Dalai Lama

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Tenzin Gyatso. We've yet to see his expert flying abilities.[1]
Siddhartha Gautama's
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If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.
—Tenzin Gyatso[2]

The Dalai Lama is the head of one branchWikipedia of the Tibetan school of Buddhism, although he is often thought of by outsiders as the head of all Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has, over the centuries, gained sufficient status to be accepted as ruler of Tibet.

Traditionally the view is that the office has been held by a single man reincarnating over and over again into the same job. The current holder of the job, Tenzin Gyatso (1935–), is in exile from Chinese occupation of his country, and has sometimes talked of being the last Dalai Lama. This statement could imply that he doesn't want to come back as Dalai Lama, either because he is dissatisfied with his job or because he thinks that further Dalai Lamas would be unhelpful. This comment could also refer to the expectation that his succession is going to spark a major clash between the Chinese authorities and the exiled Tibetans as both sides are likely to pick different candidates in a bid to advance their particular agendas. The current Chinese position is that the Dalai Lama will reincarnate whether he likes it or not.

The current Dalai Lama has become a worldwide celebrity, particularly on the human rights circuit. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He is (mostly) a believer in pacifism.[note 1][note 2] Moreover, he constantly agitates for greater autonomy for Tibet, though he has not called for complete independence in a long time. He has also written books on subjects ranging from politics to neuroscience. His political views are generally internationalist and socially progressive, while he has also described himself as a Marxist on several occasions.[3] He is somewhat supportive of same-sex marriage,[4][5][6][7] at least as far as Buddhists are concerned.[8] He's not a big fan of capitalism either.[9] He has also argued vociferously against religious pluralism,[10] despite generally advocating tolerance towards "false" religions.

Intriguingly, he has made comments recently that mankind needs to find "ethics beyond religion" which suggests a certain open-mindedness to secularism that is rare in religious leaders.[11] He remains a difficult figure to fit into any single category and as such is often looked upon by authoritarians as something of a nuisance.


The Dalai Lama (left center) and Mao (right center) in happier times.
His Highness, Mr. Hitler, King of the Germans. May you be blessed with physical wellbeing, with serene peace, and good deeds.
—Tibetan Court (See the Wikipedia article on 1938–39 German expedition to Tibet.)[12]

The first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup, died in 1474. It was not until the fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682), that the current system of successive incarnations was recognised. The title Dalai Lama was given to him by Mongolians. Etymologically, the word Dalai comes from Mongolian, as in Tibetan and by Tibetans the Dalai Lama is referred to as Gwalwa Rinpoche. Under the Lamas, Tibet was a feudalist country in which the vast majority were serfs subservient to a powerful clerical class, and that class were themselves subservient to the Lamas. Mutilation and torture were common punishments for crimes (including removal of eyes, amputations and castration) and the justice system was heavily biased towards those of high social and political standing.

Ironically, the Dalai Lama was actually an admirer of Mao Zedong, and even presented him with a poem in 1954 that showered him in praise.[13]

In September 2007 the Chinese government said the selection of the next Dalai Lama must be approved by the government, probably not because the Communist Party has some sort of insight into which person the shade of the current Dalai Lama will alight on during the next incarnation. The Dalai Lama has stated that the Dalai Lama's reincarnation is usually born in the region where the previous Dalai Lama spent most of his life — in other words, the next reincarnation will be born in India.

In March of 2008, what began as commemorations of the 1959 Tibetan Uprisings descended into riots, looting, and ethnic killing against Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, eventually spreading into into neighboring Gansu and Sichuan provinces, resulting in military intervention.[14] The Dalai Lama blamed the riots on wide discontent within Tibet against the Chinese government, and urged peace for both sides and an end to the violence. Nevertheless, the Chinese government blamed the whole thing squarely on him.[15]

Dorje Shugden controversy[edit]

In March 1996 the Dalai Lama "banned" a deity called Dorje Shugden who he said was an "evil spirit." Since then Dolygal (Shugden practioneers) have been thrown out of monasteries, refused entry to stores and even received death threats. However, practitioners supporting Dorje Shugden were linked by the Indian police in Dharamsala to the murder of Geshe Lobsang Gyatso, the principal of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and two of his students who were occupying the residence in which the murder took place.[note 3]

See also[edit]


  1. He did once say that violence was acceptable if otherwise the last Buddhist in the world was going to be killed. Before this he'd also supported the 1959 armed revolt against Chinese rule, and Tibetan rebels afterward.
  2. Known for quotes like this on pacifism.
  3. The whole thing is a bit of a mess.