Profiles in Faith: His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso – the 14th Dalai Lama
Note: This profile concludes World Religion News’ series on world religious leaders. Links to each of the other profiles may be found at the end of this article.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the world’s most famous and beloved spokesman for Buddhism. A prolific author, ardent humanitarian and an intellectual of international stature, he won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and has appeared on three of Time Magazine’s annual lists of the 100 most influential people in the world. Modest, unassuming and possessed by an unbounded curiosity combined with an impish humor, he regularly converses with presidents, prime ministers, popes and kings, while sharing the stage with eminent scientists and religious leaders of all denominations.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
“After my birth, a pair of crows came to roost on the roof of our house. They would arrive each morning, stay for a while and then leave. This is of particular interest, as similar incidents occurred at the birth of the First, Seventh, Eighth and Twelfth Dalai Lamas. After their births, a pair of crows came and remained. In my own case, in the beginning, nobody paid attention to this. Recently, however, I was talking with my mother, and she recalled it. She had noticed them come in the morning; depart after a time, and then the next morning, come again. Now, the evening after the birth of the First Dalai Lama, bandits broke into the family’s house. The parents ran away and left the child. The next day, when they returned and wondered what had happened to their son, they found the baby in a corner of the house. A crow stood before him, protecting him. Later on, when the First Dalai Lama grew up and developed in his spiritual practice, he made direct contact during meditation with the protective deity, Mahakala. At this time, Mahakala said to him, ‘Somebody like you who is upholding the Buddhist teaching needs a protector like me. Right on the day of your birth, I helped you.’ So we can see, there is definitely a connection between Mahakala, the crows, and the Dalai Lamas.” – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in a Question and Answer section of his website.
“One thing that I remember enjoying particularly as a very young boy was going into the chicken coop to collect the eggs with my mother and then staying behind. I liked to sit in the hens’ nest and make clucking noises. Another favorite occupation of mine as an infant was to pack things in a bag as if I was about to go on a long journey. ‘I’m going to Lhasa, I’m going to Lhasa, I would say. This, coupled with my insistence that I be allowed always to sit at the head of the table, was later said to be an indication that I must have known that I was destined for greater things.” — His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, quoted on his website.
“We believe that there are four types of rebirth. One is the common type wherein, a being is helpless to determine his or her rebirth, but only reincarnates in dependence on the nature of past actions. The opposite is that of an entirely enlightened Buddha, who simply manifests a physical form to help others. In this case, it is clear that the person is Buddha. A third is one who, due to past spiritual attainment, can choose, or at least influence, the place and situation of rebirth. The fourth is called a blessed manifestation. In this the person is blessed beyond his normal capacity to perform helpful functions, such as teaching religion. For this last type of birth, the person’s wishes in previous lives to help others must have been very strong. They obtain such empowerment. Though some seem more likely than others, I cannot definitely say which I am.” — His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in a Question and Answer section of his website, dalailama.com.
“We live in a period of great crisis, a period of troubling world developments. It is not possible to find peace in the soul without security and harmony between peoples.” — The 14th Dalai Lama at a 1980 press conference quoted in an article on the website of Colombia University.
“I always believe that it is much better to have a variety of religions, a variety of philosophies rather than one single religion or philosophy. This is necessary because of the different mental dispositions of each human being. Each religion has certain unique ideas or techniques, and learning about them can only enrich one’s own faith.” — The 14th Dalai Lama at a 1981 World Congress of Faiths, quoted in an article on the Columbia University World Leaders Forum.
“The prize reaffirms our conviction that with truth, courage and determination as our weapons, Tibet will be liberated. Our struggle must remain nonviolent and free of hatred.” — The 14th Dalai Lama on December 10, 1989, on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.
“I consider nonviolence to be compassion in action. It doesn’t mean weakness, cowering in fear, or simply doing nothing. It is to act without violence, motivated by compassion, recognizing the rights of others.” — His Holiness the 14th Dalai in a January 13, 2014, Facebook posting.
“Selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.” —The 14th Dalai Lama in an Op Ed cowritten with Arthur C. Brooks, published November 4, 2016 in The New York Times.
“If one could study modern science, which in its search for truth has certain affinities with Buddhist philosophy and tenets, I feel they would start to generate a steadfast and deep-rooted faith in the teachings of the Buddha. This would further contribute to the preservation and dissemination of Buddha-dharma. Moreover, when introducing Buddhist teaching to the new generation of Tibetans, if we are able to present the views of both Buddhism and modern science by drawing their comparisons, I am sure the teachings would be more valid, practically scientific, and easily comprehensible. This is the best method of teachings that can generate belief and conviction in the mind of people.” — The 14th Dalai Lama, published on the website of Science for Monks and Nuns.
THE STORIES OTHERS TELL
“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the religious and political leader of the Tibetan people. The Committee wants to emphasize the fact that the Dalai Lama in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people. The Dalai Lama has developed his philosophy of peace from a great reverence for all things living and upon the concept of universal responsibility embracing all mankind as well as nature. In the opinion of the Committee the Dalai Lama has come forward with constructive and forward-looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts, human rights issues, and global environmental problems.” — Nobel Committee, October 5, 1989.
“There is no one in the world quite like the Dalai Lama, which makes it difficult to take his measure as a conventional political leader. He is a demigod struggling for temporal gains for his followers; an exiled monarch presiding over a flourishing and culturally intact refugee community; a displaced theocrat who, by virtue of his birthright and his many personal sacrifices, has not only preserved his legitimacy but also enhanced the influence of his religion around the world; and a political leader who has been pitted against a relentless foe seemingly immune to his moral authority.” — John F. Kennedy, Jr., in a 1997 interview with the Dalai Lama, originally published in George Magazine.
“[The Dalai Lama is] a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion — who inspires us to speak up for the dignity and freedom of all.” — President Barack Obama at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of religious leaders from around the U.S.
“He is holy but he is also so mischievous, so full of fun, he makes goodness attractive, for he is so full of joy. The truth is he epitomizes joy, he epitomizes grace, he epitomizes truth and peace.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu, published on the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday website in 2015.
“His Holiness wakes us from our dreadful sleep. He is the radiant sun of the universal embrace. He is inclusion, service, and self-sacrifice. He is genuine love. He is interconnectedness. He reminds us who we really are. He makes us larger. He makes us care. He delights us with his wisdom, his joy, his laughter, and his optimism. He carries us. How impossible it is to be proud and pretentious around someone so utterly simple and kind.” — Richard Gere, Hollywood actor and chair of International Campaign for Tibet, in an October 2020 article published on The Lions Roar website.
A LIFE IN BRIEF
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the spiritual and temporal head of Tibetans worldwide. He was born Lhamo Dhondrub on July 6, 1935, to a peasant family in a village in northeastern Tibet. “Tenzin Gyatso” is the shortened form of the religious name he adopted upon becoming the Dalai Lama: Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso — Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom.
In accordance with Tibetan tradition, he was recognized at the age of two as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama. Tibetans believe the Dalai Lamas are manifestations of Avalokiteswara, the Buddha of Compassion, who, although enlightened, is said to have postponed his nirvana – freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth – and chosen instead to return to Earth to serve humanity.
The Dalai Lama was 15 years old when 80,000 soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet. Nine years later, in 1959, Chinese troops brutally suppressed a national uprising by the people of Tibet in their capital, Lhasa. The Dalai Lama escaped to India, where he and tens of thousands of other Tibetans were given political asylum.
The Dalai Lama settled in Dharamshala, a hillside city on the edge of the Himalayas, where he established and headed the Tibetan government-in-exile.
In 1963, he announced a democratic constitution based on Buddhist principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It remains the model for a future Tibet, free of Chinese rule.
In 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle for the liberation of Tibet. The honor cemented his reputation as a distinguished ambassador on issues of religion and human rights between the east and the west. His Holiness accepted the prize on the behalf of oppressed people everywhere, all those who struggle for freedom and work for world peace, and the people of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama is well known for his interest in science, a fascination that began during his childhood. In 1987, he began holding a series of weeklong conversations with scientists in his Himalayan residence. The talks, known as the “Mind and Life Dialogues,” were hosted by the Mind and Life Institute, which the Dalai Lama helped formally incorporate in 1990. His 1989 interview with renowned scientist and educator Carl Sagan at Cornell University highlights the religious leader’s philosophy of religion.
In 2015, when Zhu Weiqun, head of an China’s ethnic and religious affairs committee of the People’s Republic of China, insisted the Chinese government would designate the Dalai Lama’s successor, His Holiness said he may break with tradition to choose his successor during his lifetime, or his soul may transfer to a person outside of Tibet, or the line of Dalai Lamas may end with him, if that is the wish of the Tibetan people.
ACHIEVEMENTS WE’LL REMEMBER
1950: At age 15, the Dalai Lama assumes temporal power as the leader of Tibet.
1954: The Dalai Lama becomes a fully ordained monk, taking 253 holy vows and receiving the “Gelong,” the highest level of monastic ordination for a man in Tibetan Buddhism.
1959: The Dalai Lama escapes to India on March 17, after the Chinese government suppresses the Lhasa uprising. He creates the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, devoted to preserving and promoting Tibet’s artistic and cultural heritage.
1963: The Dalai Lama announces a democratic constitution for Tibet and establishes the first elected Tibetan Parliament in exile. Based on Buddhist principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the constitution has endured as a model for an independent Tibet in the future.
1970: The Dalai Lama opens the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamshala, India, a premiere institute of Tibetan history, politics and culture that specializes in Buddhist and Tibetan studies.
1987: The Dalai Lama outlines a historic, nonviolent five-point peace plan for Tibetan independence to the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington, D.C.
1989: The Dalai Lama wins the Nobel Peace Prize “for advocating peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people.”
1992: The Dalai Lama initiates direct elections of ministers by the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, ending a practice whereby he appointed them.
2001: The Dalai Lama presides over the first democratic elections for the post of “Kalon Tripa” (Senior Minister).
2011: The Dalai Lama signs into the law the formal transfer of his political power to the democratically elected leader chosen by the Tibetan Parliament in exile, effectively ending the 368-year tradition that made him both the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet.
THE RELIGION THE DALAI LAMA LEADS
The Dalai Lama is the head of Gelugpa (“Way of Virtue”), the largest and most influential of the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It dates back to the 14th century.
Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths describes the nature, arising, cessation, and path to cessation of suffering.
1. The First Noble Truth says birth is suffering, death is suffering, aging is suffering, and illness is suffering. Association with unpleasantness is suffering and dissociation with pleasantness is suffering. In essence, attachment to the five aggregates is suffering.
2. The cause of suffering is craving for continuation, craving for non-continuation, and craving for sensual pleasures.
3. There is a possibility of the cessation of suffering.
4. The path to the cessation of suffering is the Noble Eight-Fold Path.
1. Right View – Knowledge and acceptance of the Four Noble Truths
2. Right Thought – The thought of having good will, renunciation, and non-violence
3. Right Speech – Refraining from false, or malicious, or idle, or rough speech
4. Right Action – Refraining from killing living beings, stealing, and sexual misconduct
5. Right Livelihood – Refraining from engaging in livelihoods which harm oneself or others
6. Right Endeavour – Making an effort to improve one’s mind or action when an unwholesome thought arises or action is done
7. Right Mindfulness – Contemplation of the nature of the body, mind, feelings, and other phenomena. According to Tibetan Buddhism everything is inherently empty and transient
8. Right Concentration – Concentrating the mind on meditative states.
Of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelugpa places the most importance on intensive philosophical studies based on Buddhist classics. The studies take more than 15 years to complete. The curriculum employs the dialectical method of inquiry and rigorous debate backed by a thorough understanding of the “Five Major Treatises” – the perfection of wisdom, the middle way, valid cognition, phenomenology and monastic discipline.
Gelugpa monasteries are vibrant centers of Buddhist culture. They sometimes look more like universities than religious temples, replete with learned professors and conscientious monk-students. The monasteries, which also teach social sciences and Tibetan traditions and cultures, are scattered throughout Tibet.
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