Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
Tenzin Gyatso has preserved Tibetan culture in the darkest period of its long history and has become a spiritual teacher for millions around the world. Born in 1933, he became Tibet’s ruler when he was still a teen, and he was forced into exile nine years later. He has spent the rest of his life reminding the world of his people’s plight and spreading the Buddhist religion.
Signs appeared shortly after the thirteenth dalai lama’s death in 1933 (an unusual cloud formation; a moss pattern on a wall; shifts in the position of the thirteenth’s corpse in its mummification box) to indicate that the fourteenth would be found in the northeast. These signs were confirmed by the Nechung oracle and by a vision experienced by the regent in a sacred lake.When a search party in disguise visited his house, the child, then only two, successfully identified possessions of the thirteenth and conversed in the Lhasa dialect, although he had never heard it. His family already included an important tulku (reincarnate lama) whose previous incarnation had been the thirteenth’s good friend. Tenzin Gyatso’s recognition was complicated by the need to pay a ransom to a Chinese warlord.
Tenzin Gyatso arrived in Lhasa with great celebration in 1939. He spent a lonely childhood engaged in the difficult and complex study of Buddhist philosophy in the manner of the Gelukpa order. His studies were interrupted by political events, but he completed them nonetheless and earned the highest monastic degree of Geshay Lharampa in public debate in 1959.
15 years old Dalai Lama in Tibet. (Lowell Thomas Jr/AP)
Tenzin Gyatso’s youth was a time of great uncertainty for Tibet, which lost its Mongolian allies to the Soviet Union and its British protection when India became independent. It now faced a new Communist China that claimed Tibet as part of the motherland. Power struggles between religious and secular officials and a rift between the powerful panchen lama (the lama from another reincarnating lineage) and the central government divided and weakened the government. In 1947, there apparently was an attempt to either remove the dalai lama or declare another boy the real dalai lama, but whether it was an attempted coup d’état by the ex-regent, Reteng Tulku, who may or may not have been acting on behalf of the Chinese, or a conspiracy by those who succeeded Reteng, is unclear.The dalai lama’s father was murdered, and Reteng died in prison from torture.
In late 1949, the Chinese began preparations for the invasion of Tibet. This accelerated the timetable for the Dalai Lama’s enthronement, who became ruler of Tibet in 1950 at the age of fifteen. The Chinese occupied Tibet with little difficulty, and although the “Seventeen Point Agreement” was supposed to protect Tibet’s relative autonomy, Chinese control of Tibet grew more pervasive, despite occasional revolts. The dalai lama made visits to Beijing in 1954, where he was subtly threatened by Mao Tse-tung, and to India in 1956, where Jawaharlal Nehru assured him that in the worst case Tibetans could take refuge there.
On March 10, 1959, fearing that the Chinese intended to harm the Dalai Lama, large crowds gathered in Lhasa around his residence. To prevent further bloodshed, the Dalai Lama and his party adopted disguises and escaped to India.
The Dalai Lama at his arrival in India after escaping from Lhasa. (rediff.com)
Many Tibetans attempted to follow him, although most died or were captured in the attempt. In India, the young Dalai Lama did what he could to resettle the refugees, who had many difficulties, such as disease and malnutrition, in their new country. He worked with secular and religious leaders who had also escaped and with Indian and Western experts to establish a new Tibetan government in exile, a system of education, and several institutions to preserve Tibet’s culture, and to reestablish some of the monasteries from Tibet. In his role as a spiritual teacher he has given countless teachings in his home base of Dharamsala, India, and in many other places. In particular, he has conferred the Kalacakra tantric initiation, a specialty of Dalai Lamas, on many large public gatherings in Asia, Europe, and America. He is recognized widely as a brilliant scholar and teacher and has published dozens of books that have a wide and ever-expanding readership.
As the leader of the Tibetan people he has toured the globe to remind the world of the plight of human rights in Tibet. He has unfailingly pressed for nonviolent solutions to world problems, and for these contributions he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
(Daniel Cozort in "Holy People of the World")