A Brief Biography of the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet was born in 1935, soon after the 13th Dalai Lama passed away. He was the fourth son of a poor peasant family in Takster village, Amdo province, eastern Tibet.

The line of Dalai Lamas*, spiritual and temporal rulers of Tibet since the 13th century, is a succession of incarnations. A Dalai Lama is not appointed or elected; he is born to the position. Each Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of the previous one. Tibetans regard the Dalai Lamas as the human embodiment of Avalokiteshvara (in Tibetan, Chenrezig), the deity of compassion, who chooses to return to the world to serve humanity. Before each Dalai Lama dies, he leaves signs to indicate where he will take his next rebirth.

In accordance with tradition, search parties were sent to find the successor to the thirteenth Dalai Lama. Two years later, following the various signs and portents, a government party was led to Takster, where they found the infant Lhamo Thondup. After a series of tests, the child (later named Tenzin Gyatso) was recognized as the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama.

But by then the Chinese had control of Amdo. The local leader demanded a huge ransom before he would release the child. After two years of negotiations, the young Dalai Lama and his entourage were allowed to leave Amdo and travel to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where he was officially installed in the Potala palace.


The Dalai Lama's education as a Buddhist monk began in earnest when he was six. After eighteen years of intense study, he graduated with the equivalent of a Ph.D in Buddhist metaphysics. It was granted after a three-month oral examination in public before thousands of monks and scholars.

In 1958 he took preliminary examinations at each of the three monastic universities, Drepung, Sera and Ganden. The final examination was held in 1959 at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. That morning, the young scholar was examined by 30 scholars of logic. In the afternoon, he debated Buddhist philosophy with 15 scholars, and in the evening, 35 more scholars tested his knowledge of the canon of monastic discipline and metaphysics.

The Dalai Lama passed with honours, attaining the highest academic degree of Geshe Lharampa, while under intense political pressure from the Chinese to capitulate to their demands to take over Tibet.

* "Dalai" is a Mongolian word meaning "ocean", and "Lama" is a Tibetan term corresponding to the Indian word "guru" or teacher.


A regent was appointed during the Dalai Lama's minority, but in 1950, at just 16 years old, he was forced to assume full political power. The crisis was precipitated by the Chinese communist invasion. Much of the country was occupied and armed Chinese garrisons were established. With the Tibetan army no match for the invading forces, the Dalai Lama's only option was to negotiate.

In 1954 he was invited to Beijing where he and his party met Chairman Mao, Chou En Lai and other Chinese leaders intent on convincing them they would be better off under Chinese rule.

In 1956 His Holiness visited India, where he met Nehru but won little support for the Tibetan cause.

In 1959 the Tibetans rebelled, the Chinese crushed the uprising and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee across the Himalayas to neighbouring India.

His Holiness immediately established a democratic government-in-exile dedicated to work for the freedom of Tibet and the welfare of Tibetan refugees. With the help of the Indian Government, he set up schools, including English, Hindi and western-style education, along with Tibetan language and culture.

Then came handicraft factories, hospitals, orphanages, monasteries and cultural institutions -- the foundation for a new Tibetan society. There are now 53 Tibetan refugee settlements in India.

In the early days of exile the Dalai Lama found it difficult to rally international political support for his people. However three UN General Assembly resolutions were passed in 1959, 1961 and 1965 condemning China for "violations of the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people". Then in August 1991, after the violent repression of political demonstrations in Lhasa, the United Nations again passed a resolution criticising Chinese policies in Tibet and calling on the Chinese "to fully respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Tibetan people." Recently a number of governments, including the United States, Germany and France, have spoken out against continued Chinese repression in Tibet.

In the last decade, at the invitation of groups and governments, the Dalai Lama has travelled the world, seeking support for the Tibetan cause and sharing his belief in kindness and compassion as the ultimate solution to personal and political conflict.

Since his first visit to the West in 1973, he has met many world leaders, among them the Presidents of the United States, France and Germany, the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, members of European royalty, including Prince Charles and the King of Norway, and civic and religious leaders, including His Holiness Pope John Paul II.

The Dalai Lama has addressed the United States Congress, the European Parliament, and innumerable University, inter-faith and civic gatherings. In September this year he will be the keynote speaker at a major environmental conference in Sydney.


US Congressman Mel Levine:

"His Holiness has become over the past 30 years a symbol of peace and a leading international spokesperson for the cause of non-violent social change. His spiritual and political leadership of Tibetans has been the principal force for the preservation of the Tibetan culture and way of life." (Congressional Record, July 1989)

Petra Kelly, author and MP, Germany:

"The Dalai Lama's one of the very few individuals or male leaders who is soft, and feminist-thinking and also ecological and decentralized in his thinking. There are very few male leaders like that in the world. I think this Dalai Lama is probably the most political and the most effective in bringing across that non-violence is the only solution in the atomic age."

Thomas Merton, Christian monk and writer:

"The Dalai Lama is a most impressive person. He is strong and alert, bigger than I had expected ... a very solid, energetic, generous and warm person, very capably trying to handle enormous problems -- none of which he mentioned directly. There was not a word of politics. The whole conversation was about religions and philosophy and especially ways of meditation." (From his Asian Journal, after meeting the Dalai Lama in 1968)

Rabbi Irving Greenberg:

"The Dalai Lama taught us a lot about Buddhism, even more about menschlichkeit [being human], and most of all about Judaism. As all true dialogue accomplishes, this encounter with the Dalai Lama opened us to the other faith's integrity. Equally valuable, the encounter reminded us of neglected aspects of ourselves, of elements in Judaism that are overlooked until they are reflected back to us in the mirror of the Other."

Degrees and Awards

The Dalai Lama has received honorary degrees from:

Melbourne University, Melbourne, Australia

Benares Hindu University, Varanasi, India

Carrol College, Waukesha, Wisconsin U.S.A.

The University of Oriental Studies, Los Angeles, USA

Seattle University, Seattle, Washington, USA

Universite de Paris, Nanterre, France

Among the awards received by His Holiness are:

1989 Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway

1989 Prix de Memoire, Paris, France

Humanitarian Award, World Management Congress, New York

Raoul Wallenberg Congressional Human Rights Award, New York

Dr Leopold Lucas Prize, University of Tubingen, Germany

Bi-annual Award for the Foundation for Freedom and Human Rights, Berne, Switzerland

Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, Human Behavioural Foundation, New York

Lincoln Award, Research Institute of America

Peace Medal, Asian Buddhist Council for Peace, Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Ramon Magsaysay Award, Manila, the Philippines

Palketta Award, Norway

For more about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, visit these sites:

The material on these pages has been prepared from the press kit on His Holiness the Dalai Lama of the Visit Trust to NZ 1996, with additional material compiled by Ven. Sönam Chökyi, and was prepared for the web by Sönam Tenzin.
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