Tenzin Gyatso (Tibetan: བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ Wylie: Bstan ‘dzin Rgya mtsho) (b. July 6 1935) is the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama. The fifth of nine children of a farming family in the Tibetan province of Amdo, he was proclaimed the tulku (reincarnation) of the thirteenth Dalai Lama at the age of three. On November 17 1950, at the age of fifteen, he was enthroned as Tibet’s Head of State and most important political ruler, while Tibet faced occupation by the forces of the People’s Republic of China.
After the collapse of the Tibetan resistance movement in 1959, Tenzin Gyatso fled to India, where he was active in establishing the government of Tibet in exile and preserving Tibetan culture and education among the thousands of refugees who accompanied him.
A charismatic figure and noted public speaker, Tenzin Gyatso is the first Dalai Lama to travel to the West, where he has helped to spread Buddhism and to publicise the cause of Free Tibet. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Dalai Lama was born to a Mongour farming family as Lhamo Thondup (also spelled Lhamo Dhondrub among other spellings) on July 6 1935, in the far northeastern province of Amdo in the village of Taktser, a small and poor settlement which stood on a hill overlooking a broad valley. His parents, Choekyong and Dekyi 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 of nine children, the eldest child being his sister Tsering Dolma, who was eighteen years older than he. His eldest brother, Thupten Jigme Norbu, has been recognised as the reincarnation of the high lama, Takser Rinpoche. His other elder brothers are Gyalo Thondup and Lobsang Samten. When the Dalai Lama was about three years old, a search party was sent out to find the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. The thirteenth Dalai Lama had turned to face the northeast while he was dying, indicating the area where the next Dalai Lama should be found. Shortly afterwards, a senior lama had a vision of a house with strangely shaped guttering. They found a house similar to the one in the vision after extensive searching. They presented the boy, Lhamo Thondup, with various relics and toys of the previous Dalai Lama, along with many relics that weren’t of the previous Lama. The young boy, Lhamo Thondup, had correctly identified every item that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama by saying “It’s mine! It’s mine!”
Lhamo Thondup was recognised as the reincarnation 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, the “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 twenty-five, he sat for his final examination in the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, 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
The Dalai Lama
|Reference style||His Holiness|
|Spoken style||Your Holiness|
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 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 in fact work with the Chinese government until 1959. The Dalai Lama 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 Buddhism.
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”.
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 the Tibetan 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 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 refugees in India, 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 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 to form 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 Wednesday, July 6, 2005. About 10,000 Tibetan refugees, monks and foreign tourists gathered outside his home. Patriarch Alexius II of the Russian Orthodox Church said, “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.
Since 1967, the Dalai Lama has initiated a series of tours in forty-six nations. He met with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1973. He expressed his desire to meet with the Vatican head of state Pope John Paul II. The Pope agreed and met him in 1980 and also later in 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990 and 2003. He has also met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie, and with other leaders of the Anglican Church in London. Finally, he has met Jewish and senior Catholic officials. He currently has ongoing relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis invited him to address the Lithuanian Parliament. He was the first foreign leader to do so. He currently has ongoing relations with India and has had relations in the past with the United Nations and the United States. In an unusual event, the Dalai Lama was refused a visit to South Korea in 2001. Chinese envoys and the Dalai Lama’s have had four talks since September 2002 over the Tibet Question, which has been met by international support.
Social and political stances
The present Dalai Lama is held in almost universal high regard among Tibetan Buddhists. It should be noted, however, that 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.
Tibetan independence movement
Having little choice but to work with the 1951 Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet with China, the Dalai Lama is believed to have supported the creation of the Tibetan resistance movement. His brothers moved to Kalimpong in 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.
Global political stances
The Dalai Lama is opposed to usage and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction and supports demilitarization. In 1998, he pledged his support to the People’s Republic of China’s proposal to ban all weapons of mass destruction. The Dalai Lama opposes wars; however, perhaps due to sensitivity to the US, he did not oppose the War in Iraq, saying that it was too soon to tell whether the end result for good was worth the harm it would cause. Similarly, he does not oppose the use of force for good. He accepts that certain wars were for the benefit of civilization & democracy: WWII, Korean War, Afghanistan. He does however espouse that non-violence in the long-term is more effective. He blames the world’s powers for wars and believes that they are simply an old habit.
Global social stances
The Dalai Lama endorsed the founding of the Dalai Lama Foundation in order to promote peace and ethics worldwide. He has also stated his belief that modern science takes precedence over ancient religions.
He is reported to have said regarding homosexuality, “If the two people have taken no vows , and neither is harmed, why should it not be acceptable?” He has repeatedly affirmed his belief that gays and lesbians should be fully 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, in his view, homosexuality, while inappropriate, is not more inappropriate than masturbation and oral and anal sex by heterosexuals. 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
The Dalai Lama has received considerable criticism from the People’s Republic of China, which views his activities as subversive and dangerous. The PRC also attempts to keep the Dalai Lama from gaining entry into nations with which it has foreign relations. An example of this was in November 1999, when the Dalai Lama was granted access to visit Israel by the Israeli government, which the PRC immediately criticised. The PRC also claimed in 2001 that the Dalai Lama was supporting Taiwanese independence during his visit to Taiwan in 2001. The Dalai Lama characterised the visit as a spiritual mission. The Dalai Lama has also received criticism for his interest as a child in war toys and as an adult with his interests in World War II monuments.
In October 1998, The Dalai Lama’s administration acknowledged that it received $1.7 million a year in the 1960’s from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and also trained a resistance movement in Colorado (USA).
Originally, there was criticism that feudal theocratic Tibet was not as benevolent as the Dalai Lama had portrayed. In response, he has since condemned some of ancient Tibet’s feudal practices and has added that he had been willing to institute reforms before the Chinese invaded.
British journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote a 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 Steven Seagal, and his statements condoning prostitution. He accepted a large donation from Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan, who was responsible for the release of sarin nerve gas on a Tokyo subway, though this occurred long before Asahara instigated the attack.
Though the Dalai Lama asked the White House to “think seriously whether a violent action is the right thing to do” prior to the invasion of Iraq, he has since expressed a longer term view on whether the Iraq war is justified, refusing to condemn it. He has reiterated this position a number of times since the original New York Times report. This is a stand which pacifists and anti-war protesters have found fault with.
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 however could be seen in context with Buddhist teachings, where a teaching may benefit one person, while not the other.
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 in exile 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.
On April 18 2005, TIME Magazine placed Tenzin Gyatso on its list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Writings of the Dalai Lama
- The Art of Happiness, coauthored with Howard C. Cutler, M.D. ISBN 0965668290
- The Art of Happiness at Work, coauthored with Howard C. Cutler, M.D. ISBN 1594480540
- Ethics for the New Millennium, Riverhead Books, 1999, ISBN 1573228834
- A Simple Path, ISBN 0007138873
- How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, Translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D. ISBN 0743453360
- Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama, London: Little, Brown and Co, 1990 ISBN 034910462X
- An Open Heart, edited by Nicholas Vreeland. ISBN 0316989797
- The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra, coauthored with Alexander Berzin. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1997, ISBN 1559390727
- The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations and Journeys, coauthored with Victor Chan, Riverbed Books, 2004, ISBN 1573222771
- Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion, photographs by Phil Borges with sayings by Tenzin Gyatso. ISBN 0847819574
- The Heart of Compassion: A Practical Approach to a Meaningful Life, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin: Lotus Press, ISBN 0940985365
- My Tibet, coauthoured with Galen Rowell, ISBN 0520089480
- The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, Morgan Road Books, 2005, ISBN 076792066X
- “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”
- “I am a simple Buddhist monk – no more, no less.”
- “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
- “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
- “All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness .. the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.”
- “The very purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticise others. Rather, we must criticise ourselves. How much am I doing about my anger? About my attachment, about my hatred, about my pride, my jealousy? These are the things which we must check in daily life.”
- “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
- “It is very important to generate a good attitude, a good heart, as much as possible. From this, happiness in both the short term and the long term for both yourself and others will come.”
- “Human happiness and human satisfaction must ultimately come from within oneself. It is wrong to expect some final satisfaction to come from money or from a computer.”
- “Compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.”
- “Buddhism does not accept a theory of God, or a creator. According to Buddhism, one’s own actions are the creator, ultimately. Some people say that, from a certain angle, Buddhism is not a religion but rather a science of mind. Religion has much involvement with faith. Sometimes it seems that there is quite a distance between a way of thinking based on faith and one entirely based on experiment, remaining skeptical. Unless you find something through investigation, you do not want to accept it as fact. From one viewpoint, Buddhism is a religion, from another viewpoint Buddhism is a science of mind and not a religion. Buddhism can be a bridge between these two sides. Therefore, with this conviction I try to have closer ties with scientists, mainly in the fields of cosmology, psychology, neurobiology and physics. In these fields there are insights to share, and to a certain extent we can work together.”
- “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.”
Awards given to the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama has received numerous awards over his political career. The most recent was on May 28, 2005 when he received the Christmas Humphrey’s Award from the Buddhist Society in the United Kingdom. Perhaps his most notable award was the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, 1989 (see below). Some other notable awards he has received:
- Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Rutgers University on September 25, 2005.
- Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Nova Southeastern University on September 18, 2004.
- Special Honorary Degree from Simon Fraser University on April 20, 2004.
- Honorary Doctor of Law Degree from the University of British Columbia on April 19, 2004.
- Jaime Brunet Prize for Human Rights on October 9, 2003.
- Hilton Humanitarian Award on September 24, 2003
- International League for Human Rights Award on September 19, 2003.
- Life Achievement Award from Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization on November 24, 1999.
- An honorary degree from Brandeis University on May 8, 1998
- An honorary degree from Emory University on May 11, 1998.
- An honorary Doctorate of Philosophy from Yat-sen University on March 23, 1997.
- Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute on June 4, 1994.
- World Security Annual Peace Award from the New York Lawyer’s Alliance on April 27, 1994.
- An honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from Melbourne University on May 5, 1992.
- Peace and Unity Awards from the National Peace conference on August 23, 1991.
- Earth Prize from the United Earth and U.N. Environmental Program on June 5,1991
- Advancing Human Liberty from the Freedom House on April 17, 1991.
- A Doctor of Divinity award from the Central Institute of High Tibetan Studies on January 4, 1990.
- Le Prix De La Memoire from the Foundation Danielle Mitterrand, France on December 4, 1989.
- Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Awards from the Congressional Rights Caucus Human Rights on July 21, 1989.
- Key to Los Angeles from Mayor Tom Bradley in September 1979.
- Key to San Francisco from Mayor Feinstein on September 27, 1979.
Nobel Peace Prize
In 1989 Tenzin Gyatso was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with 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 recognise 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.
Films about the Dalai Lama
Among the films that have been recently made about the 14th Dalai Lama are Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet.
Other recent films include:
- Experiencing the Soul – Before Birth During Life After Death (2005)
- What Remains of Us (2004)
- What Remains of Us (Ce qu’il reste de nous) (2004)
- Ethics for the New Millennium (1999)
- In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese (1999)
- The Good Heart (1998)
- Compassion In Exile (1993), documentary, directed by Mickey Lemle
- Realizing Oneness in All Humanity – The Dalai Lama
- Tibetan Buddhism
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