The Most Famous Buddhist in the World

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The Dalai Lama is also Tibet's political leader. He remains the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, which he established in the Indian hill station of Dharamsala 40 years ago, through the grace of Pandit Nehru and the Indian government, after escaping into exile himself in 1959. From there, he leads the fight for Tibetan cultural preservation and autonomy, if not complete political freedom and independence from Chinese rule. In each of the last 10 years, he has visited 50 or more countries on his mission of peace, nonviolence, and human rights. For his humanitarian work and peaceful resistance to Chinese Communist rule in formerly independent Tibet, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Historically, the Dalai Lamas, like most Tibetans, remained isolated from the rest of the globe. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is only the second ever to have traveled as far from his country as India and China, and he is the first to venture further into the outside world. Indeed, his own charisma and accomplishments--largely in response to Tibet's occupation by China--have had more to do with his stance among spiritual leaders today than does his position as Dalai Lama in Tibet.

The rise of the Dalai Lamas as an institution within Tibetan Buddhism has taken an tortuous course across six centuries. And only in the last 300 years have the Dalai Lamas held the position of spiritual and temporal sovereign of Tibet. Beyond fulfilling their political duties, the Dalai Lamas have included great poets, scholars, and adepts who have brought ever higher honor to the title.

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Since the 17th century, when the term came into use, each Dalai Lama has been regarded as the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig, in Tibetan) and is considered the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. Tibetans believe that the timeless Buddha's emanation in this world alleviates the suffering and confusion of all beings and takes the form of the incarnations of the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa Lama, and other tulkus (incarnated lamas). This practice of recognizing reincarnated saints and sages is unique to Tibetan Buddhism, although there are variations of it elsewhere in world religions.

The first lama to earn the title Dalai Lama was a learned and renowned monk named Gendun Drub (1391-1474). A disciple of the founder of the Gelugpa sect, the saintly religious reformer Master Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), Gendun Drub established the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and University. which grew to become the largest monastery in the world, a spiritual training ground for as many as 8,000 resident monks. This master later came to be known as the First Dalai Lama, in honor of his extraordinary attainments.

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