The 14th Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan people.
In the past, Dalai Lamas have also served as the political leaders of Tibet. The current Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet in 1959 after a failed Tibetan uprising against the Chinese occupation. He led the Tibetan government-in-exile for many years but has since passed his political authority to democratic institutions.
In occupied Tibet, any sign of loyalty to the Dalai Lama can be met with arrests, lengthy sentences, torture, violent crackdowns and 're-education' programmes. Despite more than 50 years of China's oppressive occupation, Tibetans remain fiercely loyal to their spiritual leader.
Who is the Dalai Lama?
Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lamas are the manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion and are enlightened beings, who have chosen to take rebirth (reincarnation) in order to serve humanity. The first Dalai Lama was identified in the 15th century.
The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born on 6 July 1935 in Amdo, Tibet. He was recognised as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama when he was two years old. When China invaded Tibet in 1950, he was forced to assume political power although he was still a teenager.
After fleeing to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama became the highest-profile global advocate for Tibet and a highly respected religious and moral leader. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and continues to travel the world giving teachings on spiritual and ethical issues.
How the Dalai Lamas are chosen
The Dalai Lama’s institution (Gaden Phodrang Labrang) and senior Tibetan Buddhist lamas identify the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhist practices and tradition. The process also includes testing candidates to see if they can identify belongings of the previous Dalai Lama. Traditionally the Panchen Lama (the second highest Lama in Tibet) would be an important part of this process. In 1995, Ghedhun Choekyi Nyima, who had been identified by the Dalai Lama as the new Panchen Lama, was abducted by China and replaced with its own candidate. The Beijing-approved Panchen Lama is rejected by almost all Tibetans.
The 14th Dalai Lama has said that that the next Dalai Lama may be a woman or born outside Tibet. He has also said that that he may not be reincarnated at all, and the line of Dalai Lamas could end with him. Despite being an officially atheist regime, China's Communist government has strongly rejected his position, claiming that the appointment of Dalai Lama’s is a matter for the government in Beijing. China's appointment of their own Panchen Lama is seen by many as an attempt to take control of the selection process for the next Dalai Lama when the time comes.
The Dalai Lama is revered by Tibetans and the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile is a source of grief and anger inside Tibet. China’s bid to choose his replacement is an attempt to prevent an independent Dalai Lama beyond its control generating support for Tibet outside China, and serving as a focus for resistance inside Tibet
China and the Dalai Lama
China strongly criticises the Dalai Lama both inside and outside Tibet. It accuses him of seeking to rule Tibet and being a “splittist” who seeks Tibetan independence. His image is banned inside Tibet and Tibetans may be jailed for calling for his long life or publicly praising him. In jail, as well as in religious institutions, Tibetans are frequently ordered to denounce the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama has passed all political power in the exile Tibetan community to a democratically elected parliament and prime minister. While he continues to advocate for the preservation of Tibet’s religion, culture, language and environment, he does not support Tibetan independence and has proposed a Middle Way Approach, in which Tibet remains a part of the People’s Republic of China but has greater control of its own affairs.
Because of his profile and popularity, China objects strongly to political leaders from other nations meeting him. In recent years, senior figures in the governments of the UK, France, Germany, Norway and South Africa among others have avoided meeting the Dalai Lama, although US presidents have continued to receive him.
How you can take action
China may wish to undermine the Dalai Lama, but Tibetans continue to push back. Free Tibet’s ‘Beyond Belief’ campaign supports their struggle against China’s relentless interference in their religious affairs.
Read more about the campaign, and sign the petition which calls on political and religious leaders to tell China that they will never recognise any Dalai Lama it appoints.
Dorje Shugden and the Dalai Lama controversy
The Dalai Lama is sometimes met with protests when he travels abroad. As the head of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has “strongly discouraged” the worship of a Buddhist spirit called Dorje Shugden (also known as Dolgyal) because he believes it causes sectarian disharmony. Members of the community of Buddhists who follow Shugden claim that he has banned their religious practice and that they suffer from discrimination. Their accusations are often expressed in strongly inflammatory terms. The Chinese government has supported Shugden worship inside Tibet and accused the Dalai Lama of stirring up “disharmony” by speaking against it. Beijing has effectively prohibited Tibetan monasteries from following the Dalai Lama’s teaching regarding Shugden, allowing it to use the issue to suppress signs of loyalty to him.
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Much of the global support for Tibet is thanks to the Dalai Lama’s popularity. Despite being in his 80's, he still has a very busy schedule, giving teachings in India and touring the world to give talks. China's denigration of the Dalai Lama, their prohibitions on following his teachings and their refusal to allow him to enter Tibet is a common cause of protest in Tibet.