Christopher/Flickr

The 14th Dalai Lama is one of the most recognizable people on the planet today. With his bald head, bright robes and smile, most people can quickly pick out his picture. He has written over one hundred books, given dozens of talks and gained thousands of followers on social media. The Dalai Lama, however, has lived a far more serious life than people who only see his smiling image may have realized. 

Born on July 6, 1935, the Dalai Lama was only two when he was identified as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. Four years later, the Dalai Lama began his monastic education to learn about the religious tradition of which he was the leader. Before he could finish his education, however, China invaded Tibet, and the Dalai Lama was forced to take up the full burden of his political power as Tibet’s head of state. He met with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders and was initially impressed by the ideals they spouted about social justice and equality. Then, however, the truth came out as the Chinese worked to uproot “feudal serfdom” in Tibet. The crackdown became increasingly brutal until Tibet finally rebelled in 1959. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee for his life. He made the perilous crossing through the Himalayas to India where he has lived ever since.

Even in exile, life went on. When he was 23, the Dalai Lama took his final examination during the Great Prayer Festival at Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple. He earned the Geshe Lharampa degree which is equivalent to the highest doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. Around the same time, the Dalai Lama appealed to the United Nations on behalf of Tibet. In a bizarre contradiction that the Dalai Lama somehow managed to shoulder, a young Buddhist monk was the exiled leader of a stateless nation in a rapidly modernizing world. 

The Dalai Lama, however, was not interested in retaining all the trappings of tradition. In exile, he drafted a democratic constitution for Tibet and worked to democratize the Tibetan administration. For centuries, the Dalai Lama had been head of state as well as head of faith, but the Dalai Lama felt things needed to change. The political institution of the Dalai Lama was outdated. “As a Buddhist,” he said, “We must be realistic.”

Despite living in exile, the Dalai Lama helped reform the Tibetan administration into a democracy and saw the Tibetan people elect their political leaders for the first time in history. That same year, the Dalai Lama stated that he was officially retired from political life. Unfortunately for his plans, the Dalai Lama had become the face of Tibet to the Tibetan people, Tibet’s supporters as well as the Chinese. The Chinese still consider the peaceful man a criminal and see their conflict with the Dalai Lama’s calls for Tibetan autonomy as “a fight to the death.” 

All of this means that the hunt for the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation will be politically charged, and the fate of an entire people may hang in the balance. The Chinese, however, have no intention of allowing the scattered Tibetan people to find and train the next incarnation of their spiritual leader. The atheist Chinese government passed a series of laws meant to grant it “management of living Buddha reincarnations” in order to keep an iron grip on their control of the populace. They have already made one Lama effectively disappear. After the Panchen Lama, the second most prominent Tibetan Lama died, the Dalai Lama identified Gehdun Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The Chinese government responded by seizing the six year old boy and his family. The Chinese then appointed their own Panchen Lama and gave him several official posts. Neither Gehdun Choekyi Nyima nor his family have been seen since they were taken by the Chinese government. Given the international eyes on the Dalai Lama, the Chinese will undoubtedly try to pull something similar. The Dalai Lama, however, has stated that his reincarnation will not be found in Tibet. Given how the Tibetan people have scattered, they are likely hoping the 15th Dalai Lama will be lucky enough to be born safely out of China’s reach.

The question of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is fascinating. International foreign policy will hinge on a largely religious issue, and the decisions made will effect generations of Tibetans. All of this, of course, will not take place until the Dalai Lama has passed. The Dalai Lama tends to keep his focus on life and the living, but that does not mean he ignores his very real mortality. “I visualize death every day,” the Dalai Lama said. This visualization does not frighten him, and he refers to death as a “change of clothing.”

The Dalai Lama has accomplished an incredible amount while wearing this set of clothing, and no doubt has more to accomplish. He has brought Buddhism into the limelight in a way that no one could have imagined. Hundreds of thousands of people have heard him speak and millions more have read his books. He has engaged in dialogue with psychologists, neurobiologists, cosmologies and quantum physicists in order to help scientists find ways to assist individuals in finding peace of mind. His interest in the sciences has also led him to add modern science to traditional Tibetan monastic education. The Dalai Lama has also pushed for greater interfaith dialogue and communication. He has been involved in long-running dialogues with Rabbis, met with Muslim leaders in India and referred to Jesus as an “enlightened master” who spread a message of tolerance and compassion. To the Dalai Lama, “[Compassion is] a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us,” the Dalai Lama said. “Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world… [It] is not merely the business of religious believers – it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.”

Dalai Lamas are said to be reincarnations of holy men who choose to return to the world life after life in order to better all of humanity. Given his emphasis on compassion and his bright smile, the Dalai Lama seems to have done an excellent job.