The Fourteen Dalai Lamas

Dalai Lama is the title given to the spiritual leaders of the Tibetan people. They are part of the Gelug or “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism.

In 1578, the Dalai Lama title was created by Altan Khan, the Prince of Shunyi from Ming Dynasty. They are part of the Gelug or “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama is considered to be the successor in a line of tulkus, the living Buddhas or masters who are believed to be incarnations of Avalokiteśvara (Lord who contemplates), a Bodhisattva (enlightened being) of Compassion.

The name is a combination of the Mongolic word dalai meaning “ocean” or “big” (coming from Mongolian title Dalaiyin qan or Dalaiin khan, translated as ‘Gyatso’ in Tibetan) and the Tibetan word བླ་མ་ (bla-ma) meaning “master, guru”.

The Dalai Lama figure is important for many reasons. Since the time of the fifth Dalai Lama, his personage has always been a symbol of unification of the state of Tibet, where he has represented Buddhist values and traditions.

The Dalai Lamas or their regents headed the Tibetan government from 1642 until 1705, and from 1750 to the 1950s. This Tibetan government also enjoyed the patronage and protection of firstly Mongol kings of the Khoshut and Dzungar Khanates (1642–1720) and then of the emperors of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty (1720–1912). Tibet’s sovereignty was later rejected, however, by both the Republic of China and the current People’s Republic of China.

The List of Dalai Lamas

There have been 14 recognized incarnations of the Dalai Lama. In addition, there was one unofficial Dalai Lama named Yeshe Gyatso (declared in 1707) as a pretender for the position of the 6th Dalai Lama, but was never accepted as the true Dalai Lama by a majority of the population.

  • Gendun Drup, the 1st Dalai Lama (N/A – 1474)

He was considered posthumously the first Dalai Lama. His birth name was Péma Dorje. He was raised as a shepherd until the age of seven. When he was 20 years old, in about 1411, he received the name Gendun Drup upon taking the vows of a monk from the abbot of Narthang Monastery. By the middle of his life, Gendun Drup had become one of the most esteemed scholar-saints in the country. Tradition states that Palden Lhamo, the female guardian spirit of the sacred lake, Lhamo La-tso, promised the First Dalai Lama in one of his visions “…that she would protect the reincarnation lineage of the Dalai Lamas.”. Since the time of Gendün Gyatso, the 2nd Dalai Lama, who formalized the system, monks have gone to the lake to meditate when seeking visions with guidance on finding the next reincarnation. Gendun Drup had no political power. It was in the hands of viceroys such as the Sakyas, the prince of Tsang, and the Mongolian Khagan. He remained the abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery until he died while meditating in 1474 at the age of 84.

The 1st Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup
  • Gendun Gyatso, the 2nd Dalai Lama (1492–1542)

Like the first Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso, the second Dalai Lama was also  posthumously identified only after the 3rd Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, (b. 1543–1588) was given the title. He was born near Shigatse at Tanak, in the Tsang region of central Tibet. Legend has it that soon after he learned to speak, he told his parents his name was Pema Dorje, the birth name of Gendun Drup, the first Dalai Lama (1391–1474) and that his father was Lobsang Drakpa, which was Tsongkapa’s ordination name. When he was four, he reportedly told his parents he wished to live in the Tashilhunpo monastery (next to Shigatse and founded in 1447 by Gendun Drup) to be with his monks. He was proclaimed the reincarnation of Gendun Drup as a young boy – according to some sources at the age of four years, and to others at eight. Gendun Gyatso was, by all accounts, an extraordinary child.

The 2nd Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso

Tradition tells that he recounted in song his previous lives, expressing his wish to return to Tashilhunpo. He records that upon being scolded by his mother at the age of 3, he responded, “Don’t get annoyed at me or I won’t stay, I’ll go back to Tashilhunpo. My house there is better than here. There’s even molasses for me to eat there.” Soon after, a delegation from the monastery came to his home, and it is said that the child manifested extreme delight at their appearance, greeting each member of the delegation by name, and relating to them as if they were old friends. In 1509 he went to southern Tibet and founded the monastery of Chokorgyel Monastery (Chokhor-gyal) close to lake Lhamo La-tso. Gedun Gyatso became abbot of Tashilhunpo in 1512 at the age of thirty-six. In 1517 he became abbot of Drepung monastery and he revived the ‘Great Prayer Festival’. He then became abbot of Sera monastery in 1525. In 1542, Gendun Gyatso died while in deep mediation. He was 67 years old.

  • Sonam Gyatso, the 3rd Dalai Lama (1578–1588)
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The 3rd Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso

Ranu Sicho Pelzang was born in an affluent family, in the year following the death of the Second Dalai Lama. He survived through infancy, unlike all of his siblings, and was recognized as the reincarnation of Gedun Gyatso at the age of three. He was later named Sonam Gyatso. The then King of Mongolia, Altan Khan conferred the title of Dalai Lama on Sonam Gyatso, making him the first leader to be addressed so. He died on 1588 at age 45 due to an illness.

  • Yonten Gyatso, the 4th Dalai Lama (1601–1617)
The 4th Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso

The Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso was the grandson of the Mongolian king, Altan Khan. Oracles had prophesied about his reincarnation as the Fourth Dalai Lama. He was fully ordained at the age of 26, and died a year later at the Drepung monastery. At the age of 27, he died under suspicious circumstances (some say he was poisoned – but evidence is lacking) in the 12th month of the Fire Dragon Year (January 1617).

  • Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama (1642–1682)

The Fifth Dalai Lama was recognized at a time when Tibet was going through a political upheaval. However, in 1642, Lobsang Gyatso was named as both, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet.

The 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso

He is often referred to simply as the Great Fifth, being a key religious and temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet. Gyatso is credited with unifying all Tibet after a Mongol military intervention which ended a protracted era of civil wars. As an independent head of state, he established diplomatic relations with China and other regional countries and also met early European explorers

The Fifth Dalai Lama was a Sanskrit scholar, and was an avid poet as well. His dying wish was that his death be kept a secret from the public until the construction of the Potala Palace was complete. The death of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1682 at the age of 65 was kept hidden until 1696, by Desi Sangye Gyatso, his Prime Minister and, according to persistent rumors, his son, whom he had appointed in 1679.

  • Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama (1697–1706)
The 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso

As per the wishes of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the news of his death was kept under wraps for 15 years. The announcement of his death coincided with the discovery of the Sixth Dalai Lama, bringing great joy to the Tibetan people. This young monk, however, chose to live the life of a layman, and renounced his vows of a novice monk. He had grown up a youth of high intelligence, liberal to a fault, fond of pleasure, alcohol and women, and later led a playboy lifestyle. He spent his time roaming around Lhasa’s lanes and taverns, and was given to writing and composing poems. He is said to have prophesied his reincarnation in a poem before his mysterious disappearance/death. He disappeared near Qinghai, possibly murdered, on his way to Beijing in 1706.

  • Kelzang Gyatso, the 7th Dalai Lama (1720–1757)
The 7th Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso

Following the prophesy of the Sixth Dalai Lama, the child who would go on to become the Seventh Dalai Lama was born in Lithang. Kelsang Gyaso was a renowned scholar who led a simple life, and enriched the life of others with his teachings. Like his predecessor, he also had a penchant for poetry, albeit with spiritual themes.

  • Jamphel Gyatso, the 8th Dalai Lama (1762–1804)
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The 8th Dalai Lama, Jamphel Gyatso

The birth of the Eighth Dalai Lama, Jamphel Gyatso was accompanied by various auspicious events, which convinced the people of Tibet that they had found their true leader. He was fully ordained in 1777, and was credited with the creation of the Norbulingka Park and Summer Palace on the outskirts of Lhasa. He died at the age of 47 in the year 1804.

  • Lungtok Gyatso, the 9th Dalai Lama (1810–1815)
The 9th Dalai Lama, Lungtok Gyatso

The Ninth Dalai Lama, Lungtok Gyatso was born in 1805, and was recognized as the reincarnation of the Eighth Dalai Lama in 1807 in a grand ceremony at Lhasa. However, he faced an untimely death at the tender age of 9 in the year 1815.
He was the only Dalai Lama to die in childhood and was first of a string of four Dalai Lamas to die before reaching 22 years of age.

  • Tsultrim Gyatso, the 10th Dalai Lama (1826–1837)
The 10th Dalai Lama, Tsultrim Gyatso

The Tenth Dalai Lama, Tsultrim Gyatso was born in 1816, following the death of his predecessor in the previous year. He was recognized and enthroned in 1822. He enrolled at the Drepung monastery at the age of 10, concentrating on studying Buddhist philosophy, and learned to master the art of sutra and tantra. Fully ordained at the age of 19, his failing health led to his death in 1837 at a very young age.

  • Khedrup Gyatso, the 11th Dalai Lama (1842–1856)
The 11th Dalai Lama, Khedrup Gyatso

The Eleventh Dalai Lama, Khedrup Gyatso was born in 1838, and was recognized as the new Dalai Lama in 1841. He undertook the responsibilities of being Tibet’s spiritual and political leader at a very young age at the behest of his people. His death came as a complete shock in the year 1856 at 17 years of age.

  • Trinley Gyatso, the 12th Dalai Lama (1860–1875)

The Twelfth Dalai Lama was born in 1856, and took the novice vows of monkhood at the age of five.

The 12th Dalai Lama, Trinley Gyatso

Trinley Gyatso was fully enthroned as Dalai Lama on 11 March 1873 but could not stamp his full authority on Tibet because he died of a mysterious illness on 25 April 1875 at the age of 18 years old. During the period of the short-lived Dalai Lamas—from the Ninth to the Twelfth incarnations—the Panchen was the lama of the hour, filling the void left by the four Dalai Lamas who died in their youth.

  • Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama (1879-1933)

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso was born in 1876, and was recognized as the reincarnation of the Twelfth Dalai Lama in the following year. He led the Tibetan kingdom through the political turmoil in the neighboring countries of British-occupied India and Czarist Russia.

The 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso

The Chinese invasion of 1910 forced him to flee to India, but he led a successful return as the political head of Tibet in 1911. He was credited with modernizing Tibet, having introduced the currency system, postal services, sending young Tibetans to England to pursue higher studies, and creating a sizable military force. His death in 1933 came as Tibet stood on the threshold of modernization.

  • Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (1940-Present)

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was born in 1935 to farmer parents and was recognized as the reincarnation of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama at the age of two. His Holiness assumed complete duties in 1950, following the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Despite the peace talks held in 1954, the Chinese atrocities in Tibet continued, and His Holiness was forced into exile. His persistent and non-violent struggle to bring democracy to Tibet earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, along with numerous other awards, honorary doctorates, and prizes commemorating his contribution to peace efforts.

His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

On 29 May 2011, His Holiness formalized the transfer of his temporal power to the democratically elected leader, thus ending the age-old tradition of the Dalai Lamas being both, the spiritual and political leaders of Tibet.
His Holiness has now left the continuation of the reincarnation ritual at the discretion of his followers, with a view to protect the reincarnation concept from being misused in the name of politics. He also established guidelines to assist in correctly identifying the next possible leader, so as to bring transparency into the process.

The question of the succession of 14th Dalai Lama in a lineage of Dalai Lamas will be decided by Tibetan Buddhist authorities based on the doctrine of reincarnation. The selection process may prove controversial, as the officially atheist Chinese government has expressed unusual great interest in choosing the next Dalai Lama and claims it has the right to do so, something heavily contested by Tibetan Buddhist religious authorities. Following the Buddhist belief in the principle of reincarnation, the current Dalai Lama is believed to be able to choose the body into which he is reincarnated. That person, when found, will then become the next Dalai Lama. It is the responsibility of the High Lamas of the Gelgupa tradition and the Tibetan government to seek out and find the next Dalai Lama following the death of the incumbent. The process can take a long time. It took four years to find the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. The search is generally limited to Tibet, although the current Dalai Lama has said that there is a chance that he will not be reborn, and that if he is, it would not be in a country under Chinese rule. Several analysts have stated that even if China picks the next (or one of the next Dalai Lamas) it will lack the legitimacy and popular support needed to be funcional, as Tibetan Buddhists all over the world, both Tibetan and non-Tibetan would not recognize it. In a similar way how the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama lacks any international recognition or support from Buddhist organizations. According to Tibetan scholar Robert Barnett, “This is one of the chief indicators that China has failed in Tibet. It’s failed to find consistent leadership in Tibet by any Tibetan lama who is really respected by Tibetan people, and who at the same time endorses Communist Party rule.”

Prime minister on exile, Lobsang Sangay said: “It’s like Fidel Castro saying, ‘I will select the next Pope and all the Catholics should follow'”.


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