The Dalai Lama — not just a simple Buddhist monk

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The present (14th) Dalai Lama’s given name is Tenzin Gyatso. He’s addressed by most Westerners as ‘Your Holiness,’ and by most Tibetans as ‘Kundun’ — The Presence.


The Dalai Lamas are regarded as the principal incarnation of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion and patron deity of Tibet.

Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, likes to present himself as a simple Buddhist monk. However, he‘s also the temporal leader of Tibetans in exile, and was for most of his life head of the Tibetan Government in Exile (now the democratically elected Central Tibetan Administration). The Dalai Lama is also a Nobel peace laureate and a charismatic icon of Buddhism who draws crowds wherever he goes. A seventy-something man in reasonable health, he pursues a punishing travel regime and teaches the ancient texts of Tibetan Buddhism to scholarly gatherings as well as neophyte audiences. He’s on the board of many charitable organizations, most notably the Mind & Life Institute. He’s considered by many Tibetans to be the enlightened incarnation of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, and is unofficially but effectively a good will ambassador to the world. He is reviled by the Chinese government, which accuses him of wanting to split Tibet from China, even though he never asks for more than Tibet’s ‘autonomy.’

Above and beyond all of these appelations, the Dalai Lama is an institution, one to which the man Tenzin Gyatso must at times submit. As a young man just escaped from the invading Chinese, he acknowledged that he’d been freed from a gilded cage. Indeed, the life of a Dalai Lama in Tibet was neither secure nor enviable (see History, below).

Since settling in India he has worked tirelessly to promote Tibetan Buddhism, with considerable success. In fact, despite the intrigues, schisms and scandals that are as ubiquitous in exile as they were in Tibet’s days of lofty isolation, he and his people enjoy a largely stainless media image — at least in the West. Lifelong refugees, they manage public relations with consummate skill; without a country of their own, they’ve amassed considerable wealth, building gilded monasteries, temples and stupas and clothing themselves in fine silks.


History of the Dalai Lamas

The title ‘Dalai Lama’ is not Tibetan but Mongolian, and was coined in 1578 by the Altan Khan, whose aid was enlisted by Sonam Gyatso. Sonam was the third Dalai Lama but the first to use the appelation; the title was applied retrospectively to his two previous incarnations.

By the 1570s, the office of the Dalai Lama dominated the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect which controlled Tibet. Since then, the official Gelugpa leader, the Ganden Tripa, has remained in thrall of the Dalai Lama’s office.

It’s more practical to speak of the office than the man because between the seventh and the thirteenth, only one reached his majority. The ninth died at eleven, the tenth, eleventh and twelfth at eighteen. Some were poisoned by loyal Tibetans for being Chinese-appointed impostors, others by the Chinese for being unmanageable. Meanwhile, regents managed – if they survived – and the office flourished.

Tibetans respond to the Dalai Lama with
reverence, awe and – not unusually – abasement


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