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Dalai Lama


Dalai Lama
(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Who is he?:

The spiritual leader of Tibet and longtime leader of the Tibetan government in exile before deciding in 2011 to retire from politics and hand the political reins to secular leadership. Believed to be the 14th Dalai Lama, which is a line of reincarnated spiritual leaders beginning in the 16th century whose destiny is to enlighten others. He is respected across the world by both adherents and those of other religions for his peaceful activism and moral leadership, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He is also reviled by Chinese authorities who see him as the figurehead for the Tibetan secession movement.


Born July 6, 1935, in Taktser, Amdo, northeastern Tibet, the Chinese province of Qinghai, as Lhamo Dhondup. His family was farmers and horse traders; he had six siblings who survived childhood. He was renamed Tenzin Gyatso upon being recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at age 2. The Chinese government placed the child under house arrest out of fear that his family would relocate to Lhasa; money was demanded of the family in order to move there. At age 6 he began monastic education in subjects ranging from logic to Buddhist philosophy. At age 15 he was formally recognized as the Dalai Lama on Nov. 17, 1950. China would claim that a Kuomintang government representative ratified and presided over this ceremony, which is disputed.

Personal life:

The Dalai Lama spent his early life in education, being awarded the equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. His eldest brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, was recognized as the reincarnation of a high Tibetan lama, Taktser Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama's work has led him to form a number of close friendships with other dignitaries, including Pope John Paul II, who met with the Dalai Lama eight times, more than any other dignitary. He has traveled to more than 62 countries on six continents, has authored more than 72 books, and has received more than 84 awards.

Political affiliation:

The Dalai Lama has led a Tibetan government in exile that has sought independence from communist China, but in recent years he expressed a desire for a highly autonomous region instead. He has described himself as a Marxist. The Nobel committee awarded the Dalai Lama his 1989 Peace Prize with a statement "that the Dalai Lama in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet consistently has opposed the use of violence."


The Dalai Lama began ruling Tibet in 1950, shortly after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, but was forced into exile, followed by tens of thousands of Tibetans, with the 1959 Tibetan uprising. He set up the Government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamsala, India, and proceeded to internationally press for the rights of Tibetans while establishing systems to teach Tibetan culture, language and history. In 1963 the Dalai Lama presented a draft constitution for Tibet that ensured democratic rights including freedom of speech and religion. In 1987, he proposed a Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet. In 1992, he said that a free Tibet would call a constitutional assembly to finalize and adopt the constitution, and in the following years he oversaw the democratic transformation of the exiled government.


The Dalai Lama has questioned the institution and title of his position, speculating that in the future a Dalai Lama may not come from Tibet and may not even be male. Above all, he refers to himself as a simple monk, and with this in mind he made the decision to step back from politics. In March 2011, the Dalai Lama formally submitted his resignation as the political leader of Tibetans, wishing instead for an elected leader to lead the government in exile. He retains his position of religious leadership. This decision sparked uncertainty about the future of the movement for Tibetan independence, a cause taken up by Tibetan monks and international celebrities alike. "The government in Beijing has described me as an obstacle to all compromises," he said. "Now this stumbling block no longer exists, and it will have to show its cards and reveal whether it intends to grant Tibetans true autonomy, and whether it is serious about installing its own Dalai Lama in the future."


"In general what you experience during hard times is the best lesson. Therefore we have learned a lot over the past years since [the] Chinese occupation. During this period the Chinese have created such enormous problems, but the main advice in Mahayana Buddhism is that there is no point in taking revenge. The Tibetans who can understand this advice will not have any bad feelings towards the Chinese. I used to say China has eaten Tibet, but cannot digest it; now that still seems to be true."
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