Who Are The Dalai Lamas Of Tibetan Buddhism?

Tenzin Gyatso, 14th and current Dalai Lama.
Tenzin Gyatso, 14th and current Dalai Lama.

5. Background and Initial Formation

The term “Dalai Lama” refers to the religious head of a specific school of Buddhism which is native to Tibet. Known as the Gelug, or “Way of Virtue", this branch of Buddhism was founded by Je Tsongkhapa, who lived from 1357 to 1419. Tibetan Buddhism is based on a complex belief system, in which the figure known as the Dalai Lama is regarded by its followers to be a bodhisattva (or awakened being). The Dalai Lama is perceived by the faithful to be the embodiment of the collective compassion which is found in all of the previous Buddhas. The first Dalai Lama was Gedun Drupa (1391 to 1474), who took his initial vows at the young age of fourteen. Tibetan Buddhism can trace its origins back to northern India. In terms of spiritual beliefs, the religion places a great deal of importance on logic as well as the training of the mind.

4. Rise To Power And Accomplishments

The roots of modern Tibetan Buddhism were firmly established in the 14th Century when the first Dalai Lama founded three monasteries around the area of what is now Lhasa in Chinese-held Tibet. After the powerful King of Mongolia, Altan Khan, converted to Buddhism, the influence of the Dalai Lamas grew to include a large portions of Central Asia. At one point in history Tibetan Buddhism was the chief source of spiritual guidance for an estimated population of fifty million people. Through their scholarly teachings and artwork, as well as their religious practices, the Dalai Lamas have continued to maintain a great deal of influence over the local populations f Tibet, and have played a significant role in shaping the local region's distinctively rich culture, economy, and often turbulent political environment.

3. Challenges and Controversies

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the tradition and survival of the Dalai Lamas involves Tibet’s historical struggle and ongoing tenuous political relationship with the government of China. In 1959, during the time of the Tibetan uprising, the 14th Dalai Lama, fearing for his life under the pressures of the Chinese Communist regime, was forced to flee the country and thereafter live in exile. Shortly after the Dalai Lama's clandestine escape, the Chinese government officially dissolved the national government of Tibet. Despite ongoing efforts by the citizens of Tibet, the international community, and the Dalai Lama himself as well, the country has suffered from continued violence and political unrest.

2. Current Dalai Lama

The most recent Dalai Lama, His Holiness the 14th, was born as Tenzin Gyatso in 1935. His religious education began at the age of six, and included a curriculum rich in subjects such as Buddhist philosophy, art, medicine, logic, and the ancient Sanskrit language and writings. After fleeing Tibet and the Chinese rule there, the current Dalai Lama has risen to become a powerful and influential spokesperson for the international movement to restore independence and political autonomy to Tibet. Among his many achievements the Dalai Lama won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The Buddhist leader has also become a globally renowned symbol for living a life of peace and compassion. His throngs of loyal fans and followers across the globe include both Buddhists, those of other religions, and non-believers alike.

1. Historical Significance and Legacy

According to traditional Tibetan Buddhist religious beliefs, the Dalai Lamas are beings who, despite having already achieved enlightenment, have chosen to be reborn in order to serve their fellow human beings. Due to the complex political climate seen in Tibet, the current Dalai Lama has chosen to give up his traditional role as the country’s resident political leader, and instead has endorsed a democratic government geared to ensuring independence for the Tibetan people during the years to come. Historically, following the death of each previous Dalai Lama, the next such leader is reincarnated as a child. The legacy of the present Dalai Lama will no doubt be intertwined with the fight for freedom in Tibet. At the present time, however, and despite continued resistance by the native Tibetans and international outcry, China has shown no signs of giving up its control over Tibet.


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