Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Who is the Dalai Lama and why is he important to so many Buddhists?

The man known the world over as the Dalai Lama is the fourteenth in a series of sacred figures believed to be reincarnations of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara as well as of the preceding Dalai Lama. The original Dalai Lama was head of the Gelug-pa order on whom a Mongol leader bestowed the title, which means “teacher of ocean-wide wisdom,” in 1578. Tenzin Gyatso is the current Dalai Lama and a monk of the Tibetan Gelug-pa order. When the thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933, officials of the order began investigations in search of his successor. They found three likely candidates, baby boys who manifested certain signs. They chose Tenzin, born in 1935, and in 1940 brought him to the Potala Palace in Lhasa to begin his monastic life. His extensive training included studies in philosophy and the arcane scriptures of the Vajrayana tradition, as well as meditative disciplines. He learned the difficult skill of Tibetan ritual chanting, with its strikingly deep pitch and haunting overtones. Outsiders often find it difficult to understand why the monks would take a baby away from his family to sequester him for a life of spiritual discipline. Tibetans see it all as part of a much larger picture. A family could scarcely hope for a greater blessing. But the Dalai Lama’s traditional role in Tibetan history has not always found him enjoying the serenity of monastic meditation. Dalai Lamas have traditionally been important political leaders in Tibet. When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, they put increasing pressure on the Dalai Lama. He went into exile in India in 1959. From his headquarters in Dharmsala, His Holiness has continued to represent the cause of the oppressed Tibetan people. He has written several books that explain beautifully the genuinely open and universally tolerant teaching he espouses.


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