Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

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Tenzin Gyatso Image:Nobel Prize.png
14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
Reign 17 November 1950–Present
Coronation 17 November 1950
Full name Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso
Born 6 July 1935 (1935-07-06)
Birthplace Taktser, Amdo
Predecessor Thubten Gyatso, 13th Dalai Lama
Royal House Dalai Lama
Father Choekyong Tsering
Mother Diki Tsering

Tenzin Gyatso (born 6 July 1935) is the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama. He is often referred to simply as the Dalai Lama. He is a practising member of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism and is influential as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, as the world's most famous Buddhist monk, and is leader of the exiled Tibetan government in India.

Tenzin Gyatso was the fifth of sixteen children born to a farming family in the village of Taktser, or Tengtser, of the Tibetan province of Amdo: he was originally named Lhamo Döndrub ( Tibetan: Wylie: Lha-mo Don-'grub). His first language was the Amdo dialect of Tibetan. He was proclaimed the tulku ( rebirth) of the thirteenth Dalai Lama at the age of two.

On 17 November 1950, at the age of fifteen, he was enthroned as Tibet's Head of State. Thus he became Tibet's most important political ruler just one month after the People's Republic of China's invasion of Tibet on 7 October 1950.

In 1954, he went to Beijing to talk with Mao Zedong and other leaders of the PRC. He was also elected vice chairman of China's National People's Congress in 1954.

After the collapse of the Tibetan resistance movement in 1959, the Dalai Lama left for India, where he was active in establishing the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan Government in Exile) and in seeking to preserve Tibetan culture and education among the thousands of refugees who accompanied him.

Tenzin Gyatso is a charismatic figure and noted public speaker. This Dalai Lama is the first to travel to the West. There, he has helped to spread Buddhism and to promote the concepts of universal responsibility, secular ethics, and religious harmony.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, honorary Canadian citizenship in 2006, and the United States Congressional Gold Medal on 17 October 2007.

Early life and background

Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
Tibetan name
Tibetan: བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་
Wylie transliteration: bstan ’dzin rgya mtsho
pronunciation in IPA: [tɛ̃tsĩ catsʰo]
official transcription (PRC): Dainzin Gyaco
THDL: Tenzin Gyatso
other transcriptions:
Chinese name
traditional: 丹增嘉措
simplified: 丹增嘉措
Pinyin: Dānzēng Jiācuò
Birthplace in Taktser, Amdo
Birthplace in Taktser, Amdo

Tenzin Gyatso was born to a farming family as Lhamo Döndrub or Lhamo Thondup in the far northeastern Amdo province—now part of Qinghai province—in the village of Taktser, a small and poor settlement that stands on a hill overlooking a broad valley. His parents, Choekyong and Diki Tsering, were relatively wealthy farmers among about twenty other families making a precarious living growing barley, buckwheat, and potatoes.

His parents had sixteen children, and Tenzin Gyatso is the fifth eldest of the nine who survived childhood. The eldest child was his sister Tsering Dolma, who was eighteen years older than him. His eldest brother, Thupten Jigme Norbu, has been recognised as the rebirth of the high lama, Taktser Rinpoche. His sister Jetsun Pema went on to depict their mother in the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet. His other elder brothers are Gyalo Thondup and Lobsang Samden.

When Tenzin Gyatso was about two years old a search party was sent out to find the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Among other omens, the head on the embalmed body of the thirteenth Dalai Lama (originally facing south) had mysteriously turned to face the northeast, indicating the direction in which the next Dalai Lama would be found. Shortly afterwards, the Regent Reting Rinpoche had a vision at the sacred lake of Lhamo La-tso indicating Amdo (as the place to search) and a one-story house with distinctive guttering and tiling. After extensive searching, they found that Thondup's house resembled that in Reting's vision. They presented Thondup with various relics and toys—some had belonged to the previous Dalai Lama while others had not. It was reported that Thondup correctly identified all items owned by the previous Dalai Lama, exclaiming "That's mine! That's mine!"

Thondup was recognised as the reborn 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 ("Wish-Fulfilling Gem") or just Kundun ("the Presence"). In the West, his followers often call him "His Holiness the Dalai Lama," which is the style that he uses himself on his website.

The Dalai Lama began his monastic education at the age of six. At age eleven he met Heinrich Harrer after spying him in Lhasa through his telescope. Harrer effectively became the young Dalai Lama's tutor, teaching him about the outside world. The two remained friends until Harrer's death in 2006. In 1959, at age 25 he sat for his final examination in Lhasa's Jokhang Temple during the annual Monlam (prayer) Festival. 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 the Dalai Lama

As well as being one of the most influential spiritual leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama by tradition is also Tibet's Head of State and most important political ruler. In 1939 at the age of four he was taken by lamas in a procession to Lhasa, where an official ceremony recognized him as the reborn spiritual leader of Tibet. His childhood was spent between the Potala and Norbulingka, his summer residence.

The Dalai Lama's former quarters at the Potala, Lhasa
The Dalai Lama's former quarters at the Potala, Lhasa

On 17 November 1950, at the age of fifteen, with the country facing possible conflict with the People's Republic of China, Tenzin Gyatso was enthroned as the temporal leader of Tibet. His governorship, however, was short. In October of that year the army of the People's Republic of China entered the 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 rejected the subsequent Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, he did try to work with the Chinese government. In September 1954, the Dalai Lama and the 10th Panchen Lama went to Beijing to attend the first session of the first National People's Congress, meeting Mao Zedong. However, during 1959, there was a major uprising among the Tibetan population. In the tense political environment that ensued, the Dalai Lama and his entourage began to suspect that China was planning to kill him. Consequently, he fled to Dharamsala, India, on 17 March of that year, entering India on 31 March during the Tibetan uprising.

Exile to 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, as 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 reestablished the ~80,000 Tibetan refugees who followed him into exile in agricultural settlements. He created a Tibetan educational system in order to teach the Tibetan children what he believed to be traditional 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 and nunneries in an attempt to preserve Tibetan Buddhist teachings and the Tibetan way of life.

Tibetan Parliament in Exile in Dharamsala.
Tibetan Parliament in Exile in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama appealed to the United Nations on the question of Tibet. This appeal 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 democratic constitution which is based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A Tibetan parliament-in-exile is elected by the Tibetan refugees scattered all over the world, 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 Han 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, testing, and disposal." Finally, it urged "earnest negotiations" on the future of Tibet.

The main teaching room of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India.
The main teaching room of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India.

He proposed a similar plan at Strasbourg 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 make 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. The Dalai Lama has indicated that he wishes to return to Tibet only if the People's Republic of China sets no preconditions for his return, which they have so far refused to do.

Tenzin Gyatso celebrated his seventieth birthday on 6 July 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 the Republic of China on 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.

Teaching activity

The Dalai Lama is a Dzogchen practitioner and he gives teachings on this issue, and has expounded many teachings in his numerous publications. He has also given many public initiations in the Kalachakra.

In February 2007, the Dalai Lama was named Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, the first time that the leader of the Tibetan exile community has accepted a university appointment. The appointment is in part an expansion of a program begun in 1998 called the Emory–Tibet Partnership. As Presidential Distinguished Professor, he will:

  • provide opportunities for university community members to attend his annual teachings,
  • make periodic visits to Emory to participate in programs, and
  • continue the Emory–Tibet Partnership practice of providing private teaching sessions with students and faculty during Emory's study-abroad program in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama has strong ties with University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wisconsin, United States, and is a frequent visitor there. He visited the university in 1981 and again in 1989, the year in which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In May 1998, he addressed a large audience at the Kohl Centre and received an honorary degree from the university. In May 2001, he met with a group of neuroscientists who conduct research on the effects of meditation on brain function, emotions and physical health. His most recent visit was in May 2007, when he gave a lecture on sustaining happiness.

Foreign relations

2004. Photo by Carey Linde.">The Dalai Lama & Bishop Desmond Tutu, 2004. Photo by Carey Linde.
The Dalai Lama & Bishop Desmond Tutu, 2004. Photo by Carey Linde.
Tenzin Gyatso in Dharamsala, 1993
Tenzin Gyatso in Dharamsala, 1993

Since 1967, the Dalai Lama has initiated a series of tours in 46 nations. He has frequently engaged on religious dialogue. He met with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1973. He met with Pope John Paul II in 1980 and also later in 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990, and 2003. In 1990, he met in Dharamsala with a delegation of Jewish teachers for an extensive interfaith dialogue. He has since visited Israel three times and met in 2006 with the Chief Rabbi of Israel. In 2006, he met privately with Pope Benedict XVI. He has also met the Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Dr. Robert Runcie, and other leaders of the Anglican Church in London, as well as senior Eastern Orthodox Church, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Sikh officials.

After Pope John Paul II met the Dalai Lama in 2003, the Pope issued an immediate statement to warn people not to be seduced by these eastern beliefs as they will not bring salvation. The Dalai Lama then replied that he understood, and that Tibetan Buddhism was not for everyone. It was widely reported in the media that the Vatican did not consider Tibetan Buddhism a proper religion.

Social and political stances

Tibetan independence movement

Following the invasion, the Dalai Lama had little choice but to work with the 1951 Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet with the People's Republic of China. His brothers moved to Kalimpong in India and, with the help of the Indian and American governments, organized pro-independence literature 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 was forced to retreat to Nepal or go underground. Following normalisation of relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China, American support was cut off in the early 1970s. The Dalai Lama then began to formulate his policy towards a peaceful solution in which a democratic autonomous Tibet would be established.

Social stances

The Dalai Lama endorsed the founding of the Dalai Lama Foundation in order to promote peace and ethics worldwide. The Dalai Lama is not operationally involved with this foundation, though he suggests some overall direction and his office is routinely briefed on its activities. He has also stated his belief that modern scientific findings take precedence over ancient religions.


He is reported to have said regarding homosexuality, "If the two people have taken no vows [of chastity], and neither is harmed, why should it not be acceptable?" He has repeatedly affirmed his belief that gays and lesbians should be 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." However, more recently (1997) he has said that the basis of this teaching was unknown to him and that he has "willingness to consider the possibility that some of the teachings may be specific to a particular cultural and historic context."

There have been criticisms of his comments in regards to "sexual misconduct" from gay rights activists. This generally reduces to the assertion that "Sexual misconduct for men and women consists of oral and anal sex."


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.


He has also expressed his concern for environmental problems:

On the global level, I think the ecology problem is very serious. I hear about some states taking it very seriously. That's wonderful! So this blue planet is our only home, if something goes wrong at the present generation, then the future generations really face a lot of problems, and those problems will be beyond human control; so that's very serious. Ecology should be part of our daily life.

In recent years, he has been campaigning for wildlife conservation, including a religious ruling against wearing tiger and leopard skins as garments.


In 1996, he described himself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist:

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes—that is the majority—as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair … The failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was, for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.

International influence

The Dalai Lama receiving a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. George W. Bush, Robert Byrd, and Nancy Pelosi are on his left.
The Dalai Lama receiving a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. George W. Bush, Robert Byrd, and Nancy Pelosi are on his left.

The Dalai Lama has been successful in gaining Western sympathy for Tibetan self-determination, including vocal support from numerous Hollywood celebrities, most notably the actors Richard Gere and Steven Seagal, as well as lawmakers from several major countries.

In October 1998, the Dalai Lama's administration acknowledged that it received US$1.7 million a year in the 1960s from the U.S. Government through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and had also trained a resistance movement in Colorado, (USA).

The Dalai Lama 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 defence and foreign affairs. In his 'Middle Way Approach', he laid down that the Chinese government can take care of foreign affairs and defence, and that Tibet should be managed by an elected body.

On 18 April 2005, TIME Magazine placed the Dalai Lama on its list of the world's 100 most influential people.

On 22 June 2006, the Parliament of Canada voted unanimously to make The Dalai Lama an honorary citizen of Canada. This marks the third time in history that the Government of Canada has bestowed this honour, the others being Raoul Wallenberg posthumously in 1985 and Nelson Mandela in 2001.

In September 2006, the United States Congress voted to award the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award which may be bestowed by the Legislative Branch of the United States government. The actual ceremony and awarding of the medal took place on 17 October 2007. The Chinese Government has reacted angrily to the award, which it merely refers to as "the extremely wrong arrangements." Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said: "It seriously violates the norm of international relations and seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people and interfered with China's internal affairs." The Dalai Lama brushed off China's criticism, telling news reporters that such things "always happen".

In June 2007, the Dalai Lama made an Australian tour, delivering public talks in Perth, Bendigo, Melbourne, Geelong, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane.

On 25 September 2007, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met, for "private and informal talks", with the Dalai Lama in the Berlin Chancellery amid protest from China (as it could cut trade ties with Beijing). China cancelled separate talks with German officials (including Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries).


Tenzin Gyatso during his visit to Italy in 2007.
Tenzin Gyatso during his visit to Italy in 2007.

In May 2007, Chhime Rigzing, a senior spokesman for the Tibetan spiritual leader's office, stated that the Dalai Lama wants to reduce his political burden as he moves into "retirement".

Rigzing stated "The political leadership will be transferred over a period of time but he will inevitably continue to be the spiritual leader because as the Dalai Lama, the issue of relinquishing the post does not arise."

The Dalai Lama announced he would like the elected Tibetan parliament-in-exile to have more responsibility over administration.

On 1 September 2007, China issued new rules controlling the selection of the next Dalai Lama which will virtually prevent his followers from choosing his reincarnation, since any reincarnation must bear the seal of approval by China's cabinet. These regulations could potentially result in one Dalai Lama approved by the Chinese government, and another Dalai Lama chosen outside Tibet. This would be similar to the present unfortunate situation with the Panchen Lamas, but at least the one chosen by the Tibetans would presumably be outside Chinese control and not kept as a prisoner.

Awards and honours

The Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Tenzin Gyatso in 2006.
The Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Tenzin Gyatso in 2006.

The Dalai Lama has received numerous awards over his spiritual and political career.On 22 June 2006 he became one of only four people ever to be recognized with an Honorary Citizenship by the Canadian House of Commons. On 28 May 2005, he received the Christmas Humphreys Award from the Buddhist Society in the United Kingdom. Perhaps his most notable award was the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on 10 December 1989 (see below). Some other notable awards and honours he has received:

  • Honorary Doctorate in chemistry and pharmacy from University of Münster on 20 September 2007
  • Honorary Doctorate from Southern Cross University on 8 June 2007
  • Presidential Distinguished Professorship from Emory University in February 2007.
  • Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters conferred by the State University of New York at Buffalo in September 2006.
  • Honorary citizenship of Canada in 2006.
  • Honorary citizenship of Ukraine, during the anniversary of the Nobel Prize on 9 December 2006 in Mc Leod Ganj.
  • United States Congressional Gold Medal on 27 September 2006
  • Key to New York City from Mayor Bloomberg on 25 September 2005
  • Jaime Brunet Prize for Human Rights on 9 October 2003
  • Hilton Humanitarian Award on 24 September 2003
  • International League for Human Rights Award on 19 September 2003
  • Life Achievement Award from Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization on 24 November 1999
  • Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute on 4 June 1994
  • World Security Annual Peace Award from the New York Lawyer's Alliance on 27 April 1994
  • Berkeley Medal from University of California, Berkeley, on 20 April 1994
  • Peace and Unity Awards from the National Peace conference on 23 August 1991
  • Earth Prize from the United Earth and U.N. Environmental Program on 5 June 1991
  • Advancing Human Liberty from the Freedom House on 17 April 1991
  • Le Prix de la Memoire from the Fondation Danielle Mitterrand on 4 December 1989
  • Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Award from the Congressional Rights Caucus Human Rights on 21 July 1989
  • Key to Los Angeles from Mayor Bradley in September 1979.
  • Key to San Francisco from Mayor Feinstein on 27 September 1979

Nobel Peace Prize

On 10 December 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the chairman of the Nobel committee said that the award was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi." The committee recognized his efforts in "the struggle of the liberation of Tibet and the efforts for a peaceful resolution instead of using violence." In his acceptance speech he criticised China for using force against 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.


Examples of films recently made about the 14th Dalai Lama:

  • Dalai Lama Renaissance (2007) – documentary narrated by Harrison Ford
  • 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama (2006) – documentary
  • What Remains of Us (2004) – documentary
  • Seven Years in Tibet (1997), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
  • Kundun (1997), directed by Martin Scorsese
  • Compassion in Exile: The Life of the 14th Dalai Lama (1993) – documentary

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