An honorific title given to members of a prominent Tibetan incarnation (sprul sku) lineage belonging to the Dge lugs sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lamas are traditionally revered as earthly manifestations of AvalokiteŚvara, the bodhisattva of compassion and protector of Tibet. Although the term has become widely known outside the region, Tibetans most frequently refer to the Dalai Lama as Rgyal ba rin po che (Gyalwa Rinpoche) “Precious Conqueror,” Sku mdun (Kundun) “The Presence,” or Yid bzhin nor bu (Yishin Norbu) “Wish-fulfilling Gem.” The name originated during the sixteenth century when Altan Khan, ruler of the Tümed Mongols, bestowed the title on the Dge lugs teacher Bsod nams rgya mtsho by translating the prelate's name rgya mtsho (“ocean”) into Mongolian as dalai. The name thus approximately means “ocean teacher.” It is not the case, as is often reported, that the Dalai Lamas are so named because their wisdom is as vast as the ocean. After Bsod nams rgya mtsho, all subsequent incarnations have rgya mtsho as the second component of their name. At the time of his meeting with the Altan Khan, Bsod nams rgya mtsho was already a recognized incarnate lama of the Dge lugs. Bsod nams rgya mtsho became the third Dalai Lama and two of his previous incarnations were posthumously recognized as the first and second holders of the lineage. From that time onward, successive incarnations have all been known as the Dalai Lama. Although writings outside Tibet often describe the Dalai Lama as the head of the Dge lugs sect, that position is held by a figure called the Dga' ldan khri pa, the “Throneholder of Ganden Monastery.” The fourteen Dalai Lamas are:
Dge 'dun grub (Gendün Drup, 1391–1475)
Dge 'dun rgya mtsho (Gendün Gyatso, 1475–1542)
Bsod nams rgya mtsho (Sönam Gyatso, 1543–1588)
Yon tan rgya mtsho (Yönten Gyatso, 1589–1617)
Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (Ngawang Losang Gyatso, 1617–1682)
Tshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho (Tsangyang Gyatso, 1683–1706?)
Skal bzang rgya mtsho (Kalsang Gyatso, 1708–1757)
'Jam dpal rgya mtsho (Jampal Gyatso, 1758–1804)
Lung rtogs rgya mtsho (Lungtok Gyatso, 1805–1815)
Tshul khrims rgya mtsho (Tsultrim Gyatso, 1816–1837)
Mkhas grub rgyamtsho (Kedrup Gyatso, 1838–1855)
'Phrin las rgya mtsho (Trinle Gyatso, 1856–1875)
Thub bstan rgyamtsho (Tupten Gyatso, 1876–1933)
Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho (Tenzin Gyatso, b. 1935)
The first Dalai Lama, Dge ’dun grub, was known as a great scholar and religious practitioner. A direct disciple of Tsong kha pa, he is remembered for founding Bkra shis lhun po monastery near the central Tibetan town of Shigatse. The second Dalai Lama, Dge 'dun rgya mtsho, was born the son of a Rnying ma yogin and became a renowned tantric master in his own right. ¶ It is with the third Dalai Lama, Bsod nams rgya mtsho, that the Dalai Lama lineage actually begins. Recognized at a young age as the reincarnation of Dge 'dun rgya mtsho, he was appointed abbot of 'Bras spungs monastery near Lha sa and soon rose to fame throughout central Asia as a Buddhist teacher. He served as a religious master for the Mongol ruler Altan Khan, who bestowed the title “Dalai Lama,” and is credited with converting the Tümed Mongols to Buddhism. Later in life, he traveled extensively across eastern Tibet and western China, teaching and carrying out monastic construction projects. ¶ The fourth Dalai Lama, Yon tan rgya mtsho, was recognized in the person of the grandson of Altan Khan's successor, solidifying Mongol-Tibetan ties. ¶ While the first four Dalai Lamas served primarily as religious scholars and teachers, the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, combined religious and secular activities to become one of Tibet's preeminent statesmen. He was a dynamic political leader who, with the support of Gushi Khan, defeated his opponents and in 1642 was invested with temporal powers over the Tibetan state, in addition to his religious role, a position that succeeding Dalai Lamas held until 1959. A learned and prolific author, he and his regent, Sde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho, were largely responsible for the identification of the Dalai Lamas with the bodhisattva AvalokiteŚvara. The construction of the Po ta la palace began during his reign (and was completed after this death). He is popularly known as the “Great Fifth.” ¶ The sixth Dalai Lama, Tshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho, was a controversial figure who chose to abandon the strict monasticism of his predecessors in favor of a life of society and culture, refusing to take the vows of a fully ordained monk (bhikṣu). He is said to have frequented the drinking halls below the Po ta la palace. He constructed pleasure gardens and the temple of the nāgas, called the Klu khang, on the palace grounds. He is remembered especially for his poetry, which addresses themes such as love and the difficulty of spiritual practice. Tibetans generally interpret his behavior as exhibiting an underlying tantric wisdom, a skillful means for teaching the dharma. His death is shrouded in mystery. Official accounts state that he died while under arrest by Mongol troops. According to a prominent secret biography (gsang ba'i rnam thar), however, he lived many more years, traveling across Tibet in disguise. ¶ The seventh Dalai Lama, Skal bzang rgya mtsho, was officially recognized only at the age of twelve, and due to political complications, did not participate actively in affairs of state. He was renowned for his writings on tantra and his poetry. ¶ The eighth Dalai Lama, 'Jam dpal rgya mtsho (Jampal Gyatso, 1758–1804), built the famous Nor bu gling kha summer palace. ¶ The ninth through twelfth Dalai Lamas each lived relatively short lives, due, according to some accounts, to political intrigue and the machinations of power-hungry regents. According to tradition, from the death of one Dalai Lama to the investiture of the next Dalai Lama as head of state (generally a period of some twenty years), the nation was ruled by a regent, who was responsible for discovering the new Dalai Lama and overseeing his education. If the Dalai Lama died before reaching his majority, the reign of the regent was extended. ¶ The thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thub bstan rgya mtsho, was an astute and forward-looking political leader who guided Tibet through a period of relative independence during a time of foreign entanglements with Britain, China, and Russia. In his last testament, he is said to have predicted Tibet's fall to Communist China. ¶ The fourteenth and present Dalai Lama, Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho, assumed his position several years prior to reaching the age of majority as his country faced the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. In 1959, he escaped into exile, establishing a government-in-exile in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala (Dharmaśālā) in northwestern India. Since then, he has traveled and taught widely around the world, while also advocating a nonviolent solution to Tibet's occupation. He was born in the A mdo region of what is now Qinghai province in China to a farming family, although his older brother had already been recognized as an incarnation at a nearby important Dge lugs monastery (Sku 'bum). On his becoming formally accepted as Dalai Lama, his family became aristocrats and moved to Lha sa. He was educated traditionally by private tutors (yongs 'dzin), under the direction first of the regent Stag brag rin po che (in office 1941–1950), and later Gling rin po che Thub bstan lung rtogs rnam rgyal (1903–1983) and Khri byang rin po che Blo bzang ye shes (1901–1981). His modern education was informal, gained from conversations with travelers, such as the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer. When the Chinese army entered the Khams region of eastern Tibet in 1951, he formally took over from the regent and was enthroned as the head of the Dga' ldan pho brang government. In the face of Tibetan unrest as the Chinese government brought Tibet firmly under central control, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959; the Indian government accorded the Dalai Lama respect as a religious figure but did not accept his claim to be the head of a separate state. In 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an event that increased his prominence around the world. He is the author of many books in English, most of them the written record of lectures and traditional teachings translated from Tibetan.
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