10 Big Questions About Buddhism, Answered


What's So Important About the Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama addresses the media at a Children in Crossfire press conference on Sept. 11, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. He is the patron of this charity. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, which is a blend of Mahayana Buddhism and pre-Buddhist Tibetan religions. Among the unique beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism is that the Dalai Lama is an enlightened being or bodhisattva that has chosen to be reincarnated more than a dozen times over hundreds of years in order to teach the dharma to the world [source: The Dalai Lama].

In addition to being a spiritual giant, the Dalai Lama is also recognized as the political leader of Tibet. This role took on new meaning after communist China invaded Tibet in 1950 and brutally suppressed a Tibetan uprising in 1959, causing the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, to flee into exile in India, where he remains [source: The Dalai Lama].

"Lama" is a Tibetan word for teacher, equivalent to the Sanskrit "guru." The word "dalai" is Mongol for "ocean," so the Dalai Lama is understood to be a teacher whose wisdom is as deep as the ocean [source: BBC]. Tibetans believe each Dalai Lama is a direct incarnation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet. Successive incarnations of Chenrezig have been identified for 600 years, but the first individual to receive the title of Dalai Lama lived in the 17th century [source: The Dalai Lama].

Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama and is beloved for his wisdom and compassion far beyond the exiled community of Tibetan Buddhists. Chosen by religious officials as the reincarnated leader at age 2, after he showed certain signs, the Dalai Lama was educated in Tibetan monasteries starting at age 6. Although briefly recognized by China as Tibet's rightful leader in the 1950s, he has served most of his seven decades as Dalai Lama in exile. His nonviolent quest for Tibet's freedom from Chinese occupation earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 [source: Nobel].

The Dalai Lama has written best-selling books translating Buddhist teachings of compassion and happiness for lay audiences, and travels the world speaking to people of all religious backgrounds about the blessings that come with cultivating a spirit of tolerance, forgiveness and self-discipline. In 2011, the Dalai Lama officially retired from political service and said that he wants the Tibetan people to decide if the next Dalai Lama should continue as political leader [source: The Dalai Lama].