kundun ("the Presence"). In the West he is often called "His Holiness the Dalai Lama", which is the style that the Dalai Lama himself uses on his website. Tenzin Gyatso began his monastic education at the age of six. At age twenty-five, he sat for his final examination in Lhasa's Jokhang Temple during the annual Monlam (prayer) Festival in 1959. He passed with honours and was awarded the Lharampa degree, the highest-level geshe degree (roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy).

Life as Dalai Lama

As well as being the most influential spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama traditionally claims to be Tibet's Head of State and most important political ruler. At the age of fifteen, faced with possible conflict with the Chinese, Tenzin Gyatso was on November 17, 1950, enthroned as the temporal leader of Tibet; however, he was only able to govern for a brief time. In October of that year, a People's Republic of China army entered the territory controlled by the Tibetan administration, easily breaking through the Tibetan defenders.

The People's Liberation Army stopped short of the old border between Tibet and Xikang and demanded negotiations. The Dalai Lama sent a delegation to Beijing, and, although he has rejected the subsequent Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, he did try to work with the Chinese government until 1959. During that year, there was a major uprising among the Tibetan population. In the tense political environment that ensued, the Dalai Lama and his entourage began to suspect that China was planning to kill him.Consequently, he fled to Dharamsala, India,on March 17 of that year, entering India on March 31 during the Tibetan uprising.

Tenzin Gyatso is the first Dalai Lama to travel to the West, where he has helped to spread Tibetan Buddhism by writing books and having DVD's published. The Books by the Dalai Lama fall into two classes: popular literature introducing the values and spiritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism for a general audience and specialist Buddhist material that expresses Tenzin Gyatso's understanding of the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Exile in India

The Dalai Lama met with the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to urge India to pressure China into giving Tibet an autonomous government when relations with China were not proving successful. Nehru did not want to increase tensions between China and India, so he encouraged the Dalai Lama to work on the Seventeen Point Agreement Tibet had with China. Eventually in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and set up the government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamsala, India, which is often referred to as "Little Lhasa".

After the founding of the exiled government, he rehabilitated theTibetan refugees who followed him into exile in agricultural settlements. He created a Tibetan educational system in order to teach the Tibetan children their language, history, religion, and culture. The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts was established in 1959, and the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies became the primary university for Tibetans in India. He supported the refounding of 200 monasteries and nunneries in order to preserve Tibetan Buddhist teachings and the Tibetan way of life.

The Dalai Lama appealed to the United Nations on the question of Tibet, which resulted in three resolutions adopted by the General Assembly in 1959, 1961, and 1965. These resolutions required China to respect the human rights of Tibetans and their desire for self-determination.

In 1963, he promulgated a supposed democratic constitution which is based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A Tibetan parliament-in-exile is elected by the Tibetan refugees scattered all over the world, and the Tibetan Government in Exile is likewise elected by the Tibetan parliament.

At the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1987 in Washington, D.C., he proposed a Five-Point Peace Plan regarding the future status of Tibet. The plan called for Tibet to become a "zone of peace"and for the end of movement by ethnic Chinese into Tibet. It also called for respect for fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms and the end of China's use of Tibet for nuclear weapons production, testing, and disposal. Finally, it urged "earnest negotiations" on the future of Tibet.

He proposed a similar plan at Strasbourg, France,on 15 June 1988. He expanded on the Five-Point Peace Plan and proposed the creation of a self-governing democratic Tibet, "in association with the People's Republic of China". This plan was rejected by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in 1991.

In October 1991, he expressed his wish to return to Tibet to try toform a mutual assessment on the situation with the Chinese local government. At this time he feared that a violent uprising would take place and wished to avoid it.

On July 5, 2005, the Dalai Lama called on the G8 leaders meeting the next day to ease the plight of the millions starving throughout the world, during a meeting with the rock singer Annie Lennox. He said the meeting had "positive potential".

The Dalai Lama celebrated his seventieth birthday on July 6, 2005. About 10,000 Tibetan refugees, monks and foreign tourists gathered outside his home. Patriarch Alexius II of the Russian Orthodox Churchsaid, "I confess that the Russian Orthodox Church highly appreciates the good relations it has with the followers of Buddhism and hopes for their further development". President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan attended an evening celebrating the Dalai Lama's birthday that was entitled "Traveling with Love and Wisdom for 70 Years" at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. The President invited him to return to Taiwan for a third trip in 2005. His previous trips were in 2001, and 1997.

The Dalai Lama wishes to return to Tibet only if the People's Republic of China sets no preconditions for the return, which they have refused to do. On July 5, 2005, China refused his request to return to Tibet on his birthday, despite worries that if he dies in exile it may spark an uprising against the local government in Tibet and neighboring areas.

Social and political stances

The present Dalai Lamais held in almost universal high regard among Tibetan Buddhists. However, his views regarding controversial social issues and other matters are not necessarily shared by all Tibetan Buddhist lamas, and do not represent a binding dogma on all Tibetan Buddhist practitioners.

Charity Trust founded by His Holiness the Dalai Lama - The Dalai Lama Trust

Dalai Lama Trust

A teacher and author with global success like the current Dalai Lama has, is bound to have money to spare. However, he is a monk, so he is not supposed to have money at all. While the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has found ways around this problem, (which is inherent in our money-system, so I really don't blame anybody for whatever solution they find) His Holiness has solved it in a way that confirms my respect for him.

I found out about the Dalai Lama Trust when it turned out that the 100,000 euros that the visit to the Netherlands earned (the lectures were sold out) were donated to the Dalai Lama Trust in 2014.

Like you would expect, the main cause this money is spent on is the Tibetan community in exile. There are scholarships for deserving students as well as grants for individual causes. The list includes donations to the Red Cross for the crisis in Haiti as well as money for a fund to support the dialog between science and Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan independence movement

Having little choice but to work with the 1951 Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet with China and while ostensibly working with the Chinese, the Dalai Lama is believed to have supported the creation of the Tibetan resistance movement. His brothers moved to Kalimpongin India and, with the help of the Indian and American governments, organised propaganda against China and the smuggling of weapons into Tibet. Armed struggles broke out in Amdo and Kham in 1956 and later spread to Central Tibet. However, the movement was a failure and forced to retreat to Nepal and/or go underground. Following normalisation of relations between the United States and China, American support was cut off in the early 1970s. The Dalai Lama then began to change his policy towards a peaceful solution in which he would be reinstated in a democratic autonomous Tibet.

Contrary to the belief that Tibetan non-violence has not garnered the Tibetans much attention (as opposed to more violent insurrections), it attracts far greater advocacy, money and popularity than many other similar causes.

This is largely due to the Dalai Lama, who is one of the most beloved figures in the West. Despite China's blockage of UN refugee funds, a web of private charities has ensured that Tibetans-in-exile receive (per capita) one of the highest allotments of aid money, raising their standard of living higher than the native Indians around them.

Tibetan Politics and the Dalai Lama

An advocate for democracy!

One of the least known qualities of the present Dalai Lama, one he shares with his predecessor the 13th dalai Lama (Thubten Gyatso), is his democratic stand. Although the Tibetan people in general want the Dalai Lama to be a theocratic ruler, the Dalai Lama has set up a complete government in exile that is democratic. He started this process almost on the day he fled Tibet for India. He even inserted a clause that meant that he himself could be removed from the government if two thirds of the National Assembly agreed on it. His more conservative ministers opposed this clause, but the Dalai Lama insisted.

Life in India & peace efforts

The Dalai Lama on peace in Tibet

In 1959 the Dalai Lama and his government set up the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala, in Northern India. Many Tibetan refugees have since joined him there.

The Dalai Lama has since been most famous for his efforts towards peace in Tibet. He has made it clear he would settle for self-government, in place of total independence. Given the amount of Chinese immigrants in Tibet, this is obviously the more realistic viewpoint. On the other hand - China has not been willing to deal honestly with the representatives of the Tibetan people, so peace is going to be hard to achieve.

The Dalai Lama:

"World peace must
develop from
inner peace. Peace
is not the absence
of violence. Peace
is the manifestation
of human compassion"

Global social stances

The Dalai Lama endorsed the founding of the Dalai Lama Foundation inorder to promote peace and ethics worldwide. The Dalai Lama is not believed to be directly involved with this foundation. He has also stated his belief that modern scientific findings take precedence over ancient religions. 

He is reported to have said regarding homosexuality,"If the two people have taken no vows [of chastity], and neither is harmed, why should it not be acceptable?" He has repeatedly affirmed his belief that gays and lesbians should be accepted by society, although he has also stated that for Buddhists homosexual behaviour is considered sexual misconduct, meaning that homosexual sex is acceptable for society in general but not in Buddhism or for Buddhists. As he explains in his book Beyond Dogma:"homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact." Therefore, it may be surmised that in his view, homosexual acts are inappropriate, just as masturbation and oral and anal sex by heterosexuals is inappropriate. He has also acknowledged that while he is not willing to disavow the scripture in question, its basis is unknown to him, and he has expressed a"willingness to consider the possibility that some of the teachings may be specific to a particular cultural and historic context."

The Dalai Lama is generally opposed to abortion , although he has taken a nuanced position, as he explained to the New York Times:

Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances. If the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.

The Dalai Lama, New York Times, 28 November 1993


In October 1998, The Dalai Lama's administration acknowledged that it received $1.7 million a year in the 1960's from the U.S. Government through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and also trained a resistance movement in Colorado (USA). When asked by CIA officer John Kenneth Knaus in 1995 whether the organization did a good or bad thing in providing its support, the Dalai Lama replied that though it helped the morale of those resisting the Chinese, "thousands of lives were lost in the resistance" and further, that "the U.S. Government had involved itself in his country's affairs not to help Tibet but only as a Cold War tactic to challenge the Chinese."

British journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote a scathing criticism of the Dalai Lama in 1998, which questioned his alleged support for India's nuclear weapons testing, the "selling of indulgences" to Hollywood celebrities like Richard Gere, and his statements condoning prostitution. He accepted a large donation from Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cultin Japan, who was responsible for the release of sarin nerve gas on a Tokyosubway, though this occurred long before Asahara instigated the attack.

The Dalai Lama is sometimes criticized for modifying his message to be as palatable as possible to his audience, sometimes changing viewpoints according to the situation. He is also sometimes reproached for taking one side of an issue at one time and changing it later on, usually in response to criticism. This tendency has led opposing sides of an issue to believe that the Dalai Lama supports their cause, e.g. homosexuality, abortion, the Iraq war, Kashmiri independence, nuclear weapons, etc.

There has also been criticism that feudal Tibet was not as benevolent as the Dalai Lama had portrayed.  Critics have suggested that in addition to serfdom there were conditions that effectively constituted slavery. Also the penal code included forms of corporal punishment, in addition to capital punishment. In response, the Dalai Lama has since condemned some of ancient Tibet's feudal practices and has added that he was willing to institute reforms before the Chinese invaded.

Relations with China

The Dalai Lama speaks English as a second language and has been successful in gaining Western sympathy for Tibetan self-determination, including vocal support from numerous Hollywood celebrities, most notably the actor Richard Gere, as well as lawmakers from several major countries.

Tenzin Gyatso has on occasion been denounced by the Chinese government as a supporter of Tibetan independence. Over time, he has developed a public position stating that he is not in favour of Tibetan independence and would not object to a status in which Tibet has internal autonomy while the PRC manages some aspects of Tibet's defense and foreign affairs. In his 'Middle Way Approach', he laid down that the Chinese government can take care of foreign affairs and defense , and that Tibet should be managed by an elected body.

There have been intermittent and quiet negotiations between the Tibetan government inexile and the government of the People's Republic of China. These days, the Dalai Lama wishes to discuss the issue of the status of Tibet within China, while the Chinese government has insisted that negotiations be limited to the conditions of the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet.

Concerns about the next reincarnation

Tibetan Buddhist politics

Succession is a difficult thing when your successor only gets born after your death. This is why the Tibetan lama's have had regents who raised them and took on the main responsibilities of the Dalai Lama (and the Panchen Lama).

The 14th Dalai Lama is in his 70's now and has had health problems recently. This makes his succession an active concern. He has told his people that he wants to appoint a regent to take over his responsibilities when he can no longer do so (for health reasons or because he has died).

Speculation about who that regent will be has started. The candidate most named is the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa.

In Sept 2011 the Dalai Lama issued a statement that leaves it open whether there will be an official reincarnation of the Dalai Lama at all. He notes that the Chinese political machinations are doing tremendous damage to the system already. He gives particular instructions about who are to be trusted to find his new rebirth and will decide on the matter when he's about 90 (!)

Finding the next Dalai Lama

Chinese religious intolerance

As most people know, Tibetan Lama's have a regulated reincarnation. The next Dalai Lama will be found through a complicated ceremony where the prophecies of Tenzin Gyatzo, the current Dalai Lama, will be taken into account. Each candidate will be submitted to tests which show that they have memories of their previous life.

A political complication has come up in 2007 where the Chinese government insists that any Tibetan Lama that is recognized as a reincarnation of a previous one, will have to be approved by the Chinese government. Since the Dalai Lama doesn't recognize the rights of the Chinese government to control his reincarnation, he has announced that he will not be reborn in Tibet while it's under Chinese domination.

The most famous example of the religious control of the Chinese government over reincarnating lama's is in the Panchen Lama - the most powerful lama in Tibetan Buddhism, after the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government has recognized one boy as the Panchen Lama, while the Dalai Lama recognizes another - a boy whose whereabouts aren't known.

Tenzin Gyatzo (the Dalai Lama) is first and foremost a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Yet it is his consistently peaceful stand in the confrontation with China which has impressed many people. He was awarded the Nobel Peace price for this work.

Based on his fame as a fighter for peace, he has also become the face of Buddhism abroad. Many people, when thinking of Buddhism, will think of the Dalai Lama first. This has made Buddhism one of the most popular religions in the world. With it's lack of dogmatism and peaceful stand on all kinds of subjects - it's the ideal religious choice for many westerners disappointed in Christianity.

The books written by the Dalai Lama have mostly (though not exclusively) been focused on right living. The basic aspects of the Buddhist path have been stressed, because those aspects are the ones more people can understand and are eager to learn.

This does not mean the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist light weight. With full training in the Gelugpa School he is fully capable of explaining the more abstruse aspects of (Tibetan) Buddhist philosophy and thought.

Voting for or against reincarnation!

Dalai Lama gives his followers a choice: should he reincarnate?

In response to recent actions of the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama is putting it to the vote: should he reincarnate or not?

If his followers say that he should reincarnate, he is considering appointing his successor while he is still alive. This is surprising - as it puts into question the whole process of reincarnation.

The politics of this move are obvious though: The Chinese government has made it clear that they claim the right to approve or disapprove any incarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist lama. The Dalai Lama clearly doesn't want them to control who becomes the next leader of the Tibetan people.

The Dalai Lama also made it clear that his next incarnation could be a woman.

My sources for this bit are both gone from the internet.

The 14th Dalai Lama and modernity

The Dalai Lama and Science

Tenzin Gyatzo has always been interested in science and technology. His interest in Neurology has been influential. He has worked with scientists of the brain on meditation and it's effects on the brain. As it's put on his own website:

The Dalai Lama, who had watched a brain operation during a visit to an American medical school over a decade earlier, asked the surgeons a startling question: Can the mind shape brain matter?

Over the years, he said, neuroscientists had explained to him that mental experiences reflect chemical and electrical changes in the brain. When electrical impulses zip through our visual cortex, for instance, we see; when neurochemicals course through the limbic system we feel.

But something had always bothered him about this explanation, the Dalai Lama said. Could it work the other way around? That is, in addition to the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to cause physical changes in the very matter that created it. If so, then pure thought would change the brain's activity, its circuits or even its structure. Source

By now it's pretty well established that everything we do, especially learning efforts, changes the brain itself. The brain is capable of learning and changing far into adult life. The effects of meditation on the brain are also startling, though not yet proved beyond a shadow of the scientists doubts.

This type of evidence also makes it harder to believe that consciousness is a mere byproduct of the brain, as some neurologists claim. If consciousness impacts the brain-wiring, the logical conclusion is that it is in fact in some ways independent of the brain.

The Dalai Lama on homosexuality

Religious Debate in Buddhism

With all the focus in Western society on sex, it's not surprising that the Dalai Lama has been asked what his opinion is about people being gay. He was a bit stumped at first, but decided that if both partners consented, there wasn't a problem.

That said, it's clear that within the Buddhist monasteries, sex isn't allowed - that includes gay sex. As a monk, the Dalai Lama himself is supposed to be celibate - and there hasn't been a hint that he isn't.

That's not because there is anything wrong with sexuality or homosexuality. It's because the goal of Buddhism is to transcend desire and sorrow in order to become truly awake or enlightened and reach Nirvana.

Awards given to the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama has received numerous awards over his spiritual and political career. On June 22, 2006 he became one of only three people ever to be recognized with an Honorary Citizenship by the House of Commons of Canada. On May 28, 2005, he received the Christmas Humphreys Award from the Buddhist Society in theUnited Kingdom. Perhaps his most notable award was the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, 1989. 

Nobel Peace Prize

In 1989 Tenzin Gyatso was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the chairman of the Nobel committee saying that this was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi." He was officially awarded it because the committee wished to recognize his efforts in the struggle of the liberation of Tibet and the efforts for a peaceful resolution instead of using violence . He criticised China in his acceptance speech for the use of force against the student protesters during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. He stated however that their effort was not in vain. His speech focused on the importance of the continued use of non-violence and his desire to maintain a dialogue with China to try to resolve the situation.