Dalai Lama

[vc_section][vc_row][vc_column width=\”1/2\”][vc_column_text]Buddhism, Dalai Lama, and China

1. The Dalai Lama


1.1. The rôle of the Dalai Lama

Potala PalacePotala Palace, the Dalai Lama\’s residence until 1959

The Dalai Lama is the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism and traditionally has been responsible for the governing of Tibet, until the Chinese government took control in 1959. Before 1959, his official residence was Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

The Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the largest and most influential tradition in Tibet.

1.2. What Different Types of Buddhism Are There?

Buddhism is a major world religion with over 500 million followers. And even though it began in India over 2,000 years ago, it continues to draw devoted practitioners from all over the world.

Today, Buddhist temples can be found from Sri Lanka to Canada.

So, what different types of Buddhism are there? And does a Buddhist in North America follow the same practices as a Buddhist in Japan?

1.2.1. How Many Types of Buddhism Are There?

We’re going to take a look at how to practice Buddhism through the three main branches of Buddhism:

  • Theravada Buddhism
  • Mahayana Buddhism
  • Vajrayana Buddhism



But don’t be fooled. There are many different types of Buddhism, including Zen, Thai Forest Tradition, and Pure Land Buddhism.

1.2.2. Theravada Buddhism: The School of the Elders


Theravada, the School of the Elders, is the oldest school of Buddhism. It draws its practices from the earliest Buddhist teachings.

Theravada Buddhism follows the Pali Canon — the oldest recorded teachings of the Buddha. The teachings are written in the ancient Indian language, Pali. Both Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism feature the Pali language.

Theravada is the most conservative branch of Buddhism. In fact, a number of strict rules govern Theravada meditation practice. And new teachings are often rejected from the practice.

The aim of Theravada Buddhism is to become an arhat — a fully awakened being. This can be achieved through meditation, the contemplation of sutras, and following the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path includes right vision, right emotion, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.

Today, Theravada Buddhism is most popular in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

1.2.3. Mahayana Buddhism: The Great Vehicle


Next up is Mahayana Buddhism: the most popular branch of Buddhism today. Mahayana Buddhism is most popular in Nepal, Japan, China, Tibet, and Korea.

In Sanskrit, Mahayana means, “Great Vehicle.” Why? Well, this is a reference to the Mahayana Buddhism teaching of the bodhisattva.

A bodhisattva is a person who has become awakened. In fact, bodhisattvas have the ability to access nirvana, the state beyond suffering. But instead of doing so, they choose to delay their nirvana to guide and teach others. 

In Mahayana Buddhism, anyone can become a bodhisattva. And bodhisattvas work to help others achieve freedom from suffering.

Unlike Theravada Buddhism, the Mahayana tradition allows for new teachings outside the Pali canon. Popular sutras in Mahayana Buddhism are the Lotus Sutra and the Heart Sutra.

1.2.4.Vajrayana Buddhism: The Way of the Diamond


Vajrayana Buddhism is known as “the Way of the Diamond.” But it’s sometimes also called Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism.

And as far as different types of Buddhism go, Vajrayana is one of the most unique.

What makes Vajrayana Buddhism so special is its approach to rapid Enlightenment through the use of tantras. The tantras are mystical texts that date back to the 6th century CE. Some of these practices combine spiritual and physical practices that can be overwhelming for beginners.

Because of the intense application needed for many Vajrayana Buddhist practices, most Vajrayana schools only accept advanced teachers and students.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is a religion in exile, forced from its homeland when Tibet was conquered by the Chinese. At one time it was thought that 1 in 6 Tibetan men were Buddhist monks.

The best known face of Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since he fled Chinese occupation of his country in 1959.

Tibetan Buddhism combines the essential teachings of Mahayana Buddhism with Tantric and Shamanic, and material from an ancient Tibetan religion called Bon.

Although Tibetan Buddhism is often thought to be identical with Vajrayana Buddhism, they are not identical – Vajrayana is taught in Tibetan Buddhism together with the other vehicles.



Buddhism became a major presence in Tibet towards the end of the 8th century CE. It was brought from India at the invitation of the Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen, who invited two Buddhist masters to Tibet and had important Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan.

First to come was Shantarakshita, abbot of Nalanda in India, who built the first monastery in Tibet. He was followed by Padmasambhava, who came to use his wisdom and power to overcome \”spiritual\” forces that were stopping work on the new monastery.


  • Groups within Tibetan Buddhism
  • Nyingmapa: Founded by Padmasambhava, this is oldest sect, noted in the West for the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
  • Kagyupa: Founded by Tilopa (988-1069), the Kagyupa tradition is headed by the Karmapa Lama. Important Kagyupa teachers include Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa.
  • Sakyapa: Created by Gonchok Gyelpo (1034-1102) and his son Gunga Nyingpo (1092-1158).
  • Gelugpa: (The Virtuous School) Founded by Tsong Khapa Lobsang Drakpa (also called Je Rinpoche) (1357 – 1419), this tradition is headed by the Dalai Lama.
  • New Kadampa Tradition: one of the major Buddhist schools in the UK, founded by the Tibetan-born Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Some Buddhists and non-Buddhists regard the NKT as outside the mainstream tradition.


  • Special features of Tibetan Buddhism
  • the status of the teacher or \”Lama\”
  • preoccupation with the relationship between life and death
  • important role of rituals and initiations
  • rich visual symbolism
  • elements of earlier Tibetan faiths
  • mantras and meditation practice
  • Tibetan Buddhist practice features a number of rituals, and spiritual practices such as the use of mantras and yogic techniques.
  • Supernatural beings are prominent in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhas and bodhisattvas abound, gods and spirits taken from earlier Tibetan religions continue to be taken seriously. Bodhisattvas are portrayed as both benevolent godlike figures and wrathful deities.


  • This metaphysical context has allowed Tibetan Buddhism to develop a strong artistic tradition, and paintings and other graphics are used as aids to understanding at all levels of society.
  • Visual aids to understanding are very common in Tibetan Buddhism – pictures, structures of various sorts and public prayer wheels and flags provide an ever-present reminder of the spiritual domain in the physical world.
  • Tibetan Buddhism is strong in both monastic communities and among lay people.
  • The lay version has a strong emphasis on outwardly religious activities rather than the inner spiritual life: there is much ritual practice at temples, pilgrimage is popular – often including many prostrations, and prayers are repeated over and over – with the use of personal or public prayer wheels and flags. There are many festivals, and funerals are very important ceremonies.
  • Lay people provide physical support to the monasteries as well as relying on the monks to organise the rituals.

The institution of the Dalai Lama is a relatively recent one. There have been only 14 Dalai Lamas in the history of Buddhism, and the first and second Dalai Lamas were given the title posthumously.

According to Buddhist belief, the current Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of a past lama who decided to be reborn again to continue his important work, instead of moving on from the wheel of life. A person who decides to be continually reborn is known as tulku.

Buddhists believe that the first tulku in this reincarnation was Gedun Drub, who lived from 1391-1474 and the second was Gendun Gyatso.

However, the name Dalai Lama, meaning Ocean of Wisdom, was not conferred until the third reincarnation in the form of Sonam Gyatso in 1578.

The current Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso.

1.3. Choosing a Dalai Lama

After the death of a Dalai Lama it has traditionally been the responsibility of the High Lamas of the Gelugpa Tradition and the Tibetan government to find his reincarnation.

The High Lamas search for a boy who was born around the same time as the death of the Dalai Lama.


It can take around two or three years to identify the Dalai Lama, and for the current, 14th Dalai Lama, it was four years before he was found.

There are several ways in which the High Lamas might find out where the next reincarnation will be found.

1.3.1. Dream

One of the High Lamas may dream about some mark or location that will identify the boy.

1.3.2. Smoke

If the previous Dalai Lama was cremated, High Lamas will watch the direction of the smoke and search accordingly.

1.3.3. Oracle Lake

High Lamas go to a holy lake, called Lhamo Lhatso, in central Tibet and watch for a sign from the lake itself. This may be either a vision or some indication of the direction in which to search.The home and village of Tenzin Gyatso was identified in a vision from this lake.

Once the High Lamas have located the home and the boy, they present a number of artefacts which they have brought with them in preparation, to the child.

Amongst these artefacts are a number of items that belonged to the deceased Dalai Lama. If the boy chooses the items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, this is seen as a sign, in conjunction with all of the other indications, that the boy is a reincarnation.

This procedure, however, as Tenzin Gyatso has said himself, is not set in stone; if two thirds of the Tibetan people wish to change the method of identifying the next reincarnation, this would be just as valid.

The search for the Dalai Lama has usually been limited to Tibet, although the third tulku was born in Mongolia. However, as Tibet has been taken by the Chinese government, Tenzin Gyatso says that if he is reborn it will not be in a country run by the People\’s Republic of China, or any other country which is not free.

Interestingly, Tenzin Gyatso has also expressed doubts over whether he will be reborn at all, suggesting the function of the Dalai Lama may be over. However, until Tibet is reunited with its spiritual leader, it seems likely that there will continue to be a Dalai Lama.

1.4. Importance of Dalai Lama


The Dalai Lama is considered a living Buddha of compassion, a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Chenrezig, who renounced Nirvana in order to help mankind. The title originally only signified the preeminent Buddhist monk in Tibet, a remote land about twice the size of Texas that sits veiled behind the Himalayas. But starting in the 17th century, the Dalai Lama also wielded full political authority over the secretive kingdom. That changed with Mao Zedong’s conquest of Tibet, which brought the rule of the current Dalai Lama to an end. On March 17, 1959, he was forced to escape to India.

In the six decades since, the leader of the world’s most secluded people has become the most recognizable face of a religion practiced by nearly 500 million people worldwide. But his prominence extends beyond the borders of his own faith, with many practices endorsed by Buddhists, like mindfulness and meditation, permeating the lives of millions more around the world. What’s more, the lowly farmer’s son named as a “God-King” in his childhood has been embraced by the West since his exile. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and was heralded in Martin Scorcese’s 1997 biopic. The cause of Tibetan self-rule remains alive in Western minds thanks to admirers ranging from Richard Gere to the Beastie Boys to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who calls him a “messenger of hope for millions of people around the world.”

Yet as old age makes travel more difficult, and as China’s political clout has grown, the Dalai Lama’s influence has waned. Today the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that drove him out of Tibet is working to co-opt Buddhist principles — as well as the succession process itself. Officially atheist, the party has proved as adaptive to religion as it is to capitalism, claiming a home for faith in the nationalism Beijing has activated under Xi Jinping. In January, the CCP announced it would “Sinicize” Buddhism over the next five years, completing a multimillion-dollar rebranding of the faith as an ancient Chinese religion.

When did Dalai Lama go into exile ?

The political landscape of China started changing in the 1950ies. Plans were made to bring Tibet officially under Chinese control. But in March 1959, Tibetans took to the streets demanding an end to Chinese rule. Chinese People’s Republic troops crushed the revolt and thousands were killed.

The Dalai Lama fled from Tibet to India with thousands of followers during the 1959 Tibetan uprising, where he was welcomed by former Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru who gave him permission to form the \’Tibetan government in exile\’ in Dharamsala.


From Pakistan to Myanmar, Chinese money has rejuvenated ancient Buddhist sites and promoted Buddhist studies. Beijing has spent $3 billion transforming the Nepalese town of Lumbini, birthplace of Lord Buddha, into a luxury pilgrimage site, boasting an airport, hotels, convention center, temples and a university. China has hosted World Buddhist Forums since 2006, inviting monks from all over the world.

Although not, of course, the world’s most famous. Beijing still sees the Dalai Lama as a dangerous threat and swiftly rebukes any nation that entertains him. That appears to be working too. Once the toast of capitals around the world, the Dalai Lama has not met a world leader since 2016. Even India, which has granted asylum to him as well as to about 100,000 other Tibetans, is not sending senior representatives to the diaspora’s commemoration of his 60th year in exile, citing a “very sensitive time” for bilateral relations with Beijing. Every U.S. President since George H.W. Bush has made a point of meeting the Dalai Lama until Donald Trump, who is in negotiations with China over reforming its state-controlled economy.

Still, the Dalai Lama holds out hope for a return to his birthplace. Despite his renown and celebrity friends, he remains a man aching for home and a leader removed from his people. Having retired from “political responsibility” within the exiled community in 2011, he merely wants “the opportunity to visit some holy places in China for pilgrimage,” he tells TIME. “I sincerely just want to serve Chinese Buddhists.”

Despite that, the CCP still regards the Dalai Lama as a “wolf in monk’s robes” and a dangerous “splittist,” as Chinese officials call him. He has rejected calls for Tibetan independence since 1974 — acknowledging the geopolitical reality that any settlement must keep Tibet within the People’s Republic of China. He instead advocates for greater autonomy and religious and cultural freedom for his people. It matters little.

“It’s hard to believe a return would happen at this point,” says Gray Tuttle, a professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia. “China holds all the cards.

1.5. Dalai Lama, India and China

The Dalai Lama was only supposed to assume a political role on his 18th birthday, with a regent ruling until then. But the arrival of Mao’s troops to reclaim dominion over Tibet in 1950 caused the Tibetan government to give him full authority at just 15. With no political experience or knowledge of the outside world, he was thrust into negotiations with an invading army while trying to calm his fervent but poorly armed subjects.

Conditions worsened over the next nine years of occupation. Chinese proclamations calling Lord Buddha a “reactionary” enraged a pious populace of 2.7 million. By March 1959, rumors spread that the Dalai Lama would be abducted or assassinated, fomenting a doomed popular uprising that looked likely to spill into serious bloodshed. “Just in front of the Potala [Palace], on the other side of the river, there was a Chinese artillery division,” the Dalai Lama recalls. “Previously all the guns were covered, but around the 15th or 16th, all the covers were removed. So then we knew it was very serious. On the 17th morning, I decided to escape.”

The two-week journey to India was fraught, as Chinese troops hunted the party across some of the world’s most unforgiving terrain. The Dalai Lama reached India incognito atop a dzo, a cross between a yak and a cow. Every building in which he slept en route was immediately consecrated as a chapel, but the land he left behind was ravaged by Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Hundreds of thousands died. By some reckonings, 99.9% of the country’s 6,400 monasteries were destroyed.

Tibet’s desire to remain isolated and undisturbed had served it poorly. The kingdom had no useful allies, the government of Lhasa having declined to establish official diplomatic relations with any other nation or join international organizations. The Dalai Lama’s supplications were thus easy to ignore. Tibet had remained staunchly neutral during World War II, and the U.S. was already mired in a fresh conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

“[First Indian Prime Minister] Pandit Nehru told me, ‘America will not fight the Chinese communists in order to liberate Tibet, so sooner or later you have to talk with the Chinese government,’” the Dalai Lama recalls.

When Tibetans first followed the Dalai Lama into India, they lived with bags packed and did not build proper houses, believing a glorious return would come at a moment’s notice. It never did.

Four decades of conversations between China and exiled Tibetan leadership have led nowhere. Consolatory talks began in the 1970s between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and continued under Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin. The talks stipulated that Tibetan independence was off the table, but even so, the drawn-out process was suspended in 1994 and after briefly resuming in the 2000s is again at a standstill.

Meanwhile, Tibet remains firmly under the thumb of Beijing. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has lamented that conditions are “fast deteriorating” in the region. In May, Tibetan businessman Tashi Wangchuk was jailed for five years merely for promoting the Tibetan language. In December, the government issued a directive to stop Tibetan language and culture from being taught in monasteries. Once known as the “abode of the gods,” Lhasa has become a warren of neon and concrete like any other Chinese city. Although the U.S. officially recognizes Tibet as part of China, Vice President Mike Pence said in July that the Tibetan people “have been brutally repressed by the Chinese government.”

Many allege their cultural and religious freedom is under attack by the Beijing government. Some in Tibet resort to extreme measures to protest their treatment. Since 2009, more than 150 Tibetans — monks, nuns and ordinary civilians — have set themselves ablaze in protest. Often self-immolators exalt the Dalai Lama with their final breaths. Despite his message of nonviolence, the Dalai Lama has been criticized for refusing to condemn the practice. “It’s a very difficult situation,” he says. “If I criticize [self-immolators], then their family members may feel very sad.” He adds, however, that their sacrifice has “no effect and creates more problems.”

Beijing vehemently refutes accusations of human-rights violations in Tibet, insisting that it fully respects the religious and cultural rights of the Tibetan people, and highlights how development has raised living standards in the previously isolated and impoverished land. China has spent more than $450 million renovating Tibet’s major monasteries and religious sites since the 1980s, according to official figures, with $290 million more budgeted through 2023. The world’s No. 2 economy has also greenlighted massive infrastructure projects worth $97 billion, with new airports and highways carving through the world’s highest mountains, nominally to boost the prosperity of the 6 million ethnic Tibetans.

This level of investment presents a dilemma to Tibetans stranded in exile. The majority live in India, under a special “guest” arrangement by which they can work and receive an education but, crucially, not buy property. Many toil as roadside laborers or make trinkets to sell to tourists. And so large numbers of young Tibetans are making the choice to return, lured to a homeland they have never known. “If you want a safe and secure future for your children, then either you go back to Tibet or some other country where you can get citizenship,” says Dorji Kyi, director of the Lha NGO in Dharamsala, which supports Tibetan exiles.

1.6. Who will succeed the 14th Dalai Lama?

Because of the threat from China, the 14th Dalai Lama has made a number of statements that would make it difficult for a Chinese appointed 15th Dalai Lama to be seen as legitimate.

According to him, the institution of the Dalai Lama might not be needed any more. However, he has also said it was up to the people if they wanted to preserve this aspect of Tibetan Buddhism and continue the Dalai Lama lineage.

Another option the Dalai Lama has proposed would be for him to appoint his reincarnation before he dies. In this scenario, the Dalai Lama would transfer his spiritual realization to the successor. The Dalai Lama has also stated that if he dies outside of Tibet, his reincarnation would be located abroad, most likely India. He also mentioned the possibility of being reborn as a woman.

1.7. Why monks wear different color robes around the world?

Buddhist monks and nuns wear robes (cãvara or kàsàva) rather than conventional lay clothes. The attire consists of three parts; a smaller rectangular robe wrapped around the waist (antaravàsaka), a belt (bandhana) used to secure it, and a larger rectangular robe (uttaràsaïga) draped around the whole body, over the left shoulder and under the right arm. Sometimes the Buddha would drape part of his robe over his head, perhaps to shield his eyes when meditating (S.I,167). A double-layered robe (saïghàñi) is used in cold weather. Robes could be made out of linen, cotton, silk, wool, sana fibre or hemp (Vin.I,394). Some monks made their robes out of rags and scraps of cloth sewn together. Concerning such robes, the Buddha said that when a monk begins to experience the joys of meditation, his rags will seem to him like beautifully-coloured apparel (A.IV,230).

The popular term `saffron robe\’ is a misnomer Ý saffron (kuïkuma) has never been used to colour robes because it is not a dye and even if it were it is far too expensive. The correct colour is yellow, orange or tawny brown, the same as the kaõikàra flower, Pterospermum acerifolium (Ja.II,25). To the ancient Indians this colour suggested detachment or letting go, because leaves go yellowish-brown before dropping off the trees. A set of robes is three of the eight basic requisites of monks and nuns. To many Buddhists, as to the Buddha himself, the yellow robes were more than mere clothing, they were also a symbol of the highest ethical and spiritual ideals. The Buddha said: `Whoever is free from impurities, filled with virtues, self-controlled and truthful, he is indeed worthy of the yellow robe\’ (Dhp.10).

For most Buddhist schools, including those whose monks wear red robes, there is no special significance to this color.

Originally monks dressed in ochre/saffron/yellowish robes, but there were some variation as the actual shade depends on the pigment used. As Buddhism spread to different regions of the world, pigments extracted from local products were used to dye the robes, producing different hues towards the maroon, brownish or plain red.

In some locations, such as Japan and Korea, robes eventually became gray, black and even bright blue.

The most common colours are seen in these countries

1.7.1. Burma / Myanmar and Tibet — Red


1.7.2. Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos- orange


1.7.3. Sri Lanka- Yellowish/Orangish


1.7.4. China and Korea — Grey / Light Blue


1.7.5. Japan- Black

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