Who Is the Dalai Lama?

Ambassador of Buddhism to the World
Dalai Lama - Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Updated June 30, 2015.

The Government in Exile

In 1959, Indian Prime Minister Shri Jawaharlal Nehru granted asylum to His Holiness and to Tibetans who accompanied him into exile. In 1960 Nehru permitted His Holiness to establish an administrative center in Upper Dharamsala, also called McLeod Ganj, located on the side of a mountain in the Kangra Valley of the lower Himalayas. Here His Holiness established a democratic government for the Tibetan exiles.

The Tibetan Central Authority (CTA), also called the Tibetan government in exile, functions as a government for the community of Tibetan exiles in India. The CTA provides schools, health services, cultural centers and economic development projects for the 100,000 or so Tibetans in Dharamsala. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not the head of the CTA.

At his insistence, the CTA functions as an elected democracy, with a prime minister and parliament. The CTA's written constitution is based on Buddhist principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 2011 His Holiness officially relinquished all political authority; he was "retired," he said. But that was only from governmental duties.

Media Star

His Holiness remains the Dalai Lama, and everything that stands for, and he is still the glue that holds Tibetan identity together. He has also become an ambassador of Buddhism to the world. At the very least, his familiar, affable countenance has helped westerners feel more comfortable with Buddhism, even if they don't quite understand what Buddhism is.

The Dalai Lama's life has been commemorated in feature films, one starring Brad Pitt and another directed by Martin Scorsese. He is the author of several popular books. He was once the guest editor of a French edition of Vogue. He travels the world, speaking of peace and human rights, and his public appearances draw standing-room-only crowds.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New Yorker ("Holy Man: What Does the Dalai Lama Actually Stand For?"), "For someone who claims to be 'a simple Buddhist monk,' the Dalai Lama has a large carbon footprint and often seems as ubiquitous as Britney Spears."

However, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is also an object of contempt. The government of China perpetually vilifies him. Western politicians who want to demonstrate they are no lapdogs of China like to be photographed with His Holiness. Yet world leaders who agree to meet with him do so in informal settings, to placate China.

There is also a fringe group that greets his public appearances with angry protests. See "About the Dalai Lama Protesters: The Dorje Shugden Sect Vs. the Dalai Lama."

Buddhist Monk and Scholar

He rises every day at 3:30 a.m. to meditate, recite mantras, do prostrations, and study Buddhist texts. This is a schedule he has kept since entering monastic orders at the age of six.

His books and public speeches sometimes are laughably simplistic, as if Buddhism is nothing but a program for being happy and playing nice with others. Yet he has spent his life in a demanding study of Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics and mastering Tibetan Buddhism's esoteric mysticism. He is one of the world's leading scholars of Nagarjuna's philosophy of Madhyamika, which is as difficult and enigmatic as human philosophy gets.

Human Being

All compounded things are subject to decay, the historical Buddha said. As a compounded thing, the man Tenzin Gyatso also is impermanent. In July 2015 he celebrated his 80th birthday. Every report of ill health fills his followers with anxiety. What will happen to Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism, when he is gone?

Tibetan Buddhism remains in a tenuous position, spread thinly across the globe, hurtling through centuries of cultural acclimation in only decades. The Tibetan people are deeply unhappy, and without his moderating leadership Tibetan activism quickly could take a violent road.

Thus, many fear that Tibetan Buddhism cannot take the old path of choosing a small child and waiting for him to grow up to lead Tibetan Buddhism. China will no doubt choose a figurehead Dalai Lama and install him in Lhasa. Without a clear succession of leadership there could be power struggles within Tibetan Buddhism, also.

His Holiness has speculated out loud that he might choose his own successor before his death. This isn't as odd as it seems, since in Buddhism linear time is an illusion. He might also appoint a regent; a popular choice for this position would be the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The young Karmapa has been living in Dharamsala and is being mentored by the Dalai Lama.

The 14th Dalai Lama also has hinted there might not be a 15th. Yet His Holiness embodies great compassion and a life of vow. Surely the karma of this life will lead to a beneficent rebirth.