The etymology of the words “Dalai Lama” gives an insight into the deep spiritual connection that holders of this sacred title possess. “Dalai” means the ocean in Mongolian (derived from the Mongolian title Dalaiyin Qan which is translated as “Gyatso” in Tibetan, meaning ocean). The Tibetan word “Lama” has its roots in Sanskrit. It means “Guru or Master.” Put together; it denotes the master who has spiritual wisdom as vast as the ocean. The Gelug or the “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism bestows the title of Dalai Lama to their foremost spiritual leader.
The Dalai Lamas are regarded as reincarnations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Bodhisattvas are spiritual masters who strive to attain Buddhahood. The sole purpose of their reincarnation is to selflessly serve humanity.
His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born on July 6, 1935, in an unassuming hamlet at Takster Amdo in Northeastern Tibet. Born in a farming family, he was called Lhama Thondup till the age of two. This was when people started recognising him as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.
The people of Tibet often reverently address His Holiness as Yesin Norbu, meaning the wish-fulfilling gem or Kundan, The Presence.
Historically, Dalai Lamas have spent their lives in solitude, away from any public attention. The 14th Dalai Lama, His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, has transformed the perception of Dalai Lamas by becoming the first globally recognised and respected figure. In spite of gaining such popularity, not just within his community but all across the world, The Dalai Lama calls himself a “simple Buddhist monk.”
The Dalai Lama started his scholastic journey at the age of six. The course curriculum was inspired by the Nalanda university teaching traditions. The five major subjects included Fine Arts, Logic, Medicine, Sanskrit, and Buddhist philosophy. The latter was understandably the most significant of all the subjects and was divided into five subcategories, namely, Prajnaparamita (“The Transcendental Knowledge” or “The Perfection of Wisdom”); Madhyamika (also known as the śūnyavāda and niḥsvabhāvavāda, is the philosophy of the middle way, as per Mahayana Buddhism); Vinaya (the ‘Tripitaka’ or Buddhist canon that governs the Buddhist community or Sangha); Abhidharma (scholastic presentations of doctrinal material of the Buddhist sutras or study of metaphysics); and Pramana (Logic and theory of knowledge or epistemology).
He also had to master four minor subjects, namely, drama, poetry, astrology, synonyms, and composition.
The Holiness took three preliminary examinations in his early twenties at three monastic universities; Drepung, Ganden, and Sera. The Great Prayer Festival or the Monlam Festival happens on the 4th-11th day of the first Tibetan month. During this auspicious period, The Holiness appeared for his final exam at Jokhang, Lhasa. The rigorous daylong procedure started with 30 scholars examining his proficiency in Logic. This was followed by a debate with 15 scholars on the middle path. Finally, after clearing his discussion on metaphysics and the canon of monastic discipline, The Dalai Lama completed his Geshe Lharampa Degree (The Doctor of Buddhist Philosophy) with honours.
En route to a leadership role
The 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, died in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, on December 17, 1933. According to Tibetan traditions, a regent was appointed to identify and educate the next Dalai Lama. The new Dalai Lama would generally assume control around the age of 20. After consulting various oracles, the regent sent search parties to different parts of Tibet in search of the destined child. One of the search parties found their way to Amdo, in the far northeast region of Tibet, where they came across a young boy named Lhamo Thondup in a farming family. Apart from the formal education he had to undergo, the child had to select the personal belongings of the erstwhile Dalai Lama.
After becoming the next Dalai Lama, he and his family were held for ransom by a powerful Chinese military commander. The Tibetan government paid the ransom, and the child and his family returned to Lhasa, where he was crowned on February 22, 1940.
In 1950, a Chinese invasion threatened to assume total control of Tibet. That’s when His Holiness, at the tender age of 16, was called upon to assume full political responsibilities in the capacity of the Head of State and Government. In 1954 during his trip to Beijing (then Peking), the Dalai Lama spoke to Mao Tse-Tung and other Chinese leaders. Chou En-Lai and Deng Xiaoping were also part of those meetings. This was followed by his historic visit to India in 1956 to attend the 2500th Buddha Jayanti. The Dalai Lama had a series of meetings with then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Premier Chou. Their extended discussions revolved around the deteriorating conditions in Tibet.
Tensions between China and Tibet continued to escalate. A widespread rumour began that the Chinese leadership planned to kidnap the Dalai Lama. These speculations led to a massive uprising in Lhasa on March 10, 1959, with many devoted supporters gathering around the Dalai Lama’s summer palace to ensure his safety. The unrest led to a stalemate situation between the Dalai Lama’s government and Chinese military authorities. Amidst the uproar, the Dalai Lama (disguised as a Tibetan soldier) escaped in the darkness on March 17. He was accompanied by a small party of his family and teachers, valiantly guarded by guerrilla fighters throughout his escape expedition. With Chinese troops following closely, the Dalai Lama had to traverse through the rugged terrains of the Himalayas on foot and horseback for several days. On March 31, he and his escorts were welcomed by the Indian government, who offered them asylum. Dharmasala is aptly called the “Little Lhasa” since 1960 after the Dalai Lama made the picturesque hill city the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-exile.
Realising His Democratic Dreams
Following the Lhasa uprising and the increasing Chinese stronghold of power across Tibet, thousands of Tibetans followed His Holiness into exile. In 1960 the Dalai Lama established his government-in-exile in Dharamsala, a scenic hill station in the state of Himachal Pradesh in India. Nevertheless, the Indian government was not in favour of the Tibetan refugees settling at one location. As a result, multiple Tibetan settlements cropped up across the subcontinent, where some of them developed farming communities while others devoted themselves to building monasteries. The Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was targeted at destroying Tibetan institutions. The Dalai Lama’s primary focus during this period was to safeguard the Tibetan heritage.
In the initial years of his exile, His Holiness reached out to the United Nations on the question of Tibet’s identity. The appeal resulted in three resolutions the General Assembly took in 1959, 1961, and 1965. In 1963, His Holiness started his arduous journey on the long and winding road to complete democracy for his motherland, Tibet. He drafted a democratic constitution for Tibet, followed by several suggested reforms to democratize the Tibetan administrative structure. “The Charter of Tibetans in Exile,” the new democratic body was born. The charter was built on the four pillars of belief, freedom of speech, assembly, and movement. The lives of Tibetans in exile have been full of struggle, sacrifice, and hope. A key focus of the intended democracy was to redeem the exiled Tibetans worldwide.
In May 1990, His Holiness took the initiative to form a democratized Tibetan administration. Till then, the Tibetan Cabinet, known as Kashag, was appointed by His Holiness. The cabinet and the Tenth Assembly of the Tibetan parliament in exile (Tibetan People’s Deputies) were dissolved. In the same year, an Eleventh Tibetan Assembly of 46 members was formed by exiled Tibetans living in 34 countries across the globe, including India. The assembly was created on a one-person-one-vote basis. The new Assembly undertook the responsibility to elect the members of a new cabinet.
The year 1992 marked a significant step toward forming a free Tibet. The Central Tibetan Administration propsed guidelines for the Tibetan constitution. As per the published guidelines, the foremost task of the people at the helm of the Tibetan administration was to form an interim government. This government would then elect a constitutional assembly to frame the constitution for free Tibet.
The Dalai Lama expressed his desire for a federal and democratic country with three traditional provinces: Amdo, U-Tsang, and Kham.
In September 2001, the Tibetan electorate directly elected the Kalon Tripa (Chairman of the Kashag or the Tibetan government-in-exile). The Tibetan Assembly had to approve the cabinet appointed by the Kalon Tripa to take the dream of a democratic Tibet forward. This was a momentous turn in Tibet’s historical annals. The people of Tibet had elected their political leaders for the first time in their history. The age-old custom of appointing the Dalai Lamas as the political and spiritual leader of Tibet finally came to an end.
Since 2011 following the election of the new leadership, His Holiness has announced his retirement from political responsibilities.
A Global Messenger of Peace
To address the deteriorating condition of Tibet, the Dalai Lama drew a five-point peace plan. On 21 September 1987, he presented the same to the members of the United States Congress in Washington, DC.
The proposed plan was as follows:
- In alignment with his Buddhist philosophies, the Dalai Lama’s primary suggestion was to transform the entire Tibet into a peace zone.
- To abolish China’s people transfer policy, which was threatening Tibet’s very existence.
- To uphold the democratic freedom and fundamental human rights of the people of Tibet.
- To restore and safeguard Tibet’s rich, natural habitat that was at risk of getting spoilt due to China’s extensive use of Tibet for nuclear weapon testing.
- To start earnest efforts to secure Tibet’s future and build a relationship of trust and bonhomie among Tibetans and Chinese people.
To continue his mission to liberate the people of Tibet, he addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on 15 June 1988. His main plan was to drive home the significance of his five-point peace plan, particularly point five, which emphasised on China-Tibet peace talks. His vision was to see all three provinces of Tibet emerge as a consolidated self-governing democratic entity. This political entity would have a strong association with the People’s Republic of China, and the foreign policies and defense would continue to be taken care of by the Chinese authorities. He further reiterated that irrespective of the outcome of the dialogue with the Chinese Government, the Tibetans should be the deciding authority concerning Tibet’s future.
The 14th Dalai Lama was fast becoming a global figure, respected for his message of peace and harmony. Unlike his predecessors, who lived mysteriously isolated lives in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the 14th Dalai Lama reached out to the West with his vision of harmonising the relationship between China and Tibet. His Holiness visited Western powerhouses such as the USA, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Greece, and the Vatican. He also travelled extensively across Asia to countries like Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal, and China. The Dalai Lama also went to Australia. He had deep discussions with religious leaders in these countries on a wide array of global peace and harmony topics.
In 1973, the Dalai Lama met the late Pope Paul Vi in the Vatican City. He continued to meet His Holiness Pope John Paul II throughout the ’80s.
The Dalai Lama expressed his desire to meet the Pope at a press conference in Rome: “We live in a period of great crisis, a period of troubling world developments. It is not possible to find peace in the soul without security and harmony between the people. For this reason, I look forward with faith and hope to my meeting with the Holy Father; to an exchange of ideas and feelings, and to his suggestions, so as to open the door to a progressive pacification between people.”
In 1981, His Holiness discussed the matter with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie. The World Congress of Faiths organised an interfaith service in his honour where His Holiness met with Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders. Other imminent leaders of the Anglican Church in London were also present. His speech upheld the values of commonality of faiths and the need for different religions to unite to build a peaceful world: “I always believe that it is much better to have a variety of religions, a variety of philosophies, rather than one single religion or philosophy. This is necessary because of the different mental dispositions of each human being. Each religion has certain unique ideas or techniques, and learning about them can only enrich one’s own faith.”
Western World Welcomes His Holiness
The Dalai Lama’s popularity in the West as a scholar and a messenger of peace kept growing since his first visit in 1970.
He has travelled far and wide across six continents, covering more than 67 countries. His Holiness has been conferred over 150 Peace Awards and Honorary Doctorate Degrees in recognition of his message of peace, non-violence, inter-religious understanding, universal responsibility, and compassion. He is also well-respected as a distinguished author and co-author of more than 110 books on Buddhist Philosophy and other peace topics.
In 1989, the Dalai Lama received the esteemed Nobel Peace Prize as a richly deserved recognition of his non-violent movement for the liberation of Tibet. He is the first Nobel Laureate to be lauded for his selfless interest in global environmental issues. Even in the face of aggressive opposition, he continued propagating the essence of peace and non-violence.
His Holiness has assumed a pioneering role in modern times, promoting inter-religious harmony. His interactions with other religious and spiritual leaders and spellbinding speeches at numerous global events have highlighted the significance of religious bonhomie.
The Dalai Lama’s multidimensional personality came to the fore when he stepped out of the common domain of spiritual leaders to engage with scientists in the mid-’80s. He has been primarily interested in quantum physics, neurobiology, and cosmology.
His quest to draw a synergy between science and spiritualism has led to a pathbreaking collaboration between scientific geniuses and Buddhist monks to help individuals achieve peace of mind. The re-established Tibetan monastic institutions also embraced scientific studies as their curriculum.
Political Retirement- The New Begining
On 14 March 2011, the Dalai Lama intimated the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile (Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies) to excuse him from his political responsibilities. Till then, he was still the official Head of State according to the Charter of the Tibetans in Exile. This announcement ended an age-old custom that empowered the Dalai Lamas’s spiritual and political authority in Tibet. In the likeness of the first four Dalai Lamas, His Holiness wished to pursue only spiritual affairs. He made it clear that the democratically elected leaders should take full political responsibilities. The Gaden Phodrang, the formal office, and household of the Dalai Lamas would handle necessary political affairs.
On 29 May 2011, the Dalai Lama formally handed over his temporal authority to the elected leadership. This momentous occasion marked the end of the 368-year-old tradition that bestowed both political and religious leaders on the Dalai Lamas.
As per Tibetan custom, a new Dalai Lama was believed to be the reincarnation of his predecessor. In 1969, His Holiness had made it clear that it was up to the Tibetans, the Mongolians, and the people of the Himalayan region to decide whether or not a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should be recognised. However, since there were no specific guidelines for selecting future Dalai Lamas, vested political interest could interfere in selecting one through fair means.
On 24 September 2011, the Dalai Lama published a clear guideline for selecting his successor. He announced that when he reaches the age of ninety, he will consult leading spiritual gurus of Tibetan Buddhist traditions to assess whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue after him. His statement also included the possible ways to identify his successor without any scope of malpractice. His Holiness also wished to seek the opinions of the Tibetan public and people with genuine concern for Tibetan Buddhism.
In his statement, the Dalai Lama also examined the different ways in which his successor could be recognised. If the final decision favors a Fifteenth Dalai Lama, then the Gaden Phodrang Trust would take the primary responsibility for carrying out the task. In this quest, they should consult heads of Tibetan Buddhist traditions and trustworthy Dharma Protectors who are oath-bound to honour the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. The search for the new Dalai Lama should follow the guiding principles shared by these learned masters. His Holiness has assured his followers that he will leave clear written instructions in this matter. He has emphatically mentioned that the new Dalai Lama should only be chosen through the prescribed methods. No political influence from the People’s Republic of China should be entertained in this regard.
Messages from a spiritual master
Every human being has the fundamental desire to be happy. As a messenger of peace and harmony, the Dalai Lama always encouraged people to seek happiness from within. He professes that a troubled mind will never be content despite physical comforts and luxuries. On the other hand, a peaceful mind can ignore any physical pain and maintain mental equilibrium. A kind heart, along with the five pillars of human values- tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, contentment, and self-discipline, can lead to a joyful life. Even non-religious people can enjoy a life free from sufferings if they incorporate salient human values in their lives. The Dalai Lama proclaims that these values are universal and devoid of religious biases. He is committed to spreading the significance of these values in creating a life of peace and happiness.
Secondly, the Dalai Lama has strived to bring a harmonious correlation among all religious customs worldwide. Despite philosophical differences, the underlying message of all religions is to create good human beings who make the world a better place. Thus, it’s imperative that all religions develop a sense of mutual respect for their values and traditions. Some individuals may choose to believe in the virtue of one truth and one faith. However, the greater community usually aligns with multiple religions, seeking various aspects of the truth.
Thirdly, His Holiness epitomizes Tibetan people’s religious and spiritual sentiments. Therefore, as the Dalai Lama, his moral duty is to ensure that the Tibetan language and culture are preserved in their true essence. He also intends to maintain the heritage received from India’s Nalanda University while conserving Tibet’s rich natural environment.
Further, the Dalai Lama is committed to the country that provided him and his followers a home away from home during difficult times. He wishes to spread awareness of ancient Indian knowledge and wisdom to the new generation in the country. His Holiness greatly respects the old Indian perspective on mental and emotional well-being. He believes that meditative practice has great relevance in modern times. The Dalai Lama envisages the convergence of ancient Indian wisdom with modern education methods will yield great secular and academic benefits for society. He considers India to be at the forefront of creating a balanced community that embraces age-old learnings and merges it with newfound knowledge, thus building a contemporary and congenial environment.
His Holiness believes that the prime purpose of our lives is to help others. If we cannot extend a helping hand, we must ensure that we don’t consciously hurt them. In his mission to convey this vital message, the Dalai Lama has attended several conferences worldwide and published multiple self-written and co-authored books. Among several books, the “Book of Joy” written along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu professed that joy comes from within. Material possessions can’t give the same happiness you derive from helping others. His fundamental preaching shows the significance of a compassionate approach toward the world’s underprivileged and underserved populace. He further explains that we must first understand their challenges to express our love and compassion for that community. Education, he reckons, is the guiding tool in our mission to build a world of kindness and bonhomie.
His Holiness has strong associations with several nonprofit and philanthropic foundations. Among these organisations, the one at the forefront is “The Dalai Lama Foundation,” a global nonprofit organisation focusing on spreading peace and ethical education. Their mission is to spread awareness of His Holiness’s words of wisdom to a larger global populace. The Dalai Lama is also associated with the “Everyone Matters” campaign, with several international celebrities and leaders joining the cause. Their objective is to give fair rights to all global citizens, irrespective of caste, creed, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.
In all the global conferences he attends, the Dalai Lama teaches the virtues of compassion. Irrespective of one’s societal status, you must empathize with fellow human beings.
- Openness – His Holiness believes that we must be open to the joys and pains of other people to connect with them at a deeper level. Have a holistic perspective of the world. By appreciating each other’s points of view, we can embrace the best of all good thoughts.
- The Art of Giving and Receiving – The Dalai Lama says that if we compare our self-centric desires with the needy, we will realize that the need for the masses will always be greater than any personal wish. He says, “Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.” If you give openly, you stand the chance of getting a lot more in return than you had bargained.
- Empathy – The Tibetan term “nying Je” symbolizes our natural ability to empathize with others. “Nying” may be translated as “compassion,” but a more profound connotation covers a broader spectrum engulfing the spirit of love, kindness, affection, generosity, and warm-heartedness. If we can imbibe these feelings for others, we may be inspoired to change everyone’s life for the good. His Holiness briefly summarises the message in this quote: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Road to Exile
His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, was born in a farmer’s family on 6th July 1935 in a small settlement in northeastern Tibet named Taktser. Situated in Amdo province, Takster symbolically means the “Roaring Tiger.” The child was called Lhamo Thondup, the “wish-fulling goddess.” Takster overlooked an expansive valley. The unpredictable weather in the hamlet meant that the land was grazed only by nomads, not used for regular long-term agriculture. The Dalai Lama reveals in his autobiography, “During my early childhood, my family was one of twenty or so making a precarious living from the land there.”
The Dalai Lama’s family was engaged in the production of barley, buckwheat, and potatoes. His father was a person of medium build and a quick temper. His Holiness, in his childhood, mischievously pulled at his father’s moustache only to get a beating, recalls the Dalai Lama. However, he adds that his father was kind at heart and was as quick to forgive as he was in losing his cool. The Dalai Lama affectionately remembers his mother as one of the kindest souls he has ever known. She was the mother of sixteen children, out of whom only seven survived. The Dalai Lama had four brothers and two sisters. The eldest child, Tsering Dolma, was eighteen years senior to His Holiness. When the Dalai Lama was born, Tsering Dolma played the role of a midwife, running around with household chores to help her mother. The Dalai Lama narrates that at the time of his birth, one of his eyes wouldn’t open properly. His sister forced opened the reluctant eyelid without causing any damage. Among his three elder brothers, Thubten Norbu, the eldest, was recognised as a reincarnation of a high lama, Takster Rinpoche. The youngest brother, Tenzin Choegyal, was also believed to be the reincarnation of another high lama, Ngari Rinpoche. He had two more brothers, Gyalo Thondup and Lobsang Samden. His Holiness mentioned that it was nearly unprecedented that the same family would have three tulkus (reincarnate lamas); hence, no one considered His Holiness to be an extraordinary child. His parents, too, didn’t imagine that he would be discovered as the Dalai Lama. At the time His Holiness was born, his father was suffering from a critical illness. Though he recovered soon after the Dalai Lama’s birth, the incident didn’t seem anything remarkable to the community. Even His Holiness himself had little idea of what lay ahead. His earliest memories include watching a group of children involved in a fight, with some of them joining the weaker side.
His Holiness recalls that he enjoyed going into the chicken coop with his mother in his younger days to collect eggs. He would happily sit in the hen’s nest and make clucking noises. Another favourite activity was to pack things in a bag as if to imitate going on a long journey. He would keep saying, “I am going Lhasa, I am going to Lhasa.” His Holiness also insisted that he should sit at the head of the dinner table. This was later considered indicative of great things to come in his life.
After the first Dalai Lama was born in 1391 CE, there were twelve more before Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. He was recognised as the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso. All the Dalai Lamas are considered to be manifestations of Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara. They are all Boddhisattva of compassion, holders of the symbolic White Lotus. The lineage of His Holiness can be traced back to a Brahmin boy who lived in the time of Buddha Shakyamuni. His Holiness reckons that it’s difficult to answer whether he genuinely believes himself to be the seventy-fourth lineage of Buddha Shakyamuni. He says, “…when I consider my experience during this present life and given my Buddhist beliefs, I have no difficulty accepting that I am spiritually connected both to the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas, to Chenrezig and to the Buddha himself.”
Being recognised as the Dalai Lama
When the Dalai Lama (then called Lhamo Thondup) was two years old, a search party arrived at the Kumbum monastery in search of the Dalai Lama’s new incarnation at the Tibetan government’s behest. They were led to the spot by several symbolic leads; one of these was the embalmed body of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso, who died in 1933. During the mummification process, it was discovered that his head was turned from facing south to the northeast. Following this discovery, the Regent, a senior lama, had a vision. He looked into the waters of the sacred lake, Lhamoi Lhatso, in southern Tibet, and saw the Tibetan letters Ah, Ka, and Ma surface in front of his eyes. After this, the Regent envisioned a three-storied monastery with a turquoise and gold roof and a path running from it to a hill. Finally, he saw a small house that had some awkwardly shaped guttering. He was convinced that the letters “Ah” referred to Amdo, the northeastern province. Thus, the search party was sent there to find the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
By the time they reached Kumbum, the search party members had a hunch that they were moving in the right direction. They figured out that if the letter “Ah” represented Amdo, then “Ka” was the monastery at Kumbum, which resembled the image of the three-storied and turquoise-roofed building that the Regent had envisioned. They now focused their search for a hill and a house with abstract guttering. While searching nearby villages, the gnarled branches of juniper wood on the roof of the His Holiness’s house grabbed their attention. This discovery convinced them that the new Dalai Lama was now within reach. However, they decided not to reveal their actual purpose of visit but only asked for shelter for the night. Kewtsang Rinpoche, the leader of the party, under the disguise of a servant, spent much of the evening playing with the youngest child in the house. The child kept addressing him as “Sera lama, Sera lama.” Kewtsang Rinpoche’s monastery was called Sera. They left the following day only to return a few days later for a formal visit. On this occasion, they brought several possessions of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, along with other similar items that did not Thubten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama. Young Lhamo Thundop recognised each item correctly and proclaimed them by repeating, “It’s mine. It’s mine”. This action was nearly conclusive for the search party that they had found the new incarnation. Soon after, the boy from Taktser was hailed as the new Dalai Lama.
The young boy was taken to the Kumkum monastery. His Holiness reflects that this incident marked a somewhat unhappy period in his life as he was separated from his parents for the first time. However, the presence of his immediate elder brother Lobsang Samden was comforting. His teacher, a kind old monk, often seated his young disciple inside his gown. Made him feel at home. Eventually, Lhamo Thondup was reunited with his parents, and together they embarked on their journey to Lhasa.
However, Ma Bufeng, the local Chinese Muslim warlord, demanded a large ransom to allow the boy incarnate to be taken to Lhasa. The arrangements took almost eighteen months. In the summer of 1939, Lhamo Thondup, along with his parents, brother Lobsang Samden, members of the search party, and other followers, left for the capital city of Lhasa.
The three-month-long journey was a series of great discoveries for the boy wonder. He revelled at the sight of wild yaks (drong) grazing across the fields, the relatively smaller group of wild asses (kyang), and the infrequent sight of gowa and nawa (small deers) who were so fast that they disappeared like ghosts. He was also mesmerised by the occasional sight of hooting geese that flocked in huge numbers.
Two miles from the gate of the capital, a group of senior officials received the entourage and escorted them to Doeguthang plain. An official ceremony was organised the following day where Lhamo Thondup was conferred the spiritual leadership of the people of Tibet. He, along with his brother, Lobsang Samden, proceeded to the Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas that was situated to the west of Lhasa.
In the winter of 1940, Lhamo Thondup moved to the Potala Palace, where he was officially ordained as the spiritual leader of Tibet. Soon after, he was inducted as a novice monk at the Jokhang temple. The ceremony to mark this occasion is known as taphue, meaning the cutting of the hair. From this moment onwards, the Dalai Lama was to remain shaven-headed and wear a maroon monk’s robe. To maintain Tibetan custom, the Dalai Lama relinquished his name Lhamo Thondup and accepted a new name, Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso. His Holiness then started his formal education. The curriculum was developed based on the Nalanda tradition. It consisted of five major subjects, namely, Sanskrit grammar, logic, fine arts, medicine, and the most critical of them all, Buddist philosophy. The latter was further subdivided into Prajnaparamita (the perfection of wisdom); Madhyamika (part of the Mahayana Buddism, it’s the philosophy of the middle way); Vinaya (the canon of monastic discipline or Tripitaka); Abidharma (metaphysics or the scholastic presentation of doctrinal material of the Buddhist sutras); and Pramana (logic and epistemology). The five minor subjects were drama, astrology, poetry, composition, and synonyms.
Dalai Lama in His Youth
The summer of 1950 had a remarkable incident. A day before the opera festival, he felt the earth beneath his feet shaking just when His Holiness came out of the bathroom. As the magnitude of the incident began to sink in, people started believing that it wasn’t just an earthquake but an omen. Two days later, the Governor of Kham sent a telegram to Regent Tatra, reporting a raid by Chinese soldiers on a Tibetan post. In the previous autumn, Chinese Communists had stated their intention to liberate Tibet from the clutches of imperialist aggressors. They had further initiated cross-border incursions to give life to their mission. The Dalai Lama realised the gravity of the situation. His 8500 officers and men would not match the resurgent People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The status became worse as two months later, in October, Lhasa received news that an 80000-strong People’s Liberation Army had crossed the Drichu river east of Chamdo and was headed for Lhasa. As the matter continued to worsen, Tibetans started to advise His Holiness to assume full temporal (political) power. Following a brief government consultation, Nechung Oracle placed a Kata, a white offering scarf, on the Dalai Lama’s lap at a ceremony. The words thu-la-bap was written on it; it meant that the time had come. On 17 November, at an official ceremony held at the Norbulingka Palace, His Holiness was crowned the political leader of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama’s eldest brother arrived at Lhasa about a fortnight before His Holiness was enthroned. His Holiness could realise instantly that his brother had suffered a lot. Amdo province, in which Kumbum is situated and where the two brothers were born, was close to the China border. Thus, it had fallen prey to the Chinese invasion. The Dalai Lama’s brother was kept a virtual prisoner in his monastery. While in that state of near imprisonment, the Chinese authorities tried to inculcate new communist fundamentals in him. The Chinese officials further influenced him to travel to Lhasa and convince the Dalai Lama to accept Chinese rule. If His Holiness resisted the offer, then his brother was instructed to kill him. This would earn him an award from the Chinese.
On the occasion of his rising to power, the Dalai Lama granted a general pardon to all the prisoners, thus setting them free. At the tender age of 15, His Holiness realised that he was the undisputed leader of around six million Tibetans. He was on the verge of facing a full-scale war with a political superpower. To assist him with temporal responsibilities, he appointed two Prime Ministers. Lobsang Tashi was appointed as the monk Prime Minister, while the experienced Lukhangwa became the lay Prime Minister.
His Holiness consulted his two Prime Ministers and the Kashag on the way out of their predicament. They jointly decided to send delegations to the United States, the Great Britan, and Nepal to seek their intervention in sorting the tension between Tibet and China. The alternate option was to visit China in the hope of negotiating a peaceful withdrawal. They decided to keep these missions for the year’s end. Pretty soon, the Chinese started consolidating their position in the east. This prompted the Dalai Lama to move to southern Tibet along with his senior ministers. If the situation worsened, then His Holiness could seek exile with India just across the border. His Prime Ministers, Lobsang Tashi, and Lukhangwa were given acting powers in his absence.
While the Dalai Lama was in Dromo, a small town near the Sikkim border, he received the news that the delegation to China had reached its destination, while the ones to America and Britain had been turned back. It was hard to believe that the British Government indirectly agreed that China’s claim to Tibet had some merit. The Dalai Lama was further demoralised by America’s disinclination to help. He realised that with both the United States and Great Britain showing reluctance to extend a helping hand, Tibet was destined to face the mighty People’s Republic of China on their own. Frustrated by the indifference shown by America and Britain, the Dalia Lama decided to send Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, Governor of Kham, to Beijing to initiate peace talks with China. The primary task of the delegation was to persuade the Chinese authorities to stop cross-border encroachment into Tibetan territory. As such, the delegation was not authorised to enter into any agreement with China.
Nevertheless, on the evening of 23 May 1951, a harsh, crackling voice on the radio caught His Holiness’s attention as he sat alone. The voice announced that a ‘Seventeen-Point Agreement’ for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet had been inked by the Government officials of the People’s Republic of China and what they termed the Original Government of Tibet. In reality, the Ngabo-led delegation was forced to sign the agreement. Securing Tibetan compliance, albeit at gunpoint, marked a significant achievement for the People’s Republic of China and their intent to return Tibet to the pack of the motherland. His Holiness returned to Lhasa in the middle of August 1951.
Countdown to flee
The Dalai Lama embarked on a historic visit to China from July 1954 to June 1955. The next nine years saw His Holiness attempting to evade China’s all-out military takeover of Tibet. He also tried appeasing the growing animosity among Tibetan resistance fighters against the Chinese aggressors. During this period, he met with communists and different Chinese leaders, including Chou Enlai, Zhu Teh, and politicians. From November 1956 to March 1957, the Dalai Lama visited India during the 2500th Buddha Jayanti celebrations. During the winter of 1958/59, as the young Dalai Lama was taking his final monastic examinations in Lhasa, disturbing news of Chinese brutality against his fellow Tibetans continued to pour in.
Escape into Exile
On the tenth of March 1959, General Zhang Chenwu of China extended an audacious invite to the Dalai Lama to attend a theatre by a Chinese dance troupe. The invitation came with the conditions that no Tibetan troopers were to accompany His Holiness, and even his bodyguards were to be unarmed. This led to massive unrest among Tibetans, who gathered tens of thousands outside the Norbulingka Palace to safeguard the young leaders’ lives. They were not in favour of letting the Dalai Lama accept China’s arrogant invitation.
On seventeenth March 1959, Nechung Oracle advised the Dalai Lama to flee from the country and exile. His Holiness performed divination that confirmed that escaping is the best option, despite the grave dangers that lay on its path.
The Dalai Lama was concealed as a common soldier during his escapade. Soon after the clock struck ten at night, His Holiness evaded a massive gathering of people and reached the Kyichu river along with a small group of escorts. There, they were met by the rest of the entourage, including some of the Dalai Lama’s family members.
After three weeks of an arduous journey, His Holiness and his associates reached the Indian border on 31 March 1959.
Escorted by Indian armed forces, they went to the small township of Bomdila in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian Government was ready to provide refuge to the Dalai Lama and his entourage. The Indian Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, met His Holiness on 20 April 1959 in Mussoorie to discuss the rehabilitation plans for Tibetan refugees. The Dalai Lama realised the importance of modern education for the new generations of Tibetan refugees. He convinced Pandit Nehru to create a special section for the Tibetans in India’s education system. The Indian Government extended all possible help to set up schools for Tibetan children.
Breaking his long silence, His Holiness addressed the Indian press for the first time on 20 June 1959, during which he officially renounced the Seventeen-point agreement forcefully signed by Chinese authorities. The Dalai Lama brought about significant administrative reforms that oversaw the creation of new Tibetan executive departments. Some of these departments were Education, Information, Security, Home, Religious and Economic Affairs. Most of the Tibetan refugees, who were now more than a 30000 strong community, were engaged in road construction sites in North India.
10 March 1960 marked the first anniversary of the Tibetan People’s Uprising. In his speech at Dharmasala, the Dalai Lama stressed the need for a long-term perspective of the situation in Tibet. For the exiled population, the focus would be on rebuilding their community while maintaining the cultural heritage of their land. His Holiness emphasised the virtues of truth, justice, and courage and stated that with these weapons, they would regain Tibet’s freedom in due course.
Words of wisdom on the 52nd anniversary of the Tibetan uprising (extract)
“Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace.”
That we as human beings are so overpowered or drunk by the poison of ignorance that we hardly get to see what’s beyond. The 14th and perhaps the most influential of all, Tenzin Gyatso, addressed ignorance to be the one element casting a shadow over knowledge in his speech for the 52nd anniversary of Tibet. He meticulously took down his political façade to be a rather freely elected leader. The 14th Dalai Lama in 75 still continues to argue for a meaningful autonomous Tibet. He made an announcement at the main temple asserting the fact about his decision to drop his political name card and devolve his formal authority to be an elected leader.
He said that “I express my solidarity with those who continue to suffer repression and pray for the well-being of all sentient beings” He himself, as a Tibetan, rather took pride in his identity, stating about the way Tibetans who are deprived of freedom, however, maintains the solidarity with peace. He also consciously asked the citizens to be responsible for the cultural values of Tibet. “As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can
devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect,” said the Dalai Lama. He exclaimed his experiences of fleeing to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He then took the angle to a more humane paradigm stating that the earth belongs to no one rule; if there is any language that is worth spoken is of love. The People’s Republic of China belongs to 1.3 billion people, who are mostly deprived of everything. They have the right to know about state affairs; they have the right to be aware of the world affairs mentioned by the Dalai Lama. He also mentioned that China being the most populated country in the world, must be considerate of the international community. China must respond to the international community urging it to be transparent in all state affairs. And to ensure this, the freedom of expression and freedom of the press is essential. Dalai Lama said, “China, with the world’s largest population, is an emerging world power, and I admire the economic development it has made. It also has huge potential to contribute to human progress and world peace. But to do that, China must earn the international community’s respect and trust. In order to earn such respect, China’s leaders must develop greater transparency, their actions corresponding to their words. To ensure this, freedom of expression and freedom of the press is essential.”
The Dalai Lama connoted that it is stability and development are the foundation for the long-term well-being of Tibet. That dedication is not conducive to the fear that the Tibetans have to constantly live in. He said that this is a total injustice, and the PRC needs to rectify it immediately; he said, “I strongly urge the Chinese leaders to review these developments and release these prisoners of conscience forthwith.”